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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?

The Trail You Leave

Duck's wake - Lady Fi

Duck's wake - Lady Fi

Image borrowed from Lady Fi’s blog

 

Approaching my half-century is having a sobering effect.

The older I get, the more I tend to reflect and look back at what I have done and the wake I have left behind me.

In a previous blog post, Look How Far You’ve Come, I reflected on the importance of looking back to see how far we’ve come – and that our struggles are often an indicator of how far that is.

During this post, which sort of continues the theme, I want to focus on the trail we leave – the footprints, the tracks, the wake.

Have you ever watched a duck or similar bird on a lake and considered the impact of its wake? It emanates from the bird, creating a path that broadens in proportion to its distance from the bird. Firstly, I’m curious that the wake expands in such a manner. Secondly, I am amazed at how the wake is sustained over a considerable area compared to the size of the bird that created it. Granted, the further a point behind the bird, the smaller the ripple – but the wider the reach.

What wake are you leaving behind you? What is its reach? How does it affect those in its path? Do you know the extent of its impact?

I find this concept very challenging. As a father of two, I am increasingly conscious of the impact I am having on them as they grow from being young, impressionable children to teenagers with their own personalities and values set.

A blogging friend of mine writes about the footprint her late dad left in her life. I wonder if her dad ever realised just what an impact his wake had on his daughter?

What have my own children gained from being in my wake? And, on the other hand, what damage have I done?

That’s a scary thought.

As a teacher, the impact is perhaps wider and more far-reaching: what I do in school impacts the children I work with, their families, the staff with whom I rub shoulders and any number of other individuals and groups connected with the school. If I stopped for long enough to consider the potential impact of my thoughts, words and actions in the context of a school, I might choose not to get out of bed in the morning.

On a more positive slant, however, I have potential to have massive and sustained impact on people who really need input into their lives. They don’t have to be needy people – just those on a journey whose path interacts with mine. The converse is true: those with whom I interact leave a trail with impacts on my own life, hopefully for the better – enriching my experiences and relationships.

Of course, the trail anyone leaves behind them is not always going to have a positive impact. Fortunately, as humans, we are intelligent (and hopefully resilient) enough to take the rough with the smooth, to sift the good from the bad.

Haim Ginott, well-known to those in the teaching profession, wrote some powerful words in his book, Teacher and Child, which echo this theme:

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, 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 will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.

Haim G. Ginott, Teacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers

All that from the wake we leave behind.

So, what trail are you leaving behind you? Who will it impact and how?

And whose wake are you in? How are they impacting you? Do you have any choice in the matter? If so, what are you doing about it?

 

 

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…

The Toughest Thing You Ever Did Could be the Best Thing You Ever Did

Y road sign

Y road sign

This post can only work if I illustrate it with a story. My story.

Some twenty years ago, whilst working at BBC Pebble Mill in Birmingham, I decided that the career plan I had drawn up for employment within the BBC wasn’t going to materialise (that was not without considerable trying). Basically, I wanted to make TV programmes but I had snuck in the back door as an engineer and was finding the transition virtually impossible – it was a dog-eat-dog, it’s-not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know, being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time kind of world and I wasn’t eating dogs, I knew no one and I never seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

A teacher friend suggested teaching (what else…?) and, as it had been a career option on graduation from Aston University, I decided to explore it further by doing some voluntary work in local schools. To cut a long story short, I applied for a place at Westhill College in Birmingham, not expecting any chance whatsoever, only to find that I was accepted onto their PGCE course in September of that year.

And that’s when the panic set in.

I was nearly thirty years old. Married. Mortgage. No kids. And about to make a life-altering career change.

To say that I entered a black hole is possibly an understatement. I entered everything there was that was terrifying. The black hole. The wilderness. The tunnel through which I could see no light. The unknown.

Suffice to say, I had any number of thoughts flying through my head at God-forsaken hours of the morning which made me question my sanity.

Fortunately, I had some very good friends around me who, if I didn’t believe in me, they certainly did. The teacher friend who originally made the suggestion had total faith in me and the Aston University chaplain, who I still keep in touch with twenty years later, was a man of incredible wisdom and reassurance.

And so, in September 1994, I entered further education for the second time and, in that year, learnt why the PGCE has such a high dropout rate. It was intense and, in modern jargon, insane. It was unrelenting and unforgiving. It was painful and the pain was protracted. And panic once again kept me (and plenty of others on the course) awake when we should have been asleep.

Somehow, once again, with the fabulous friendships we made on the course, those of us who stayed the course made it (with a lot of mutually positive stroking going on).

Since events like this usually come in threes, the third experience was actually getting a job as a teacher. The interviews I attended weren’t too bad but, when a school actually offered me a job, the panic flared up again. How could I stand in front of my own class of 30 children and pretend that I knew what I was doing? Needless to say, the intervening period kept me busy preparing for every and any eventuality. And, again, working with like-minded people kept my mind intact.

