There was a lecturer on my teacher training course who took great delight in acting out strategies for classroom management at the start of every seminar. He would sweep into the room chanting imperatives: “Eyes on me! Eyes on me!”. At this, eyebrows were raised; some would even turn to look. One of his favourite manoeuvres was to enter the classroom with a flamboyant grasping gesture as he uttered the rather haunting line, “I take away your voices”. At that, we fell silent, stunned perhaps by the realisation that teaching (so far at least) was falling short of our expectations. Or perhaps we were too busy cringing. Season 2 of ‘The Office’ had recently aired and there was more than a hint of David Brent when he delivered the line, “Did you see what I did there?”
I am happy to report that neither of the suggested strategies made it into my classroom repertoire. The notion of taking away a child’s voice is the antithesis of what most teachers set out to do. Instead, we are in the business of helping students to find their voice, and then giving them a platform from which to use it.
I was reminded of this last week while chairing a staff discussion on ‘Quiet Power’. As we explored how we can tap into the strengths of our more introverted learners, one person shared the view that students have become quieter since the pandemic: they seem more withdrawn; less ready to speak up. If true, then now more than ever, we need to provide opportunities for our students to express themselves, and to create environments in which they feel safe to voice their thoughts and feelings.
We’re on a mission. Last week, Years 3 to 6 took part in the ‘Young Voices’ event at the O2 Arena – their voices were heard alongside those of some 8000 other young people. It was an unforgettable experience for all involved. Alysia Woodcock, who coordinated the event, is now launching a girls’ community choir, bringing Key Stage 1 pupils from across Brighton and Hove together to build confidence in singing – a direct response to the low levels of confidence and high levels of anxiety we are seeing post-covid.
In the Senior school, we are running more regular focus groups for students to voice their opinion on all sorts of topics. Today was an important one: food. The voices I heard were eloquent, polite and measured; the ideas were constructive and allowed for both innovation and compromise.
Not all communication is verbal, of course. This week has provided another opportunity for expression, with our annual dance show, Momentum. So many participants demonstrated that, when given a platform and the right support, they have something meaningful to communicate. Well done to all involved and thank you to Ms Szkolar and her team for another outstanding show.
On Wednesday morning, we marked Holocaust Memorial Day with an extraordinary assembly, during which we had the privilege of listening to Holocaust survivor, Ceska Abrahams. Ceska spoke resolutely – with remarkable strength – and reminded us why it is so important that we not only have a voice but that we also have an audience.
There are stories that need to be heard.
The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘Ordinary People’ and Head of Religion and Philosophy, Alexis Dowglass, honoured this theme by creating an assembly of many different, ordinary voices. Staff spoke from around the hall as we remembered victims of genocide in Europe, in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Bosnia and Darfur. We reflected on the ordinary people who let genocide happen, on the ordinary people who perpetrated genocide, and on the ordinary people who suffered. Our ordinary students read poems, asked questions and sang, adding their voices in an expression of solidarity. A line on the HMD website sums up why this individual and collective expression is so important: “… ordinary people, such as ourselves, can perhaps play a bigger part than we might imagine in challenging prejudice today.”
This morning, our choir sang in Hove Town Hall at another Holocaust Memorial Day event. They joined Councillors, MPs, the Mayor of Brighton & Hove, and attendees from across the city – all ordinary people, and all people of influence. It was a great privilege for our students to be represented and a reminder that, by having a voice, we can make a difference in the world.