In a perfect world

She’d stand up in the middle of the lounge while I sprawled on the couch. She’d dance to Proud Scum and she looked like a little girl: that hair sweeping in the air, her body a mass of compact taut energy.

David Herkt on Charlotte Dawson

I have my doubts about Twitter.  It connects me to wonderful articles and hate; to humour and nastiness.  I know almost nothing about Charlotte Dawson, but I sense – from what I have read – that social media was not the best forum for her to operate in.  It was probably exhilarating at the moment of drunk cathartic release, but it also seems to have been very damaging in the blank, grey, hangover morn.  When it comes to the online world people will feel entitled to say anything.  Opinions are, after all, like assholes: everyone has them.

At a professional development day one year the man who runs The Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie came and talked to us about reading to kids.  He said quite a few things that have stuck with me.  One of them was that in any atlas or encyclopedia you should always check New Zealand.  If the book get NZ right then it might be a good book.  It’s the same when writers you have read for a while stray into a topic you know quite well.  It’s a real test of their openness, perception and research and some writers you have previously liked can suddenly ring a bit hollow.  It’s not a good sound to hear, because it makes you wonder about everything else they have written that you have taken on trust – a trust built on style and sympathy for the general views expressed.

Take this story for example:

A teenage boy with Aspergers syndrome may return to the school he was expelled from after a legal victory.

The High Court at Auckland today overturned Green Bay High School’s decision to exclude the boy last year after a series of incidents that culminated in a fracas involving a tussle with a teacher over a skateboard.

Tussle is an interesting way to describe what is later related in the article

The boy was excluded from school after he left class one day and skateboarded up and down outside the room.

His teacher demanded the skateboard but the boy refused and skated off towards the school office.

Judd said the teacher followed him and when the boy fell off the skateboard he swore at the teacher.

The boy ran into the office area and closed the door in the teacher’s face, injuring the teacher’s head and arm. Other staff had to restrain the boy from attacking the teacher.

What really surprised me was the tweet that alerted me to the story:


“Stop sulking and do your fucking job.”

Although the media always says that the “school” excludes a student, it is actually the Board of Trustees that do that, and they are mainly made up of members of the community; often parents of students at the school.  I have been at a school where a male student assaulted a female teacher and the Board of Trustees did not exclude the student.  Although the headline is potentially gripping in that situation (I used the gender adjectives deliberately) it wasn’t clear cut, and the correct decision was probably made, but even that decision was damaging and demoralising for a lot of staff.

Because I regard myself largely as an endlessly recovering failure I believe in giving people chances, but sometimes I have felt worn down by the chances some students were given in my schools even when the second, third and fourth chance was probably right.  This wearing down can make a student, or a teacher, or an institution snap.  The student or the teacher or the institution can make bad decisions because it’s tired.  When you reflect back and ask “why?” or “what was the snapping point?” it is often trivial, often something that is almost laughable when set against the dire consequences (a skateboard = exclusion).  That’s because it’s not about the trigger event it is about the hundreds of interactions that went beforehand.

I’ve had low moments in the classroom, and out on duty.  I’ve been sucked into a swarm of students to break up a fight and had a tooth chipped, I have told a student to stop being a smart arse and been sworn at for a solid minute (it’s a long time to be sworn at), I’ve told a funny, sparky, almost illiterate, aggro student I taught for three long years in a row to get lost one grumpy afternoon.  In the end we have cooled off, said sorry and shaken hands.  We have no ill will (although my tooth is still chipped).

None of the incidents I have just described have involved students with special needs.  In those cases the demands can be more confronting.  Frankly there have been times when I have helped out in situations where I felt the student’s behaviour was unsafe, and that the chances of me being able to actually help or protect others from harm was very low when confronted with a “boy” significantly larger, and angrier than me who was having an episode.  The principle of integration is a good one, and the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, but the resources to support this kind of integration have to be significant to ensure that it is worthwhile, and that everyone is safe.

