After reading this post about progressive teachers, I reflected on the difference in our experience of teachers and school.
Firstly, any teacher who puts a child down because of appearance, clothes, etc. is unacceptable. In fact, scratch that – any adult working with children. While volunteering as an Independent Custody Visitor, I saw an 11-year-old being held in custody. While checking his record, one of the police officers commented on the child’s mismatched socks. Not only was it inappropriate but it also had nothing to do with whatever wrong the child had done (and yes they did have the right to detain him based on what happened). We recorded our concerns and ensured it was discussed with a more senior officer at one of our regular meetings.
However, the idea that this now means that ALL police officers are unprofessional does not stand to reason. Equally, imparting knowledge and being firm on discipline does not require one to make cruel comments about appearance to either the child or to other members of staff.
My experience of traditional teachers was entirely different. They managed the behaviour of the entire class so we could get on with learning. They treated us the same and I recall being helped but others too based on need. They ensured that regardless of our backgrounds, we didn’t think that there was any reason we could not achieve, except for the fact that we all have our strengths and weaknesses. More to the point, they taught us about fairness, respect, courage and our duty to ourselves and each other.
The fact that we could hold our own in Secondary school, 6th form and later on at university is also a testament to their dedication to making sure that education as a means of improving one’s circumstances became a reality. Lack of cultural capital was not an issue or confidence in our academic abilities.
The only progressive teacher I did have in secondary school was a shambles, using manipulation (and flirting with the boys) to manage the class, and worst of all indulging her favourites instead of sharing her time among us. That does not mean I think all progressive teachers behave in an unprofessional manner just because of the methods they use. Flipping a classroom does not require one to play favourites, it’s a method, not a personality trait.
Secondly, I was left with the following questions:
What about the rest of the class?
Who didn’t get attention because those teachers were so fixated on the child with the behaviour problems?
What responsibility was learnt to one’s education or that of others?
I remember school, not as somewhere that my problems at home overwhelmed me but as a haven, where stable adults gave us clear boundaries and expectations of our behaviour as well as our work. I also remember it as a collective experience. Classes were a tightly knit group of individuals with the teacher as the figurehead of the class. But it was us, our attitude, our behaviour, our learning and our achievements that made the class special.
However, all the credit can’t go to my teachers. I appreciate that I was lucky to have a sibling who, despite only being a year older than me, tried his best to parent me when it was clear that our parents couldn’t cope.
One occasion stands out in my mind. The atmosphere at home had become particularly toxic and unbearable. Feelings of resentment and envy were starting to fill me. It seemed to me that it was entirely unfair that while they had parents who looked after and loved them, that I should have been dealt a worse hand. My brother told me the following:
My brother told me the following:
- They were only children, just like we were.
- It wasn’t their fault we had problems at home; they weren’t causing them.
- We should be happy for them because we know it’s horrible to be in our situation. We didn’t deserve it but neither did anyone else.
He was about 8 or 9 at the time. His empathy, understanding of our predicament and ability to convey the truth (even though it wasn’t what I wanted to hear) was immense. Did I like what he said at the time? Hell no. Did I seethe and want him to be wrong? Completely. Did I reflect on it and change my attitude? Yes because I knew deep down he was right about it. The truth is powerful but not always appreciated immediately.
He never indulged any poor behaviour from me or overlooked negative traits that would cause both me and others harm.
He taught me to take responsibility for my actions even when going through an awful experience because we are always responsible for our behaviour. I learnt that the only way to break out of the misery was to improve my life, not replicate negative behaviour or inflict it on others. He was always adamant that we needed to change our behaviour if we were acting badly not make excuses for it.
I have often questioned whether adults making excuses for the poor behaviour of children do so because they still can’t take responsibility for their behaviour. It doesn’t require a difficult childhood to end up in this situation, it’s a hard thing to do and has to be learnt like any skill.
There are reasons, completely understandable ones, that lead to negative attitudes and behaviour. The difference between those who accept responsibility and those who don’t is that the former know that having a reason doesn’t justify poor behaviour. The former believe that we should find a way to be and react positively whereas the latter deem it a nigh impossible ask. The former believe that we have a choice and, therefore, reasons can and should not become excuses to be repeatedly used, whereas the latter don’t believe that we have the control or agency to be able to act differently or change.
Would I be better off writing this post recalling all the negative behaviour I displayed as a child at school and blaming teachers or my brother for not putting up with it? I don’t think I would. I may not have liked taking responsibility or changing my attitude at times but it does mean I have a balance of memories from my childhood.