ANALYSIS - The school year has started in Berlin, and the sight of wide-eyed first graders trudging along the streets with their big school bags tugs at my heart. The children start out so excited, proud, hungry to learn. But within a few years and sometimes less than that, the school system will have succeeded in turning many of them into problem kids: demotivated, lazy, kids who play hooky or hate math or sports, “unmusical” kids, class clowns, and more.
Schools are often criticized as “learning factories.” But a factory that produces that many rejects would have been closed long ago instead of being subsidized. Closing schools is something that internationally renowned Danish educator Jesper Juul recommends. He believes schools should be closed for five years to give teachers time to learn what they haven’t been taught so far: how to communicate with students, parents, and hierarchical superiors.
I thought of this as a school secretary told me about her experience at the end of a fresh batch of first-graders’ first day at school. She’d asked teachers emerging from their classrooms how things had gone, what the kids had spent their time doing.
The first teacher said: “It was nice. We sung and painted. I’m exhausted but happy.” The second said: "We did lessons. They should understand from the start that school means stress.” The third said: "The terrible thing is, we spend two or three years with them by which time they’re on their way to becoming halfway civilized, and then we get another batch of little monsters and have to start all over again.”
It can be assumed that a teacher who wants her class to understand that school means stress will hit his or her target pretty fast, possibly as early as the first day, and that the kids will not fail to cause that teacher stress. Equally, it can be assumed that a teacher who expects monsters will, time and time again, get a classroom full of them – and find many colleagues (in fact many parents!) who share that outlook.
Why our children become tyrants
In Germany, the two most successful books about raising children of the last five years are Michael Winterhoff’s Warum unsere Kinder Tyrannen werden (Why Our Children Become Tyrants) and Bernard Bueb’s Lob der Disziplin (In Praise of Discipline). Anyone who views children as potential tyrants, or discipline as the only way to relate to them, will never be disappointed, and children will either act up with that person more than they normally would or clam up out of fear.
Anyone with outlooks like those is not likely to learn that relating to kids can be a fundamentally different experience – especially not with new books coming out like the one written by Ursula Sarrazin, Hexenjagd (Witch Hunt), that will doubtlessly resonate with many of her colleagues. "We teachers can’t remedy all of society’s deficiencies,” Sarrazin writes. “Schools would be overwhelmed.”
Schools do have a role to play in remedying “society’s deficiencies” -- if they didn’t they’d be superfluous. But it’s society that has to deal with the deficiencies that the schools all too often bring to the surface: disinterest in learning, underachieving, lack of self-confidence, hatred of authority. Once again: if you view children as carriers of “society’s deficiencies” you will not be disappointed. What goes around comes around, as the saying goes.
The children I saw on the streets of Berlin heading for their first day of school were not deficient. They are not little tyrants. It’s possible that not all of them are the way the schools would like them to be. But that doesn’t necessarily speak against the kids. Or even against the teachers – because school can have the same negative effects on them as it does on the kids they’re locked up with. To bring the factory analogy back into play, many teachers are like workers who are supposed to assemble a car but have neither a design nor the necessary tools.
But now and again there’s a great moment. After his first day at school, one little boy said to his teacher: “That was really nice. I’m coming back tomorrow.” “I’m glad,” she said. And meant it.