Education and Schooling #3: The Tallest in the Classroom [Guest]

measuring truckIt’s a no brainer really. Why I’m a teacher. I have 180 contact days every twelve months. Now, multiply that figure by one over 365 (days in a year) and you will see that I work a mere half the (days of the) year. Everyone should be a teacher. It’s great. We’re always (if you round up the 50% stat) on holiday and we get to knock off at 3.30pm. Our days are filled with story-reading and marking smiley faces on coloured-in pictures of princesses and farm or jungle animals. There are hard days, too. It rains when we are on duty and our coffee gets wet when this happens.

My views on education have changed significantly since I was a schoolboy. Then, dragging myself off to school five days a week rewarded me with very little pleasure, purpose or direction. So in the sixth form, I reduced this to two or three days a week, but don’t tell my mother. I was a tall poppy, so was either in trouble a lot of the time, or ignored by teachers.

This was the case until I left secondary school in 19 mumble mumble to begin studying at the Wellington College of Education or Tea Coll as it was both crudely and affectionately known. I met and mingled with a kaleidoscope of amiable people who would go on to become exceptional teachers in primary schools across New Zealand and the globe. I was beginning to develop a grown up philosophy towards teaching and education. I always impressed myself with my ability to write assignments with only slight research and still be awarded with high marks.

Islands displayToday, my thoughts on education have been arrived at through a swathe of experiences, discussions and training courses coupled with my progression into parenthood seven years ago. Six countries have hosted me as a teacher over the past 16 years.

To begin, I wish to state that I believe wholeheartedly the responsibility of educating children lies primarily and heavily with the parents of those children. Obviously, because we are law abiding citizens, we pack our children off to school. This is our way of helping children to learn to read and write, right? What if our children don’t do very well at school? What if they are unhappy most of the time? What is a normal school experience like nowadays? What is a great school experience like?

The best teacher my eldest son has had was at the worst school I worked at. Despite the shambles that was embedded into each and every procedure, my son’s teacher made sure he had a wonderful time, was challenged and had opportunities to work to his strengths. Bless her. The worst teacher he had – lazy, rude to children, a friend to the bottle and generally uninterested in children or learning, was at a school that had a reputation for being one of the best international schools there is. Funny that. Discuss.

Schools have spent thousands of dollars sending me to splendid locations to be trained on the latest methods of teaching and learning. A simplistic summary of the most recent courses I have attended might be:

  • Teachers need to teach stuff to kids. Children can’t just work it out by themselves.
  • The focus of schools should be children’s learning.

I have often wondered how far some systems must have fallen for this to be the latest mind-blowing stuff presented to educators in the 2000s. On reporting back to one head teacher following a course I attended, that we should concentrate our efforts on learning, learning and learning, I was startled to be furnished with the reply “That’s all very nice, but we have a lot of other things we need to do here as well”. Insert trombonic slide (high to low).

islands artBoth my sons, seven and four, love school. Their friends are there. Their teachers are delightful. The playground is awesome. The after-school clubs are a real blast, as are some of the excursions. For them, school is a meeting place where, if they are not careful, they learn things.

I would love to discuss further:

  • what I believe is important for children to learn
  • how best to relate to a school and specifically the teachers
  • what to do when things go wrong
  • alternatives to going to school.

What’s on your mind? How are your children doing at school? How do you feel about sending your toddlers off in a year or two?

My discussions frequently and blatantly (deliberately?) contradict themselves and leave people either nodding up and down or reminding me that I’m a tall poppy.

Michael is a primary-school teacher, famous for letting children in his class read in a bathtub full of cushions as a treat. He’s also a skateboarding legend. He is contributing guest posts for this series. Please ask him your questions and let us know what you want to hear about.

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13 comments on “Education and Schooling #3: The Tallest in the Classroom [Guest]”

  1. Rochelle Reply

    Hahah! Hilarious and fabulous – thanks Michael. Echoes many of my own thoughts about school / teaching / education! Essentially, I believe that my kids will learn stuff. Teachers will probably help them do that (loved “For them, school is a meeting place where, if they are not careful, they learn things” and couldn’t agree more!). I will probably help them do that. Our friends / family / neighbours / pets / garden / playground will probably help them do that. I guess the question for me is what things do I highlight to them as I / we do that?

