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It Takes a Whole Village to Raise a Child

Adult and child hands
Adult and child hands

Image: www.mtdeafblind.ruralinstitute.umt.edu

I sat in on a school leaving assembly yesterday and watched Year 6 children troop out for the last time before they left for the summer – ready to start secondary school in September.

I say ‘ready’, but I could name at least half a dozen boys and not a few girls from one class of thirty children who are far from ready to leave the security of primary school.

Transition from primary to secondary school seems to be one of our rites of passage in the UK. Children are hauled through Year 6, undergoing immense pressure to get that magical ‘Level 4’ in their SATs tests and then bundled out of the door to start Year 7. Sounds familiar?

 

Confident Individuals?

Part of the problem with our education system is the very narrow expectations we have of our children: like the Victorians, we imagine that out children have to develop a prescribed set of skills in order to become ’employable’, but the skills we are neglecting are the very ones that ensure the children are able to function as, in the words of Mick Waters, ‘confident individuals, successful learners and responsible citizens’. I’m not sure that our curriculum actually addresses any one of those aspects, although I have come across schools that are making a resolute effort to do so with the limited freedom they have.

A friend of mine runs a nurture unit in a primary school and I wish there was one in every primary school in the country: children who have missed out on some essential aspect of their upbringing as young children have the chance to do some ‘catching up’ over a period of weeks in a secure but relaxed and compassionate environment, where the emphasis is on emotional resilience rather than academic knowledge. I came across a similar unit in a school not far from where I live: three children and two staff occupied a space away from the main part of the school. each child was dong something different, with assistance or intervention from an adult where necessary or appropriate. One of the children I spoke to was drawing: line drawings in a style that would have made Whistler proud. I mentioned to the child that he should keep on with his drawing and suggested he look up James Whistler, who started drawing when he was five years old.

What is it that actually stimulates and inspires a child to ‘realise their potential’, to become the person they were meant to be, to aspire to make something of themselves?

 

Significant Adults

My blogging friend, Nicola Marshall, author of ‘The Teacher’s Introduction to Attachment’ recalls a youth leader’s words about adult-pupil ratios. We expect a group of children to refer to their significant adult in say, a school or extra-curricular context. This may be one adult to thirty children in a school, reducing to less than ten children to one adult in an environment such as a youth club. The youth leader in question asserted that we should be looking at a ratio of five adults to very child: that is, every child should have five significant adults in their lives, be they parents, grandparents, teachers, youth leaders or adults in other contexts.

This reminded me of the well-known African proverb:

It takes a whole village to raise a child.

These significant adults play a key role in a child’s life: they are essential role-models who are ‘witnesses’ to the child’s life. Nicola Marshall also refers to Richard Gere’s film, Shall We Dance, in which his screen-wife says,

We all need a witness to our lives, the ups and downs and comings and goings.

Who are the so-called significant adults in the lives of many of our children today? Celebrities? Media personalities? Inappropriate relatives? Certainly not the role-models we would recommend.

To quote Nicola one more time, where she talks of her own adopted children:

Whoever it is, those people will have an influence and impact on a child’s experience of life – they will be the witnesses to that child’s existence. I only wish the adults in my children’s lives understood what a huge help or hinderance they are to my children’s progress. It matters that we remember their names. It matters that we pay attention to their anxieties. It matters that we witness their very existence. How we respond to them is vitally important.

 

See Children for Who They Can Be

Anyone in the teaching profession has probably come across the words of Haim Ginott, author of ‘Between Teacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers‘:

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.

As a teacher who works with children all over the country, often meeting them for the first time, I make no assumptions: I try to see them not for what they are but for who they can be. I find that enormously empowering and, frankly, liberating.

As a child, my significant adults were my parents (being a bloke, my dad in particular), Rosie (one of my youth leaders), my grandpa and a middle-school teacher who, nearly forty years later, I am still in touch with.

Who were your significant adults? And who are you a ‘significant adult’ for?

Thrive

Garden painting
Garden painting

Garden – artist unknown

My dad inspires me.

He has the knack of making a garden come alive and look like a place you want to be in. Even as an octogenarian, he spends hours outdoors tending to nature. And that’s not just in his own garden – he’s often to be found in other people’s gardens as well.

My favourite place in his Cornish garden is the raised patio: it is crazy-paved with a decent-sized pond populated with fish, lilies, frogs (in season) and duckweed. Irregular steps lead down to the lawn and alpines fill the crevices amongst the rockery that borders the patio. Elsewhere in the garden, fruit bushes and ornamental shrubs and  trees adorn the borders.

