Sadly I hear this all too often – still. Not daily, it’s true but too much and I still boggle at children who rock up to class without their equipment – to wit complete devoid of pens, pencils and the various accoutrements needed to function in a classroom. And then offer a load of rubbish excuses.
Why is this so? I have pondered this mystery frequently over the last five years, because, dear reader, it was not something I heard that often in the Old Country. In Oz students by and large have a well stocked pencil case, they look after their own books, they have lockers they (mostly) look after. No, they are not paragons of virtue and pictures of perfection in a classroom. But there is a different culture in terms of student responsibility.
As a secondary school teacher I’d not come across book tubs – they were for primary schools and not part of the secondary scene at home. In my London school they were everywhere. Why was the teacher looking after student books; why did that responsibility lie with the teacher? I found the same with pens. Nothing to write with was commonplace. Students expected teachers to provide pens virtually every lesson. No pens meant they didn’t need to work; they had the best excuse. And in this place of constant inspection, of teacher-fear and teacher-responsible-for-all the teacher readily hands over pen after pen after pen. We, the responsible teachers, can’t allow something as trivial as a pen to stop their learning. And so we have boxes of pens in our rooms so there are no excuses and they can write. The same is true of books in boxes – here is your book, here is your pen, so now learn. (Heaven forbid we set homework to be completed in the books – they’ll never come back! Ah, so we have two books…)
Actually, this lack of basic responsibility in the classroom is a major issue and I think lies at the heart of the lack of progress of some sectors of society. It is part of the Welfare State mentality and while I support aspects of the Welfare system (a compassionate society must care for those less able, less fortunate) too many of the elements of expectation, of entitlement have crept into areas they should not. The classroom being one. It’s reminiscent of Nirvana’s ‘Here we are now, entertain us.’ As if teachers should be grateful that the child is in the classroom and should provide all parts of the entertainment – the equipment as well as the show.
Okay, so as adults we have to teach responsibility, we have to show children what is expected and be consistent in those expectations. We need routines and consequences to help them learn about how the world operates and as well as teach them subject content and skills, prepare them for work, for being decent socialised citizens.
Surely the parents/carers need to buy into this as well?
And t he student has to take these things on. They have to come with a readiness to learn, and that is shown in the small things, in their uniform, in being equipped for their day. PE kits fall into the same category.
Bill Gates’ list of 11 rules of life (which is actually from Charles Sykes’ book Dumbing Down Our Kids) is worth mentioning here. Teachers know that the world of school is an artificial bubble, that much of what happens there does not replicate the world of work or life. We know that a lot of what we do does not prepare students for anything much at all. The making too many allowances all the time, the constancy of re-takes, the massaging of egos without sufficient reason is not helping anyone; no child is helped by this and it does nothing for the much desired social mobility.
We know that handing over pens – even in exchange for phones (yes we have stepped up our expectations and standards) does not help the student. We should allow them to sit there doing nothing. Allow them to be bored rigid because they can’t write their assessment, to be shamed by their lack of preparedness, to be made to come back after school with their pen to do it then. We should allow them to sit there and be ‘consequenced’, let them be seen by a member of senior staff and read the riot act. But that won’t happen. Instead the teacher will be asked why this child isn’t learning, why haven’t they got a pen, what has the teacher done about it??
I do not come from a middle class privileged background; I did not go to private schools: I went to the equivalent of a comprehensive. My parents were not particularly well off. But I went to school every day with my books and pens and locker key so I was able to do what I had to in school to get to Uni to become a teacher. Most of my schoolmates did the same thing. They’re now doctors, engineers, bankers, businessmen and teachers too. We didn’t go to school making excuses, we were expected to have our equipment and we did. Teachers were not held accountable for our carelessness, our slackness. The same was true for my children at their schools.
Is this the divide in the UK between those who succeed at school and in life and those who don’t: the students who know they need to bring their own pens to school and take care of their own equipment and not blame others for their lack of success?
Yes, we must increase our expectations for students from the inner cities and other failing schools across the country. This means we expect them to take some responsibility for their own progress. But while the system, to wit Gove and Ofsted, continue to lay the blame for all ills in education at the door of teachers then nothing will change.
A child needs to understand that learning is not all about fun or being entertained, that learning takes effort and commitment, that when it gets hard you keep going. That learning is what they do and they need to be prepared for, work at it, and make their achievements their own, not the teachers.
A pen is a simple, cheap thing. A pencil case of equipment costs very little. It is not about poverty or privilege; it is about attitude, about children and their families taking some responsibility for their own way in life. About not making excuses: about being successful. (Images courtesy Google Images)