Thursday, 22 April 2021

The Hidden Challenges of School Life

1. School aims and hidden realities


The aims of our schools typically stress that the development of good character in students is central to the purpose of the school. The quotes that follow are taken from school websites. All have as part of their key values the development of "good character and integrity in students". And how do they seek to develop these things? With good "…teaching, example, learning and practice". Schools like parents accept that "good character is not formed automatically; it is developed over time through a sustained process of teaching, example, modelling, learning and practice." Pretty much every school says they offer an educational experience that will develop good character. Most seem to assume that this occurs through intentional development, in order to enable students to take their place in society. But how?


As I argue in my book, this occurs within multiple communities of practice students inhabit. "Education is the whole of life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific end goal." This occurs as students interact in everyday life (primarily with other students and teachers). It includes their behaviour and interactions with one another in corridors, on buses, in classrooms, after sporting events, at social events. In fact, just about any situation connected to school life. Of course, much of this is outside the gaze of the teacher, as well as outside their control. It is possible for some students to experience many years of education and be continually, lonely, isolated, misunderstood, and ridiculed; all without teachers having any idea. What’s more, the students’ parents might have no idea either.


In recent decades, our schools have tended to suggest that our youth face opportunities and dangers "unknown to earlier generations". The argument seems to be backed up with comments to the effect that children are "... bombarded with more negative influences through the media and other external sources prevalent in today’s culture than ever before." I want to suggest that such statements, while fine sounding, can at times mask underlying ugliness experienced in previous generations. Many parents and teachers who lived in earlier times had experiences of hidden misogyny, bullying, ridicule, mocking, sexual harassment and so on. As well, like today's youth and children, they experienced it at school, in the home and in the community. Students then and now, have diverse experiences at home, in the community and at school.


As a student at high school I received my share of criticism, hurtful jibes, and physical attacks due to my weight, clothing, parents, family poverty, hair, and more. All occurred in the cut and thrust of daily school life, including school corridors, on buses, in the gym change rooms, on the sporting fields, just about anywhere. Usually, such challenges were outside the gaze of any teacher. And the point I'm slowly getting to? What students value and how they see themselves, is shaped in the messiness of life, whether inside, or outside the school. It has ever been so.


As I've written many times on this blog "Education is the whole of life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific end goal." The behaviour of our students in corridors, on buses, after sporting events, at social events, in fact just about anywhere connected to school life, is often invisible to teachers. As a result, it’s quite possible that for some students the school experience is marked by loneliness, isolation, ridicule and misunderstanding. Of course, life can be the reverse for some children who experience all of the above at home. For such students, school can be a wonderful escape and sanctuary from the pain of life in homes and communities where they might have experienced abuse, oppression and mistreatment.

In every school, on every day, there will be children covering up the challenges and horrors of home life. For these students, school is a sanctuary. But for others, school is a lonely place where they have trouble fitting in and where ridicule and bullying are a constant reality.


What is the role of the teacher in combating the hidden 'ugliness' of life for some?


In ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’ I offer a number of examples of teachers who managed to more than just 'teach'. They in fact, were people who would oversee multiple communities, that collectively make up schools. Some of these 'communities of practice' are visible to the engaged teacher, others are not. But the good teacher is always observing his or her students to monitor the life of the classroom and school. I write about one such teacher in my book who was the ultimate ‘kidwatcher’.


As a teacher of 32 five year olds, Inta was constantly monitoring student well-being, happiness, focus, and participation in the life of the classroom and school. I asked myself as I taught with her, what was foundational to making her such a great teacher. It became obvious to me that it was her purposes and goals for teaching, and her sense of what mattered most for these children. She had a remarkable focus and intent, and higher-level goals that gave direction to her work.



I met another teacher of this kind in a small regional school withing a small country town in Australia. In a school known for its poor academic standards, Ruby's students skewed the scores of the grade level that she taught. When we went to observe her we discovered something interesting. This teacher knew every child not just as learners but as people. It wasn't just their behaviour that informed her, she sought to get to know them by asking after them, watching them, taking opportunities to speak to their family members etc. She was an exciting teacher who sought to engage her classes in every activity. In a school with below average scores on national tests, her students were well above average. As we observed her we went away saying, this teacher is pretty much the most interesting person in each child's life. 

There were at least three key things that marked the actions of these two fine teachers:

1. Both observed students closely and monitored progress in learning. But as they did this, they also tracked personal development and growth. This was not simply to correct and discipline inappropriate behavior, but rather to help each student to grow.

2. They also used a variety of teaching and learning strategies, not primarily as a counter to boredom and to reduce discipline problems through fun activities, but to engage all learners in varied ways that best suited their learning styles.

3. As well, they spoke to and rebuked the students when necessary to direct them toward higher purposes for learning. In doing so, they were also encouraging patience, self-control, love, kindness, and an interest in how God was at work in their lives as well as their fellow students. This constant monitoring of behaviour, supported the twin goals of learning and also the growth spiritually and emotionally of all students. Both teachers were involved in the lives of their children.


I'm sure that there will be some teachers who read this post and will say, "Trevor, I'm not a social worker, I go to school to teach students mathematics. Parents send their kids here to be educated and do well, then get places in great universities. I just don't have time." If you do think like this, I’m very sorry, for you miss the point that education must do more than just grow children intellectually, they should also help them to grow in character. Christian schools should be wonderful places, where we see students grow in knowledge and personal maturity, and where many go on to do great things. Our schools are always a reflection of the world at large, so we will also observe tragedies like suicide, sexual assault, abuse and failure of varied kinds. Nevertheless, our schools must build special communities of learners that support and grow children in every dimension of life. 


The reality in our world is that there is can be an ugly and hidden side to community life in all schools, just as there can be in families, communities and work places. The role of the Christian teacher is to be present in the school not just as a subject specialist, nor the best teacher of Kindergarten, Grade 6 or whatever. Rather, they are to manage and shape communities of practice where the students and the staff grow together in Christian maturity and faith. Only with such commitment will we observe schools where there is less 'hidden ugliness' and more evidence of God working by his Spirit to transform lives for the good.


As James K. A. Smith argues, education is an “holistic endeavor” with a focus on formation of the child. And of course, the elements of our wholeness extend well beyond our skills and capabilities to bodily health, the mind, desires, and imagination. Teachers and their students all vary in characteristics, abilities, strengths and weaknesses, but the sum of all we are, is seen in our unique identities (see Cairney, ‘Pedagogy & Education for Life’, p. 48). 


The most important characteristic of the great teacher is their ability to see beyond the appearance, gestures and at times contrived language and behavior of our students. They do this in order to tap away and open up students to be honest with you as their teacher, so you can support them and help them to grow in character as they live their daily lives.