I’ve returned today from a parents evening and all was going fairly swimmingly. Good bit of feedback here. Sharing of praise there. I was becoming aware – not that this is a surprise – that the parents only really seemed to give a genuine emotional response when I was describing their children’s character – she is hardworking and the other kids love her, he has really started to care about his actions, he has the world’s cheekiest smile, and so on. They cared what set their child was in, yes, but all feedback only seemed to hit at an emotive level when we moved away from talk of how their children are surpassing or failing to meet attainment targets (following the Parent Meeting Proforma...).
Funny I thought, given how parental pressure is used to justify the bureaucratisation and neoliberalisation of education. Perhaps when parents’ ‘high standards’ are discussed, it ought not necessarily mean they want ‘a school with high results’ but a school in which teachers nurture and care for their children as children.
It was the last meeting of the night, with a child I’ve not really gotten to know that much. We had jovial chats about how his sentence structure has improved, and his recall of his x6 table is much more snappy. Having thusly summarised the merit of her child as an educational product, I asked the boy’s sister if there was anything the family wanted to ask.
“Just that on Monday...”
The boy freezes up and looks at his sister.
“On Monday he was very upset and asked for your help, but I don’t know if you were busy or something?...”
I couldn't remember him even coming up to me, but I knew what she was saying was true because of the boy’s face.
“He tried to talk to you but you just told him to sit down.”
It turns out that over the weekend, this boy’s family had been victim to an awful criminal trauma in which he and his siblings had been threatened with weapons by some lowlifes. He was and is still traumatised. He came to tell me at some point and I can imagine what I said.
“We are not supposed to leave our seats.”
“This is our reading time.”
“We are about to start Maths, please sit down.”
“Oh dear. 1, 2, 3.”
I feel dirty about this whole thing because the teacher i wanted to be – the teacher I thought I was still just about managing to be – would never ever have silenced a child who needed to share something. I feel sick when I think about him having plucked up the courage to come and share this with me, only for me to shooting him down with such an immediate level of dismissal, I don’t even recall doing it.
I feel awful, and I take some credit for this failing because I am sure that some teachers manage – no matter what – to put the children before everything else.
But the blame for this must rest with the way schools are run – including mine – in the current performative climate. Every single minute of the school day is accounted for – every action has the spontaneity removed. Every movement has a system. They line up in silence in the morning. They move silently through the school. They enter the classroom and begin silent reading. Then lessons start and they are encouraged to talk a lot, but only about converting mixed to improper fractions, or the correct use of a semicolon, or whether metal can melt. Then they line up sensibly, walk out silently, and go home.
Individuals might not have the dictatorial mindset, but if their school wants it, and they are accountable to the school, they do it or they pack their bags.
There is NO point in the day in which children can freely come up and talk to me. They aren’t allowed in the building at lunchtimes. In fact, I invite kids to come up and eat with me and that is one of the only times for discussion but that can only ever be a few kids, and it requires both the kids and the teachers to surrender their only real break of the day.
I resent myself for not listening to the boy in my class who desperately needed to talk, but whilst appreciating schools are guided by moves in education policy, I resent my school more for becoming this mechanical institution in which children easily become merely ‘things that need to write neatly’ in order that teachers look like good teachers.
When the child wanting your help becomes seen as ‘a child interrupting the lesson’, which is the attitude the current climate promotes in which a successful lesson is one in which every child has a lot of work in their book, then the moral heart of teaching has been made to disappear.