Accentuate the negative

28th February 1997 at 00:00
How often have you felt or thought, "I just can't stand little JasmineLeeanneWayneAlex (have you noticed how some names are much more likely to have a built-in annoyance factor?) any more?" All those breaktime rushes to the staffroom desperate for a caffeine hit to offset the bilious dislike coursing through your veins at some particularly cheekyobnoxiouswhiny comment from your least favourite pupil: what do they mean?

According to Gerda Hanko, educational psychologist and therapist, teachers often hold within them, unconsciously, the negative feelings or experiences their students project on to them. These uncomfortable negatives are then perceived by the teacher as negative attributes of the child. Sounds like mumbo-jumbo? Just consider how it might be true.

Jane is a whiny child. She often has a cold. She frequently falls over in the playground and it is never her fault. She wants the welfare worker to take her home, quite often. She comes too close, demanding affection from teachers and auxiliaries, which they feel is inappropriate to give. Although she is pretty, she is not attractive; you do not want to hug her in the way that some other, less graceful children seem to invite. And in class, frankly, she is a pain. She does not stay on task, she asks for more than her fair share of help, she takes no pride in what she does, and she is very slow to catch on. She arouses irritation, irritation mixed with, and, if our theory is true, pity.

Because we know about her home situation: her mother is an alcoholic, you can smell it on her breath. She rarely picks Jane up on time. Sometimes, other people, unknown to the teacher, collect the child, who appears to know them. Mother's vision seems blurred, so that although she is perfectly amiable, neither the world at large nor Jane in particular seems quite in focus for her. Sometimes Jane and she are well turned out. Sometimes their hair is unbrushed and their clothes inappropriate (jumpers in the summer, thin shirts in the winter). Jane's energy levels are low in the morning; has she had breakfast? When Jane is ill and her mother has to get her from school, her mother is much more solicitous than usual.

Teacher cannot solve any of these problems. But possibly an understanding might alleviate their impact. Perhaps Jane is whiny because that is a safe way to get mother's attention, and often poorly because that elicits mothering from mother (who is a single parent). Without sufficient parental support, children cannot learn, and Jane is trying as best she can to draw out from the parental figure of the teacher the emotional sustenance she needs to thrive in the classroom. For her part, the teacher, focus of the whole class's emotional energy, feels a leech-like need. In defence, she distances herself from this threat by dismissing Jane's demands as trivial: "whiny".

Or what about John? He is always up there with the cocky answer. At times, it feels as if he is challenging the teacher for supremacy, correcting him when he makes some minor error about the woodlouse's habits or checking spellings against the dictionary. Teacher feels hostile, a hostility compounded by his encounters with John's parents, who are hard-edged, middle-class, pushy. What a family!

John, however, quite likely both feels anxious himself about doing well and getting things right. For him, a teacher or parent is someone who knows what is what and does not hesitate to say so. That kind of certainty is scarcely human, so it must be tested all the time. Such testing may be wearing for the teacher, but just imagine how scary it is for John, who dares every time to topple a figure of godlike power. In this instance, teacher and pupil are sharing a threat, which can be dispelled by a simple acknowledgement of human fallibility.

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