    My eldest will start school next year and the school she is zoned for has 60% boys and non of her friends are going there. I’m far more concerned about these factors (social) than the fact that it’s a Decile 4 school. I want her to have a positive school experience and hopefully pick up some stuff along the way… and hopefully her teachers will support her in that 🙂

  2. Alex Reply

    Thank you, Michael. I must confess I’ve been looking forward to this series starting…
    I’ll be particularly interested to see what you have to say on the subject of what’s important for children to learn. I am probably atypical, but I shudder a little (ok, a lot) at the idea that everything they are taught at school (or home) should be “useful” or of relevance to the real world. The things I treasured most about my time in education (which extended beyond my school years to include 8 years at university, time largely spent reading books and writing about them) are things that are of absolutely no practical application in my daily life whatsoever – plays, poems, history, algebra (though I’m sure that’s useful to some people!) ,,,
    Anyway, I don’t want to pre-empt what you might or might not have to say, just thought I’d register my interest.

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  4. SKATERAK Reply

    Nice to hear from both of you. Thanks for reading. Schools are very much different places to what they were when we were attendees – for better and worse. I understand the need to take a big, long, deep breath before sending our children off. I’ve been a parent of two schoolboys for three and a half years now, and I still have some of the same feelings I did early on.

    I’ve seen that much of their life at school will depend upon their teachers and their peers more than the school as a whole. A decile 10 school with brand spanking iPads and multicoloured climbing equipment isn’t much of a big deal if the teacher is rude, loud or impatient, or worse. Likewise, you don’t need all the mod cons if the teacher has a sense of humour, innovative and really, really likes working with children and bringing the best out of them. Remember, school is only one part of our children’s eduction.

    The question of what is important to learn is a bit of a trick one really, as most schools follow a prescribed curriculum. Discussing HOW they learn is where the fun begins…

    We all have different memories of our time at school and hope that our own children have mostly happy times and next to no sad memories. Cotton wool is not required when sending children off to school. A clear head an open mind can help, though. Who knows who they will select for a best friend. Young Tommy and Fatema, the Sudanese refugee might hit it off terrifically.. Which means Tommy’s parents need to become friend/ly with Mr and Mrs Fatema, too!

    Alex, I’m interested that you said plays, poems, history, algebra are not of use to you in your daily life, or the real world. I’d beg to differ. 🙂 Did studying plays help you learn about different perspectives or points of view? Did memorising and/or reading poetry help you communicate and express yourself? Did it take you to an imaginary place? Did studying history help you understand yourself and your own heritage a little bit? All these things shape us. All these moments and experiences have carried us to where we are. Those teachers in particular must have had a special interest which they passed on to you with a passion. They shared themselves. They made a connection. I have assumed a lot of things, I know!! 🙂

    School is inevitable and it’s great that you are preparing yourselves already. I meet way too many parents who couldn’t give a monkeys if their children are bullies, bullied, not making progress, not bringing lunch…. it’s lovely to hear from caring, thoughtful parents (yourselves) who want their children to get the most out of the uncertain road ahead. Bravo.

    • Alex Reply

      🙂 You are, of course, quite right. Thank you for putting that into words – I’d say your assumptions are pretty spot on, actually.

  5. not a wild hera Reply

    Great post, thanks, Michael. I’ve read it several times.

    It’s interesting that both you and Rochelle (who also works in education) highlight the idea that the school package is less important than the individual teacher and the friends.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on how a family might approach things differently if the school they are involved with is brilliant, but with a problematic teacher, or vice versa. I’m also keen to hear from you on the topic of curricula, and as you say above, the question of HOW children learn. Can’t wait for the next post!

    • Cate S Reply

      See, this is what I’m totally scared of – what do you do if your kid ends up with a crummy teacher? Especially in primary/elementary school when they have only one main teacher for the entire year. No school (that I’ve heard of!) allows you to choose your kid’s teacher. In my job, I teach professional development classes for teachers, so I know the range in quality of teachers is HUGE, and as far as I can see, does not tightly correlate with the quality of the school/district they teach in. My son will be starting school in September and we don’t even know where we will be living. I have a huge amount of anxiety about this, and I am unclear in my mind on how much to weigh the quality of the schools in each location (on opposite sides of the US) as a factor in our decision. Obviously, I care about education, but how much does it actually matter what the schools look like from the outside if it is pretty certain that he will have good and bad experiences in both locations.

      • not a wild hera Reply

        Oh, Cate, how stressful in so many ways.

        I imagine Michael will respond to what you say either here or in a new post soon. In the meantime I have been thinking a lot about your situation (and you!) and have a couple of thoughts.

        A theme of our conversations is how out of our control our kids’ school experiences can be, despite our keen interest in their education (and everything about them!) They can go to a great school but have a not brilliant teacher, or have a great teacher at a great school but not hit it off with their peers for whatever reason.

        In one way, this is almost liberating, in that our responsibility becomes helping them to thrive in suboptimal circumstances, which is a) something we do have power to do and b) something extremely valuable for them to learn – though just how old they should be before encountering these circumstances is of course a live question for me and others.

