Don’t ask, don’t tell?

At a previous school I worked with a SENCO who refused to give information about students to the teachers. Not just the teaching staff in general, but the individual teachers of individual students with SEN. How she kept her job (in an ‘outstanding’ school) baffles me, but as in most areas of life, knowledge is power. I had limited knowledge about the students I taught who were on the SEN register, and I had limited ability to differentiate and personalise the curriculum to meet their needs for a long time, until I was able to get to know them and work things out for myself. This as an overseas trained teacher having to re-qualify in a new country…

I completely understand why certain information needs to be kept confidential. It applies especially to child protection situations, but at the same time giving staff a sanitised overview of the circumstances often provides context in moments of poor behaviour or stressful times that allows staff to support the student in a more cohesive an successful manner. After all, we are professionals and should be treated as such. Withholding information that leads to miscommunication, misunderstanding or worse only makes a bad situation worse.

question-markThere’s a couple of reasons why this post is relevant, at least to me, at this time. A few years ago we had a student who had brought weapons into school. This is sadly not an isolated situation in schools. The management of that particular situation left a lot to be desired. Students – and staff – have a right to work and be educated in a safe environment. This student didn’t threaten anybody with these weapons, but there was a rumour that he had, and he also had a history or behavioural issues which made that rumour very believable. Keeping staff in the dark meant that there was a potential for a serious incident to occur that could have been entirely preventable. It also impacted on morale – why weren’t we being told anything? Why were SLT keeping secrets? Why didn’t they want us to know anything? What else were they keeping from us?

As it turned out, there wasn’t really anything to tell and nothing was really being kept from us. But the perception that something was caused more harm than good. Things were already difficult and this added to the problem. When it was eventually decided that staff would be informed, even that wasn’t done clearly and accurately. Initially the message was only going to go to his teachers – not the staff who would deal with incidents when on duty or who might be covering classes. A confusing and cryptic message to ‘keep an eye on sharp objects in class’ without mention of who it related to or what to watch out for, in my opinion at least, was a failure to protect staff and students. Knowledge is power.

My second example is perhaps more common, though the individual circumstances will vary. We all know that a student’s background and home life will impact their behaviour at school. It’s not rocket science. A student dealing with a bereavement, or who is a young carer, will not react to things in the same way that a student in a happy, stable home will. A student who knows perpetual hunger, who lives in a cold house with clothing inappropriate to the weather will have things on their mind that differ to their peers. A student who has experienced great trauma in their short life, who has a genuine and legitimate fear for their future, will not behave in the same way as other students. Without giving staff some kind of idea of the circumstances of these children’s lives – again, however sanitised – we are left in the dark to guess at reasons for students lashing out and deal with them in sometimes completely inappropriate ways. I’m not suggesting that we simply excuse poor behaviour, but if it alters how we manage that behaviour and how we build relationships with those students, then it’s crucial information to have.

So why don’t we know more? In some schools, information is freely shared with all staff. Is it too much information? Perhaps so. Information overload means that we forget to relate it to particular students. I always find that this is the case in September when we are overloaded with information about new Year 7 students, and I haven’t even looked at who’s on my class lists yet. I can’t spend my first day back after Summer taking in the results analysis, whatever training we have going on, information about students I’ve never met and am not sure I teach, and thinking about how much time I might have for planning actual lessons in a way that’s going to have much impact. How information is disseminated is perhaps as important, if not more so that what the information is.

By the same token, completely withholding information is damaging. Schools need to strike the right balance between making sure that staff are informed and respecting the need for confidentiality. In a lot of schools, that means having more trust in their staff to keep confidential information confidential. Knowledge is power; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

 

 

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