Serving Schools, Educators, and Families

BANTER AND SCHOOL CULTURE

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A friend, knowing I’m an old maritime fiction (Patrick O’Brian, Richard Woodman, and Alexander Fullerton are among my favorite authors) as well as an admirer for the leadership of Captain Picard in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series, recently pointed me to a really interesting post in the McKinsey Quarterly titled “Leadership Lessons from the Royal Navy.” 

Now, I’d not really want to serve in Nelson’s navy or occupy a gun turret on a World War I dreadnought, but the Royal Navy has had a certain luster for a long, long time, and its greatest leaders—Nelson and Jellicoe, for example—have something to teach us. The McKinsey piece, by Andrew St. George, explores a few aspects of the culture that has made the British navy a formidable and storied fighting force since the sixteenth century.

One factor in creating the Royal Navy’s positive culture with strong values around authentic communication
is the encouragement of banter—easy conversational give-and-take, often humorous or teasing, a game of verbal badminton that often weaves together the superficial and the essential. The British style of banter has long crossed frontiers of class and rank, not transgressively but rather in a way that creates a path for the transmission of important information when needed. Writes St. George, in the Royal Navy “the practice of “banter”… is … openly encouraged as an upbeat and informal way to regulate relationships and break down hierarchy. Banter occurs at all ranks and quite often between them. A Royal Navy driver will talk more readily to a second sea lord than the average corporate employee will engage his or her CEO in an elevator.

Banter of one sort or another tends to characterize life in schools. As adults we probably don’t hear about 90 percent of student banter, and of course we know that student banter can escalate into or sometimes mask—in an ugly and perniciously subtle way—teasing that is truly unkind, and even outright bullying.

But we can model and encourage “good” banter—the kind that eases the strains in relationships and helps students learn the critical skill of talking to adults—by practicing and nurturing it in our classrooms, lunch tables, hallways, and dormitories and indeed making it the hallmark of our most effective relationships with students. Banter can be used to gently redirect or focus a student whose actions have taken a wrong turn, and it can be used to reinforce and praise without quite awkwardly laying on laurels. Banter can be used to jolly students toward new understandings and insight—and students bantering with us can push us in all these same directions.

In the summers of my younger days I worked on the food service and buildings and grounds crews of a number of different institutions—schools, colleges, and youth service agencies. A somewhat shy kid, I had grown up around adults who were by and large intellectual and awfully serious, but in these less academic environments I learned about banter, the joshing and cajoling and occasional flashes of purposeful sarcasm used by the grown-ups on these crews to process and occasionally defuse aspects of their workday lives. Often enough, the endless and often clever banter just made more interesting, bearable, and even fun the repetitive and not always super-stimulating work of, say, preparing two hundred servings of baked chicken, building a new sidewalk, or edging eighteen holes’ worth of sand traps. The banter made work enjoyable, lightening tasks and building relationships among the crewmembers that really did cross boundaries of age, race, and social class.

I remember one young and stern boss, whose seriousness and idiosyncrasies quickly became fodder for a great deal of banter among us behind his back. At some point one of the veterans ventured to direct right at him a gentle tease; we all froze, waiting for a harsh response. Instead, the boss teased back, acknowledging his own quirkiness on this particular subject, and from that point forward the whole crew became more relaxed and productive—and the boss, having acknowledged a certain vulnerability but now engaging with the crew as peers on a shared mission (just in different roles), became much more confident and even easy-going.

As I play back the mental tapes of impressions and memory from my years in schools, I can attest to the fact that many of the most effective teachers I have ever had or worked with were inveterate banterers, whose easy and yet gently and positively provocative conversations with students were the locus of much of their best work. 

These teachers also made great colleagues, whose humor and generally upbeat approach to life invited colleagues into a positive space, sometimes working subtexts that nudged the rest of us toward exploring new perspectives and approaches to our practice or helped build consensus around particular points of view on school policy.

School culture, then, is every bit as subject to and in need of the effects of vigorous, openhearted banter as the British Navy. As small communities striving to knit themselves into a cohesive unit, except in purpose not so unlike a naval vessel, schools need to foster just the kinds of easy, open, and positive cultures that St. George claims banter helps create in the Royal Navy.

If any of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s cadre of young captains—the Band of Brothers whose victory at Trafalgar the Royal Navy views as its finest hour—would happily have taken the bullet that killed their commander in that battle, the record suggests that their open and easy relationships with one another—at meals, off duty, and sometimes on deck—were a part of the reason. The love they bore for Nelson was greatly inspired by his own willingness to be himself among them, not unlike the good attitude that made my own young boss so successful in the end. One suspects that this openness was paradoxically not a small source of the confidence that made Nelson such a decisive, clear-headed leader; he knew he didn’t have to impress anyone, just organize and inspire them.

This also makes me reflect on how the benefits of banter may be transferred to digital environments, where the nuances of tone and pitch that so often characterize face-to-face banter may be lost, or reduced to the paltry explanatory power of emoticons. In my experience banter moves faster than my fingers can type. But I guess I do engage in banter-esque discourse via text and even email, and I can imagine that for digital natives e-banter is probably as easy and common as it was at the dinner table in Nelson’s cabin aboard HMS Victory.

So, as you wander the halls of your school and poke your head into its classrooms, be alert for banter, and consider its power. If you’re a leader, consider how your own willingness to engage in banter—with everyone in your school—might support not just your relationships but the strategic work you must organize and inspire. It might not be Trafalgar, but it is about improving the lives of the children in your care.

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