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Mental health in the classroom – are we getting the best out of our kids?
I’d like to pose this question to all those teachers and educators out there – “Are you getting the best out of your kids in the classroom?” I’m not talking about great NAPLAN results, marks on an exam or an ATAR score – I’m talking about reaching the kids in your class and making a connection substantial enough for you to believe they have some chance of reaching their potential, both academically and personally.
I have been a teacher for more than 20 years and it’s only now that I realise I have probably missed the boat on many occasions. Why now? Because for the past six years I have been working outside the classroom, with parents, students and teachers on areas of education I knew very little about while I was on the inside – too busy to scratch myself, let alone keep up with current research on what makes kids tick; what it is we should, but often don’t know, in terms of their state of development and their state of mind. Yes, we teachers know all about curriculum; all about the pressures of performing; all about the million and one administrative tasks we must perform – but how well do we know our clients? The kids in our classroom? Do we ever have enough time to simply chill and find out how special each kid in our class really is – even the naughty ones?
We talk about the mental health and well being of our young, and we often associate that notion with a mental health ‘issue’ such as depression, destructive behaviour, bullying, self-image or binge-drinking disorders. What I’m seeing in classrooms is the pressure to achieve or be damned – pressure from schools, pressure from parents and pressure from peers. If that isn’t a trigger for a mental health issue, I don’t know what is.
A frighteningly real example of this was shared with me only recently – a mum of a Year 7 student could see that her son was struggling with all the changes of secondary school. He wasn’t doing any homework, he wasn’t talking, he was withdrawn and moody. The atmosphere at home was ripe for constant arguments. This mum has visited her son’s school on several occasions to see how she might support her son and to find out how his teachers were dealing with his total ‘disconnect’. She was told by more than one of his Year 7 teachers that “he is a nice boy who behaves well in class. I just don’t have time to chase up every child who doesn’t complete work. There’s too many kids, not enough time and we expect them to take more responsibility for their learning once they start high school.” It’s a clear failure in our education system when we are prepared to admit that heavy curriculum loads and the drive to get through it all results in ‘sacrificial lambs’ who can’t cut it.
I don’t blame the teachers, I blame the system. Our kids spend 13 years of their lives at school – 5 days a week, 42 weeks a year. If they don’t like school (and most of them don’t), why don’t they like it…and who cares if they don’t? Surely there must be something wrong with a system that most kids hate! Why don’t kids get up in the morning and say “Wow! Another day at school – I wonder what new thing I’ll learn today”? They don’t say it because, in general, they find WHAT they are being taught boring. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not WHAT is being taught that’s boring, it’s HOW it’s being taught. It’s been a long time since I completed my degree and diploma, but staff sessions I’ve run on how to tap into the kids in our classes have been met with “I didn’t know that!” from young and not-so-young teachers alike. If I know it because I’ve read it (because now I have the time I didn’t have as a teacher!) then why don’t ‘new’ teachers know it as part of their training?
I am 100% with Sir Ken Robinson whose presentation on schools killing creativity is a must-see for every teacher concerned about the life-long impact they are making on their students. We are so pressured into pushing kids through an over-crowded (and some would argue irrelevant) curriculum that we don’t have the time to inspire kids to learn and create just because they can – and our pressure rubs off on them.
As Ken Robinson says “We are educating kids out of their creativity”; and he further claims that intelligence is diverse, dynamic and distinct. It seems as plain as the nose on your face and basic to any knowledge or understanding of the principles of teaching that we DON’T all learn the same way and teaching should accommodate that; boys and girls are wired differently, so their learning needs are different as well.
I’m sure there are plenty of individual teachers and schools whose approach to teaching and learning fits the philosophy that education is NOT a one size fits all. But, as a ‘system’ and in general, we don’t have time. Those 5 year-olds who head off to ‘big’ school for the first time this year will be retiring in 2067, if they work till they’re 60. How can we educate them for jobs or careers that don’t even exist yet? Yes, we need to teach the basics of literacy and numeracy, but wouldn’t it be better to focus on taking our time and stimulating the capacity that is within every child to create and achieve something, rather than pushing kids through a curriculum, which leads to ‘failure’ for some….or worse, kids not caring at all.
We need to release the pressure valve; teachers need to be allowed to enjoy what is one of the most valuable roles on offer and kids need to be allowed to enjoy learning and creating. If we focused more on how we deliver the message rather than on how much we deliver, we might just find our kids connect better with school and develop a better attitude towards learning – surely a plus for improved mental health in the classroom.
Author: Angie Wilcock , director of High Hopes Educational Services, works with parents, teachers and students. She lives in Sydney and you can view her work at www.highhopes.com.au email: [email protected]