Welcome back assembly: why our words matter

In this week’s assembly, I welcomed our students back after the Christmas break. After a quick reminder of our behaviour expectations, Mrs McKay and I focused our assembly on the key topic of ensuring that our Academy community is a safe and inclusive one.

My part of the assembly focused on the way we use our words. I was inspired by talking to our Year 11 House Captains, who said that one of the things they wanted to concentrate on during their their year in post was on language used by their fellow students which can offend, upset, provoke or disturb them. This echoed the work of last year’s inclusion and diversity group, who presented to our Trustees on the impact that micro-aggressions can have on students’ feelings of belonging and inclusion.

There are occasions when students use words deliberately to be unkind, to upset others, to provoke them, or to offend. This is always wrong. But we can also use words thoughtlessly or carelessly, and we can offend, upset, exclude or alienate others through our ignorance or lack of consideration. Perhaps we didn’t fully understand the language we were using, or its implications, or perhaps we didn’t think carefully enough before opening our mouths. We need to be clear that this is just as problematic: our words can hurt, whether we intended them to or not.

I therefore asked our students to use the “THINK” acronym above – and to “THINK” before they speak. I used a little bit of audience participation to demonstrate this principle in the assembly. A willing volunteer from the audience donned the important safety equipment, before attempting to squirt all the toothpaste out of a tube as quickly as possible (Stuart were the best at this so far, with a time of just under 7 seconds). The second part of the experiment saw the volunteers try to put the toothpaste back into the tube. This proved much more difficult.

The experiment was designed to show that squeezing the toothpaste is like blurting something out without thinking about it. It’s easy to do – the work of a moment – and actually feels pretty good in that moment! But once it’s out, there’s no putting it back, and any attempt to do so actually creates a worse mess than you started with.

It’s also important to think about the way we “speak” online. Mrs McKay has already spoken to students this year about the importance of e-safety, but we often see how people “say” things online they would never say in person. I used this quote from the film The Social Network to demonstrate this principle:

Our words – or the images, videos, gifs and emojis we post, and the posts we like, re-post and share – define us online. Employers (including schools, under new safeguarding guidance) conduct checks on candidates’ online presence, and there are plenty of examples of thoughtless online behaviour landing people in trouble – including losing their jobs.

As well as the risk to ourselves of thoughtless online behaviour, the damage to others can be significant. Words can hurt just as much – if not more – delivered online than in person, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that people will “say” things online – often to complete strangers – that they would never dream of saying to someone’s face. This means that we should all be even more careful with our behaviour online, as you never know the damage that you could be doing.

Mrs McKay concluded our assembly with a reminder of the things we all need to do to make sure our Academy stays a safe, inclusive environment, and how we can all work together to make sure that Churchill continues to be a supportive community – for everyone.

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