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Teaching our kids: The ultimate position of power

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Praise in the classroom (screenshot via video )

Teachers wield enormous power, especially in early childhood. Sophie Love discusses the need for positive reinforcement in education, based on her personal experience.

MY FIRST teacher at boarding school in England was a gargantuan woman — both tall and wide, with a hairy chin, bunions, and a tight perm. She hated me. I don't know why. Because I asked questions? Because I loved to read and read aloud? Personality clash? Who knows. 

But this teacher broke something inside of me with her withering looks, tutting and dismissal of me as a person or a child with any potential. Luckily, she didn't kill my love of reading but she made sure that I wouldn't think of myself as a writer for over 30 years.

Forty years after my experience with my primary teacher, after much deliberation, we chose a small school for our six year old son. A beautiful place in rural NSW with gorgeous grounds and tree-filled spaces. 

I was always concerned about the Kindergarten (also known as "Prep" in some states) Class One teacher's reliance on electronic media in the classroom, and was shocked when she castigated me for keeping Ben out of school until he was six. She obviously hadn't read any of the global research about the benefits of delaying entry into full time education.

I was soon to learn that “should” was one of her favourite words. The children “should” be able to do this, they “should” understand what the book says and so on — despite the fact that they had not been taught, or had any input from her.

As a parent helper in and around the classroom, I witnessed horrible incidences of her shaming and blaming children for her own inadequacies in teaching. Her modus operandi was always to criticise, never to praise. 

Some children were paralysed with fright, knowing that whatever they did would be wrong and if they asked a question they would be reprimanded that they “should” know how to do it. Others behaved appallingly, bouncing around the room like balls or hiding under tables, or finding endless excuses to go to the loo, loitering in the bag alley and so on. They were often detained at recess or banned from having their “crunch n sip” for not finishing their “work” in the allocated timeframe.

Our bright, shiny, happy boy drooped daily. His initial excitement about school waned and there were lots of “I've got a tummy ache” days, when we had to force him to go to school. He changed from being a lovely, helpful, sunny boy to an angry, moody, teenage type, lashing out at us often. He would hit himself and say

“I'm stupid, I'm stupid” 

which is a word we have never used in our house. In the last school holidays, his behaviour was so extreme, his rage so constant, that finally he said,

“I want to die.” 

He was six.

We had tried working with the relief principal and the teacher, explaining our belief that our son (and all children) need praise and encouragement in order to learn.

Praise in the classroom, published Apr 4, 2014. Watch teacher praise her students for doing a great job.
 

While the relief principal was keen to see a change in the classroom (one child had been removed already that term), the teacher in question smiled sweetly in the face of our exhortations to inspire the children to learn rather than constantly critiquing their efforts, and a more balanced use of language. Like water off a duck's back she shrugged off our pleas, knowing that when the normal principal returned, the pressure would be off.

We had to save our son. We removed him from the school and began a desperate search for a new one. We were surprised to find that the biggest, busiest, concrete jungle of a school had the most heart and soul. What a lesson for me not to judge a book by its cover! 

The vision of loveliness that was the rural public school was a hotbed of bullying from the staff down, and the “teacher” in question was emotionally and verbally abusing the children. 

The new concrete jungle school is an Anglican private school. It has at its core a real understanding of, and love for, children. It is using teaching aids such as Carol McCloud's Have you filled a bucket series, and actively dialoguing about "bucket dippers" (negative people/bullies/actions) and "bucket fillers" (positive people, experiences, actions).

And our little boy has reverted to his joyful self, loving school once more. No matter that we now have an hour's drive each way and that the fees are putting pressure on the budget. There is no price too high for the happiness of our child.

Do teachers realise the absolute power they wield? That they have the power to make or break us? That their words can build or destroy us? That a year in the life of a child is a foundation stone upon which a whole life can pivot? Do they realise that years hence, their students can either be in therapy over their school experiences, or lashing out at others to subvert the powerlessness of their school years, or, dedicating their achievements to the teacher who inspired and shaped them?

Positive education; teaching wellbeing,The Feed, published Apr 1, 2015. Watch Geelong Grammar pioneer positive education.

 

The Australia-wide curriculum means each child is taught the same things but where are we addressing their emotional intelligence, ensuring that they are taught to respect themselves and others with positive self talk and healing recognition of the unique qualities each child brings to the classroom and the world?

Simply, we are not. We are failing our children for the future they will inherit by using old, outmoded, soul destroying communication. So we need to educate teachers in how to speak to children, how to use acknowledgement and praise to encourage children and how to build self esteem. 

The adults of the future will need to be resilient, flexible, autonomous, free thinking. Let's begin with this end in mind, rather than dictating our limited worldview into their willing and open souls. 

We need a new path and framework for communicating effectively with children, inspiring them to be the best they can be.

You can follow Sophie Love on Twitter @TheNakedFarmers or check out her blog at: littlehouseontheriver.com.au.

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Have You Filled a Bucket Today? Published Apr 11, 2015.

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