Once I met a teacher on a training day. We were sitting by the window watching the children at playtime. I didn’t know her very well but we’d been politely chatting about the common issues we’d experienced throughout the various stages of our careers. Suddenly, she let out a huge mournful heartfelt sigh:
“We’ve tried everything,” she wailed pitifully. “We’ve set them, given them booster groups, extra homework, more specialist training and they’re just not getting there.” She was assuming I knew who she meant when she said “they”. “We’ve had their parents in, the advisors in and a joint project with the local grammar school showing how maths can be really cool.” Now I was beginning to catch on.
“Oh, you mean the tiny percentage of children from predominantly working class backgrounds you can go blue in the face with?”
“Yes,” I concurred. “That percentage.” I stifled a giggle. I could see her beginning to spit blood.
“Do you know what?” She took a deep breath. “We arranged a whole programme of extra weekend work with one boy’s parents; focusing on division remainders and decimals. They both agreed they would go over it with him and make sure he understood it before the test I was giving them the following Monday.” I nodded.
“And?” I had a good idea what she would say next.
“Well, he came back with nothing but a note from his mother apologising because her brother was over and he wanted to treat them to a weekend at the seaside,” I smirked. She put her head in her hands. “Don’t they know?” she snorted between clenched teeth. “Don’t they know how important this is for this wretched boy’s life?”
She continued to rattle on about how he and a few others had simply thrown all her hard back in her face and were strangely uninterested in “improving their chances.”
“Different standards, different outlooks,” I offered in return. She reddened.
“You can’t say that. It’s no excuse.” The conversation ended. Obviously, I was not providing the right sort of response to ease her sense of failure.
I’ve had lots of children like this. Under the relentless drive of determined heads, I have slaved away dutifully bringing up my percentages to national standards and beyond. As an experienced teacher, I’ve seen potential and gone for it. Children were encouraged, even pushed if necessary, but always with an air of encouragement and relevance. Every plenary, if we had time for it, was spent pointing out how their work was connected to real life issues.
I think the real trouble lies in upbringing. When I say trouble, it is trouble for the teacher hell-bent on getting those sub-levels up. They would shriek in despair at those little red oblongs on their clever little spreadsheets, shared and tutted at in countless staff meetings.
Take that teacher for instance. She was probably quite successful at her own school. The odds are that her parents would have been encouraging and supportive. They probably gave appropriate praise and reward when certain goals were reached. Her friendship group might have been similar. They might have even joked about those who did not appear to match their own drive for academic success. It was probably the same at college or university. They might have entered their chosen profession in the hope that their own patience and encouragement would help set a good example to “that percentage”.
It can be quite disheartening when children and sometimes parents appear less positive or determined than the teacher. But the teacher must remember that sometimes children don’t have the same outlook or ambition that was a feature of their own childhood.
If today’s driven education, based and judged on figures in a box is the absolute future; and the whole system of recruitment and reward in employment is tied directly in with these figures, I dare say that in a few generations time, everybody would see it as their duty to conform. They would reach their potential. The would be seen to achieve it every day; in every lesson by dint of having their whole education experienced measured through SMART targets assigned to every conceivable task.
Of course, the trouble with my argument is that there is no resolution. Just acceptance. I accept the differences. In fact, I celebrate them. I can observe the practices of others and their children without being judgemental. I don’t have a middle-class nose so I can’t look down it. I have my opinions but they are my opinions. I have had the pleasure of teaching whole families. At least one of these families have belonged to “that percentage”. And the attitude of their parents?
“Oh they’ll be all right. They know when to work.” Who am I to argue? It’s the beauty of teaching. I miss it!