A MOTHER'S STORY
JULIETTE REMEMBERS THE JOURNEY OF EDUCATING HER THREE SONS, NOW IN THEIR TWENTIES ...
I remember when I first started teaching at Illawarra Christian School (ICS). I sat in the staffroom attending a meeting at the beginning of the day with the regular teaching staff and the principal, most of whom I didn't know. The conversations in that room were different to any others I'd experienced in the many public and private school staff rooms I'd been in over the years.
I overheard a teacher speaking in heartfelt tones about a child I knew in her class. He was a challenging child. He struggled in the classroom and his frustration came out in behaviour that disrupted the whole class. I knew what it was like to teach challenging kids and I'd heard loads of teachers complain about them ... "I can't wait till he's out of my class." I'd hear them say. Or, "I'm not going to waste my time on him. He can go straight to detention."
But in this staffroom, I heard something different. I heard the teacher say, "I just want to be the best teacher I can for Jason. I want to learn what it is I need to do to meet his needs."
Previous to this, I had sworn that I would always work at the coal face in public schools and never in a private school, which I assumed was all about prestige and poshness. But this humble and dedicated teacher from this warm and caring private school changed my mind. That was my first day, and I worked there for 23 years.
The reason I share this, is because up to that point I had planned to home school my children. I had two pre-school sons at the time, and I had seen first hand in my classrooms the strong influence a teacher can have on their students.
I wasn't sure I wanted to give my sons over to anyone else. I couldn't guarantee that their teacher would have a positive impact on their lives, so I was determined to protect them and keep them at home.
Passionate as I am about teaching, and as much as I loved my boys, I was starting to realise as they approached school age that I was not cut out to be a home schooling mother. I became aware that none of us would enjoy the experience.
Thankfully, that was around the time I had my first day at the ICS school. I knew, after hearing the teacher talk compassionately about her challenges that I wanted to investigate this school further. And over the next year I saw that this was not an isolated incident. The staff and the principal cared about scholastic results and they challenged kids with spelling tests and the like, but they cared about the child first. And they cared about the whole child: body, mind and spirit.
My oldest son, Matthew began kindergarten at ICS and he loved the atmosphere. His best friend was a lovely little girl called Jessica and he came home from school each day with stories about the games they had played and all the letters he was learning to read and write ... a new letter each week! Matt's teachers commented on what a sweet boy he was, sitting quietly at his desk or listening to the teacher read a story, and joining in with games in the playground.
By the time he reached Grade 2, it was clear that Matt was struggling to concentrate in the classroom. He was quiet and well behaved, but he seemed unable to complete tasks, especially written ones. If he focused, he could understand the work, but concentrating long enough to firstly listen to the instructions, and secondly, complete the task in the time given to the class, was really difficult for him. After prolonged observations in the classroom and psychological and scholastic testing, Matt was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). The modern epidemic.
It is worth noting here, that the teaching staff of Matt's school together created a strategy to support him (ie. not just his classroom teacher). The Grade 6 teacher created a roster of his students to visit Matt in his Grade 2 classroom each morning for two hours and act as a mentor and buddy to keep him on task. They didn't do the work for him, they just reminded him to keep going when he got distracted. As a parent, I was so grateful for this plan and the immediate benefit it had for Matt. Not only did it completely change his learning opportunities, this very generous offer from the Grade 6 teacher was a wonderful learning experience in mentoring for the Grade 6 students and a helpful support for the Grade 2 teacher.
As a teacher and parent, I resisted the diagnosis because I had seen ADD or ADHD blamed for all sorts of things in children: from poor spelling skills to downright naughtiness. However I'd also taught children with legitimate attention issues and I knew that in some cases ADD/ADHD was the right diagnosis. It was just that this was my sweet, affectionate boy who was so well behaved. He couldn't have the same condition as those kids who were like a ball in a pinball machine, flitting manically from one corner of the classroom to another. As it turns out, yes he could.
Matt's form of ADHD causes a hyperactivity in the thought processes, rather than in the body. This meant that while he was still, calm and seemed to be paying attention on the outside, his mind was flitting from topic to topic and getting distracted. If he started out by listening to the teacher, he quickly experienced her voice becoming background noise as his mind turned to ... 'What's in my lunchbox today? - Will I be goalie when we play soccer at break? - My shoe has got sand in it . - I wonder what will happen if I pull this thread on the carpet? ... It's my turn on the PlayStation when I get home this afternoon.’ And so on.
Throughout his infants and primary years at school, Matt had the benefit of classroom teachers who genuinely cared and offered great support, often beyond the call of duty. They encouraged him and saw the strengths in his character, even though there were weaknesses in his school work.
As he got older, other learning difficulties appeared which may or may not have been due to ADHD. Remembering what he'd learned became a real challenge and he was frequently frustrated, for example, when he had to re-learn a Maths strategy that he had learned and understood yesterday. With great effort, Matt achieved test results of around 50% - 60% throughout his primary schooling.
The nature of the primary classroom is an immersive one, with generally one main teacher who knows the students well, and an almost family-like culture within the class. Going to secondary school was a whole different story. Thankfully, Matt attended a school that has students from kindergarten all the way up to Year 12 (Leaving Cert.) which meant he just had to move to different classrooms rather than a different school.
For the next few years, Matt fell through the cracks as many high school students do when they leave the close, immersive environment of primary school. His results wallowed around the 35% - 45% mark, even though he didn't miss classes and he was quiet and (seemingly) attentive. A huge factor for Matt was seeing the relevance of his school work topics. He would slog away at topics that he never planned to use. Although most 15 year olds can't predict what skills they might need in their careers, Matt was fairly sure that writing a sonnet or solving quadratic equations would not be part of his future.
