The world can be harsh and cruel. We all become aware of this with time and experience. I have never seen any good reason for children to learn this at school, and yet many do.
Any romantic notion about school days being the best of our lives involves both retrospection and relativity, as for lots of people it’s only a case of those days ending up not as bad as the ones that followed.
We lavish gentleness and nurture on babies and the very youngest children, and indeed it is obvious by looking at them that this is what they need. Ryan, the already hard-living 17-year-old who is clearly scratching the point of his compass or some similar instrument into his desk, requires it every bit as much. Perhaps he has never been offered enough, or maybe he has struggled to absorb it, but it is obvious that he is crying out for more warmth and connection.
Student voice is a very powerful tool, and perhaps one in need of sharpening so that the Ryans in our schools feel that we are just as open to hearing their voices as anyone else’s
When we as teachers swap groups or re-mix classes, it’s not unusual to share information with each other about individual students. I am always careful to limit what I share to two things: what is relevant to teaching and learning, and what will benefit the student when they become my colleague’s charge.
Over the years I have been mystified by what logic my colleagues use when they share information with me about students who are moving from their care to mine. What I was told about Ryan is that his reputation precedes him and that he should be “seated right up the front under my nose from day one”. Since I only take seriously information that falls under my two criteria above, this “helpful” tip really didn’t register – but I most certainly heard it, and the tone in which it was delivered. I wondered how Ryan had felt during his years in this person’s class, and what tone they had used to address him.
I always start a new year by letting students sit where they want and with whoever they want, as this in itself allows me to learn a lot about them. This intelligence informs any seating plan I might need to make in future. The freedom to choose for themselves offers students an incentive to focus and work as they will naturally want to stay in their seat. When it is necessary to move people there is never any drama – it is understood to be the natural consequence students have brought on themselves by not being able to deliver what was required in terms of work ethic and performance.
I was never going to single Ryan out on day one so he’s in the back row but one, and has not added further damage to the table since I addressed the class on the topic. It went something like this: “Unfortunately there are other class groups that are not as respectful as you in this room. Please have a good look at your desk and if you ever come in and see more damage or graffiti on it than there is today, please do me a favour and tell me.” Since they are my collaborators in keeping the room and furniture in good shape, it is very rare for a student to vandalise. I’m sure my classes realise that I have them all on alert for each other’s misdemeanours, but the ploy works nonetheless.
We all gain so much in terms of respectful interaction, enjoying the fact that we work in a nice environment which is well looked after. We don’t miss the time we would otherwise be wasting on having to see the damage and live with it as well as the energy output involved in investigations, accusations and punishments. These are among the harsh things we don’t need at school and yet punitive measures remain a staple for many people working in our education system.
How we treat each other has an influence, and holding ourselves in check so that we have as much positive impact as possible would surely have a ripple effect in society
When they are of an age and inclination to follow the news young adults will learn all about the many abuses and cruelties we inflict on each other. There are daily news reports of crimes committed both recently and long ago. Court reporters share the horrors of trials and convictions (or not) in cases where family members and others known to an individual and inflicted physical and emotional harm that can never be fully erased. Vandalism and intentional harm towards man-made structures and the natural world are too easily visible, and animal campaigners and rescue centres are forever on their knees trying to repair the needless torture fellow humans have inflicted, often on defenceless creatures.
And now for the hard question. Where are the seeds of such behaviour sown and nurtured? It cannot be all home, all school or all the places in between which would exempt both home and school from blame. How we treat each other has an influence, and holding ourselves in check so that we have as much positive impact as possible would surely have a ripple effect in society. To demonstrate gentleness is to model a behaviour that others in their turn will hopefully emulate towards those in their circle. Those who are nourished on the milk of human kindness will have a ready supply of it to pass on.
Corporal punishment was banned here in Ireland in 1982, even if it took until 1996 to actually become a criminal offence to hit schoolchildren. This was not the only way students were mistreated, and with it being harder than ever to be a young person nowadays we would do well to explore how our students truly feel about school and how they are treated there. Student voice is a very powerful tool, and perhaps one in need of sharpening so that the Ryans in our schools feel that we are just as open to hearing their voices as anyone else’s.