Sunday 22 September 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

One of the oddest phenomena I’ve come across in schools, and yet it’s quite common, is that of students’ perceptions of themselves and of their limitations. At the moment I am teaching German to a group of ten pupils as part of an initiative in the school where I work to provide a (mostly) staff-led, skills-based programme to students from Years 3 to 6.

This “college” idea, which has been going for a few years now, aims to offer opportunities to students to which many of them would not normally have access because of their economic background. At the same time it encourages staff, both teaching and non-teaching, to make use of skills they already possess and which they want to share with pupils. Occasionally, you find a member of staff developing their career further as a consequence of having taught at our college. Because this “college” takes place only once per week in the afternoon, the atmosphere is more relaxed when you walk around the school. It was this idea of alternative, fun, teaching that led me to join in this year.

Before I carry on, though, a disclaimer. I am writing in a personal capacity and this post in no way reflects my employer’s opinions.

What I have found out in my first two weeks with this group of students is that some of them have already internalised other people’s perceptions of them and allowed these people to place limitations on their learning. I don’t know whether this comes from home via their parents or carers, or if it is their teachers labelling them, or if, perhaps, their classmates have a role to play in this situation. What is real is that these are very young children, between 8 and 11 years old, with a low opinion of themselves. To make matters worse, a new consultation led by Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg and David Laws, schools minister, won’t help these kids.

Tarring and feathering: do we want the same for our children?
Under new proposals the government aims to tell parents of 11-year-olds where their child’s precise scores are in English and Maths tests. Parents will, then, find out where these scores place their child in the national range of attainment, how much progress their offspring has made since age seven and...

... and cue horror and panic. Because, you would, wouldn’t you? You would panic if someone told you that your little Johnny or little Jenny is not up to the level s/he should be. Basically, what these tests will be telling is that s/he’s thick. Clegg’s argument, that this new proposal will raise standards, is nonsense. You don’t raise standards by labelling children, especially at that young age. You raise standards by going out of your way to make sure that children get an all-round education.

An all-round education for me is not just knowing what a metaphor is, but how certain situations are metaphors for how we relate to people in life. An all-round education is developing ways in which children learn how to choose a friend, the qualities that make a good friendship and how important it is to think of your other half as your friend. An all-round educations aims to raise awareness of the cycle of life, making it clear to children that wrinkles, loss of hearing and poor eyesight are natural processes and that some people go through these stages and others don’t. Above all, an all-round education is one where students are not passive recipients but active agents. Agents for the acquisition of knowledge and the reasoning of it. Having a critical mind is fundamental to understanding the world in which we live.

We know that there are children who lag behind. They don’t need a tag, they need support. They need education to come to them sideways, since maybe the full frontal approach doesn’t work. The last thing they need is a sign hung around their necks that reads, “not secondary school ready”.

I look at the ten pupils whom I teach every week, their hands up in the air wanting to answer a question in German or about a German-speaking country and I wonder: which one will succeed? Which one will fail? And what do “succeed” and “fail” mean in this context? Maybe one of them will end up working in a bakery, waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning to make the dough, earning a pittance but happy because s/he has a partner who is supportive, their own place and a cat. Who knows? And the place where the scene above will take place: Austria. Or Switzerland. Or Luxembourg. In that case they’ll realise that the German they learnt for those five or six weeks was worth their time and effort.

© 2013

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 25th September at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. this is the scary side of standardized testing....the tracking and placing, without regard to educational leaps a child can make...

    did you know that in america, they determine the number of cells in the jails by the test scores in the third grade...and it is accurate...scary stuff eh?

  2. Becoming more and more a number it seems, even at 11 years old

  3. Ah, education has become a volleyball in the political field.

  4. And those early labels stick. And the ones that the child takes on board (from wherever it comes) are probably the most tenacious. And often the most destructive. I know I still carry some of them.

  5. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    I'll come out and say that I love the education system in the UK and the people who work in it. I know that it's not a fashionable opinion to have nowadays. I don't know whether I have been lucky but the majority of the staff I have worked with in the last ten years in education have been very, very professional. Saying that, though, I think there's scope for improvement. Occasionally I hear derogatory comments about pupils and their families by colleagues. This usually leads to a perception of what this child and/or family is without a thorough investigation. There are many reasons why children lag behind. If there were a single factor, I guess that we could all wave our magic wand and make that problem disappear but that won't happen.

    Education is one of those topics I will always write about because it's one of those topics I'm passionate about.

    Thanks a lot for your feedback. it's really appreciated. Have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

  6. Difíciles situaciones, veo complexo ese tema de elección de los niños lo que me asegura es que van aprender alemán contigo.
    Un abrazo.

  7. Jolly good post.
    I 'failed' my 11-plus exams back in 1946 and I remember very little about it. Neither can I recall the name of any teacher, other than one: Mr. Thatcher, headmaster of Elmwood Juniors in Croydon.

    Went to Lanfranc Secondary Modern school after 'failing'. Left at age 14 with no certificate of education. But I could read and write well enough.

