National Standards and the Big “F”

Tap into a child’s interests and learning will flourish.

Several years ago I attended a discipline forum at a New Zealand boys’ high school with some questions I wanted to ask. For instance, I wondered about the effect on students of low teacher morale. What was the impact on their behaviour when teachers failed to engage their interest – especially if they had lost passion for their subject or couldn’t connect with their students in a meaningful way? Did anyone consider that rushing through a curriculum could squash out the joy of learning, or inhibit students’ ability to delve beneath the surface of a subject to make meaningful connections?

To my dismay, the forum disintegrated into a heated discussion that went around and around in circles about detention and wearing the uniform correctly. It ended in ‘get tough’ action to give more detentions for bad behaviour, and teachers were to be posted on school gates each morning to enforce uniform regulations.

‘Dismayed’ is a polite way of putting how I feel about Education Minister Anne Tolley’s rigid (and seemingly bullying) stance regarding the implementation of National Standards in New Zealand. I also note with dismay the lack of research that has gone into the impact they will certainly have on children. What appears to work in other countries, may not necessarily work here – which is this government’s present argument to justify not cutting the drink-drive limit to save lives on our roads.

With all the rhetoric currently flying about over this, one would think teachers did no testing or reporting at all, or that what they do is so hopelessly inadequate that it gets a big red “F” for fail. But a big “F” also stands for ‘Forgotten’ is the fact that schools hold parent and teacher meetings where every student’s achievement, problems, or concerns can be discussed. Appointments can also be arranged at other times for parents and teachers to meet. What has disappointed me as a teacher over the years is that usually only about a third of parents attend these interviews; and the parents I most want to see, rarely show up.

This was the situation the year I taught at the boys’ high, where the policy of ‘streaming’ placed students together in classes of similar academic ability; the brightest students usually getting the best teachers. At the beginning of second term I took over what is called a “home room class” – a class at the bottom of the heap.  My job was to teach the core subjects (English, maths, social studies and science) to twenty-four year ten students who had learning difficulties and/or behavioural problems, and somehow bring them up to speed.

They greeted me with a hostile attitude the day I arrived. One boy snarled, “We’re gonna get rid of you.” Inside the classroom the desks were arranged in straight rows. I could not hold their attention for more than a few minutes without jeers and other unpleasant disruptions. They were partly angry because they felt abandoned by their previous teacher. The school’s policy of writing on the whiteboard the names of boys who misbehaved, putting a cross against them, then sending them to the student centre or giving detentions when three crosses appeared against their names, made their behaviour decidedly worse. Many of the boys couldn’t write anything that made sense. Their attitude was: “School sucks!” And they hated school with the passion teachers would like to see students apply to their learning.

One boy’s father was in prison. One boy lived with his grandmother. Other boys lived with a single mother. Some were juggled jointly between parents after a divorce. I knew of only one boy whose parents were still together. The boys complained bitterly about how previous teachers had put them down; how parents had put them down. Most were bitter and angry. The big “F” word was firmly ingrained in their attitude and actions. There were so many gaps in their learning that most had given up any hope of passing exams. Anyway, what was the point of enduring all this angst just to get a job? Some had already decided they could make heaps of money growing dope. And they needed no education for that.

The boys cursed and swore and delighted in making sexual innuendoes. I broke up a fight in the classroom. I bought a mobile phone to get help quickly if needed. Some of the boys were wasted on drugs after lunch, their eyes staring right through me. I had to lock all the cupboards to prevent light fingers removing our limited stationery supplies. It was the tortuous beginning of a huge learning curve for me about some of the reasons why children fail at school, or, should I say, how schools and parents and society and governments fail our children.

Something had to change.

I rearranged the desks into a horseshoe shape and introduced the boys to a more interactive style of teaching and learning. It also allowed me to work individually with them without having my back to anyone as I moved from desk to desk to check their progress and help with problems. I wrote my own tests to find out where their learning gaps were and devised lessons to start filling them. I wrote all their names on the board and looked for positive behaviour. I made a point of saying that I liked something they were doing, and put a tick beside their names. The ones with the most ticks at the end of each week received a small reward.

For those who had endured years and years of punishment and negativity, this was a big factor in changing their behaviour. Like most young people, they craved praise and positive comments – even if they acted like they didn’t care.

However the most important factor was to engage their interest, which is probably the most powerful tool for learning. In social studies we studied Adolf Hitler’s childhood and discussed his life at length, the violence he endured at his father’s hands, and other events that eventually led to the holocaust and World War II. They were mesmerised and asked lots of questions. They began to think about cause and effect and wanted to discuss it further. When the bell went, they marvelled at how fast the time had slipped by.

Things slowly improved in fits and starts. Sometimes we went backwards, but as some gaps were filled in – especially in maths – a few boys started to feel that they weren’t the big “F” they had come to believe they were.