My dad’s garden thrives.

The same cannot be said about every garden – or, for that matter, every human being.

 

BARELY SURVIVING

Having worked in the education sector for a couple of decades, I have come across countless children who are living a life in which they are barely surviving, let alone thriving. Unfortunately, statistics seem to indicate that large numbers of teachers are also just surviving.

A recent and perhaps deliberately provocative article in The Guardian highlighted a report by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and highlighted the plight of the ‘ghost child’ – ‘the institutionalised infant.., wandering from playground to desk to after-school club without real purpose, nodding off through boredom and fatigue.’ It adds, ‘the ghost child is increasingly likely to be taught by the ghost adult – a teacher grey with fatigue and stress, stuck at school for 10 hours or more a day, wandering from duty to duty in playground, classroom or after-school club.’

Why have we come to this?

 

AIR, WATER and SUNSHINE

Returning to the plants in my dad’s garden, they thrive on sunshine, air and water, which Cornwall has in reasonably generous amounts, especially the latter. All of these are externally provided – drawn from natural resources. What does this look like in the life of a human being? Consider this:

a) Roots draw water up from the ground in which a plant is anchored in and deliver it to the rest of the plant. As human beings, we need  a source of continual refreshment that ‘hydrates our soul’ – and I’m not talking about the alcoholic liquid variety here! For most of us, companionship within our family and close family circles sustains us and provides the emotional resources we need to thrive in or relationships. However, for many adults and, unfortunately, children, acute loneliness due to lack of close family or friendship bonds causes a crippling lack of ‘hydration’, resulting in wilting human beings.

b) Plants respire through tiny holes in their leaves so that they can draw in air. Without air, a plant will simply languish and die. Human beings are designed to thrive but, for many, the opposite experience is true: they languish because they do not have meaning and purpose. This is the ‘air’ that keeps us from languishing. It starts almost from birth as we explore the world and discover our ability to influence outcomes but, if our sphere of influence dies and our sense of worth and dignity goes with it, so does our capacity to thrive.

c) Plants need light – sunshine in particular – and, as you are aware, they turn their leaves to face the the sunshine in order to absorb light energy. Apart from the obvious energy we derive from ingestion of food, we as humans need energising. We need stimulus. We need to be creative. We need to be problem-solvers. Much of this naturally develops through our play experiences as children but we all know that play has changed considerably in recent decades. Educators bewail the fact that children now spend much of their free time indoors – not outdoors with other children exploring, taking risks and developing essential social skills. However, as educators, we can help to correct this through the experiences we give children in school settings – and many nurseries in particular are very good at just that: creating vibrant play spaces for children to develop essential life long skills that energise their creativity.

 

PLAY, PLAY, PLAY

There is plenty of truth in the old maxim attributed to one of my favourite thinkers, Albert Einstein:

Play is the highest form of learning.

He is also recorded as saying,

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

How are we facilitating children’s play effectively in order to develop their imagination –  in order to bring them sunshine?

 

MEANING AND PURPOSE

Margaret Moore from The International Coach Federation writes in her blog post,

A sense of a higher purpose is a potent source of life fuel, especially when times are tough.

She also writes,

One of the most popular songs today (with more than 300 million YouTube visits), Katy Perry’s “Roar” speaks to the power of the human life force to make the world a better place. Katy sings from her jungle perch, “I am a champion and you’re going to hear me roar.”

But she also adds,

The vast majority of us are just surviving or even languishing—far from thriving, certainly not roaring.

 

So, to summarise,

A. Ensure you have a trusted circle of friends and family around you and, if you work with children, ensure they have the same.

B. Explore and discover meaning and purpose in your life and help others do the same.

C. Be creative in your problem-solving – and, above all, play. Then teach others to do the same.

 

THRIVE IN STYLE

I’ll finish with a quote from another of my favourite thinkers, Maya Angelou:

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

I’ll drink to that…

If You Don’t Want to Make Any Mistakes, Don’t Take Any Risks

Big Mistakes Rubber
Big Mistakes Rubber

Big Mistakes Rubber – available at most good stationers

You probably have one in a drawer somewhere – one of those ‘Big Mistakes’ rubbers (or erasers, if you’re reading this on the other side of the pond).

Although clearly a joke item, I imagine the ‘Big Mistakes’ rubber to have been created by someone who was tapping into the common acceptance that most of us hate making mistakes – that mistakes are wrong and that the person who makes mistakes is useless. So get the big rubber out, remove all traces of the mistake and pretend it never happened.

How wrong and how mistaken that is.

And how short-sighted we are if we believe that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs.

