The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Recently the british press has been full of headteachers' complaints about poor standards of parenting.
Horror stories abound of children who are sent to school with no idea of what the word 'no' means, no idea of how to read, even of how to feed themselves.
The national mania for the 'makeover' show demands the government apply a quick fix: parenting classes! Mandatory! Punish the chavs! Middle class values rool.

The single voice of reason I've encountered belonged to Michael MacMahon, author of an essay in the Sunday Times (I can find no direct link on the site).
He describes a class of first years, patiently waiting for instruction at the start of a lesson. MacMahon sets out the task clearly and in stages. Explains what to do if things go wrong. Children sit waiting.

He asks if there are questions, and fifteen hands go up immediately.
Each child wants to know what it is that Sir wants them to do today.

These children are not being naughty, wicked, wilful, or disruptive. They simply have no perception of themselves as part of a group. They wait patiently for the moment when the teacher will come over and explain to them personally what it is they have to do.
This sense of individualism resonates strongly with the students in my classrooms.
The rights of the individual are well known in our society.
The duty of the individual to act as part of a group is unexpected.

It has to be carefully, clearly spelled out, again and again and again. It's such a new concept to these kids that it tends to takes fourteen weeks of constant repetition to help them see that they are part of a larger unit.

This, then, is what I wish parenting classes - should there ever be such a thing - could tackle.
Case in point. The students' graduation evening last night was gloriously well behaved, formal, organised.

We expect them to wear full formal evening dress, with corsages, and hold long rehearsals to ensure they understand exactly how to treat their peers with sufficient respect to impress upon everyone present: this is no one person's moment to any greater degree than any other.
  • In rehearsal, we explain that if a student receives a whoop or a cheer as they receive their presentation folder, it makes it harder for the next student to listen to the lack of cheers.

  • If we applaud every person, rather than waiting till a full class has 'graduated', at some point our hands will get sore and tired, and those waiting to receive their words from the visiting dignitary will find it harder to endure if the applause is failing.

  • If we laugh and cheer at a peer who's passing our seat, we think we're boosting their confidence, but actually we're increasing the pressure on a heart that is already pounding.

We spell it out very very clearly to these sixteen year olds.

It is the last day of their formal compulsory schooling - attendance at any day henceforth is voluntary. We enunciate the words with great clarity - they deserve the dignity of a formal finish.
But we forgot to educate the parents.
It was interesting, to witness real schadenfreude on the students' faces as they trooped up to receive their presentation documents (make eye contact, big smile, stick hand out to be shaken, kids!), dressed in evening gown or DJ, shoes polished, faces scrubbed, manners turned up to 11.

Because their families had no idea how to behave.

  • No idea that screaming, leaping and whooping when Junior walks onstage might make it harder for Jordan to follow.

  • No idea that laughing uproariously when Haddon trips over his shoelace might terrify the wits out of Hayley waiting her turn in the wings.

  • No idea that when their blasted toddler begins to scream with boredom, they have the option of taking it outside so that others don't have to suffer the aural indignities of a baby being sworn at, being cuffed loudly.

Ali turned toward me, waiting for his name on the PA system, whispered, "why are they applauding? Don't they know how rude that is? I thought Sir said they'd all wait till the class is finished."
Suddenly the difference between the students onstage and the working class estate families that had raised them became clear.

As requested, a guest speaker lays it on thick to parents - we expect YOU to get YOUR child out of bed tomorrow morning, we expect YOU to remove televisions from bedrooms right now, we expect YOU to tell YOUR child they are not going out at night until June's exams are over.
YOU are the person who needs to take responsibility now. YOU cannot abdicate that responsibility then later admonish YOUR child.
With those words, the difference between our sixteen year old students and the homes they come from became startling.
We haven't simply taught these children lessons. W
e've educated them. Because we've allowed them to see they have choices over how to behave.

I shan't forget the looks in their eyes as these children watched their families fail to understand how to play fair, how to support each other, how to lose one scrap of self-importance in order to gain a wealth of shared dignity.

The light of their realisation of the difference between where they come from and where they can go to was truly illuminating.