The Big Picture

Ten years ago I was in the midst of teaching a class of ‘behaviour’ students.  This was a special project working in a classroom of a school in the heart of South Auckland.  The need for this classroom arose out of my Deputy Principal’s desire to work with children who were finding themselves excluded from other neighbourhood schools.  The more students we accepted from schools no longer tolerant of their behaviour, the more students we attracted into the school.  Within six months, we had enough to form a small classroom of students focused in addressing the social and emotional needs of these students and in turn addressing their behaviour. In my work roles I hold now, I often tell the varying stories of the experiences I had in working with these students.  They taught me an enormous amount about myself as a person and as a teacher.  Having grown up in a very different environment to that of my students, I had to quickly come up to speed on their extensive needs.  I no longer was working with children whom developmentally matched their chronological age level. For the most part, these children, cognitively had the ability to achieve and succeed in school. But because of their home circumstances and what life had taught them about adults and their safety, socially and emotionally they were simply not ready for the rigours of the school system.

While this classroom set up – having at anyone time 10-11 students with severe aggressive and destructive behaviour in the one room – was unique, it was ideal in terms of meeting their developmental needs. We had a mandate to focus on addressing social and emotional competence, putting the academic curriculum to the background. Sure, I ‘taught’ curriculum lessons, these areas provided a foci for the day’s timetable. But what we ultimately did was provide a structure in the classroom that gave the children many opportunities to learn to manage their social interactions while learning compliance, resiliency, independence and emotional competence. We had many a rough day. There were more days than not when I questioned life as my children shared heartbreaking stories about life at home. I quickly developed an understanding that these kids had so much more going on in their lives that when I needed them to write a story they really struggled. In that struggle all their other (and quite frankly more important) struggles came to the fore and we usually ended with an upended classroom.

My job was to provide these kids with security from 9am – 3pm every day. I was to be consistent and predictable, as they had been taught adults in their life were not. I was to demonstrate love to them that was unwavering, no matter the names they called me, nor the attempts to physically hurt me. And above all, I was to know when today was a day to be flexible in my expectations of their work output. That they had other worries and for me to expect a piece of writing, or a completed maths activity was simply unrealistic and,quite frankly, disrespectful to their bigger problems.

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While this classroom structure was unique and challenging, I, as stated above, had the mandate to be that flexible in my approach to managing behaviour while delivering the curriculum. Today, in current classrooms, teachers do not have the luxury of this. Policy pressures, time constraints, school management pressures are significant and noticeably causing teacher stress and overload. Add to the mix the increased number of children demonstrating similar emotional and social needs to bulging classrooms, and teacher stress goes through the roof. Teachers appear to be caught in the cross fire between two paradigms – teaching to meet a standard which is set against a chronological measure of what is thought to constitute ‘success’ or teaching to a child’s individual developmental needs. In the many conversations I have with teachers, almost all are struggling with matching their expectations with developmental readiness and individual ability to learn. Couple our understanding of developmental theory with the latest in brain research, teachers are becoming increasingly disadvantaged in their practice as they attempt to meet the requirements of teaching to the standards. Disadvantaged in the sense that they are simply pushing the proverbial up hill. There are children sitting in classrooms, due to varying circumstances occurring outside of the school setting, who cognitively, socially and emotionally will always be ‘below’ the expected levels for their chronological level. These are children who have experienced a lack of attachment in their early years, or trauma. These are children who have had delayed language acquisition, or been late in reaching developmental milestones such as balancing, sitting or crawling. Children who are living in homes where there are adults arguing, or adults there sometimes and other times not. Children who spend long hours (and I’m talking really long) in daycare settings where they have limited one-to-one time with adults. Children who are not talked to enough. Children who are not read to enough. Children who are living in homes where Mum and Dad work long hours out of necessity and, due to guilt, buckle to every whimsical demand their child has as a result. The list could go on. In other words, the classroom is filled with children who have ‘bigger stuff’ going on than being there ready to work towards expectations that for the most part, are unrealistic for them to achieve.

While we, as teachers, appear to have little option now in reporting to the Standards, we can continue to make a lot of noise about the Big Picture. We can get those not working with these children to understand that we are responsible for shaping future adults, not just the 6 year olds we have for the one year in front of us. We need to remember human development is not a linear progression. We don’t skip happily through each year, building on our skill set from one level to the next. We respond in more ways than one to our environment, and children are no exception to this. We need to use all the tools we have to ensure these children feel safe and secure at school and do not feel the increasing pressure we feel as educators to push them to the next learning progression. And we need to be prepared to stand up and say why. When a child has spent the night sleeping in their wardrobe out of fear that their big brother will hurt them as he trashes the house, it is unrealistic to expect them to be focused and ready to learn at school. Their brain will simply not allow this, as it has more pressing matters…..like simply survival.

We need to keep addressing the Big Picture. We cannot fuel the thoughts that children will always meet our expectations when faced with environmental or developmental challenges. We need to keep making noise and advocating for these kids who, will otherwise, be always in the ‘tail’ our government so eagerly wants to address.

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