In the first week of the new term, Helene Witcher recalls her daughter's anxieties about starting secondary school - and how difficult it can be for the teachers
Just be yourself," I said to my youngest, when she poured out her worries during her first week at secondary school. "But I'm not myself," she protested. "I've pretended I don't wear glasses, I've pretended I can't speak any French, and," she tugged at the uniform, "do I look like myself?" I took a deep breathe and pondered how to blend the expectations of the school with the innocence of the 12-year-old.
During the summer holidays and despite my remonstrations, she had lugged home a French Linguaphone from the library and closeted herself in her room. Anxiety about going to high school had fuelled extraordinary assumptions about the linguistic skills of other first year pupils, and she didn't want to look a lemon in her first French class. A friend gave her Lord of the Rings for her birthday and, despite being addicted previously to American high school romances, she became hooked. The Linguaphone began to gather dust and I discreetly took it back to the library.
According to her outpourings, the secondary staff were a strange crew who seemed hard put to connect with the motley individuals in the new first year. Not surprising really, when one considers that she had encountered about 15 of them and that they, poor things, were faced with nearly 200 new faces. The English teacher had marshalled them into the library for a look around and to choose a book. There was no time to enquire first about their seven years' experience at primary school, nor to make any deductions about their reading skills and habits.
Anxious to fit in, and desperately seeking something familiar, my daughter chose another American high school romance. Tolkein remained firmly closed on the bedside table and the romance lay barely opened. Clearly, she was facing a dilemma. "Just leave it," I said. "Tell the teacher you're reading something else just now." But she just looked wanly at me and sighed the sigh of one whose mother does not understand the subtleties of secondary school.
In art, the teacher shared the mystery of his subject. "In primary school you had fun doing art," he said. "Well, we hope you will enjoy it too, but it is a very serious subject and you will have to work very hard." With an emphatic flourish he wrote off their experience and skills and, one hopes inadvertently, did precisely the same with regard to the professional skills of his primary colleagues.
The music class opened with the teacher inviting the pupils to fetch glockenspiels from the cupboard, which was a good start, for most primary children have used them before. One boy opened his box confidently to check whether there was a beater inside it. "Shut that box!" commanded the teacher. "Sit down and don't open the boxes till I tell you." Two pupils had their boxes whipped away for not heeding the instruction. Then the teacher invited the rest of the class, now sitting very uncomfortably, to open their boxes. Inevitably, someone else had a box with no beater in it. My daughter mimed the increasing hysteria while the child was instructed to walk silently to the cupboard to find one. "It was really crazy, mum."
"So did you play some music?" I asked, cautiously. "Yeah, well, sort of. But then the teacher took a ragie on Paul because he had a T-shirt on. He had to stand up and she said he was dressed inappropriately." She grimaced at me. "The thing is, we all had T-shirts on, because we'd just had PE, but he hadn't put his sweatshirt back on top. You have to do that, even if you're boiling. "
She wore the uniform to please the school and took some pride in the strange formal girl she met in the mirror each morning. But one night she woke up, startled, from a dream. She had seen a long line of girls, each with her sister's hairstyle but with her own face. Their mouths were bright red, mournful and turned down at the corners. They carried pink bags on their uniformly blazered shoulders and proceeded silently down a long corridor with closed doors on each side. "They looked so sad," she said. "It was horrible. "
It doesn't take a psychology degree to work something out from this anxious little tale. I curled up on the bed beside her. "Don't worry," I said, with more conviction than I felt. "It was only a dream."
"It's all good learning experience," a friend reassured me. "Kids must learn what life is all about. Secondary schools toughen them up for the real world." Sure enough, school is where most children are first free from home and begin to learn about how different people behave, absorbing it all into their emerging understanding of themselves. At primary school, the process is fairly measured with each year bringing a new teacher and a new set of expectations. Then, wham, bang, just as their bodies begin to tumble with new hormones and new uncertainties and when, as any parent knows, just to look at them the wrong way can make their self-esteem crumble or flare into hostile indignation, our pubescent offspring must step across the threshold of secondary school where nothing can be taken as given. The initiation rites of distant indigenous peoples are as nothing compared with this.
But, just as remote initiation ceremonies which might seem bizarre to many indigenous Scots turn out to be appropriate forms of socialisation in other societies, so enrolment at secondary school, for many youngsters, comes at precisely the right time. Some relish the comparative anonymity as a handy period of adjustment or revel in the breadths and depths of experience sprawling out before them. But for others, the process of establishing themselves simultaneously as learners, as members of a new peer group and as raw recruits within a large institution can be overwhelmingly difficult. The challenge for the schools and for the individual teachers is in knowing how best to respond and to whom.
Who would be a secondary teacher in the face of this? Schools are charged with the serious responsibility of educating each generation with a careful selection of the most appropriate and relevant knowledge, skills and understanding which they can muster, the success of which is measured annually through the raw exposure of examination results. Yet few teachers would claim that their task is simply to pass on the most precious nuggets of their subject and they will talk at length, not just about the importance of knowing each learner and how to draw out their potential, but about responding to the differing personal and social experiences which children bring to school. So how does any teacher strike a balance confidently between that sensitive appreciation of individual experience and the imperative to secure recruits to each subject who will, in turn, eventually secure laudable results for their department and their school?
Taking part in interviewing for several secondary teaching posts this summer was a cheering experience. Each candidate had been sifted and selected painstakingly from a hefty pile of application forms and their qualifications, experience and enthusiasm were impressive. At interview, they were expected to provide evidence, not simply of a thorough knowledge of their subject, but of its imaginative and productive application. Their familiarity with the courses, with a range of planning and assessment tools and with complementary strategies for effective classroom management were all teased out methodically for the interview panels to digest and compare.
Final decisions were often difficult, but the most common feature which determined the ultimate selection was noteworthy. It reflected the schools' determination to appoint staff with the optimum blend of professional skills and, for want of a better word, "people" skills. What made the difference was often their explicit respect for young learners. Some candidates were relatively new teachers and others had considerable experience, but those appointed offered clear evidence of understanding the wholeness of the learning which takes place within a secondary school.
Their subject skills and enthusiasm were matched by a readiness to engage young people, through making comprehensible connections with their young lives. They shared a quiet confidence that making such connections underpins the route to success and fulfilment for pupils and teachers alike.
I look forward to meeting them again and charting their progress. As for my daughter's daily feedback, it tailed off as she gradually got the hang of what was expected. She was surprised that nobody could speak French and then fearfully embarrassed that she had bothered to learn some. The science teacher had shared some exploding experiments which caught her fancy and she enthused about the RE teacher who had offered them choices about what they might study. The geography teacher, bless him, had made a joke. "No one noticed, except me," she chuckled, and then looked slightly anxious, uncertain of whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. Well, that's secondary school for you.