ThinQ-121 Logo facebook icontwitterlinkedin-buttonBlog RSS Feed

Tel: 07772 631 764

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.

 

 

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?

An Unstoppable Combination of Ability, Personality and Character

Nelson Mandela (ABC News)

On Friday morning, I woke to the news of Nelson Mandela’s death. The Today programme on Radio 4 provided  a reassuringly balanced, factual and non-sensationalist round-up of all the news and comment surrounding his death. In fact, they practically handed the programme over to the constant outpouring of sentiment, tribute and comment that flooded the airwaves and cyberspace. I lost count of the number of people who came on with memorable and evocative soundbites – or the stories of personal experiences of meeting the man that nobody can deny changed the world.

I wanted to write it all down: the words said about this remarkable ‘people person’, the attempts to summarize this larger-than-life individual with easy-going manner and non-threatening persona – the leader who knew exactly what he wanted and was prepared to wait twenty-seven years behind bars to get it.

But the chord that resonated in my head after all the tributes were paid were the words that described why he made such an impact: words that described a man who defied all the odds and rose up to become the change-maker that South Africa – and the world – desperately needed.

I summarized this in a tweet later on:

Nelson Mandela: an unstoppable combination of ability, personality and character – the embodiment of a resilient life.

Mandela had ability, sure: he was a qualified and talented lawyer, politician and communicator. He also possessed tremendous personality: his manner with people was disarming and affirming, mischievous and graceful. But what was so compelling was his character: what he stood for, he believed in – and what he believed in, he lived out in his words and actions with humility and grace. Forgiveness and reconciliation are associated with his name from so many perspectives.

Mandela’s death caused so many to mourn around the world because of the hope he stood for. He was an enduring symbol of so much we yearn for as human beings: peace, unity, harmony, reconciliation. Former Irish president Mary Robinson issued a statement expressing as much:

“Why are we so bereft? Because he was the best of us, the best of our values… As we mourn the passing of this extraordinary man, and young people around the world feel a particular sense of loss, we can honour him best by giving of ourselves to others.”

The way Mandela conducted his life in public impacted on young and old, rich and poor, adult and child, black and white – from every country and language and persuasion. His reach and influence was universal and the feeling in reaction to his death no words can fully express, though many have tried:

Actor Idris Elba, who portrays Mandela in the 2013 film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, commented,”What an honour it was to step into the shoes of Nelson Mandela and portray a man who defied odds, broke down barriers, and championed human rights before the eyes of the world. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

Actor Morgan Freeman, who portrayed Mandela in the 2009 film Invictus said, “As we remember his triumphs, let us, in his memory, not just reflect on how far we’ve come, but on how far we have to go. Madiba may no longer be with us, but his journey continues on with me and with all of us”.

The Mirror newspaper states, ‘it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who paid arguably the most moving tribute as he said his friend had “taught a divided nation to come together” ‘.

The Economist resorted to a short, wordless video that encapsulated ‘the life that made the man’.

Maya Angelou’s evocative tribute poem, ‘His Day is Done‘ (video and full text care of The Latin American Tribune), released on video by the US Department of State, captures the mood as she encapsulates America’s response to the death of ‘the hope of Africa’, ‘the news expected but still unwelcome’.

Finally, Rev Tom Butler, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ on the morning following Mandela’s death, opened with the words, ‘Nelson Mandela has died after a time of courageous resilience – typical of him’ and closed with the simple refrain, ‘May he rest in peace and rise in glory.’

Surely, no on could wish Mandela less, the man who famously said,

”The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.’