I’m sitting here on my holiday, an early one at that, thanks to the private school perks that allow me to see students off on the 3rd of December, and I come across a viral video. It depicts a boy and his father preaching the ‘unjust’ school system in which this Year 9 boy’s learning resides. I laugh a little at the Facebook thread of comments then, like usual, I scrutinise and observe where the overpowering ‘expert’ opinions are coming from. The vast majority, outside one commentator on the wrong thread (promptly reminded about this in not-so-respectful terms) and the family’s (we, the crowd of keyboard warriors assume, then concur, there’s an alias going into battle for the kid at the centre) friends or themselves bang on about how the boy is to blame and his parents should swiftly give him a clip around the ears and a hasty haircut. But after I stopped laughing out loud and shaking my head at the people who actually rule over something like this in the first place, I grit my teeth in frustration. Without telling you all up front, and by simply giving an overview from “an outsider’s perspective”, I neglect to disclose I actually know all involved, including the kid. In fact I use to teach at this controversy-wrapped institute and had the young boy in Year Five some five years ago.
To complete the outline of this blog, let’s just start with the acknowledgement of this story being on cream of the crop journalism show (cough, cough), A Current Affair. Why on earth would anyone run with a story like this? For those whom are a little confused at this point, the child in question was allegedly given an eviction notice from the school if he didn’t cleanup his act, after years of menacing behaviour which included suspensions, general annoyance and an incessant disturbance to the learning of others. He was given his alleged seventh suspension for refusing to move seats in a classroom, at the teacher's request. Clearly this was the straw that broke the camel's back and brought about a bit of a storm. Hence, its showcasing on National television. The parents, both lovely people, just like every other parents around Australia, want the best for their kid and sent him to a middle range fee paying private school. With the extra cash splurged on the son’s education, they expected his learning and social needs to be catered for (and probably his attitudinal issues too). A bit of an ask but not an unwarranted or unachievable one. Five years down the track, the child has seen little progression in any sense and will now be joining his friends (many whom have already left the school in the news story) at the nearby public school, something which would probably have been on the cards anyway. A choice of the family but to an extent, forced.
But why the news story? Surely something so petty, it would never achieve much really and would only create a bad taste in the mouths of many involved. It has seen a lot of backlash on the family, particularly the parents. But it does rear the head of an ugly systemic problem in mainstream schools around the country. We do not have a structure in place readily available to those who do not fit the mould. The skill and drill, listen and don't interrupt style of regurgitation rote learning. Not only is it decreasing learning nourishment for the lower end of student cohorts, it also actually impedes development of the stronger students and teachers too.
Now, from a personal perspective, this kid was certainly no angel, nor should he be given any more chances for the last few years worth of trouble, but neither should I have. I don't have to think to deeply about some of the rubbish I made my teachers put up with and more or less got off scott free. And there’d be plenty of parents out there whom would feel the same way. ‘Gee, if this kid is getting threats of expulsion, maybe we’re lucky our child didn’t’, they may reflect. But here’s the thing, I’m now a lot wiser and more compassionate. I was a disobedient menace too once upon a time and, unlike this student, I was eventually offered boundaries, consistency and most importantly guidance by my teachers (admittedly only one or two spring to mind). This child is just that, a kid. And every one of those kids, at that school or another has the right to a quality teacher; one who gives enough of a damn to look out from the conformist crowd of pompous control freaks and say, ‘hey, is everything ok? What’s going on with him? This attitude thing isn’t going to get any of us anywhere and the potential he could have cannot be on show if we all continue this way’.
The reality is you can’t put a square peg in a round hole so why are teachers still trying so bloody hard to do so? I cannot think of anything worse for my own daughter if she happens to struggle, that a teacher couldn't bring out the best in her. The reality is, my daughter may not grow to be the brightest, bravest or sportiest but she will certainly be the best her! All I want, like us all, is for our children to be given an opportunity to shine, in their own unique way.
Adults, universally, preach being yourself and to stand out in a crowd but we still try strangle our youth into being ‘just like her/him’. I will say it forever and a day but because it’s just so important: preventative measures are always the remedy to reactive insolence. And it starts from the top. We need more accountability within the classroom. For far too long have we let the kids (and their parents) take the blame for poor classroom practice. Yes, the apple generally falls pretty close to the tree and teachers are continually bombarded with stressful workloads, workloads which could be made lighter with better support, mentoring and a more collaborative approach to instilling safe and learner friendly environments. I know I would not have been half the pain if I had these classroom settings, lead by strong, caring and resilient teachers. Same goes for this boy in question. Time to stop the bleeding.
Let's look at the world's most successful education system for inspiration. The leading educational system statistically (by a country mile) Singapore, is changing their approach to the way they see education for the modern day student. They are so far ahead in academic testing but still take solace in the Scandinavian countries’ approach to the whole child learning journey of collaboration, critical thinking and the modelling of soft skills required to apply in real-world contexts. "Learning is not a competition,” states Ong Ye Kung, Singapore’s Education Minister. The Ministry of Education (MOE) is planning a series of changes aimed at discouraging comparisons between student performance and encourage individuals to concentrate on their own learning development. One interesting element in all this change is that in the work force, no real company or business would expect each employee to just sit and, like a puppet in silence, take orders without an ounce of initiative or innovative critical analysis. In this new Singaporean system, classroom behaviour and practice is being brought in line with local workplace needs as the island state prepares pupils to work in its growing service sector. ‘Why would they change if clearly, the system is so far ahead it doesn’t even need fixing?’ You may be asking. The answer is quite simple and I’ll put it in the words of the educational guru John Hattie: “if you are not moving forward in education, then you’re going backwards. There’s no such thing as stationary in education, you’re either ahead of the game or behind it..." and if Singapore is to remain ahead of it, then by gosh they need to break the shackles of backward, rote learning and become more progressive than ever before. Change is challenge and challenge brings about gains.
Holistically, this child is to blame, I mean sure, he is a quirky kid. I know this, I mentored him myself. When under my tutelage, he made weird noises, took pride in being the class clown and, more often than others, messed up. But we worked together on his strengths and accepted that his differences and deficiencies were opportunities to grow. In fact, the Junior School there still has a frog faction house chant created when he was the frog mascot all those years ago. I'm sure he took great pride in knowing he had a role to play. He felt he belonged. This student struggles in school, we’ve heard it before. My question here though is, do we actually accommodate for these many types and styles or do we expect all to accommodate for the teacher’s one style?
I hope this student, and any other who finds themselves lost in the outdated system we find ourselves in, become an inspiration for their peers and continue to shine in their own skin. I cannot go into bat for a brattish child and his actions; as he should meet the consequences for whatever actions he chooses to instigate but I can empathise. I was once that student and I was once that child, I have no doubt of that. It’s hard to fathom from up here on our pedestals, i know. Kids need to respect their elders and they need to learn a lesson because they should know better. 'Grow up' we grizzle. The very essence of this whole story is that we assume the children will automatically act like adults in these situations when all they see is adults reacting like children.
Timothy is a children's book author of Billy The Brilliant and I'm The Best and proud educator of all types of student. May his teaching continue to inspire all to be the best version of themselves!
For the A Current Affair story, copy this link. https://www.facebook.com/129086560531063/posts/1843165602456475/