I had a brief Twitter exchange yesterday in which I tried to explain that traditionally-minded teachers are not child-hating sadists who see children as ‘sub-human’. In response I was asked whether I agreed that children are entitled to being treated as individuals, listened to and respected. As the Michaela debate continues to run on social media, this sort of question is being asked a lot more of traditional teachers, and I want to use this post to set out where I stand on this quite important question.
The simple answer is yes.
Yes, I do think children should be treated as individuals, listened to and respected.
There is of course a more complex answer.
I would like to think that, on a daily basis, I do all three of these things. Around school I ask children about their families, about their hobbies, about the sports they have been playing, about a trip they went on, about their views on a wide range of issues. I am most likely to ask these questions when I see children in the playground before school, in the corridors, during lunch, on the gate, and so on, although occasionally I do ask at appropriate moments in lessons as well. When a child comes to see me to talk about something they are worried about, I give them the time they need. When they have an idea for how we might do something better as a school, I listen carefully, I take their views seriously, and I try to answer the questions they have. In lessons, if a child wants to share an idea they have with the class, I usually let them if it is relevant to what we are learning about. And if a child feels that a punishment they have received is unfair, I always take the time to explain (after the lesson) why they have been given the punishment and, if it turns out that I got something wrong and they should not have been given the punishment, I make amends. Both of these things – treating someone as an individual and listening to them – come under a broader heading of respect. In some ways respect is a harder concept to define, but, in the context of being a teacher, I try to treat children fairly, I take their ideas seriously, and I do not set out to cause them any unnecessary stress, shame or frustration. The vast, overwhelming majority of teachers I know and with whom I have worked care enormously for the children they teach, whatever their particular educational philosophy.
I think we should be clear, though, that respect goes much further that the things included in the previous paragraph. The ‘tough love’ argument of Michaela is one of the most difficult for people to hear. “Do I care about this child enough to give them a punishment?” is a challenging question for a whole range of reasons. I really dislike punishing children, and I particularly dislike punishing children who are normally delightful. Take the inner turmoil you face when one of your hardest working pupils forgets his homework and you give him the detention, in spite of every instinct that tells you to give him an extra day to do it. I face the same dilemma when a normally challenging student has been working really hard, but slips up. I still occasionally fail on this and turn a blind eye because hey, I’m human, but if I am on the ball I let the question run through my head – “Do I care enough about this child to give them a punishment?” – and do the right thing. Of course I wrap it up in language (“I’m sure this is a one-off”, “don’t worry, I know you’re normally great at this”, “I know just how hard you’ve been working recently – I told your mum on the phone yesterday how far you’ve come”) but I still give the punishment, because I respect them, and I respect the other children in their class who expect everyone to be treated fairly.
Similarly, respecting children as individuals does not mean always allowing them to do as they wish. A conductor recognises the talents of every musician in her orchestra, but this does not mean they permit one of them to play in the wrong key or at the wrong pace. A football or cricket captain knows her players very well indeed and respects what each is most capable of doing, but also knows that each individual player flourishes best as part of the wider team. Sometimes we treat people collectively precisely because we want them to be individually successful, and there is no contradiction in doing so. Sometimes I stop a child from saying what they are thinking in lesson: perhaps we need to invest the time on something else, or perhaps I can see them going down an unhelpful rabbit hole. Professional judgement comes in to play when we make these kinds of decisions, and we do it because we respect the child enough to keep them focusing in the right area.
Then there are the other pragmatic decisions we have to take. Whole-class teaching might be seen as working against the individual, but if I teach the whole class for thirty minutes, each student is getting thirty minutes of my time. If I see each student individually over that time they are getting around a minute each. Of course there are times when I want to work one-to-one with a pupil and I do so, but I do so having made the judgement that this means I’ll be able to spend less time with someone else. I can stay up past midnight writing personalised comments on every pupil’s book, but is that showing them more respect than reading through their books, noting down some common errors, and then going to bed so that I can be enthusiastic rather than comatose the following day? Do I respect my pupils enough to get a good night sleep instead of marking their books? Do I respect my pupils enough to go home by 5pm and to relax in the evening so that I do not burn out towards the end of term?
And then there is causing discomfort. You can see it an awful lot in gyms and in instrumental lessons. A personal trainer in a gym might cause you a great deal of discomfort in the short term, but he is doing this because he knows that it will pay off in the future. My violin teacher would force me to practise the same difficult bars again and again, because she knew that this would ultimately result in me realising my potential. When I first started teaching I tried to turn anything hard into a game, because I thought that was a good way of mitigating the discomfort caused by hard work. Eventually I realised that some of the games (particularly the more ‘fun’ ones) were distracting them from what I wanted them to learn. Did I respect those children enough to make their lessons less fun? Did I respect them enough to cause them some discomfort?
The broad-brush principles I think the overwhelming majority of teachers can agree with: I think nearly all would agree with the general idea that we treat children as individuals, that we listen to them, and we respect them. But practice is messy. It raises conundrums, moral quandaries and potential contradictions that we as professionals have to work through, and on some of these issues we will probably end up disagreeing. Part of being a professional is learning to accept that not everyone agrees with my own interpretation of the broad principles.
This is why we need to be careful about crying wolf. It is so easy to denigrate the people with whom we disagree: traditionalists accuse progressives of letting children collapse into a spiral of mediocrity and failure, while progressives accuse traditionalists of hating children and being authoritarian fascists. There are many things on which traditionalists and progressives disagree and these should be debated in rational, informed, measured argument. There are a very small number of teachers who do dislike children, and who do not treat them as individuals, listen to them and respect them. When we tar caring teachers who want the very best for their pupils with the same brush, we do everyone in our profession a great disservice.
Picture: Death of Vortigern, Royal 20 A ii, f. 3, http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/TourHistoryGeneal.asp