students on the sofa

Children at Atelier 21 are rewarded for challenging their teachers (respectfully!)

As a school owner, I get as nervacited (nervous and excited) about the new school year starting as any new reception child, and certainly as much as their parents. I have always found the children in our school highly energising to be around, and their boundless enthusiasm flowing the Atelier 21 school corridors has been my tonic so far this week. At this time of year it’s important to remember the A21 concept of ‘the first 25 days’ that we use as a guiding principle – A time to build the culture in the community of parents, staff and pupils that allows the rest of the months that follow to flourish. As such, we agreed again this week to be mindful of the need to give each other a little grace while new routines, new agreements, new ways of being and doing together, new children, families and teachers all unfold and knit together in our unique organisation, in our unique Atelier 21 way and ensure healthy culture is as important as academic achievement or creativity particularly in this first half term. A time to be particularly good at making mistakes, and excellent at forgiving others for theirs.

Our focus this year is culture… making A21 a place of authenticity, innovation, progress, and psychological safety for all involved. A place where we show up for ourselves and others as the brave, bold, change-makers we all are. Whilst other schools are going in hard on setting expectations for behaviour, and the dreaded ‘teacher-voice’ will boom around other classrooms country wide, Atelier takes a different approach at this time of year, the opposite stance one could argue. To kick off our focus on culture, I set the pupils a challenge on Monday morning in our first Whole School Meeting of the year: to ‘Friendly Challenge’ an adult at school this week.. this is language we use as a staff team to encourage as much professional dialogue, critique and reciprocity as possible between us adults to drive continuous improvement at school. We just attends three inset days the week prior exploring this very concept.  I felt it was time the children got involved too – to help flatten the hierarchy where possible, which is always our goal to ensure all pupils feel they receive the same respect they are expected to give to adults at school.

To be encouraged, actively and directly, to challenge your teachers in any school, is not something I hear of often, and I doubt you do – it is one of the truly special and unique values of our school – and so it should be. If we want our children to grow up being authentically truthful, brave and curious beings, they must have much opportunity to do so during childhood. School is the perfect place to practise that respectfully, to play with the messy box of life and learn the rules of it, psychologically safe to tinker upon its edges as children naturally do. Wonderfully, they have taken the gambit – here are some of the friendly challenges proposed to our staff this week:

“Michelle, I will friendly challenge you as you are wearing shorts today but it’s Wild Friday and our agreement is everyone must wear long trousers for their own safety” (Sukie and Acacia, Year 6 girls)

“I challenge teachers to not talk over me as it’s something they always ask me not to do” (Harrison, Year 5 boy)

“I friendly challenge teachers to remember that we are expected and reminded to be on time for lessons, but occasionally we can be waiting a few minutes for them to arrive..” (Edie, Year 9 girl)

My personal silent punch in the air will come when I walk the corridors of our school and overhear sporadic and regular friendly challenges banded about in normal everyday conversations from pupils to adults; and indeed adult to adult. If we want a truly brave and powerful next generation, it’s time to shake up the rules of the game. To want it in others is to live it ourselves. To be vulnerable, accountable and authentic. I’ll keep you posted on more friendly challenges being shared this term…

You can listen to Hayley’s full podcast on this topic on Spreaker HERE