Watch your words

Those who read my blog regularly (hi, Mum) will know that I am a bit obsessed with Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. I love the combination of music, inspirational anecdotes and honesty that characterise the show. Yesterday (while driving, again) I caught up with Inga Beale, the CEO of Lloyds of London and her enthusiasm, inspirational ideas and infectious passion for life and learning. She talked about her successes, her mistakes and her commitment to understanding others and promoting diversity. Yet the part of the programme which really stuck with me was that part relating to her experience of school and how the words of one particular teacher had an influence on her. In her first year of secondary school she took a French exam and came second in her class, with 96%. Her teacher spoke of this as being unfortunate and a disappointment and suggested that Inga should have come first, given that her father was a teacher and linguist. This had the consequence of making Inga feel inadequate and angry and putting her off formal education. Whilst this, in the end, did not prevent her from going on to achieve great things and very positive outcomes, the story made me reflect once again about the theme of teacher-pupil interactions and relationships. I have written here about the power of positive relationships in education but this story reminded me again about the need for the adults who work with children to consider their interactions and the impact of them. Of course, there will be those who will say that Inge should have been less sensitive and that teachers can’t be expected to watch their every word. Others may say that for another child, this criticism and harsh approach might have acted as exactly the catalyst needed to achieve first ranking in the next test. As someone who decided at the age of fourteen to try for Cambridge, I certainly had a competitive streak as a child; there is a place for competiveness in helping some people achieve their potential. But for others, the destruction of self-confidence caused by such an approach can be life-altering.

Last year I chaired a working party to create refreshed authority guidance on supporting Highly Able Pupils. As part of this, I asked the group members to reflect on how much and how they were pushed to achieve when they were younger and whether or not competition was an important factor. We discussed Matthew Syed’s ideas in his book ‘Bounce; the Myth of Talent’ and came to the conclusion that for every child who might be encouraged by the words of Inge’s French teacher there will be a another who is turned off or, worse, made to feel inadequate.

Those of us who were parents in the group also talked about the ways in which we have encouraged our own children and discussed whether NOT being a ‘pushy’ parent is doing your child a disservice.

I admitted that I sometimes wonder whether I should be harder on my daughter over piano practice; might she be on grade 5 by now if I had been harder on her or perhaps compared her to her friends who are further ahead? Will she resent me in years to come?

In all honesty, I think not. She is very conscientious and puts herself under her own pressure when it comes to school work; she always does homework without fuss. She continues with Highland Dancing years after many girls of her age have given it up. She has told me that she plays the piano as a hobby and never wants to play professionally, so why should she put herself under undue pressure?

Surely the key here, then, is about knowing our children (whether our own or those we teach) well enough to understand whether our words are likely to motivate or undermine them.

It is not an easy task and educational structures work against us; in Scotland we STILL have a system where we pay lip service to breadth of achievement but obsess with National 5s and Highers and are introducing standardised tests that threaten to compete with SATS and send us down a route of league tables and associated teacher, parent/carer and pupil stress.

Inga is another fantastic example of someone who has achieved in spite of rejecting (or actually being rejected by) formal education.

But how many children have been damaged by a misjudged comment by a teacher and gone on to a less successful future because of it?

There are some who will read this and say that they cannot be expected to cater for or pander to ‘over-sensitive’ children. I would argue that that this is exactly what they need to do; to work to understand sensitive children and meet their needs. To modify their words and behaviour so that they are inclusive and recognise diversity.

We are all human and make mistakes. But we can work round this and apologise if we get it wrong. Might things have been different for Inga if her teacher had been able to say “Sorry, what a daft thing for me to say! You should be hugely proud of 96%”?

One size fits all is easy and convenient. But ease and convenience are not what we should be about if we undertake the very important task of shaping the lives and futures of children and young people.

To quote the greatest of teachers:

“We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”

– Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)


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