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We must teach respect as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram reframe our behaviour and our language

PUBLISHED: 10:22 07 March 2017 | UPDATED: 10:22 07 March 2017

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury St Edmunds

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury St Edmunds

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Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, explains why the only snowflake to which he refers comes from the sky.

One aspect of my job I won’t miss when I leave at Easter to become General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders is the hassle of snow days. It will be nice not to worry about whether we can safely open the school for students and staff after a serious fall of snow.

After all, this is the season when optimistic children hope to see snowflakes and when miserablist headteachers like me hope not to – at least, not until we are safely within the confines of the next school holiday.

Because snowflakes in my world are always associated with controversy – inextricably linked to the perennial, infuriating, distracting issue of snow days, those rare occasions when heavy snow leads to school closure.

We’ve barely seen a snowflake this year. The other Friday here in West Suffolk there was a thirty second burst of sleet, as if nature was flexing her muscles, taunting us with a reminder of who’s really in charge.

A few measly snowflakes that were easily brushed away by even the lamest of car windscreen wipers reminded us, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that one snowflake does not a winter make.

Yet even a lone fluttering speck of snow is enough for one person – usually but not always a student – to stop me on the corridor and ask about the chances of a snow day.

That’s why I prefer my winters grey rather than white. No snow. No chance of school closure. No hot-headed headlines about lazy teachers, a rampant health-and-safety culture, and today’s school leaders being timid unlike thirty years ago when children would apparently trudge through seven foot snowfalls, break ice from the school gates, and hurl happy snowballs at favorite teachers.

Long may the snowflakes stay away.

But, as I say, language never fails to surprise us. This year, for the first time in my (almost) fifteen years of headship, the word ‘snowflake’ has a new meaning. According to writer Jamie Bartlett, it ‘has become the shorthand rightwing – or libertarian – derogatory term for leftwing people who are easily offended.’

Who’d have thought it? 
The word ‘snowflake’ means wimp.

Bartlett’s point is an important one. He quotes research which – like lots of research – puts into words and numbers what our instincts have been telling us – that social media is reframing our behaviour and our language.

It was the American academic John Suler who first demonstrated the way being online – in chat rooms, on Facebook, on Twitter – can have a liberating effect. And not always in a good way.

Because from behind the confines of a computer or tablet screen, people are sometimes inclined to state things they wouldn’t say in person. Whether it’s a sneering term like ‘snowflake’ or much nastier stuff, our sense of personal identity shifts. It’s too easy to let our dark side, our cruel side, off the leash.

Any of us who uses social media will have seen it – vicious, inappropriate, snarky comments on forums, under newspaper articles, across Twitter and Facebook.

It’s why part of our mission 
at school is to try to exemplify the positive aspects of social media. We use Facebook and Twitter all the time. It’s our easiest way of connecting with parents and supporters, keeping them informed about the achievements of our students.

We aim to keep the tone positive, upbeat, inspiring. And we carefully monitor everything that’s posted.

Because amid the myriad responsibilities of schools and colleges in an increasingly complex society is teaching students that courtesy, respect and simply being nice matter just as much online as they do in person.

Which is why the only snowflakes I’ll refer to in my current job and my next one are those that fall from the sky.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, an 11-18 high school in Bury St Edmunds. He will be taking up his new role as leader of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) in April.

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