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Classroom humiliation is the last thing a secondary student needs

The Secret Teacher: Parents need to alert us if their child is having a tough time

If the student is working under limiting conditions, doesn’t it make sense for a teacher to know and make allowances? Photograph: iStock

Primary and secondary are worlds apart. Having also worked at primary level (albeit relatively briefly) I have experienced first hand how very different interactions are between the stakeholders.

As a primary teacher you take on the family, the whole team. There is frontline access to the workings and moods of a family unit.

As a secondary teacher you meet the lone soldier, suddenly separated from the rest of the squad and sent off into battle carrying more than his own body weight in weaponry. These lone soldiers are only 12 or so and are also about to take on the highs and lows of adolescence – when they will need us, the adults, looking out for them more than I think we realise.

When something significant is happening at home that the school needs to be made aware of, relaying this information at primary school level usually happens quickly, easily and informally.

There is generally one classroom teacher, who may well be relatively easy for parents to access on the daily school run. Even if there is a need for a more formal meeting, it is only vital to get the information to this one individual, who spends several hours a day with your child.

At secondary level the number of teachers in your child’s day creeps close to double figures, and the nature of the school day and constant moving (whether by students or teachers) between class periods makes such contact time impossible.

Depending on the individual school’s staff structure and its local policy, there will usually be either a year head or a class tutor, perhaps both. These are responsible for a specific group of students. There might also be a home-school liaison person or chaplain. There will be a principal and almost certainly a deputy.

In many schools the school secretary plays a pivotal role in everything that happens on the premises, and she or he is often everyone’s first port of call. Local policies can differ vastly, and some of these many people will simply be more approachable than others. It can be extremely difficult for first-time parents of a secondary school child to know who to approach with crucial information about a child’s current personal circumstances.

Getting the message

The only thing I can say for certain, after years of experience, is that parents must not presume that “informing the school” automatically means that their child’s teachers receive the news.

On an alarmingly regular basis at parent-teacher meetings, parents make casual reference to something both significant and sensitive about their child that they genuinely believe I already know about. Unless parents or guardians specify very clearly who they want to be informed, the message may not get passed on to anyone else at all.

Your privacy, and that of your child, mattered long before GDPR came along, and school personnel may genuinely feel disinclined to share sensitive information with others in the school community.

Furthermore, many parents are reluctant to bring a delicate personal or emotional situation into school, believing that it is better for their child if it is “business as usual” at school while things are difficult at home.

None of this sits well with me. “Business as usual” and any kind of upheaval at home are simply an impossible pairing. Fundamental to most teachers’ understanding of their job, whether at primary or secondary level, is a responsibility to foster good learning habits and rhythms in their students.

Business as usual for a teacher means we work with the completely reasonable expectation that students will keep on top of their work – that is, listening attentively in class, concentrating fully on new material, taking down accurate notes, engaging in pair work and/or group work, acquiring new skills, learning off and remembering new information, reproducing it under test conditions and so on.

And all of this while maintaining interactions with up to a dozen teachers as well as their classmates and friendship groups. It makes for a busy day even when children are in the best of form, but would any of us manage all of this while anxious and distracted?

Make allowances

Furthermore, a central aspect of the teacher-student working relationship is a teacher’s responsibility to assess the student’s performance and commit to a grade. If the student is working under limiting conditions, doesn’t it make sense for a teacher to know and make allowances?

The classroom is a public arena where a poor performance is there for all to see when it comes to answering questions in front of the class. A teacher could spare a student when necessary, instead of unwittingly picking precisely the wrong individual at a highly vulnerable time and for an extremely challenging task, simply because he or she hadn’t been warned about the difficult circumstances. Shame and humiliation in the class is the very last thing that child needs, and the very last thing any teacher wants to inflict.

At secondary level there is a world of difference between telling any one individual and ensuring that all those who teach the child are informed. Whatever the crisis, good lines of communication between home and school are vital.

Without them, how are we to look out for lone soldiers?

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