What kept him going at school (besides the law!) was the positive attitude of his teachers. Crucially, despite his consistently low grades, they were kind and understanding. They appreciated him as a person and saw the man he might become, beyond the test marks and hieroglyphic handwriting. This valuing of Matt's character and commitment to him as a person, not just as a student was, in my opinion, pivotal in his self esteem and lay the foundation for what followed next.
Fast forward to his final year, in Year 10 (Junior Cert).
When Matt made (and I supported) the decision for him to leave school early and pursue an apprenticeship, it attracted a significant amount of criticism from my teacher colleagues. They assumed that since I was a teacher, I would value the opportunity for my son to continue his education. And of course I did: but I recognised that school was not the best place for him to be educated. With my support and his own consistent effort, Matt worked hard in his final year and managed to pass his School Certificate (Junior Cert in Ireland).
We both felt like it was a huge success and a huge relief. And Matt had a plan. He wanted to be a chef. He had learned to cook at home and had developed quite a repertoire of recipes for feeding our family of five. But a commercial restaurant can be a fast paced, noisy, multi-tasking environment, the worst possible context for people with ADHD. It is famous for highly strung head chefs and stressed out assistants, let alone the poor old apprentices! Matt thought it through, considered his strengths (hard working, honest, loyal, willing, physically strong) and his weaknesses (multi-tasking, multiple instructions, distractions) and decided to become a baker, still in the food industry, but with a more calm working environment.
There was no work around without a qualification so Matt immediately entered a pre-apprenticeship course as a baker. Through his success in this short course, he was recommended by his lecturers and Matt quickly got his first job at a bakery close to home. They were gruelling hours, starting at around 11pm and finishing at around 6am. He couldn't manage to keep up socialising because he was shift working, but he rarely missed a day's work, cycling in every night. In fact he frequently went in early to get in some extra practice or stayed late, so he could learn some new skills from the pastry chef who arrived at 7am.
As part of his new apprenticeship, Matt was enrolled in college for the theory side of baking. I will never forget picking him up after his first night at college. As he got in the car, I said to him, "How did it go?" I was nervous. I knew he would be great at the actual baking - the physical side of the job, but I was worried about the theory. I remembered the tears and tantrums and, in his later years, the frustration with school tasks and his capacity to remember the details. I was worried that his dream would be sabotaged by his scholastic skills.
He responded to my question ... "Awesome! Tonight we did Occupational Health and Safety. It was a bit boring, but I know I need to know for my job. I need to know that you should put 20kg bags of flour on the floor and not on a shelf, or how to take care of your knives. I'll need to know that in my every day job, so I don't mind learning it. And I know I’ll remember it." Matt was silent for a bit while we drive down the highway and then he spoke. "Do you remember what the last assignment I did at school was, Mum?" I didn't. "It was cloning sheep. Cloning sheep! When I am ever going to clone a sheep? But my first college assignment is listing 5 safety rules in the bakery. I WANT to do that assignment, because I really need to know it. That's so awesome."
Today Matt has his qualification as a baker. After qualifying, he worked for a few years in the industry, frequently praised by his bosses, he then felt ready to pursue his original dream of becoming a chef. Today Matt has completed his chef trade and is working as a qualified chef in a popular restaurant in his home town. He also is on the way to having a third qualification as a pastry chef. Earning the three trades: baking, chef and pastry would classify him as a 'Master Chef', the official term (before television got a hold of it!) and make him very employable indeed, especially for smaller restaurants that can’t afford to hire three differently skilled workers.
This is a longer story than I intended, but I guess I have to beg your indulgence as a mother. The details of Matt's earlier school context are so important and I believe, crucial to his attitude when he left school. He left positive.
I am so grateful to his teachers for two things, one of which leads to the other:
They saw the character of my son and encouraged him. They didn't stop their assessment of him at his test results. They cared for him as a whole person, not just a student.
Secondly, as a result, he left school feeling like he could achieve. He could easily have left school feeling like a failure, because by the conventional schooling system of test results he had frequently failed. But instead, he left school with his self esteem intact, and never doubted (even when I momentarily did) that he was capable of completing his career goals.
I'm also thankful that he let me harass him into doing his homework and assignments and studying for tests over and over while he sat at the kitchen bench and watched me make dinner.
But mostly, I am proud of the calibre of man my son is, which was as evident in those early years as it is now. He is a loyal, hard working, honest and reliable employee. And a warm, affectionate, goofy son. (Who should call his mother a little more often - but hey, you can't have everything!)
Finally, thank you for walking the journey of Matt's education with me. I have two other sons, Josiah and Nathanael who each different schooling experiences. Maybe I’ll share their stories down the track as well. I’ve learned so much from each of them. Being a mother helped me to be a better teacher and being a teacher helped me to be a better mother. I have no doubt of this.
I hope that this account gives insight into what I believe to be important for every educator, to see the whole child and respond to his or her strengths and weaknesses with compassion and wisdom and grace. And we teachers have to acknowledge that the traditional classroom is not the best learning environment for very many children. In the west, it is the system in which we have to function, so we need to work within it. But we need creative educators to make the most of the context, rather than cause children to suffer within it.
Out of my experience as a parent and an educator, I was inspired by brilliant teachers who had gone before me as well as the tenacity of hard working students with varying degrees of 'school smarts' who rose above the limitations of the school system and achieved their potential. My business and specifically the Flourish Tutoring program is dedicated to them and is designed for students like them, to be cared for as a whole person: body, mind and spirit, and to flourish wherever they are.