Teaching kids to ‘opt in’ and just try!

People often say that children are fearless.

They climb high trees; they rugby tackle each other with zero concern for body parts; they stand up for themselves and their friends in the face of authority; and often, to the distress of their parents, they say exactly what’s on their mind (or their parents minds!) with devastating honesty.

This is what people say.

And in many respects they’re right. Many children, especially younger children and possibly more so with boys, can be incredibly brave and courageous, free from the chains of responsibility, worries and often naïve to the risks.

From my experience though, and I’ve seen this at both primary and secondary level, the opposite is becoming increasingly true. Our young people are scared, anxious and increasingly, unwilling to even ‘try’.

When I taught year 6 students, it caused me a great deal of upset to see the negative impact of exam pressure on 9 to 11 year olds, not to mention those in the year groups below who weren’t much better off. These children have been failed. Failed by a broken system of inaccurate, inconsistent tests; farcical target grades that were completely detached from actual abilities; desperate teachers and school leaders forced to fill every part of the school day with panicky SATs booster sessions. I can’t count the number of children I saw having physical symptoms of anxiety, including issues of self-harm and panic attacks. And this only worsened at secondary when homework, hormones and social media really kick in.

I don’t think we can blame this lack of ‘willingness’ and resilience entirely on any one thing. I’m not even sure that this is a new thing really. Perhaps children have always been terrified to try new things, but discipline being much stricter from both school and home ‘way back when’, maybe children just did as they were told because the alternative was more terrifying.

Opting out just wasn’t an option whereas now, for many, it clearly is. In many schools and educational settings, we are accepting ‘I can’t’ or ‘I won’t’ far too often. I’m not advising that we throw shy children into isolation when they are too terrified to speak in a presentation, but there should be an expectation that they will try. Even with a child child who is incredibly shy/socially awkward (like I was); if you coach them and their classmates coach them; give them extra time to practise; make them aware of speaking techniques to help with nerves and confidence; promise individual rewards for trying something new; then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to demand that they at least say one sentence in their group presentation to their own form. 

I have been in the exact situation described here. After several confrontations with the pupil in question and a letter from home demanding that this boy wasn’t made to present because he really didn’t want to, it was suggested to me by a member of senior staff that I “just let it go” because “we can’t force children to speak!” I’ll also add that the pupil in question didn’t appear to be especially anxious as he often answered questions in class and had no problem in back-chatting at any given opportunity.

It wasn’t about this boy getting away without doing something that he’d been asked to; it was about not letting him let fear stop him from doing something that I absolutely knew he was capable of, despite his parents and school leaders facilitating this avoidance. I’m proud to say that I didn’t back down, and this boy presented on three occasions following this one, ending the year with more confidence than he started.

What kind of teacher would I be if I just let children ‘wimp out’ of everything that scared them?

If I let them strengthen their fears and worries, taking them into their further studies and jobs after school, eventually instilling the same fears and worries in their own children?

Moreover, why aren’t some parents more willing to suffer the short-term upset of their children at home, in order to help them find long-term confidence and happiness?

While I do find the bulk of parents are incredibly supportive, and simply want the best for their offspring; I’ve also come across a growing number who will march angrily into school to demand that their child is allowed to sit next to their friend because they don’t like the person they’re with; that their child is excluded from a presentation/class assembly because they don’t like presentations; that their child isn’t expected to take part in Sport Day because they don’t like PE; that their child isn’t expected to wear a certain part of school uniform because they don’t like the way their legs look in their trousers. Seriously?

I know that many of these parents might have a battle on their hands at home, and often just don’t want to see their child upset and unhappy, but isn’t part of life sometimes doing things that you don’t want to do? Isn’t it true that so often once we’ve faced our fears, we can’t believe we were so worried in the first place? Aren’t these the richest experiences, when we often realise that we were stronger and braver than we ever believed?

If we always allow young people to ‘opt out’, then ultimately, the result is that they miss out.

For my part, I will continue to challenge the students in my care, to take those teeny tiny steps at first outside of their comfort zones until they are ready to take great, whopping leaps into adventure, challenge and success.

There’s nothing better as a teacher than seeing a child conquer something that they’re afraid of, and seeing the pride on their face when they’ve accomplished something that they thought near-impossible. They physically glow with self-belief. They step out of the shoes of who they were and into the shoes of who they can become. No child should be robbed of that opportunity just because it’s too hard or upsetting to deal with.

