Like many eight-year-olds, Anna bubbles with energy. This morning she skipped to the bus stop and laughed with her best friend on the ride to school, but as soon as she arrived things went wrong. First, the maths homework she had completed the night before wasn't in her book bag. When she told her teacher she couldn't find it, the teacher, with hands on hips, said: "You forgot your homework again? You are disorganised!"
Later that morning, the class attended an assembly in the auditorium. On the way back to class, two girls shoved Anna into the wall, causing her to trip and fall. "You are so disorganised," they jeered, echoing the teacher. Two boys pointed and laughed; when the teacher told them to quiet down, they looked at Anna as if it were her fault that they were being reprimanded.
Back in class Anna looked down at her hands while the rest of the class went over their maths homework. The girls sitting next to her said, loud enough for the rest of the class to hear: "No wonder you're so dumb." The teacher decided to ignore it and continue with the lesson.
At lunch Anna couldn't eat much because her stomach hurt. And so it went on, throughout the day; on the bus ride home, she sat, silently, glumly, unaware of anything around her.
I sometimes tell Anna's story at school assemblies. First, I hold up a large sheet of paper with the words, "I am a person with dignity" written on it. I ask the pupils and teachers to think of the paper as Anna's dignity. I hold the paper and make the visible surface smaller each time, until only one small fragment is left. "Every time you take away a piece of Anna's dignity," I say, "she believes she is less than she really is. How can you fix the damage? Once the words have been said, can you really take them back?"
We have all heard stories similar to Anna's. Most of us have been Anna sometime during our education. If we made it through primary school with our dignity relatively unscathed, the assaults of adolescence, secondary school and university awaited us. A girl tired of jokes about her breasts was told by adults to ignore it. A university design student was told by a professor: "Next time you draw a picture, try using your hands."
An administrator transferred a group of students away from the subject they wanted to do because, he said, they would never be capable of handling it. A teacher said, in a thoughtless moment: "Nobody can do anything with you." In all of these and countless more cases, we are told that we are not worth very much. We may spend the rest of our lives fulfilling that prophecy. We may remember these attacks on our dignity in great detail for most of our lives. Ask children to write about the time they were teased or bullied and you will get a piece with vivid detail.
Show some respect
Bullying has long been a national concern in our schools, and it has come into sharper focus in recent years with the prevalence of, and media focus on, cyber-bullying. However, we all to rarely hear an educator - or other people - reflect openly on the dignity of the children they teach. They talk about curriculum content, teaching methods and, occasionally, new research in developmental stages or multiple ways of learning. But how often do they say each child has value and deserves respect and that learning is tied to pupil perceptions of the respect they receive and their own sense of worth? How often do they look at children through the lens of dignity?
As people concerned with school, we need to step back and reflect on the meaning of the dignity of the child. Many educators and parents seem to believe that the principle is self-evident, especially with the notion of increasing self-esteem prominent in many schools. Unfortunately, that isn't true. If the primacy of children's dignity was obvious to everyone, then we would look more often at children through the lens of their own perceptions of themselves. There would be far fewer labels - such as "at risk", "special" and "disturbed" - applied to children.
As a teacher and administrator, I greeted children in the hallway by name, because I believe if you walk by someone and don't acknowledge them, you rob them of a piece of their dignity. In daily practice, it's as simple as treating other people as you want to be treated.
This is an extract from Schools that Learn, edited by Peter Senge and recently published in an updated edition (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, #163;19.99).