At this year’s IATEFL I gave the first of what will be a series of talks for me on parent-teacher dialogues.
Why this subject? Well, like many passions, this one is rooted in some very direct experience. Three years ago, when my daughter was six, she was bullied in her first year of primary school.
The first time the bullying she was experiencing became physical, I tried dialogue. I tried appealing to the various sensitivities of the various people involved in the situation. I wanted to embody kindness and understanding. Sadly, it happened a second time – and with a greater degree of physical violence. We pulled her out of school from one day to the next and reconfigured our lives accordingly, which included moving to a new town for her new school, where she’s much happier and healthier today.
What I took away from this experience was a loss of dialogue. It didn’t break down, it simply got lost. And in quite a specific place. It got lost in the bureaucratic barriers that are raised when things go wrong, and that politicise human relations to impenetrable proportions. It got lost in the inevitable apathy of this environment. And I’ve been trying for some time, as a mother and as an education researcher, to understand what makes parents and teachers click in and out of solidarity in raising children.
Children are constantly negotiating meaning, in physical and metaphorical spaces, as they discover the world around them. In my talk, I focused on three spaces where this happens:
The first is the space where parents and children are: the private, intimate space of the home. As children begin the socialisation that school brings, they begin to share what can be an equally powerful space with their teachers. This is one level of negotiation, between the private and the public spheres. There is another significant level of negotiation, which the child is not part of, and the authority of which the child is strongly subject to: the adult space. The negotiation here is on an intergenerational level, and this particular space is filled with the complexities and incoherences of the adult world that get filtered down to the child.
What we want to do is achieve a meaningful conversation within this space, in the best interests of the child. A true conversation is something that must include listening, digesting what is heard and responding selectively. A conversation is thus is an ethically sensitive space: I listen to what the other person says, and I make decisions informed by my value system on what to say and what to keep to myself. This decision isn’t the same as the next person’s and it is the sophisticated harmony of collective strategic decisions on what to say and what to withhold that creates good conversation.
Edgar Morin, the French philosopher, talks about “the triple reality” as a basis for ethics. It is when we see someone both as an individual, and as a member of a community or society, and as belonging to the human species – simultaneously. This obligatory wide-angle lens generates two fundamental things, solidarity and responsibility – and from that come decisions about what is important and what isn’t.
Shifting to a wide-angle lens reframes our tendency to overgeneralise in a very powerful way. We stop generalising and we consider the general environment, and how we chose to embody this environment. I think the codes for navigating the school environment are strongly linked to a sense of obedience relating to discipline, and to adapting to other value systems. Outward discipline includes the basic nuts and bolts that allow a school environment to run smoothly – being on time, getting work done, moving from room to room and so on. There is another discipline, however: the inner moral structure related to power and hierarchy that is manifest in this sense of obedience. “The most obvious example of power-morality,” as the British philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “is the inculcation of obedience.” And school, I would argue, is a highly codified structure with powerfully hierarchical relations. Discipline sometimes has to do with simply adapting to a teacher’s or other hierarchical superior’s value system, as opposed to understanding the rule book.
Parent-teacher authority tends to find its strength in numbers, mass numbers: the parents, the teachers. We do this with education as well – describing it as a single mass. Education is at the foundation of society and education is to blame for its failings. Parenting, some would say, is a natural, instinctive, and perhaps even exclusively biological state, that some are magically ‘good’ at and others are ‘bad’ at. These over-generalisations are dangerous because they represent a lack of critical awareness on the nuances of roles and responsibilities. And this is very real in school environments: ’I’m right because I think so, because I say so’.
The problem with authority is that it is extremely limited in its capacity to ignite any motivated action because it is limited by this cycle of rules and obedience to rules. Authority that is critically aware, on the other hand, stops being authority and instead becomes leadership. Leadership is free of the shackles of rules and obedience, and has the vital quality of vision, knowing the purpose of rules, and when they need to be set aside. I feel we need to reframe authority in terms of collegiality, with robust links to leadership and vision.
I am a parent and I am a teacher.
As a mother I am pressured by a number of things: the Alpha mums at the school gate, who have all the right organic fair trade brands and whose children are in perfectly ironed uniforms. I watch them slightly enviously as I juggle working life and family life, not always efficiently, with an intense desire to have a little more time to hug and kiss my children.
As a teacher, I am pressured by the parents who try to tell me how to do my job, by the principal who wants me to do more, and by the children whom I adore but wish I had more time to enjoy while I’m so busy marking books, writing lessons and preparing exams.
Parenting today is an intensely overstimulated environment. Everyone is constantly raising the alarm on us in one way or the other. It isn’t just about the grandmother or the mother-in-law who did it a different way, a better way, anymore. It’s about formula companies, breastfeeding militaries, make your baby an Einstein, feed your baby bio, paleo, vegan, vaccinate-don’t vaccinate, listen to Mozart, do this, do that. It is intensely overstimulated, because we’re downloading the apps for it, because we belong to the social media groups for it, because our peer group talk about it, and because we are professionalising it, in the public eye. Early years parenting is increasingly about doing. Not living.
The teaching profession has suffered overstimulation for a long time, because we lay so much hope on what teachers do and the problems they might solve. This is an age-old story. But there is a very specific kind of overstimulation that is representative of our times, and that is the overstimulation of public selves. Teachers are now in the public eye, in highly competitive ways. From the standardisation of teaching practice, which is yet to find equilibrium in many contexts, to the highly irresponsible manner in which teacher observations take place, to the pressure to develop and be better teachers without any allowance for this within the teacher’s timetable or workload. Just look at the number of IATEFL attendees who self-fund and take days off work to come.
Within this highly overstimulated environment we sometimes thrive, but sometimes just survive.
Within this overstimulated environment, we perform the everyday miracle of raising children. And the thing with childhood is, it doesn’t last.
There’s hardly a tired, sleep-deprived, strained parent who wouldn’t tell you that their children have made them feel love on a scale they’ve never known before.
There’s hardly a single overworked, sleep-deprived, struggling school teacher who wouldn’t tell you that the best part of the job is the time they spend interacting with their children.
How do we reinstate the artistry of teaching and the artistry of parenting, in this complex and overstimulated environment?
The technique for this, I believe, is speaking. We talk to each other, we form a discourse, we create dialogue. I believe the more we discipline ourselves into expressing what we believe in, the more robust our system of beliefs becomes. Belief systems need space to grow. They don’t grow from armchair generalisations and passive information retrieval. They grow from reading and understanding and reading further.
In my previous post on Empowerment, I outlined how powerfully the ‘hidden curriculum’ – the lessons that are not taught in school, but which are still conveyed – can shape children in schools. Our artisanal contribution to raising children has a very real place in the hidden curriculum, as this is where intuitions get sharpened, this is where we think on our feet and this is where our sense of what’s valuable and what’s invalid can be put to work. The hidden curriculum is as real as the physical one, and our place in shaping it is just as real. Parents and teachers, in addition to having the greatest impact on a child’s self-esteem and self-assurance, are people who can successfully shape the hidden curriculum: they have more access to children than any of the other players in the education field.
Untamed school environments are something we try to prepare our children for, by giving them strategies and coping skills. We teach our children to survive school, to learn in spite of their education. We need to talk, and we need to put the time we have for dialogue to better use. Parent-teacher meetings aren’t just about ledgers with grades and assessments of the children’s behaviour. They shouldn’t be used merely to repeat the mechanics of the school environment. They must start hosting conversations on the dynamics of raising children.