I tried everything.
Kneeling beside 3rd grader Lucia’s tiny uniform-clad body, I asked her questions about her siblings, her vocabulary words and her dream vacation as I occasionally patted her back and told her that everyone has difficult days. The tears kept on coming. She was silent as her cheeks turned a brighter shade of red. She wouldn’t look at me. She wiped at her face with angry little fists and continued to write out her spelling words with painstaking neatness. Again and again I tried to get her to tell me what was wrong. I told her it was alright that she couldn’t focus when she was upset. She wouldn’t budge. She only wanted to finish her homework.
When the teacher came around with snacks, I am certain she noticed the tears. She didn’t say anything. Instead, she corrected Lucia’s posture and complimented her on her handwriting. I was amazed. Lucia was cheered up by this hint at praise, but regressed into tears twice more before the end of homework club.
In the beginning of our hour together she was engaged–filling out a menu for her science class filled with lists of nutritious foods for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper. I was encouraged that she was so involved in her work. I practiced a tactic from our Service Learning class–drawing out a mind map of her progress that showed pictures of the foods she’d written down and included correct spellings of words she hesitated on. We were moving right along.
And then she broke down. I couldn’t have seen it coming. I didn’t know how to react. When I went with the emotionally sensitive tactics typical of American classrooms where you ask about a child’s feelings and offer them support, she ignored me completely. When I tried to distract her with tangents of conversation relating to the sentences she was writing, she did not respond. She only reacted when I finally realized that what would help her most was to get her work done. Feeling anxious about finishing it all, she just wanted to be productive. I was hurting her by trying to help and understand what was wrong. She wanted nothing of it. I may be generalizing, but this withdrawn nature when upset seems typical of Irish children and culture from what I’ve witnessed in my time abroad so far. Opening up is not common or necessarily accepted. Children are expected to get over it and move on. So that’s what we did.
Lucia finished her maths in an astonishing ten minutes. She did all of the division in her head. She didn’t waver.
When we got to Irish, I figured out what may have been part of how upset she was. After asking for help from the teacher several times, (well aware that I couldn’t help her with my complete lack of Irish knowledge) Lucia was finally firmly told that the sentences she had to write were hers alone. It was her responsibility to finish them, and the teacher was not going to help her. The tears started again.
Finally, Lucia told me that her mother did not know how to read or write Irish. She couldn’t finish her work at home, and she hadn’t finished it in homework club. This meant that her mother would have to write a note and she’d have to do the homework with her regular classroom teacher the next day. I did my best to reassure her that everything would be alright, but she was clearly (and understandably) anxious.
In such a strict model of traditional education, Lucia does everything she can to check off her boxes and do everything she is expected to do. She is neat and careful and bright. She thrives in the mechanical activities offered in her workbooks. Despite all of the conversations we’ve had in class about different learning styles, we often forget that there are students for whom the system actually works quite well. Even though Lucia lacks the support for her Irish homework at home, it sounds like the system at Scoil Bhride takes this into account and offers her extra help during the day (though it may isolate her from her peers to some extent.) The fact that homework club exists demonstrates a more holistic approach to education.
At the end of our time together, I asked Lucia if she wanted to work with me again next week. To my surprise, she nodded enthusiastically and replied with “yes.” I have been thinking about my time with her over the past 24 hours, and I found myself wondering about the current “business” model of education that seems to characterize schools from Europe to the US.
In a recent BBC news clip I watched this week while munching on muesli and strawberry yogurt, concern was expressed for a lack of preparation of students for the “real world” of employment after school. This was a nearly perfect mirror of the conversations that I studied in the US which claimed that the Millenial generation of Emerging Adults are utterly underprepared for the world of work. They were criticized as being too driven by praise and rewards, and for expecting too many benefits and too high of salaries upon graduation. They want it all and they want it now.
This BBC report suggested that universities work to prepare students with interpersonal skills, communication, and team work. But what if these skills were fostered earlier on? In elementary schools like Scoil Bhride where collaboration and communication during homework club are rare?
Another recent BBC report emphasizes very different failures of the UK education when it comes to students reaching employment. This article, titled “Students: Better at Cracking Jokes than Taking Risks,” criticizes the education system as preparing students too much when it comes to “problem solving, taking pride in their work, and being true to themselves, as well as building relationships and having a sense of humour.” However, they suffer when it comes to dealing with setbacks, time management, and taking risks.
In a modern world where graduating from University no longer guarantees that you will get a job, these skills are vital. In the US, the ability to stand out in a crowd is something that is encouraged early on. This is not honed in the same way in the UK. Perhaps if both nations exchanged ideas they could come up with some sort of super hybrid model…
Also of interest this week was an article written in the NY Times regarding the assessment of teachers. It has been ruled in New York that teacher’s assessments can now be made public. On one hand, this is a strong motivator for teachers to continue to perform to the best of their potential. On the other, it is a threatening measure that diminishes trust in an already unstable system. Student standardized test scores are not enough to measure a teacher’s success. I believe we should practice the same holistic approach to assessing teachers that we idealize with assessing students.