What do you remember of your school days? I hope that you experienced a positive relationship with your teachers and that you have happy memories. Values-based Education (VbE) supports teachers to create a climate for learning, which is based on a deep understanding of values such as respect, empathy, compassion and justice. It challenges routines and procedures that put a ceiling on a pupil’s potential, which may inadvertently shame or affect a child’s sense of self. My own experience wasn’t always so positive! In my book, From My Heart, transforming lives through values (Hawkes, 2013.Pub: Independent Thinking Press), I talked about my experience with my teacher, Mr.Smith.
‘I can still picture being a seven-year-old in Mr Smith’s class at Lethbridge School, in Swindon. It was a big class – some fifty-four children (part of the post-war baby boom). My desk was at the side of the classroom, near to a window, through which I would often gaze and daydream. I particularly recall one occasion at the beginning of the autumn term when Mr Smith asked us to write about our summer holiday. The lesson routine was to write, draw an illustrative picture and then take it to the teacher’s desk to be marked.
I had just returned from a holiday at Highcliff, near Bournemouth, where I had stayed in a caravan with my parents and brother, Maurice, so I had plenty to write about. I’d had a great time playing in the sea and building sandcastles. I could visualise the happy scene clearly in my mind. Industriously, I wrote the required half page with a picture of my brother and me playing in the water, which I drew in the plain paper space at the top. I glowed with the memories of my holiday and felt happy as I took my work to join the queue of children waiting in front of Mr Smith’s desk. There were a number of children waiting – in those days, we would often play the queue game, which meant nearly getting to the front and then going to the back again! However, I wanted Mr Smith to see my work, because I thought he would be pleased with the way that I had written it.
Eventually, after a number of slow-moving minutes, I reached the Dickensian figure of Mr Smith (nicknamed Slipper Smith), whom I clearly remember with his half-rimmed classes, over which he peered at us children. He took my work in his bony hands. There followed a long expectant pause: he kept looking at my work, staring at me and shaking his head disapprovingly and audibly tutting. With each of his gestures, my heart sank further, as this process seemed interminable. Then, in a somewhat snarling, sarcastic voice, and through clenched teeth, he pronounced loudly enough for the whole class to hear, ‘Neil! Do you know, you can’t write? You are just like your brother, Maurice, who used to be in my class. He couldn’t write either! No capital letters, no full stops, awful spelling – this is dreadful. You just can’t write and probably will never be any good as a writer. Do you know, you are a very stupid, pathetic, ignorant little boy.’ He clipped me round the back of my head and raged, ‘Go back to your desk and do it again and stop wasting my time, you imbecile.’
I returned to my desk, humiliated, dejected, tears flooding down my face, believing that I was a poor writer and a stupid person. The eyes of the other children seemed to burn into my head. I felt very hurt, put down and believed in my inadequacy, and these powerful feelings took their root in my emerging sense of self. You see, that day, I had made an agreement with Mr Smith that I couldn’t write – because little people agree with the views of big people – and that contract went through all my school days and into adulthood. I was left with a permanent sense of inadequacy and a nervous lack of self-respect when trying to write.
Years passed: I was in my head teacher’s room at West Kidlington School, when John Heppenstall, one of the school’s exceptionally talented senior teachers, came in and enthusiastically announced, ‘Neil, I have so much respect for you. I think the Dolphin News [parents’ newsletter] you wrote this week is fantastic and so brilliantly crafted.’ I heard myself replying, ‘Come off it John, you’re exaggerating. I’m not a very good writer – just do my best.’ Exasperatedly, John said, ‘Neil, it’s really great. Who says you can’t write?’ I looked at John sheepishly and replied, ‘Don’t you know that Mr Smith said that I couldn’t write!’ John look bemused and said, ‘Who the heck is Mr Smith?’ So I explained to him about the legacy of my childhood experience. We then went on to discuss the effect teachers can have on children, both positive and negative. This event formed the basis of a discussion with teachers at the school about how we need to be aware of how a lack of respect for children can impact on their lives.
My question to all parents and teachers is: What agreements will children make with you? Will you nurture positive or negative messages? What Mr Smith did was criticise me (‘You’re stupid!’) rather than constructively helping to improve my writing. I implore you to remember to build affirmative relationships with all children and inspire them to have confidence in themselves. In my view, a key task of a parent or teacher is to help the child to develop self-respect.’
I am privileged to visit schools throughout the world that have created a values pedagogy; one that inspires children and creates an ambience built on good relationship; a calm, safe and purposeful environment. If you would like to know more about VbE: which is an active movement to transform education then visit www.valuesbasededucation.com Let me know, by registering on our website, if you can help our movement, so we can ensure that all schools enable each child to flourish and look back on their school days with affection.
Dr. Neil Hawkes
Founder: Values-based Education International