Sunday, 15 May 2016

With great power...

Last summer, Emma Kell of @thosethatcan asked Twitter to say how being a parent had changed them as a teacher. As you can tell, it has taken me a long while to grapple with this. The more I thought I had a pithy and clever answer to tweet back, the more I challenged myself to properly communicate the multitude of thoughts swarming in my mind, the myriad of feelings swirling in my heart. I have kept coming back to the question as I have watched my son move through Year 1 and found myself shocked by the visceral reaction I have had to moments in his experience.  You see, I think that what has changed most is that I had completely forgotten the potential for the utter heartbreak of watching your child learning to be a learner at school.  After a few weeks of reading so much about what children might experience in their primary years, triggered by the new assessment regime of the SATS, I have come back to that question over and over again. How has this changed me as a teacher and a leader?

Power. I have been reminded of the power we have to make or break a child’s day, week or entire state of being. The unfortunate action, the badly phrased admonition, the labyrinthine behaviour code, forgetting a promise, dampening enthusiasm, not delivering on those said and unsaid agreements that make our relationships in the classroom work. Because of what? Time, resources, external pressures, stress, juggling too many things, our own sense of importance, control. Nothing that the child is responsible for. Nothing that the parent can easily explain. Often beyond the conscious practice of the well-intentioned but pressured teacher.

My son had been so excited about starting Year 1, but within a week he told me one night at bedtime that he was ‘no good at anything’ and ‘not a good boy’. The words shot through my heart. I cried all night. I was shocked by my response and how little control I had over it.  I met with a defensive teacher (new to the school and grappling with a very different environment), who told me that he wasn’t going to change the behaviour chart that all the children were calling ‘the naughty list’.  I wasn’t asking for it to change, I just wanted my son to understand why his being ‘ready to learn’ was suddenly defined as being ‘red’, ‘amber’ or ‘green’ on a bit of card and that excitedly talking to a friend about superheroes while sitting on the carpeted area didn’t make him a useless and naughty six year old. 

When we asked for new readers (farewell Biff and Chip), as he was speedily ploughing through the same stage he had been on in Reception and wanted to not ‘be bored’, we were told that it wasn’t book changeover day, that there weren’t enough books in the next stage to share out, that there needed to be more books ordered in. He couldn’t have more or move on a level because then they would run out of texts to give him.  I was so taken aback by this reasoning that I actually couldn’t contain my tears when I went to see the senior leader responsible for literacy, to ask her what was going on. This was reading. The holy grail of loving to learn.  My child wanted to read more books, and he was told he couldn’t have more from school, but don’t worry, Mummy will get some for you to have at home.  He felt guilty for asking, confused and frustrated. It was the third week of Year 1.  

I had spent years telling him that school was the most exciting place in the world and that learning was the most incredible journey he would ever go on. If he wanted to be a deep-sea/arctic scientist-explorer, ninja artist, rock star and dinosaur bone hunter then school would help him learn everything he needed to do that when he was all grown up. I felt like a massive fraud with the very unfortunate propensity of living out my child’s disappointment in highly dramatic fashion.  With the distance to reflect, I realised that what hurt so much was my own frustration and lack of power to give my son the experience of learning and school that I had spent my career trying to provide for other people’s children.

Had I done that successfully? How many times had I used my position as ‘teacher’ to dismiss the concerns of a child or their parents without properly listening? Had my defence mechanism kicked in at the end of a long day, a bad week or a demanding term and made me give shallow reasons for me or my school not doing its absolute best for someone’s child?  Did I do everything I could to give those I line-managed the opportunity to tell me what they needed to make learning come alive in their classrooms, to argue for the funds on their behalf?  Had I spoken up enough about the rigidity inherent in any ‘behaviour management system’ or could I have done more to make it simple and relevant to the children?  How many times had something gone to the bottom of my busy and ever-expanding list that was of burning urgency to a child or their parents?  How often had my power led to disappointment and chipped away at a love for learning or trust in me or my school?

Those are hard questions to answer, not because they require a huge amount of recall or soul-searching but because, of course, it is impossible to teach or lead in a school and be unimpeachable against any of those counts. 

So. How has being a parent changed me as a teacher? I know that I cannot afford for myself or those in whom I entrust my child’s education to forget what extraordinary power we have. I know that I have to ask myself those questions more frequently, more searchingly and more honestly. I know that I must expect that of myself and foster that heightened sense of responsibility in any learning environment where I have influence. Most of all, I know that we all need to remind ourselves that the only thing that matters when we teach is our ability to explode the boundaries of each child’s own universe through learning. That delicate, difficult, extraordinary task that puts all those mundane ones, all the formalities, stresses and strains into the dark, distant shade.  As a leader, I need to endeavour to make everyone feel that this is their core purpose, every day and protect them from all that noise and distraction that swirls around us in education.

There, then. Not an easy answer. Certainly not one I was ever going to fit neatly into a tweet…