However, my non-traditional approach was criticised. The deputy principal wanted “rigid structure” – presumably to contain the boys’ behaviour. An interactive learning style would not cut it, he said. I finally received an apology from him, and even praise. But it had caused considerable stress in the meantime and robbed me of the energy I needed for the task at hand. I also had a battle with a divided administration over the deal I had made with the principal before I agreed to take the job: to write my own curriculum and exams. The attitude I picked up was: my students were at the bottom of the heap and their marks should reflect it. My attitude was: What is the point of making students sit mainstream exams they have no hope of passing, thereby reinforcing the big “F”?

Exam time was a nightmare. My students hated them. Even though some boys had a feeling that I was on “their” side, the fact that I had written the exams myself equated me with their past negative experiences, causing their behaviour to spiral out of control again as if I had betrayed them. I felt like I was walking a tightrope with no safety net. But their exam results showed that significant learning had taken place. The boy who so loudly proclaimed that they were “gonna get rid of me” just as loudly proclaimed, “Wow, this is the highest mark I have ever got!” when I handed him back his social studies exam paper.

But there were two things that counted more for me than exam results that year. The first occurred while studying American Indians. To bring the study more to life, I showed them the movie Dances with Wolves. At the end they witnessed soldiers shoot the horse from underneath ‘Dances with Wolves’. They knew the horse was much loved by him, and a friend. They watched soldiers use pages of his diary for toilet paper, and then shoot the wolf he had ‘danced’ with, which had given him his name. I thought about how the white men called the Indians ‘savages’, but in this instance it was clear to me just who the ‘savages’ were. When I asked the boys what they could see in the movie, one boy surprised me by saying that the soldiers reminded him of “this class”. Then the bell went, cutting off any further discussion.

The following day when I walked towards the classroom, I could not see the boys lined up outside. At a closer view I saw them sitting in the room as if someone was talking with them. I entered to an eerie silence. They were alone. The boy who said that the soldiers’ actions reminded him of “this class” had organised the boys to sit quietly in the room while waiting for me to arrive. He wanted to prove that they could in fact, behave in a ‘civilised’ way.

The second thing that counted was when another teacher took my class one day. The boys behaved so badly he said, “I don’t think I like you very much.” The boy I had had the most trouble with quickly retorted, “Our Miss would never say a thing like that!”

But by the end of the year, stress and exhaustion had completely erased the small wins I thought I’d had. The Big “F” weighed heavily on me that I hadn’t reignited my students’ love of learning and filled in all the gaps. My health had deteriorated so much that two doctors and a psychologist advised me to quit teaching. I reluctantly took their advice. However, my passion for education and belief in the potential it has to develop the “whole” child – as well as equip them for life and living and a job they love – is still there.

Painfully I remember as a child how I learned to focus so much on my mistakes that many times it felt like I was the ‘mistake’. As an adult, I learned that what we focus our thoughts on expands. Perhaps by focusing on what is ‘right’ within each child, their strengths would expand so much that the negative ways they have learned to view themselves would no longer have any power to sabotage their success.

There are too many inequalities for National Standards to actually raise standards, as I experienced with my home room class. Imposing National Standards therefore, where the harder governments drive our already stressed teachers to raise their students’ achievement levels, the more prominent the Big “F” label will become. While fear may goad more children to try harder to achieve, many more will rebel and develop a passion for hating school, and drop out altogether.

The ‘Three Rs’ have been held up as the cornerstone of education ever since the great debates to educate the ‘masses’ during nineteenth century England, when industrialists feared that not having an effective education system threatened Britain’s status in world trade. We have now moved on from the Industrial Revolution and live in a completely new and different time. Instead of repeatedly blathering on about a return to “basics” and the need for tough action (and now National Standards) to improve literacy and numeracy, perhaps it is time for a different call – more adventurous and innovative and, dare I say, creative. What would happen if we instead worked at building strengths and creating a learning environment that engages children’s interest and, most important of all, teaches them how to think?

I can’t help but liken this latest effort to ‘raise standards’ to watching a friend pull apart the carburettor of an outboard engine three times to clean it because it wouldn’t go, each time thinking he hadn’t cleaned it well enough. After the third clean, and it still didn’t fire, I looked at his frustrated face and asked if he had checked the spark plug. As soon as he replaced it, the engine immediately fired into life.

So what is the spark our children need to start a learning revolution which won’t need National Standards for measuring sticks?

A passion and love for creativity and learning.

But we adults need to remove all the obstacles we put in the way of its natural development, and stop the abuse and neglect and bullying that snuffs it out.

As I see it, a child is like a seed. Plant it in good soil with plenty of nutrients and in a position that suits it best. Pull out the weeds that threaten to choke it and stunt its growth. Check it constantly to make sure bugs and aphids and caterpillars are not eating it. Water it. Feed it. Talk to it each day with love and caring and respect. It will grow healthy and strong, I assure you.

And then one day a flower will bloom to evoke a smile of delight in its beauty and ‘accomplishment.’

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