Square pegs and round holes

Square pegs and round holes

I once watched a toddler playing with one of those wooden shape-sorter toys where different 3D blocks can only be inserted through their particular slot. This was an advanced version and some of the slots were deliberately deceptive and what seemed logical wasn’t always correct and success often came through selecting a counter-intuitive option.

This particular toddler had an impressive level of determination and commitment to the task they had set themselves. One by one the blocks popped through and the sense of achievement and the pace of endeavour grew and grew. Until just one block was left. He tried slot after slot, presenting the block in different ways but all to no avail. The sense of frustration from this incomplete task became just too much and eventually he resorted to his toy toolkit and proceeded to hammer the offending block into the best fitting hole where there seemed just a glimmer of hope and possibility.

I once watched a teacher spend almost a whole year doing exactly the same. She was experienced in the management of classrooms and learning and had a highly organised system of slots to cater for the range of issues that almost any student could ever present. Each issue would be analysed and interrogated until she found the right angle of approach and the correct slot to fit things into her life view. And then there was Richard!

Richard was one of those most wonderful young people who simultaneously brings joy and despair. He marched to a different band to the one that accompanies most organised systems. The tunes he listened to didn’t have any lyrics about deadlines, or about arbitrary compliance with authority, or about trying to impress or please others in the completion of requested actions. His song was one of beauty and innocent nonconformity. It was the tune of friendship and unconditional positive regard for the world and the people in it. His parents also took a lifetime perspective on Richard’s well-being and were largely unconvinced of the contribution that formal education could make to it. Deep down everybody loved Richard and occasionally found themselves wondering if it was really we that should be learning from him. But Richard just wouldn’t do what he was told!

And Richard’s teacher tried! She almost made herself ill in trying. The shouting got louder, the punishments more severe. And Richard smiled nonchalantly throughout, more concerned for her discomfort than his. She tried every slot in her repertoire, she tried facing him in different positions to match the approach, but nothing worked. And just like the toddler she became increasingly frustrated that she couldn’t slot him, to the extent that she reached into her metaphoric toolkit and, having found the best fit slot, she hammered him. She hammered him for the best part of a year.

Richard survived, not unscathed, and somewhat perplexed about this madwoman who couldn’t accept him for who he was. The teacher nearly reached meltdown as there’s only so much hammering that somebody who is committed to public service can administer without questioning and redefining who they are. She was unable to create a new slot for Richard. She had her fixed approaches and wouldn’t believe that she might need to shape a new one.

Every teacher has their Richard moments. Thankfully, it is usually just a short episode as a piece of learning needs reshaping and representing, but just occasionally it is a pupil who challenges our fundamental beliefs. And in most of these cases it is generally the case that most effective teachers themselves become the learners and Richard teaches us some of those deeper truths about the exciting challenge of working with young lives. Teachers who don’t stop learning themselves are truly privileged to hold the best job in the world.

by Peter Chilvers, SDSA

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