Twenty years later, I have lost count of how many applications I have sent off and how many interviews I have attended in my ascent to middle leadership and then deputy headship and, eventually, headship of my own school. When I look back, I have absolutely no regrets about that first decision to change direction: it was one of the best – albeit toughest – decisions I ever made.

And I haven’t given up making tough decisions. Nearly two years ago, I left the education establishment to set up my own business, ThinQ Education (the host of this blog), and that decision has taken me into schools all over the country delivering assemblies, class workshops and staff training to help inspire children to be the best they can be – to become more confident, to develop resilience, to make tough decisions.

I hope it helps them to learn what I learnt: that the toughest thing you ever do could be the best thing you ever do, but that you should rarely, if ever, keep it to yourself.

It’s better for something to be finished than to be perfect

Blueprint With Specs by winnond - FreeDigitalPhotos
Blueprint With Specs by winnond - FreeDigitalPhotos

Image: winnond / www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I first read this title, suggested to our ‘Blogging Buddies’ group, I laughed inwardly – and wryly – as I considered the perpetual challenge for anyone working in a classroom to finish anything to their satisfaction, let alone it be perfect.

 

A WOMAN’S WORK AND A TEACHER’S JOB

A very recent article in the TES laments the high numbers of new entrants to the teaching profession leaving after just a few short years – not completing their career in teaching because of the massive pressures and disappointments they experience. Clearly not finished and far from the perfect job their idealistic young minds envisaged.

The old adage, ‘A woman’s work is never done’ can just as easily be applied to the teaching profession: but how and when does one consider a job done? Finished? Completed? The above TES article continues with the observation:

…teaching is a long story, one that starts even before candidates turn up to their teacher preparation courses and continues long after they graduate.

Comparing the teacher’s role today to the one I entered nearly twenty years ago is mind-boggling: barely a couple of decades ago, even with the recent introduction of the National Curriculum, I had a huge say in how and what I delivered in my classroom. Now, it appears, teachers have considerably less autonomy, in spite of the government’s assurances that they are cutting back on red tape and bureaucracy. I suspect that, as long as Ofsted exists in its present form, whatever platitudes the government make to the teaching profession will have little impact: Ofsted has changed the education landscape so dramatically that we are all on an endless treadmill of churning out evidence  to prove that we have accomplished something with the children we teach. However, as the aforementioned TES article pithily adds,

…an ever-growing tail of underachievers around the world tells us that what we have always done isn’t good enough.

 

PRODUCT -v- PROCESS

Just what are we educating our children for?

And are we looking for a finished product or pieces of  a jigsaw puzzle which may never actually be completed but whose picture becomes clearer with each stage of learning a learner completes – bearing in mind that learning is a life-long journey that never ends?

I recall a statement made by a mentor teacher when I was in the early stages of training:

The process is more important than the product.

The teacher was referring to lessons that did not necessarily have to result in a finished product but the content of which contributed to children’s skills. I have reflected on this often over my career and have come to the conclusion that, yes, the process is vitally important in achieving educational objectives but that a product is also essential in order to motivate learning.

Not long ago, whilst working with a Year 5 class, we made board games. The objectives were many but the end objective, as far as the children were concerned, was to complete the board game. Whether or not I made it clear to the children, they were also achieving other, less obvious objectives, such as problem-solving skills, design skills, evaluation skills, collaboration skills, communication skills and presentation skills. The process was elaborate: the children had to come up with ideas, draft their designs and produce a finished product – including instructions. They also played and evaluated their own and each other’s games.

Were they perfect? Probably not, although in the minds of the children, many aimed for and achieved their best.

Were they finished? Absolutely. And the children’s pride on completion was obvious.

Both product and process were equally important – the expectation of a product outcome driving the process and the process achieving and enabling the product.

 

PERFECTION IS FINISHING

Before I close, perhaps we should define ‘finished’ and ‘perfect’.

Very rarely is any finished product ‘perfect’ but how often do we admire something such as a work of art, a meal or a display and pronounce it ‘perfect’? Perfection, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder and is often attained through finishing to a degree of satisfaction that pleases. Pleasure is more often in finishing than in perfection. But even ‘finished’ can be subjective: to some, a work is never finished; to others, it is finished when it has achieved the satisfaction of completion.

So, does this offer comfort to the distracted teacher who is on the verge of leaving the profession having barely started?

One of the lessons I learnt as a newby teacher was to ‘cut corners without compromising’. That sounds like a dichotomy but I had to consider what my objectives were: it was not perfection in the product but completion of learning: the satisfaction of new knowledge or skills acquired. In this case, it was clearly better for the children to have finished a task and to have experienced new learning than to have attained perfection that was defined by me. It is, after all, the children who are to finish – not me.

And, if it helps us all to plan more efficiently, remember the following words, attributed to George S Patton:

Better a good plan today than a perfect plan tomorrow.