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Toby Percival

Putting pen to paper

There's still much to be said for the good old-fashioned handwritten note, says Toby Percival

Posted by Stephanie Broad | October 30, 2015 | People, policy, politics

When our 13-year-olds join Shrewsbury, they nearly all have smart phones or tablets which allow them to communicate with home much more easily and quickly than they would have done a decade ago. Apps like Skype and WhatsApp have made the global village even smaller – our international students can speak to their parents just as conveniently as friends whose parents live down the road. The benefits of this technology in a boarding school in particular are huge, as the global village becomes even smaller.

At the end of their first week, our new pupils do something now considered unusual – write a handwritten letter. It is clear from their reactions that few of them have done this much before, as they stare at the blank piece of paper in front of them. The recipient, usually their prep school head, parents or grandparents, will not be completely taken aback by the envelope appearing through their letterbox; not long ago, letters were the common method of communication between parents and their boarding children. In a letter from the school archives, Henry Sidney offers his son Philip some sage advice on how to make the most of his education. That letter was written in 1591, but has the same sentiment given by parents to their children today.

Writing by hand requires us to think about the words we want to use before committing them to ink. One of the main issues of electronic communication to be considered by pupils in their e-ducation is its immediacy and lack of context; meaning can easily be lost in translation. The issue is such that Google introduced an ‘unsend’ button in June 2015 to offer a quick fix for an email sent in haste. The beauty of a letter is the opportunity to review its content for a considerable while longer than clicking a button.

There is a personal nature in writing by hand that cannot be matched by electronic forms of communication. In my boarding house, I asked pupils to write notes of thanks if a member of staff gave up their time for them, taking them on a trip or extra sports coaching, for example. Conversely, a handwritten apology for the rare time they err from the straight and narrow remains an effective tool for diffusing conflict. Any teacher will say that such small tokens cost very little but mean the world.

The traffic is not solely one way, though. As part of my focus on positive discipline, I write a quick handwritten note of congratulation to middle school pupils (and sometimes their parents) for their individual accomplishments, be it representing their country in a sport or handing in all of their homework on time. These ‘fridge magnet’ notes reinforce an ethos of achievement and can have a significant impact in raising aspiration and behaviour.

Letter writing is not the only ‘traditional’ method of communication we try to instil in our pupils. Etiquette expert Belinda Alexander provides workshops to different year groups in ‘making the right first impression’. Her sessions cover regularly forgotten skills that make students stand out from the crowd, from body language to holding a substantive conversation with adults. Employers seem to cry out for these ‘soft skills’ and, as Belinda tells the students, the fact they have attended an independent school will place greater expectations on them in the way they conduct themselves.

Technology offers an exciting future for communication, which teenagers will embrace with equal rapidity; it is any school’s job to give them all the tools available in their arsenal. The pen can be mightier than the keyboard.

Toby Percival is Head of Middle School at Shrewsbury School.

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