 

RISK

To my simple mind, there are two types of mistakes (at least in the context of this post).

There is the mistake made through foolish or careless error – such as stepping into the road without looking out for traffic – and there is the mistake made as a result of trying to do something new or difficult. The former should have been anticipated: we learn road safety for a reason. The latter is unavoidable – you cannot know what mistakes you are going to make when you try something new until you try something new.

And that’s where risk comes in: if you don’t want to make mistakes, don’t take any risks. And some people live like that. Pity.

 

DARE

Helen Keller famously said,

‘Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.’

And Albert Einstein is supposed to have said words along the line of,

‘The person who never makes mistakes never makes anything.’

I don’t think any of us truly gets rid of the fear and uncertainty we face when taking a risk but we learn to manage it because we know that, given the choice, we’d rather take the risk and hope for success than take no risks and achieve nothing. Risk is something we have to learn to manage – like fear, doubt and disappointment. We learn to take calculated risks – informed by judgement and experience. Blindly taking risks is another thing altogether and best avoided if the consequences are too painful to bear thinking about. Healthy risk is knowing and accepting the consequences of failure.

 

LEARN

A child climbing on an adventure playground is taking a risk: he or she could fall but the anticipation of enjoyment through play far outweighs any notion of the likelihood of falling. If children considered every risk not worth taking, we’d have a lot of unused playgrounds around the country. Children learn risk naturally and its associated fear through play.

A fellow blogger describes his young daughter’s experience:

Amélie recently started French lessons. There is no trace of fear about this new activity. She does not seem worried at the prospect of not being good at languages, or getting it wrong. In all other aspects of her day to day life, if she makes a mistake and it is pointed out to her, she simply notes the error, correction and moves on. It is really simple. Making a mistake does not make her feel stupid or less happy, she just learns.

Coming from an education background and having watched many children learn, I know full well that this is not always the case and, in some instances, it is more the experience of the minority. Many children (and adults) are appalled at the idea of making mistakes and have not yet learnt that some of the biggest lessons in life come from the biggest mistakes we make.

 

EXPLORE

I was laughing with my teenage daughter the other day as she was recounting the crazy things she and her friend do on the way to and from school just because… it’s fun. Our conversation moved on to the experimental behaviour of teenagers and young adults exploring their world as if it is one big adventure and the risks they take in the process. Although it is entirely natural to explore and I encourage risk-taking, some of these young people get themselves into serious trouble – not because they aren’t aware of the risks but because they’ve not received or taken advice on ‘educated risk’.

 

SUCCESS

I applaud risk-taking – but not at the expense of safety. As a teenager myself, I took what I consider now to be huge risks, often embarrassing myself in the process, but I had been sufficiently well-educated to know which risks just weren’t worth taking.  I probably wouldn’t take those kinds of risks today but young people learn about their world, other people in it, their limitations and the limitations of others when they take risks. Risk-taking is essential to growth, development and success.

In fact, someone even suggested that ‘success’ is spelt R-I-S-K.

So let’s encourage our children and young people to take healthy risks but to prep them beforehand – not with fear, but with knowledge – and then trust in their capacity to apply common sense and learn from their mistakes.

The world will be all the better for the mistakes they make in their youth that help them to apply the lessons learned when they enter adulthood.

Fair is not everyone getting the same but everyone getting what they need

Equality is not always justice
Equality is not always justice

Equality is not always justice

When I started my teaching career, I was working in an inner city school populated by an eclectic mix of children from ethnically and socially diverse backgrounds. Most of them were from the lower end of the economic spectrum and, with all the enthusiasm and energy of a new teacher, I attempted to provide them with the richest experience of education I could muster. To be honest, I probably tried too hard but it was both gratifying and rewarding to see the appreciation they expressed at even the littlest attempts to enhance their school days – such as taking turns to take a puppet home for the weekend.

My next school was of a totally different demographic: largely upwardly mobile, middle-income families with high aspirations for their children. Their response to some of the tricks I had tried at my previous school surprised me: they weren’t bothered or they’d seen it before. To use a terrible cliché, they had ‘been there, done that and bought the T-shirt’.

A few years later, I moved schools again – this time back into the inner city and into a very challenging environment. It was a deliberate choice because (and this is going to sound like a worn and over-used phrase) I wanted to make a difference. I particularly wanted to make a difference to what I saw as a gross inequality between the schooling opportunities available to children from deprived backgrounds and those experiencing considerably greater social advantage.

 

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EQUALITY AND JUSTICE

When I read the title of this post (suggested to me by a friend and blogging compatriot, Nicola Marshall), I immediately thought of the above image, which I came across some time ago. I had never really considered the stark difference between equality and justice until I came across this striking image.