    After leaving the RAF after my 3-year engagement I worked in the bookie business until the betting shops became legal. Went to Whitehall and sat the Executive Officer exams and passed easily. Later promoted to HEO.

    My point is that my education was basic but because reading was not a problem for me it meant I could learn anything I liked, when I liked.

    I've no idea if teaching today is better or worse than in my schooldays but it must be much harder for TEACHERS in many ways. Forever changing the rules and exams; restrictions in dealing with difficult pupils and so-called league tables. It's got to be quite a job!

    I wonder what it's like in CUBA. I know little or nothing about the education system there. I really enjoy listening to Cuban music, especially the Buena Vista Social Club band.

    I wish you much success in your life.


  8. What good points you make. It's sad that we don't honor a child's individuality, pace of learning or need for critical thinking. I like the example you give at the end. A happy baker is better than a depressed or non-social rocket scmentist.

  9. I have tried teaching twice. Once in a public high school system; once filling in for a year at a university for a journalism professor who was on sabbatical.

    In the public school setting at that time, the students actually were divided into classes segregating the academically best students, the average students and the weakest students by group. They did know which groups they were in because it was obvious.

    I have no idea of the long-term effects of this system, but it was among the reasons I switched careers. It simply bothered me. Teaching takes stamina as well as talent, and external pressures often are greater than those which exist within the classroom.

    Good luck, CiL ....

  10. It's no wonder an increasing number of parents are choosing to home-educate their children these days, is it?
    Sadly, my personal experience of the education system was not a positive one.
    Only two of my son's many teachers were approachable and genuinely tried to work with us to overcome his difficulties.
    Of the remainder...all I can say is that they were rude, unhelpful, critical and even downright obstructive. I am a firm believer that student teachers should have to learn 'people skills' before they are let loose on unsuspecting parents.
    I am sure there are many good teachers like yourself...if only we could have met a few more of them along the way!

  11. das ist total verrückt und erschreckend... hey...wenn du deutsch unterrichtest, dann kann ich meine kommentare ja künftig in deutsch schreiben? finde ich cool... smiles..

  12. Naturlich, du kannst auf Deutsch sprechen, Claudia. Schon lang hab' ich kein Deutsch gesprochen, nur lesen und ein bisschen schreiben.

    I really appreciate your personal anecdotes. it renders my post poignant and relevant to our times. The fact that back in te 40s people were still being considered as failures, in the same way as in the 70 or 80 or whenever you taught or were taught.

    My experience as a teacher in Cuba was very, very unsatisfactory. I went into the profession with drive and energy, especially at a moment when there was a teaching crisis in Cuba. It was the consequence of many graduates (not just from education) leaving their professions in order to work in hotels. I remember days in my school (an adult language school) taken up by ideological workshops (indoctrination by any other names). I left after a year and a half. I don't regret it.

    Many thanks for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  13. have not heard this song for many years. It is great.

  14. Young children should so not be internalizing others perceptions of them already! I wish we could just teach our kids to be themselves but unfortunately it seems so many humans seek others approval in all they do. Such a shame.

  15. So glad that you're providing alternatives for these children. Kids are smart. They know when society has low expectations for them.It's an ugly, vicious cycle that starts with stereotypes and negative media images. They internalized it all by the time they get to school. In the U.S., it's horrifying what they do to children and its getting worse.You have hit the nail on the head, they need encouragement instead of labels.

  16. I am reading your post now, glad to have found Frank Zappa. But I've interrupted myself many languages do you speak? German too!

    For me sometimes just Italian and English are too much!

    Best wishes.

  17. Thanks so much for this, and sounds like you are doing good work. Agh. It is terrible not just to label children, but here at lesat to teach for the test rather than either teaching (i) the content, or (ii) the children. It has gotten so out of whack. Those seeking performance are trying to do a good thing, but it doesn't wok out that way. Thanks so much. k.

  18. Amen to everything you said! I'd go as far as to say that getting an all-round education is not something you'll learn at school though - but through life.

    School is so often about memorizing to pass tests. Having said that, over here in Sweden, there is a lot of emphasis on EQ, how to be a good friend etc...

  19. It is sad that so many children become the label they are given. So many don't realize the impact that their words have on a child. One comment can have a lifetime impact on a child's self image.
    It would be great if there were more teachers like you, who cared about the child as a whole person. It sounds like a very fulfilling endeavor to teach children.

  20. I work in the US education system. Many of these kids take cues heavily from both parents and society/media. A friend of mine (a teacher also) had an elementary school child comment that he'd worn the same shirt twice in one week and asked whether he was poor - "poor" being pronounced in a rather sneering manner. Kids learn very early about class/social status symbols, and that being viewed as poor means "loser", "stupid", "undesirable", etc. That's just a small part of the overall problem, I know, but it's a thorny one as our culture becomes inundated with advertising, reality/celebrity shows, and the gap widens between the extremely wealthy and the barely-making-it.



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