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You Were Never Meant to Pass This Test on Your Own

Test Answer Sheet

 

Test Answer Sheet

Image: nongpimmy / www.freedigitalphotos.net

 

We’ve all been there and done them – and, if you’re a teacher, you’ve even probably supervised them:

Tests.

Formal written tests are carried out under exam conditions, which includes silence and just getting in with it – on your own. I’ve never done a test where I could use someone else’s expertise – it’s always been a test of my own.

Do you ever feel that life is a test – and that, from time to time – sometimes even often – you’re failing?

 

Life does often feel like a test but, unlike a formal assessment, we were never meant to pass this test on our own.

As a parent, I have to advise, correct, guide and affirm my two kids. When intervention is called for, I intervene. Sometimes, I don’t even have to make the decision to intervene – I get asked for help. I don’t expect my children to manage everything on their own – and I am glad that I can be instrumental in their growth and development. They will – and do – fail at things but I expect them to have another go, to try again, to learn from their mistakes. Growing up was never meant to be a test: kids may often look to adults for affirmation and approval but they also rely on the bigger people for advice.

 

As an adult, I don’t claim to have perfected what we call ‘life’. I am still full of questions about how best to live my life. I experience doubt, uncertainty, fear and worry. I know that I can do better – I know that I want to do better and I know that I will do better. But I also know that I cannot do better without help. I rely on people around me – sometimes directly (by asking their advice), sometimes indirectly (by just watching and observing).

 

As a teacher,  I often remind children that it’s ok to make mistakes because they can learn their greatest lessons from the mistakes they make. However, even making mistakes is best done in the company of others that we feel we can trust. You no doubt feel more able to take risks and make mistakes when you are with people who accept you as you are and allow you to make – and learn from – mistakes.

My best friends are the people who allow me to be who I am, who let me get away with it and who like me in spite of it. That is liberating! And when I’m with people like that, I no longer feel that life is a test. Instead, it’s an adventure, it’s an opportunity to experiment, to take risks, to try out new things and not worry if they don’t work out.

When you live your life with people you love and who love you, it doesn’t matter if you fail because, as Clarence the angel said in that timeless film, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life‘,

No man is a failure who has friends.

 

You were never meant to pass this test on you own – you were meant to, in the words of H. Jackson Brown, the author of ‘Life’s Little Instruction Book’,

…throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover…

 

What Do Children Really Want?

Child success

Child success

 

I was working with a Year 5 class this week that consisted of quite a mixed bunch of children, many of whom were also very mixed-up emotionally: they had issues relating to each other, issues listening, issues managing themselves and issues taking pride in their learning – or just taking learning seriously.

All that many of them seemed to want to do was to score points over each other – and, yet, I’m pretty sure that’s not what they really wanted.

As it happens, being the end of half-term, the school had planned a celebration afternoon on the Friday, during which children would give presentations based on the topic they had just finished studying (in the context of this particular class: Space).

 

Choice and Responsibility

On Wednesday, I outlined the idea to the children and explained the process of planning, preparing and presenting. Space is a topic that children are naturally curious about and this class were no exception. Given the opportunity to choose what to focus their presentation on and choose who they could work with – and choose how to present their chosen theme – was highly motivating to the children. It presented a certain level of risk to me as I was conscious of the behavioural issues I was up against and uncertain about how well they would work together or of their standard of presentation. However, after what I felt was sufficient guidance, I handed the responsibility over to them – along with huge flipchart-sized sheets of paper to work on.

 

Motivation and Mess

The effect was astonishing: motivation went through the roof and behavioural issues all but disappeared. The children organised themselves into small groups, found laptops and tablets for their research and spent several hours over the next three days preparing their presentations. Throughout the sessions during which we worked on the presentations, children came up to me with their ideas, or with facts they had discovered, or with requests about how to solve a particular presentation challenge. Several children made a mess of their first attempts and resolved to start again, including a child with severe emotional and behavioural issues who has spent over an hour doing a picture of a space shuttle, messed it up and started it all over again.

One particular child – who had previously manifested a persistently immature attitude – spent hours diligently researching, assembling and presenting facts about the sun on the most stunningly decorated poster. It was vivid, eye-catching and the attention to detail (especially colour) was painstaking. What astonished me was his ability to sustain concentration over an extended period of time without distracting others or being distracted himself. He evidently took an enormous amount of pride in what he was doing and was visibly pleased with the end product – especially when I suggested he take it show the headteacher.

 

What did these children really want?

Having seen these children excel themselves in so many ways over a couple of days as they planned and prepared for their presentations, I reflected on what had made the difference to their behaviour and the lessons I learned about what motivates children.