The two images could very well also reflect the stark differences between the education accessed by different groups in society. Although I am loath to generalise, schools in challenging circumstances – those with a higher proportion of disadvantaged pupils – seem often unable to provide the rich experiences offered by schools populated by less disadvantaged children, often because they are having to cater for the extraordinary needs of their children, be they academic, behavioural or emotional. This is not to say that pupils from socially advantaged backgrounds do not experience academic, behavioural or emotional challenges but they are likely to be less predominant and the proportion of pupils exhibiting or manifesting such is likely to be significantly fewer.

It seems unfair, then, that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have access to the same educational experiences of their less disadvantaged peers – for who could argue that they don’t have the same potential? One could reason that disadvantaged pupils have more cash thrown in their direction in order to address these issues of inequality (such as Pupil Premium in English schools) but the reality is that it takes more than cash to solve these inequalities.

 

FAIR IS EVERYONE GETTING WHAT THEY NEED

Children in our most disadvantaged schools need so much more if they are to compete on an equal footing with socially advantaged learners. ‘Fair’ is not giving all children the same education but everyone getting the education they need and, in this case, it is quite clear that one size most certainly does not fit all.

There are some schools in disadvantaged areas that are working miracles but they are few and far between. Most struggle and strive to do their very best for their children but often feel that they are battling against an insurmountable odds: it is all they can do to keep their ship afloat, let alone steaming ahead. What seems to work best is collaboration between schools but this is not widespread enough to be causing an essential mindshift in the education sector.

So we are left with a picture of schooling that looks more like the ‘equality’ image above: we try to give all children the same, but this does not result in justice. Justice is enabling all children to see what is possible in their lives and being given the opportunity to aspire towards that – rather than the apparently inevitable, which is what far too many see.

 

ANY ANSWERS?!

This post is inconclusive in that it does not offer answers – it just raises a lot of questions. However, I hope it is pithy enough to make you want to chew it over – and spit the bits out. By all means comment: I am just offering a perspective.

Meanwhile, consider the following quotes, which are all variations on a theme which pack a punch, whichever way you look at it:

 

You can judge a nation by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens. (Author unknown)

 

The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members. (Author unknown)

 

A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members. ~ Mohandas Gandhi

 

Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members – the last, the least, the littlest. ~ Cardinal Roger Mahony

 

What are we doing to ensure that everyone is getting what they need…?

 

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

This blog post is written as part of a ‘blog buddies’ group, the idea being that we each write a weekly blog post on a chosen theme. To read the other posts on this theme, please visit:

Luke’s blog

Wendy’s blog

Nicola’s blog

If you would like to join our ‘blog buddies’ group and share in this writing adventure (no obligation to write, just join in when you are able), please e-mail nicola@braveheartsolutions.co.uk.

Yesterday I was clever and wanted to change the world

New Year 2014
New Year 2014

Image: www.bechaini.com

As I write this on New Year’s Day, 2014, people everywhere are thinking about the future and about the coming year in particular – dreaming, planning, hoping, expecting. If truth be told, we all want change. We want change because we are dissatisfied with the way things are, because we know things can be better, because we have seen – or we can imagine – better.

How many times have you heard someone say that they want to change the world? Have you ever said it about yourself? What does that actually mean? What do we mean by ‘world’ and what do we mean by ‘change’?

Change involves doing something positive to effect desirable outcomes.  However, fear, self-doubt and resistance to change can actually hinder the very change you desire. And the prospect of changing the WORLD is enough to raise doubts in the mind of anyone.

Whilst discussing this some time ago, a colleague with a wry sense of humour commented that if he was to change the world, he was going to have to start with his sock drawer. At the time, we laughed heartily but I’ve never forgotten his words because of the truism contained within them. To change the world, you have to change YOUR world.

 

Several great thinkers, world-changers themselves believed the same:

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, a 13th century Persian poet better known as, Rumi, said:

Yesterday, I was clever and wanted to change the world. Today I am wise and I am changing myself.

 

Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi famously espoused:

We must become the change we wish to see in the world.

 

Mother Teresa reflected:

I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.

 

Some might pale at the thought of effecting change in the world. However, how else is change to happen? The anthropologist, Margaret Mead, is convinced that it really is down to us as individuals:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

 

And The Dalai Lama observed, perhaps pithily:

If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.

 

And consider the alternative of NOT seeking change:

If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.

(cited by Anthony Robbins but attributed to both Mark Twain and Henry Ford)

 

Happy New Year – be the change you want to see in the world…