        Also, as Michael observes, anyone who finds these questions produce anxiety is probably therefore in the top five per cent of parents, so their kids will be awesome, no matter what. That’s certainly true in your case, I know. You are a wonderful mother and your kids are bound to carry on being delightful and astonishing, even if their formal education isn’t what you’d create for them if you had a magic wand.

        Sorry, that risks being a bit trite and unhelpful, and I’m not suggesting any of it will make you feel less anxious about the decisions you’re facing. I feel for you guys. I’m also confident your lovely boy will thrive in either location.

        • SKATERAK Reply

          Cate – so nice to hear from you. It’s good to have your thoughts and to see how much you value a quality schooling experience for your children.

          Just quickly, but I should elaborate later…

          Don’t panic. Bad teachers, for want of a better word (but maybe not), are very few and far between. In 15 years of teaching and working in 8 or so schools, I think I have met about 5 teachers who I think are in the wrong profession and are doing more harm than good. Although your fears are real, it would be very unfortunate for your son to have such a teacher. Having said that, poor teachers are not uncommon.

          Your son is young – 4 or 5, I’m guessing. He is so ready to learn and to take in everything around him. He will learn so much in his first year of school, almost despite the teacher or teaching! Let him enjoy meeting new people, trying new things and getting on with the wonderful business of blossoming! Look for his success and celebrate the. Preferably with ice cream and hugs.

          Let me say again what I said in my first post – I believe wholeheartedly the responsibility of educating children lies primarily(but not solely) and heavily with the parents of those children.

          A few quick ideas for how you could beef up your son’s learning if you felt the programme in his class wasn’t sufficient:

          * A family spelling bee.
          * Learn a poem together each week. Recite on Friday evening before dinner and award extra pudding for a clear voice. Video it and send it to grandma for feedback.
          * Play lots of kids songs in the house. Sing together.
          * Bake together. Talk about the measurements, the ingredients, the verbs in the instructions. Take photos and make a photo. Create a chef’s certificate and print it out.
          * Have quizzes over a meal time. These could be general knowledge, spelling, what letter comes after…. let the children ask questions too.
          * Do art together in the weekend.
          * Buy workbooks and do a couple of pages a week.
          * Skype family and friends
          * Buy reading or handwriting practice books.
          * Draw a picture for an uncle, aunt, celebrity and post it off. Take your son to the post office to buy a stamp (even if you already have some at home).
          * Have audio books playing in the car. (These are easily downloadable for free after a little googling)
          * Make puppets out of yoghurt pots. Act out fairy stories or relive family days out. Invite a friend over to watch.
          * Have dancing competition. Make up new moves and name them.
          * Have a treasure hunt on Saturday morning.
          * Buy and use this book:
          * Get large sheets of paper and make diagrams of trucks, monsters or Dad.
          * Fingerpaint.
          * Dress up and interview each other.
          * Study maps together. Download Google Earth and go for it.
          * And so on.

          Some parents feel that school should be for academic stuff and kids should relax when they get home and just play. Kids love cooking, art, singing, craft, walks and so on. With a little thought, these experiences can turn into wonderful learning opportunities – not to mention memories. Take photos and video of a trip to the beach, as you probably do already. But, then share this with your son after his bath and get you to tell him what you did. Collect nature and make a collage.

          I am sure you do many of these things already. I’m just saying that the class programme is not sufficient then it can be fun to supplement it at home.

          If you are still unhappy, talk to the teacher first. Avoid going over their head in the first instance. Talk to other parents. Talk to your son. Find out what’s going on. Ask how you can help and be a part of the solution. Drastic action like moving your child from a particular class or school is rarely needed although I will say that I have done this myself, so understand that you sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. No one will fight for your son like you will! Get involved at school if you can. Offer to help out in class or with events like sports days or fairs. This level of interest can be good for your child and for your relationship with the school.

          Look for the strengths in your sons teacher. They may be a little disorganised and not teacher maths very well at all, but they may read stories everyday with splendid voices in a way which enthuse your son to read and listen in a way no other teacher can. Her or she may put regular typos in the newsletter but be a fantastic art or PE teacher.

          I am sure your son will have a wonderful time in school. There are so many activities and other children and lovely people working in schools, he will surely thrive. Try not to worry about things before they happen and try not to find problems if they are not there. Children and resilient and can cope with things when they are less than perfect, or even ideal.

          I’m loathed to say it, but if all else fails – ride it out for a year and hope things improve in future. Such is life 🙂

          Let us know how it all works out and please keep in touch.

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