When I teach, I try to instil an ethos of just showing up; seeing where that mistake takes you in your work; just starting and seeing where momentum takes you; just trying. I also tell my students about anything that I’ve tried or done that’s scary either within or outside of school. We talk about nerves and anxiety, what the physical symptoms look and feel like that; what they can do to work with these nerves rather than against. I want them to know that they are not abnormal because their heart is beating out of their chest when they have to speak in front of their peers. No one ever did this for me when I was experiencing near-panic attacks at school, and the feeling that everyone else was calm as a cucumber while I was just a nervous ‘freak’ only worsened my problem and my will to avoid it.

Recently, I came across a great TED talk and ‘social movement’ based on facing your fears. Michelle Poler’s ‘100 Days without Fear’ does exactly what it says on the tin: she challenges herself in 100 different ways, to face things that terrify her. Why not try something similar with our students? I wonder what results we would get if we get if our homework tasks were about stepping out of your comfort zone (perhaps with adult supervision to avoid a lawsuit!)

For many of our young people in and out of school, the world can seem like a very scary place. There’s no wonder that many of them retreat into a bubble of X-Box or Netflix binges and social media, rather than forcing themselves to do horrible, scary things outside. It’s our duty though as educators, to move with the times and be innovative in the ways that we teach courage and resilience. Perhaps if we can incorporate some of the photo bragging that seems prevalent on social media sites, we might even encourage children to ‘brag’ about something really worthwhile?



Are we blaming students for things they haven’t been taught?

I love teachers – we work so hard, we care so much – but most of us moan constantly. We moan about lesson planning and preparation. We moan about ‘bad lessons’ and follow-up consequences. We moan about marking and assessment data capture. We moan about parents meetings and open evenings. We moan about not doing enough trips and about having to complete risk assessments when we do. We moan about the government, and Ofsted. Admittedly, it’s hard to argue with the last one.

Sadly, one of the main causes of complaint for teachers, are the children we teach – their attitude; their behaviour; their work, or lack of it; their complete lack of enthusiasm despite our incredible planning; their interactions with classmates; their lack of common sense; their foul language; their need for attention; their disrespect for those who clearly should be respected. I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself at times – certain students drive me crazy!

I’m not saying that we don’t have valid complaints, but perhaps we need to remember – children aren’t paid to come to school – it isn’t their choice.  It’s the law. From some student’s point of view, there is little benefit in listening and learning and being all-round good people, other than us telling them that this ‘the right thing to do.’

Moreover, have they even been taught or shown the skills and qualities that we expect them to use?

We huff and puff because ‘half of the children class 8 have the attention span of a fruit-fly’; but has anyone ever spoken to them about how they can notice their own concentration levels or taught them how to build up these muscles?

Herein lies the problem: we’re assuming that children know how to do things that they don’t, then repeatedly blaming them for doing the wrong thing.

We may as well just bang our heads against a wall. And theirs.

We’re wearing ourselves out and even worse, building resentment between ourselves and our students. Imagine if no one had ever taught you to tie your shoe laces, but complained about how ridiculous it was that you were constantly tripping up? You’d soon become sick of hearing their complaints.

After a particularly challenging morning, when the staff room ranting and raving really gets going, you might start to hear ‘In my day…’ from some of the older teachers. This is usually my cue to leave. I have no doubt that thirty years ago, children arrived at school armed with manners, respect, the ability to tell the time and a heavy sense of fear; but this just isn’t the case in many schools now and constantly harping back to this is pointless and counterproductive. While children cannot choose whether to come to school or not, we did. And we’re paid to teach the children of 2017 – not the children of 1987.

Children today are much more complicated that the generations before them. They’ve grown up in a world with information at their fingertips. In many children, this facilitates curiosity, creativity, connection and ambition. At the same time, our children can be overstimulated, resulting in shortened attention spans, isolated socially and disconnected from reality. Anxiety and depression are a huge problem for today’s youth. That’s why it’s so important that we don’t just give up on them – that we teach them what really matters.

I realise here that there is a need for parental responsibility. We need parents to be reading with children at home; teaching them to tell the time; asking and answering questions; supporting children in completing homework; encouraging a sense of respect towards others and resilience through difficulty. Many parents do this, and their children reap the rewards. Sadly, these things just aren’t happening for a growing number of children. Many parents themselves are exhausted through their own work-life balance pressures resort to the iPad babysitter; some parents don’t feel confident or able to help with homework ( who can really keep up with methods you’re supposed to use in maths when many schools change them every term?); some parents just don’t have the life-skills themselves to pass these down to their children; and a small handful just don’t care. Do their children not deserve the same chances in life?

Regardless of the reasons, our students’ personalities, behaviours and needs have changed, and so we must change with them.

We need to teach life-skills like independent learning in the same way we might teach column addition – initially break down the what, why and how; show children the steps to success; practise and repeat throughout each year; judge and reflect on our progress until the skill is secure. Imagine if we taught life-skills like they were in the SATs; imagine the kind of thinking that we would create in our classrooms.

