Iesha Small

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What's in a word?

For a person with a background in maths and applied sciences I can be unusually pedantic when it comes to words, especially if they are words which convey an important concept. There are some words that I feel have become dulled in our current society through over use and often misuse. For example, in my early 20s I was quite uncomfortable with the use of the word love as I felt that it was bandied about too readily. You can like a bag of crisps and maybe even appreciate it’s wonderful taste but to love it? Really? For this reason I had an alternative phrase that I used with my partner along the lines of the “Ditto” used by the Patrick Swayze character in Ghost (look it up youngsters). I’ve relaxed a little re the word love, which is just as well since Valentine’s day is coming up. However, there are a few educational equivalents of which my particular bête noir is Outstanding (capital used deliberately).

Outstanding (definition)
1.Distinguised from others in excellence.

2. Having a quality that thrusts itself into attention.

– Word Web app

Outstanding (synonyms)

superior, excellent, distinguished, prominent, remarkable, striking –

Outstanding is in my view a word which has become dulled by over use in the educational world. Surely for everybody or everything to become outstanding is an oxymoron. If everybody is outstanding then they are all the same and thus no longer distinguished. What do we actually mean by this word?

Within schools we need to be honest. Often what we mean by outstanding is that a teacher has taught a one-off lesson 1, 2 or possibly 3 times a year which meet the current criteria of what OFSTED call Outstanding. Honestly? Is that the only measure of the quality of a teacher’s practice and the quality of learning that students in their care receive? It feels a little reductive and narrow to me.

Consider a teacher with a 20 hr weekly timetable.
Teaching 40 weeks a year.
That’s 800 hrs of teaching on which a max of 3 hrs is judged.

So is that what some members of Senior Leadership Teams throughout the country are throwing around phases like ‘Outstanding Teacher’ based on? Less than half of one percent of a teacher’s annual contact time. That’s it?
• What about longer term outcomes for students?
• What about the exam results of their classes?
• What about student voice?
• What about their contribution to other colleague’s development
• What about, what about, what about?

I would like us to stop using the word Outstanding, it feels a little like using the language of our oppressors. Yes, as professionals we must know OFSTED criteria and yes, we need to know how we will be judged but day-to-day we can use better and more constructive language. If I aim to be Outstanding and then achieve it, then what? Do I stop trying to improve? Do I stop aiming to be better? If I aim to be Outstanding. what happens when Outstanding is the new Good, just as Satisfactory morphed into Requires Improvement in the blink of an eye?

I don’t know about you, but my aim is to continually improve educational outcomes for the students in my care and my job as a school leader is to create conditions for others to do the same. This compels me to want to improve my practice as a classroom practitioner and as a leader. I’ll do this whatever external agencies call it and whether anybody is watching me or not and I’ll expect, encourage and provide opportunities for other people who I am responsible for leading to do the same.


  • Iorek Byrnisson

    12th February 2013 at 10:44 pm → Reply

    An admirable and eloquently written piece – you should be on Room 101!

    I blogged earlier today on child-speak and think that this is part of the same problem… I’m desperately trying not to type it…. sod it… dumbing down! It also puts me in mind of something I read earlier on David Didau’s blog. Even the morphed definition of outstanding is, too often, vague. Do you know what would be a better word? Great. As in ‘That lesson was great’. Or ‘The kids did some great work there.’ As you point out, the very notion of everyone being outstanding is nonsense. But we can all be great; SLTs, teachers, parents, pupils. And where we’re not great, we can aspire to greatness; for ourselves and for those we teach.

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What's in a word?