Remembering school

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Experiences of school can have lasting outcomes on the psyche of students, whether positive or negative

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What do we learn at school? Our first response belies what adults say when they really think through this question. To answer it effectively we have to give up preconceptions about schools as institutions, their purpose and what we all know or believe they do – educate! We need to be still for a while and recall the totality of our school experience.

If adults ask themselves what they most remember about school, they may have a sweep of memories. If you ask them to recall the things that most affected them, positively and negatively, the memories become more focused and pointed. For example, a young man recently told me about the time he got in trouble in Year 3. He recalled that he and some friends had been using sticks against the school rules to reach plums on a tree, when his teacher grabbed his arm to stop him. He recalled how painful her nails were as they dug into his forearm. She then held onto him, walking him back to her classroom to talk to him about the situation. He could not remember the rest of his punishment, but he recalled feeling unsafe in the class for the rest of the year. As he spoke, his voice faltered…

Another woman, a trainee teacher said, “I worked hard at school. Well… actually, I didn’t work at all at school. I worked hard at home and went to school and had fun. For me, school was about stress release from the tension of study and home. Going to school taught me that home life made me anxious…” Upon reflecting on her school days, this woman realised why she was so keen to study at a university in another city.

Mark, in the same university group said, “When I was 17, I was a passenger in the back of a car driven by a mate of mine, after school. Our car hit another car side on. My two mates in the front were killed and two people died in the other vehicle. Since then I have been afraid of getting close to anyone; my first wife, my children, I kept everyone distant and lived behind a wall. They didn’t teach us how to grieve. They said men should be strong, but my ‘strength’ is my weakness, my life has been compromised and I have felt frozen ever since that accident thirty-five years ago!”

Another young man told me that he had always been considered a ‘nerd’. That he didn’t realise he was good at sport until a PE teacher asked the students to do the ‘Beep Test’, in which he scored the second highest score – the only boy who beat him was a national basketball representative. However, the PE teacher overlooked the effort. It is hard for people who cannot be defined by simple labels. So this lad trained in the evening by himself, and entered outside-of-school competitions through a club he approached on his own. When he represented his athletics club at the State level, the school suddenly took an interest in his sporting prowess.

The common themes arising here are safety and recognition. Safety is a precursor to learning and if a child does not feel safe at school, then their learning will be shaped accordingly. School experiences may teach many things; many lessons are non-academic, but also long-lasting. Often teachers who use humour, but not put-downs, find their students are more open to learning on account of the class environment being safe and friendly.

Recognition is the aspect of being known. This of course, extends beyond a teacher knowing a student’s name. It includes an understanding of what motivates the student, how the student best learns, what they student hopes to achieve, their strengths and weaknesses and also an understanding of how to best help them to learn and grow.

When a child goes to school they will have a range of experiences – some predictable and many unpredictable. The responsibility of educators (and parents) is to be able to respond to things as they arise, appropriately. Thus responsibility becomes ‘response-ability’.

A harsh word without the insight of an apology later, a misunderstanding without resolution, a failure to ‘see’ who the student is – to properly recognise them – can have lasting effects on the self-esteem, and in some cases life outcomes, of students. However the reverse is also true. If a teacher provides a word of encouragement, works with the family to assist a struggling child or finds a way to recognize and value the individual strengths of a student, this can be the thing that the child draws strength from, for life.

In this way, none of us can fully know the impacts we have on students. We can build up or break down. Care and kindness, blended with a capacity to apologise and grow are required. This is the type of role modelling that is likely to make schooling memories positive.