As educators, we are trapped between forever jostling rhetorics: a new wave of idealism that supposes all children can achieve great things, no matter their social background, versus a stream of accusatory headlines claiming again and again that pupils from specific ethnic groups or classes spectacularly under-achieve compared to their more privileged counterparts. But why this disparity? Why the gargantuan gulf between intention and reality? Why do we, the well-meaning teachers, consistently fail to practise what we preach?
The answer ‘low expectations’ is nothing new. Countless education professionals have written and spoken on the subject. Some of my colleagues have written much more eloquently on the matter. Here, our Head of English Jo Facer writes on low expectations with regards to behaviour management and here, Deputy Head Katie Ashford writes on the detrimental effect of ‘giving kids a break.’ I would like to discuss a particular experience that convinced me that a ‘culture of kindness’ damages children’s chances.
Last term, I had the opportunity to visit an inner-London secondary and shadow pupils as they navigated their boisterous school terrain. As I observed, I was struck by two pervading themes: hard-working teachers ripe with good intentions and all-singing, all-dancing lesson plans and, in every class, a portion of pupils who were seemingly disengaged.
In a history lesson, the teacher asked all pupils to complete a written task. Many acquiesced, intermittently writing sentences punctured with laughter and chatter. Some diligently refused. One boy put his head down on the table and doodled over his book. ‘Sit up,’ I asked of him. ‘Let’s have a look at the first question.’ I considered his lack of compliance to be down to lack of understanding. No sooner had he sat up and picked up his pen, the teacher interjected: ‘Leave him. He never does his work.’ Then, in a troubled whisper, ‘he has a LOT of issues. I always leave him to it, poor thing.’
This ostensibly insignificant moment characterised so much of what I have read and heard about our British education system: differing expectations for pupils labeled with ‘issues’, an admission of defeat, of letting pupils off, a culture of perceived ‘kindness’ that, too often, kills pupils’ potential before they’ve even had a chance to try.
I watched as he returned his head to the table nonchalantly and resumed his hour of utter, uninterrupted boredom. In that lesson, this year nine pupil missed out on integral knowledge that would have no doubt helped him in future exams but, perhaps more importantly, in the cultural fabric of his future life. This is not acceptable.
I don’t have all the answers. I am a new teacher. I do not have the benefit of countless formative experiences and proven expertise. But that moment, in a hectic inner-London classroom, taught me an invaluable lesson that I’ll harness throughout my career: being ‘kind’ is not always kindest in the long-term.
At my school, Michaela, we insist that every child works hard and perseveres, especially when it’s hard. Every teacher is of the same, unwavering opinion that sky-high expectations of all children are crucial. There really are no exceptions. Even for children with ‘issues.’ The result? Pupils sit up straight, take pride in their written work and engage in class discussion with enthusiasm. But this doesn’t happen by magic; it’s a truly difficult thing to practise. Human instinct tells us to be kind, to let someone off if they’re going through a tough time. But it’s imperative to get past that and focus on what is best for their futures. Allowing a child to give up at every hurdle dictates their future sense of motivation, ambition and self-worth. And no one needs this less than our most disadvantaged children.