I was talking with a friend of mine and we were discussing perceptions of maths and computing (yeah, I’m like this off duty, too) and she felt that she was bad at Maths. I commented that this was often because of some previous experience in school and she nodded and told me this story, which she’s given me permission to share with you now. (My paraphrasing but in her voice)
“When I was five, we got to this point in Math where I didn’t follow what was going on. We got to this section and it just didn’t make any sense to me. The teacher gave us some homework to do and I looked at it and I couldn’t do it but I didn’t want to hand in nothing. So I scrunched it up and put it in the bin. When the teacher asked for it back, I told her that I didn’t have it.
It turns out that the teacher had seen me put it in the bin and so she punished me. And I’ve never thought of myself as good at math since.”
Wow. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better way to give someone a complex about a subject. Ok, yes, my friend did lie to the teacher about not the work and, yes, it would have been better if she’d approached the teacher to ask for help – but given what played out, I’m not really sure how much it would have changed what happened. And, before we get too carried away, she was five.
Now this is all some (but not that many) years ago and a lot of things have changed in teaching, but all of us who stand up and call ourselves educations could do worse than remember Bruce Springsteen’s approach to concerts. Bruce plays a lot of concerts but, at each one, he tries to give his best because a lot of the people in the audience are going to their first and only Springsteen concert. It can be really hard to deal with activities that are disruptive, disobedient and possible deliberately so, but they may be masking fear, uncertainty and a genuine desire for the problem to go away because someone is overwhelmed. Whatever we get paid, that’s really one of the things we get paid to do.
We’re human. We screw up. We get tired. But unless we’re thing about and trying to give that Springsteen moment to every student, then we’re setting ourselves up to be giving a negative example. Somewhere down the line, someone’s going to find their life harder because of that – it may be us in the next week, it may be another teacher next year, but it will always be the student.
Bad experiences hang around for years. It would be great if there were fewer of them. Be awesome. Be Springsteen.