Whether or not the teacher who tried to take the skateboard from the student in the story above acted in the best possible way or not, it probably was not about the skateboard at all when it came before the board.  It was probably about the overall weariness and being stretched thin and being asked to do too much with too little for too long.  It may have been rash to exclude but it sounds, from a long way on the outside, like it was understandable.  Not right, perhaps, but understandable.

Whenever I am having a bad work day it is the students who carry me through.  It was true when I was teaching in Japan and it is just as true today.  Just today a student said to me: “Did you hear that Youtube, Twitter and Facebook are merging?  They’re going to be called YouTwitFace.”  It made me laugh.  Laugh or cry seems to be the choice.  What should you do if you’re a teacher and you sense that Stuff, and the Herald, and North and South and the National government really don’t like you?  When every story is about how teachers aren’t qualified enough, or online courses are better, or we’re crap at Maths and Science, or some male teacher somewhere (it’s always a male teacher) has done something horrendous… what should you do?

Some days are crap.  Some days I sulk.  Some days society hands me its problems without training and criticises me when I fail.  In the world of social media the dumping of opprobrium is supposed to be a democratic good regardless of its superficial “analysis” and arrogance. When I am handed the life story of some of the students in my care I simply don’t know what to say.  What is there to say?  At the same time that their life is under emotional pressures that could create coal or diamonds they are being asked to distinguish a metaphor from a simile.  At the same time as teachers are being told to raise performance in the competitive global marketplace they are being told to “just handle” the kid in the class with aspergers, or dyslexia, or dyspraxia, or depression, and no subject teacher I have met has ever had any specific intensive training in how to work with those things.

It’s a good thing there are so many great teachers and schools around.

For reasons I don’t fully understand I feel that it is appropriate to end this post with this song.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

11 thoughts on “In a perfect world”

  1. My only new year’s resolution was not to visit this particular news website anymore. Aside from being linked to it every now and then by others, I have managed to avoid it for three months now. It has been a good three months (in that regard). And yes, you can’t bag students in public – it’s a cardinal rule. It’s not fair and it’s not nice and it’s not right.

  2. El Guapo makes my point for me. The public never gets to hear the school’s “side” of the story. Even if it were legal to tell it, no teacher I could ever respect again would speak ill of a student to the press. It’s just not something I could ever do, no matter how badly I’ve wanted to, and I’ve wanted to.

  3. It’s why I find it hard to say how my day was… how do you compress five thousand daily interactions that build and evolve? It’s very rarely the stand alone incident.

  4. This is the most surprising comment you have ever left. I applaud it – like a bolt right out of the blue.

  5. Cheers. Aware and able to deal with are often not matched, but aware (sometimes) is a good starting point.

  6. You make a really good point about the skateboard being the end of a long line of things.
    Sadly, the complete story leading up to the last incident never gets reported to the masses.

  7. For those about to rock, we salute you
    For those about to rock, we salute you

    We rock at dawn on the front line
    Like a bolt right out of the blue
    The sky’s alight with the guitar fight
    Heads will roll and rock tonight Mista.

  8. I love your open vulnerable style of writing. It moves me pretty much every time. Teaching is hard. I am so very relieved to know that you are so vividly aware of all of the intricacies of teaching real people, with real problems. No single person is fully equipped to deal with all of that. Being aware is probably a really good start though.

    You’re doing a great job and I applaud you (even when you’re having a shit day, you’re human after all)

  9. I’ve always thought that phrase would make a nice epitaph: “Here lies John-Paul. He muddled through.”

  10. I don’t envy teachers their jobs, so hats off to you, my friend. In my younger days, I had many …issues that my teachers were not equipped to handle, but it’s impossible to equip everyone for every situation (certainly not for a desk becoming a projectile). You do your best to muddle through and hope no one gets hurt.
    PS: no one was hurt.

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