Sunday, May 22, 2011

Performance anxiety in the classroom

I enjoyed reading this feature article in today's Sunday Star Times.  The writer, Nicole Reed, concludes with the line:

'Yet when I spend time in my son's class and I see those beautiful innocents, some bumbling along, some racing ahead, all learning in their own way, I wonder if any job (teaching) could be more important'.

Te read the full article, click here.  Alternatively, I have pasted it in full below.

Why there's more to life than being successful at school.
HOW IT hurts to eat your words. 

I just want my kids to be happy, that's what I've always said. You know, well-adjusted, kind to small animals ... But at the first sign my son might be a reluctant student, at kindergarten when the children were encouraged to sign themselves in and he refused to pick up a pen, I panicked. Blindly. I catastrophised. I imagined a future on the dole. Without gainful employment, who would want to marry him? Dear God, would he be 50 and still living at home? 

At an interview with the principal before he started school, I voiced my fears. Dyslexia? Determined not to be one of those parents who decide, against all evidence, that their child is gifted, I threw it out there. Delusions of filial grandeur? Not me! The principal smiled kindly. "You know," she said, "often with new entrants, it's more the parents we have to worry about." 

Recently a friend's six-month-old was showing an interest in the S-bend pipe under the kitchen sink, and his mother dropped into the conversation that she'd read somewhere that this could be an early indication of brilliance. Obviously Mensa was on the cards. 

"He's probably going to be a plumber," muttered my husband. 

We live in a society that sets increasing store by academic achievement – often at the expense of everything else. I was lucky enough to do well at school. I went on to university and then post-graduate study. I've got a good memory, I can follow instructions and I know how to get what I think down on paper fast. But that A for Bursary art history hasn't made me a better person. 

I know plenty of people who bombed at school, but whose emotional intelligence way surpasses more scholarly types; people with the street smarts to get by in any situation life throws at them. 

I shared my concerns with one mum about my son's aptitude – or lack of it – for school, and she told me how when her son's teacher continued to bring up his perceived weaknesses, she had to fight the urge to retort: "Well he's really good at sports, he could teach you a thing or two about how to dress, and you know what, maybe he's just thick. Somebody's got to be." 

How fresh. How real. The relief. And yet ... and yet, still I find myself surreptitiously scrutinising the reading charts on the class wall when I'm doing parent help in my son's class, ever so casually grilling him as to how the other kids are going with skip counting in 10s. He couldn't care less. He's got friends. Someone to eat his lunch with. Someone to chase a ball with. He's happy. It's me fretting. Not because I expect him to be an A student, but because I don't want him to feel a failure. 

There's an extraordinary clip on YouTube in which the English-born writer and international adviser on education, Sir Ken Robinson, challenges the whole paradigm of our current education system. Unlike most other areas of the modern world, he says, schools are still based on 19th-century ideas. An institutionalised, standardised way of teaching and examining, he believes, makes no allowance for the different ways and time-frames by which people learn. Ultimately, he claims, classrooms are killing creativity. 

National Standards play right into the anxieties of the modern hothouse parent. (Not to mention those old coots who harp on about the three Rs. How in their day you bloody well knew how to conjugate a subjunctive verb and if you didn't, you'd bloody well get the strap.) 

My son's school, a decile 10, is one of those 240 branded a "rebel school". Our incredible principal doesn't disagree with the idea of a set of standards by which schools are guided, but she is disquieted by the haste and confusion with which the policy has been constructed and delivered. She writes with great heart on the subject. "Our children are a quirky lot – arty; oral; creative; sports fanatics; we have our academics, who thrive on traditional ways of learning; and we embrace our growing numbers of right-brain learners, who are often also twice exceptional, displaying some dyslexic tendencies, making physical writing a nightmare, but who may just have that Booker prize-winning novel in their hearts ready to be dictated as an electronic digital novel! 

"We have children who are not yet reaching our achievement expectations for them – for some, it's because we haven't yet quite worked out how to light the fire within them; for others, it's a timing issue – we just have to keep on keeping on, and revisiting and revisiting and revisiting! And for some, we are still struggling to override the social, emotional or psychological barrier of attachment disorder, poverty, or social inequality that interferes like a wall in many aspects of their school lives." 

My cousin is a teacher at a decile 1A primary school in South Auckland. Its decile rating means that in monetary terms the community in which it's located is as poor as it gets. Most of the kids start school at a massive disadvantage. Until a year ago there was no kindergarten in the area, so few had been pre-schooled. Many come from families where the parents don't speak English and are shift workers, so they're seldom around to put in the time with homework. There's no discretionary dollar for annual holidays or even a trip to the zoo, hence no breadth of experience to draw on. 

"Under National Standards, we're supposed to be all the same," says my cousin. "So we're all apples, but if you take our kids and you take the kids at Remuera Primary – and I use Remuera because under National Standards we're all the same, right? – then our kids aren't even on the same playing field." 

Despite this, however, both she and her deputy principal were at pains to make clear to me that their kids do achieve. "Their brains aren't smaller just because they grew up poorer. Within three years they've generally caught up. As teachers we just have to work that much harder to get them there." 

I never considered teaching as a career. On paper it has neither the power nor the glamour of, say, law. And it definitely has none of the financial remuneration. Yet when I spend time in my son's class and I see those beautiful innocents, some bumbling along, some racing ahead, all learning in their own way, I wonder if any job could be more important. 

- Sunday Star Times

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