When my own children started school I developed a new perspective on our work in schools. Up until that point I’d considered that local families were lucky that their children attended our school and that they should be appreciative of the quality of education we provided. It concerned me a little when some parents saw things otherwise and would challenge some of our most well-informed practice.
And then, as my own children started and then progressed through local schools I realised how blinkered and arrogant I, and the profession generally, was being. To each family the most important thing is the well-being of their child and they need to have confidence that their school will support this. The privilege should be not seen as theirs but ours as teachers that so many families choose to trust us with the care of their next generation. We need to appreciate their faith in us and we need to make sure we’re doing everything in our powers to contribute to that well-being.
And I select the term ‘well-being’ advisedly. For me it captures the combination of best interest, happiness, progress, learning, development and safety. Yet my preparation for teaching has mostly been about that: just teaching…. maybe a few insights into learning and glimpses of child development, but mostly teaching!
So as this arrogant young teacher I would occasionally get frustrated that parents evenings were so rarely discussions about how their child was benefiting from the wonderful teaching in our school, and parental concern would veer into the domain of wider well-being. That wasn’t in the script of my short, medium or long-term plans. The only language in which the system told me to transact with families was that of narrow academic attainment.
Yet this was, and is, but just a small part of the picture. And ironically it is the part for which parents trust us most. Yet we choose to belabour our conversations with them in these terms and so often berate their children and implore them to do more at home to contribute to our narrow script.
Don’t get me wrong. Academic attainment is important. But as a parent if I’m offered a simple binary choice of:
- a) a year with a teacher when my child will make great academic progress but will lose some of their natural exuberance, become more anxious and go to school less happy… or
- b) a year with a teacher where they’ll be cherished and inspired to develop in new and unusual areas, to explore new social skills and have a great fun time, but they might not achieve all of their age-related expectations…then I know what I’ll choose every time!
As a teacher though, I was slow to learn this. But what started as a dawning realisation eventually became a deafening roar as I worked years later with two particular families in my school.
One family had a passion for their highly autistic and challenging son to attend their local community school. I backed their cause fully and our school’s public commitment to inclusion was tested and stretched, sometimes to the limit, but we all had their Daniels’s well-being at heart. Yes, we wanted to teach him well to enable him to learn, but our discussions with his family were never in just these narrow academic terms. They saw his life through such a much bigger lens and gradually, year by year they, taught us to understand and then to speak, albeit clumsily, the languages of their experience and what was needed in Daniel’s world for him to prosper.
In just a few years Daniel re-cultured our school. Teachers started to see their work in a broader context and take a few steps back from the persistence of short term targets; fellow pupils very quickly and comfortably accepted Daniel’s unexpected mannerisms and qualities and so re-calibrated their experience of life; other families, albeit somewhat warily at first, leant to understand more about the diversity, inclusion and inter-dependence of community living; the Local Authority systems were challenged successfully to reconsider ‘stage not age’ and so conceded to delay transition to a new school until Daniel’s optimum moment. We all loved Daniel and cherished him for who he was. Yet for me it had taken a situation like this to realise that every single family wants the same from their school… yes a focus on academic progress, but seen within an underpinning well-being partnership approach.
The other far more tragic incident was a situation with the family of a stunning, vivacious nine-year-old who found that her occasional headaches were an aggressive brain tumour giving her just a few days to live. The conversations with her, her family and her schoolmates remained positive to the end. She would only allow us to see the world as a wonderful place and she taught us, albeit too briefly, to use her language of wonderment and beauty. In the intense emotion of such tragedy we were called to ask and answer deep, fundamental questions about ultimate values and purposes.
For our school both of these fantastic young people helped us to put our approach to narrow academic attainment into a better place.
So please cherish each young life that families entrust to your care. Celebrate each new day and use the languages of life’s experience to grow strong partnerships with children and their families. You’re not just paid to teach, you’re loco parentis and need to measure your effectiveness by the extent to which each child’s well-being improves because of you. Truly teaching is the best job in the world.
by Peter Chilvers, SDSA