To start with, children really want someone to believe in them – to expect them to do well – to give them responsibility.

Secondly, children want to get on with each other – and to do things together. Children don’t actually enjoy making each other miserable; more often than not, it’s a defence mechanism – it’s a sign of insecurity and an attempt to establish their own credence and credibility.

Thirdly, children really want to succeed: and when they see a chance for success, they will work for it. The motivation is palpable.

 

Curriculum, Community and Choice

A friend of mine who does a lot of work around the area of attachment theory referred to Alfie Kohn’s perspectives on this kind of thing in her own blog:

I’ve been reading a book by Alfie Kohn at the moment called ‘Punished by Rewards’. He says that if you have three components in the classroom working well, you will not need to bribe children to behave. The three components Kohn talks about are:

Curriculum (engaging content delivered in an engaging way)
Community (a caring class where students feel they belong)
and
Choice (some say in how they learn).

That seems like common sense to me, not rocket science, but I worry that our we are in danger of stifling children – not setting them free.

 

Do something good

I am reminded of something I once saw that has influenced my thinking ever since:

If you want children to do something good, give them something good to do.

Most children have an innate desire to do something good; it’s up to us – the people they look up to, mimic and learn from – to give them something good to do.

That’s what children really want.

 

 

 

When Teaching is a Daily Trek Into The Wild

Jungle

Jungle

 

Today, I taught Year 2.

It was like going into the wild.

What astonishes me – but, more importantly, concerns me – is that far too many children I meet lack the essential skills to manage themselves, to manage their responses to situations, to manage their relationships with each other, to manage their learning.

And here many of us are, in classrooms up and down the country, trying to teach children who don’t want to be taught.

It really is like going into the wild – every day.

As a deputy headteacher, I taught a Year 5 class who were, when I went in, out of control. About 75% of my time was taken up with behaviour management and behaviour modification – we just about managed to learn something in the other 25%.

Every day, I drove to school wondering what I was going to come up against that day: it wasn’t a pleasant feeling because, like most teachers, I like to have my day planned and to see outcomes. But, in this instance, planning was often an academic exercise: the job was more like running on one of those large exercise balls and hoping to stay upright – or running inside a hamster wheel and hoping not to get thrown off. Planning somehow seemed secondary to meeting the real needs of the kids.

It was like going into the wild – I really had no idea what to expect.

But what keeps teachers in places like this staying in places like this is the reason why they do it.

At the end of today, I met up with a small group of teachers congregating outside a classroom. It’s Friday and one of them is holding a bottle of wine. They are reflecting on their day and the challenges they have faced and what they are going to that evening and over the weekend to ‘recover’. We start to talk about the children and what challenges THEY face and why they need us to believe in them – because, for some of them, no one outside of school believes in them. Having the opportunity to change children’s lives for the better is why they do what they do. For some of them – many of them – home is chaotic, unpredictable and even unsafe.

It’s like going back into the wild after a day in school – a place of relative security – their only safe haven. Their harbour before they launch out into the stormy sea of home-life again.

I have often felt on the edge of losing control with children but I worry most that the children have already lost control – have been out of control for so long that to bring them back is going to take more than securing a Level 4 in SATs.

I told the children today that they had to make a choice – and, if they wanted to be proud of themselves, it had to be a good choice. We defined that ‘good choice’ but, for some of those children, making a good choice is so far from their normal experience, they don’t really have the wherewithal to make that choice. Like I said, they’re out of control.

So we have to help them make good choices. That takes time. It takes effort. It takes explaining in a multitude of different ways at different times and in different places. It means taking them out of the wild and into a clearing where they can sit in a place where there’s no fear.

Not many weeks after taking over the Year 5 class I mentioned earlier, I started doing Circle Time with them – straight after morning break every day. For three weeks, they couldn’t even sit quietly in a circle and listen so, after twenty minutes of trying, we would abandon Circle Time and get on with the rest of the day. Eventually, we managed to attempt some semblance of a Circle Time. They loved it. They became good at it. And, because they experienced little successes in Circle Time – and liked the feeling that came with that success – they wanted more of it.

I took the same class into Year 6 and we continued Circle Time. I’m not saying everything turned out honky dory for hose kids but, by believing in them and continuously telling them what I believed about them, they eventually started believing in themselves – and each other. This was transformational: and it had a massive impact on their learning and their achievement.

Needless to say, the end of Year 6 was very emotional: the class had come through a lot together and had come a long way – and they recognised the difference and liked it.

It was no longer a daily trek into the wild.

As those teachers reflected today, I, too, reflected on why we as teachers keep going ‘into the wild’: we can see what the children cannot see. We can see what they can be. And we cannot afford to lose the opportunity to make that happen.

