“We have two daughters of 17 and 11 and we are going through a difficult time with them. May (aged 11) has a main part in a school Christmas pantomime, which she was initially thrilled about. However, although the performance isn’t until mid December her teacher is threatening she will lose her part if she isn’t word perfect within the next week. May is worn out, worried about getting behind with her schoolwork or losing the part. June is taking her “A” levels this summer. She also works very hard but one teacher is giving the class tests all the time instead of teaching them and setting her mock “A” level for November, with the new academic year only just started. Within two months we have seen the girls become exhausted”.
Mr and Mrs W.
All over the country, teachers, lecturers, parents, students and children are involved in the new academic year. Instead of coming refreshed by the long summer holiday some will quickly become worn down, worried and bewildered. Sometimes, it is the children who have given up on learning and who quickly drain unsupported teachers of whatever energy they initially possessed. Sometimes, it is the teachers, burdened by additional tasks and low morale, who spoil the enthusiasm and willingness of their new class. It is painful to witness the erosion of potential in your child or your teaching staff and if not checked it will have disturbing consequences for the future.
Clearly, it is the responsibility of the adults to do what they can to provide the best environment for their students rather than the other way round, but low morale affects this ability. When the school environment is depressed and there is not a staff ethos of sharing difficulties, some teachers respond by abandoning all educational standards or, conversely, by anxiously forcing more work or tests on to their students. In a similar way, the depressed parent at home might slump into a domestic chaos or obsessively tidy up.
When a teacher produces a play, or any other public event, it can be experienced by her as an exposing public examination of her own fitness rather than as an enjoyable experience for the cast and the school. Similarly, when a parent takes a small child out to visit relatives or friends, that can also be experienced as a public examination of parenting skills rather than as a potentially enjoyable social link. Parents and teachers who can be relaxed in their own home/classroom setting can behave in a completely different way when faced with public exposure and evaluation. This sudden drop in confidence and increase in irritability is picked up by children who then fulfil its message. “Why on earth is it that whenever we visit Grandma you lose all your manners?” asks Mrs X of her 8 year old. “Do you lot all want to fail?”, shouts Mr X to his GCSE students.
Margot Waddell, former organising tutor of the Tavistock’s Counselling Courses for Teachers comments that teachers can lose their confidence in their individual strengths when they are evaluated by external performance indicators. “A teacher can feel as marked by their pupil’s exam results as the pupil does.” This does not just apply to teachers involved in examination classes. For many teachers at the moment the National Curriculum can represent a difficult external burden. Like parents, teachers are working for the best social, educational and emotional interests of the child. Where they are supported externally they can achieve this more effectively. However, sometimes, the National Curriculum, A level league tables and school plays can feel more like critics than aids.
Politicians and education departments faced with worrying international comparisons can feel equally publicly criticised. When their hopeful interventions are experienced as criticism they too can lose enthusiasm. If the National Curriculum is transformed internationally as a report in which Great Britain is bottom of the European class a vicious cycle is set in motion in which the most vulnerable link in the chain, the child, suffers most.
What then should Mr and Mrs W do? First there is the importance of parent-teacher co-operation in the best interest of the child. A meeting would be a useful way of airing these difficulties. However, it also needs to be stated that some teachers, like some parents, cannot deal with the recognition of problems because they experience it as criticism and become antagonistic. Then the question of more serious decisions, such as changing class or school, has to be considered.