If you’re keen to find out more about exactly what these skills are, take a look at my entry on FISHING NET skills.


Missing life skills: the real gaps in learning

Throughout the course of my teaching career, in both state primary and secondary settings based in the UK, I have spent a great deal of time – as I’m sure many have – discussing levels; their pros and cons for both students and staff.

My main concern with the ‘best fit’ leveling approach was that teachers often felt pressurized to ‘mark positively’ and move students up, the results being not just a reflection of student’s effort and ability, but also demonstrative of their own teaching ability and the school overall (and even in some places now directly linked to salary.) The outcome of this was that lessons were often taught at break-neck speed and children who didn’t secure skills/concepts as quickly as their classmates would be left with fundamental gaps in their learning.

From 2016, the government sought to alleviate this problem by scrapping levels altogether and allowing schools to create their own assessment criteria. ‘Best Fit’ was no more; now we’re underachieving, on target, or overachieving. This is definitely a step in the right direction, it’s just a crying shame that the government didn’t use this opportunity to bring some cohesion to this already disjointed system – an issue for another time…

So are we all better off without the levels? The jury’s still out.

What is clear is that there remain a huge number of students with gaps not only in their academic attainment, but also in the fundamental skill-set needed for successful learning and life after education. I’m talking about concepts like awareness, communication, resilience, independence: the tools needed to foster good relationships, make good choices and cope when things don’t go your way. These are the real ‘gaps’ in learning.

For the most part, we don’t measure or assess or even teach these vital life skills. We’re just too busy writing up pupil progress data to think deeply about how we can encourage little Johnny to stop seeing himself as a failure, or support Caroline as you watch her social awkwardness spiral into isolation and anxiety disorder.

I know that some will argue we are teachers, not therapists – that this is out of our remit. I think that’s crap. If you teach, you want the best for your students; you want them to have a good future once they’ve left you.

What’s the point in preparing them for a test but leaving them unable to cope with life?

And I speak from experience. I left school as an extremely successful student – academically successful – yet I was paralysed by a total lack of social confidence. My reports home always commented that I was quiet and needed to put my hand up more, but this was my only instruction. As I made progressed academically, I regressed socially. My teachers and I accepted my ‘shyness’ and I upheld my self-belief that I was a ‘freak’; a ‘weak, shy, pathetic person’, who would never be able to speak publicly or do anything that required real confidence.

Let me be clear – I do not blame my teachers for this at all, or my parents. I isolated myself and never spoke about my problems. I also think that the culture in schools twenty years ago had much more of an academic focus – there’s much more onus on schools today to provide pastoral care and look after the ‘whole’ child. 

As my story goes, my pattern of avoidance continued throughout college, university and well into my twenties. It wasn’t until I was 25, sad and tired of so many missed opportunities, that I bravely decided to embark upon a PGCE in Secondary History teaching; a decision which forced me to confront the things that I have spent my life running away from.

Battling intensely low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and panic attacks, it wasn’t until I’d had a course of cognitive behaviour therapy, read a library of self-help books and watched hundreds of TED talks, that I began to see the blue sky on the horizon.  I learnt that my thoughts could set me free, and that avoiding painful situations would only lead to more pain down the line. So now, whilst I wouldn’t describe myself as a social butterfly, I am for the most part just as anxious as the next person and probably more confident than most. I regularly push myself to do things that scare me, nerves and all, using a Mindfulness-based approach.

It all seems so simple and easy written down – in reality, there were so many times when it felt like I was surrounded by darkness; like there was no hope. Today, it’s the memory of this darkness that motivates me to be the teacher that I never had to others; to notice, support, guide and challenge.

For the generation of children being taught right now, these skills are even more important. The advent of iphones and ipads have resulted in many children being more at home tapping on screens than speaking out loud. Their communication skills just aren’t getting the same workout that they would from having real face-to-face social interaction. This, combined with the government’s obsession with exam testing, funding cuts, the overstretched nature of support services, and the number of children bringing problems from home into school, mean that the explicit teaching of these skills is even more vital.

I struggled through my problems – and eventually, I triumphed. But it was such a struggle. And I don’t want that battle for our children. I want them to learn, in school, to be resilient and hopeful and kind and thoughtful. I want them to learn to embrace challenges rather than running away from them; to work with people who aren’t just like them and be okay with it; to develop their own strategies of solving problems before asking someone ‘smarter’ to work it out for them.

The government has finally begun to tackle the gaps in academic learning, but it looks like it will be up to us to ensure that our students leave us knowing more than how to pass an exam.

It is up to us to ensure that our young people are given the toolkit needed for a happy, successful life after school, no matter what life throws at them.