Teachers see children not for what they are but for what they can be. Places like this need people like you.

But, oftentimes, it takes going into the wild to find out what that ‘can be’ looks like.

It takes going into the wild to find out what’s there and how to tame it.

You don’t try to make a wild child come to you – you go to where they are and carry them to safety.

 

 

I Won a Castle…!

I won a castle

Believe it or not, I’ve won a castle!

I won a castle

Veronica Pullen was reluctant to part with her home

 

A cardboard castle… but, hey, what an opportunity – read on…

At a conference last weekend, I put a bid in for a large cardboard castle being auctioned off for an autism charity. The castle was part of a display on an exhibition stand and it grabbed my attention because I’m always on the look out for assembly ideas that illustrate the concept of resilience. The castle represents strength, resistance, solidity – resilience. A community within a castle was kept safe by its thick, towering walls – protecting them from the onslaught of enemy weaponry and invasion. But it has a large gateway and drawbridge to let friendly visitors in, so it’s not closed to outsiders…

Resilient people are like a castle: they have inner strength which helps sustain them through the inevitable problems and challenges that are part of everyday life – and the occasional bigger attacks that appear from nowhere and threaten to destabilise us.

But it’s not just about the strength they possess: a castle represents a community – a group of people that share solidarity and up for each other. It’s very hard to be resilient on your own – you need people around you that you can trust, that believe in you, that accept you for who you are.

And neither is it about closing yourself off from the outside world: a castle has a huge gateway with a drawbridge. This would normally be left down and the gateway opened to allow people to travel in and out of the castle. Friendly visitors are welcome but, when threats loom, down comes the portcullis and up comes the drawbridge to stop the enemy from entering – to protect those inside the castle. Resilient people have resources at hand so that when life becomes threatening – when disaster looms large – they are able to withstand the onslaught of fear and anxiety that can assail them. This is only possible because of the courage and determination that is embedded within them – because of the resilience they have built up – like the castle walls.

But resilience doesn’t just happen. And castles don’t just happen. They have to be built over a long period of time – and by a lot of people helping. Resilience is built up over time as a person experiences acceptance by others, as they develop belief in themselves (with the encouragement of others) and as they build up courage and confidence. All of this is more likely to happen within a safe, healthy and happy community.

For a child, this should first be their family, but, for some, the family is an unhealthy community, so their class at school is often a safe haven for them. Having adults within a school who can identify the child whose ‘walls’ need building up is a life-saver for some children – they learn to build trusting relationships, they learn to believe in themselves and they learn to make wise lifestyle choices.

We’ve all come across children who need help building their castle walls – and all they really want to start with is acceptance – not judgement.

Talking of acceptance, I was very happy to be the winner of the castle and accepted it gratefully from Veronica Pullen (pictured). Now, I will use it in school assemblies to talk about resilience.

How strong are your castle walls…?

 

Are you human?

People / World
People / World

Image: xedos4 / www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

I’m only human.

 

You’ve heard it said and you may have even said it yourself.

And when is it normally said? Usually after a mistake or a failure? Probably.

Is it an excuse? A disclaimer? Something to be proud of? A statement of solidarity with the rest of the human race?

There is something about being human which is entirely unique amongst the rest of the animal kingdom. No other living creature has the capacity for original thought and creativity as humans do – and no other living creature is quite as cruel or destructive…

 

Haim Ginott is credited with writing the following ‘letter to teachers’:

Dear Teacher,
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers, children poisoned by educated physicians; infants killed by trained nurses, women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.
So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.
Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane.

 

What does it mean to be human? Clearly there is a distinction between the kind who makes mistakes whilst offering a blushing ‘I’m only human’ and the kind described by Haim Ginott above. Ginott is urging us to help our children ‘become human’ – to be compassionate. And the reason we need to be compassionate is because we are human: we make mistakes, we mess up, we cock up. But that’s not the same as the wanton cruelty as described in Ginott’s letter.

 

The fact is, being human means we make mistakes and we (hopefully) learn from them – but we need to know there are others around us to bear with us in our mistakes – to accept us and keep believing in us. And to forgive us.

Children are no exception. After nearly twenty years in the teaching profession, one thing I know for sure is that, whilst technology, economies, curricula and Education Secretaries change, children do not: children just want to be accepted for who they are, to be believed in and to experience compassion.

I’m inspired by the following exhortation, which is often mis-attributed to Plato but most likely originated by the Rev John Watson:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

 

Similarly, Seneca (4BC) is credited with the statement:

Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.

 

Want to be more human? Be kind. Be compassionate. But don’t wait for an opportunity – just be it.

Be human.