Saturday, November 13, 2010

a conversation

I saw a mum yesterday, a parent from my daughter's old school.

She said, "I know you from somewhere!"

Oh, me too! I said. (But I didn't try to remember where, because whenever this happens, I wrack and wrack my brains and nothing comes out. It's exhausting. Me and my pea-sized memory for practical things. But I do know who is dating Justin Timberlake. My memory is very selective. But this is now what is known as a TANGENT and I really should get back to the subject).

Anyway, she figured it out and said, "Happy Hills School?" (not the school's real name, of course)

Ah! I said. That would be from a long time ago! How are you?

We started to chat. Her daughter had been in kindergarten when my daughter began Year 1. We had a mutual acquaintance. We made small talk about how her daughter was doing now, and I asked, So who is her teacher this year?

"She's got Miss Bliff* this year. But next year I'm hoping she'll get Mrs Nibble.* She's a lot more firm than Miss Bliff. I think she's just what Millie* needs. Millie doesn't want her. She said she's scared of her. She likes Miss Bliff because she's fun. But I think with Mrs Nibble she'll finally learn something. Haha!"


Now. Mrs Nibble was my daughter's teacher in Year 1, Term one. In the first couple of weeks of term, Mrs Nibble liked to say, "Here's your work. If you don't finish it in time, you'll have to stay in at recess/lunch."

She also used sharp words and didn't let other kids help my daughter when she was overwhelmed. She got angry with my girl for crying. She also berated her, without any kindness, in front of me. The term my daughter was with her, my girl turned from someone who absolutely loved school into someone who couldn't let me leave her sight.

Sure, I know, you can't blame one person for this. Yes, my daughter is sensitive. She gets anxious, very anxious in certain situations. This teacher and my girl were, perhaps, simply not a good fit. Some kids love her, I have heard. The parent I spoke to does. She is not a bad person. Just a firm, no nonsense teacher. Some people believe this is the best kind of teacher a kid could have.

But it makes me think of an article by Jan Hunt, from The Natural Child Project:

"Einstein wrote, "It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion."

Most parents understand how difficult it is for their children to learn something when they are rushed, threatened, or given failing grades. John Holt warned that "we think badly, and even perceive badly, or not at all, when we are anxious or afraid... when we make children afraid, we stop learning dead in its tracks." "

In the environment of a firm, no nonsense teacher who used words that made my girl anxious and scared, my daughter's desire to learn and love of learning stopped dead. I have never been a fan of this style of teaching (or of detentions or collective punishment), but having read John Holt, and others who advocate teaching with respect, kindness, and reassurance, and having seen how this approach works so beautifully, I now want to YELL Holt's message from the roof tops.

When you make a child afraid! I will yell.

You stop learning! (I'll use a megaphone, I think. Maybe with an amp attached)


In its tracks !!!

And this message will echo against the mountains; it will ride over hills and over land; it will sift in through schoolroom windows; spread into the minds of teachers and students and parents alike. It will be heard.

Oh how I wish it could be.

*none of these names are real, of course. Though they are lovely names, and perhaps they are real for someone else. I sure hope so.


  1. Thanks so much for quoting from my article. This is a great post, and so relevant because there too few Miss Bliffs who know that fun equals learning, and too many Mrs. Nibbles who think that fear motivates children, when it can only paralyze them.

    If you'd like to review my book The Unschooling Unmanual, please write:

    Best wishes,


    Jan Hunt, M.Sc., Director
    Natural Child Project

    "Children reflect the treatment they receive."

  2. The thing that strikes me with this post is that YOU recognized what your daughter needed and was not getting and you were proactive. How sad that there are so many parents, most in fact, that just leave there children in that environment.

    Sometimes, actually MOST times, it seems, we can't change the world, only our little spot in it. You have done that. Bravo.

  3. dear Helena
    ... I remember myself as a little girl so well ... indeed the fear some teachers created in me did literally paralyse my learning dead ...
    ... now having been casual teacher for so many years I think I understand well the main reason why teachers create fear in their students ...well - simply - it makes their job so so much easier ....
    .. I love your blog and I am so happy to know how strongly you feel about learning ... it makes me proud and ascertained ....
    thank you for being you ... I sure will keep reading

  4. The #1 reason I wanted my oldest daughter to come home, even if it was only for one year, was to keep her away from a certain teacher. Like your experience, some people liked her. I taught with her. I saw first hand how she treated children and co-workers. No way was she interacting with my child. Like you, my daughter is anxious. She is a wonderful student who excelled in school, but let out all her pent up stress at home. Even if she chooses to go back next year, I am happy that this person will never be am authority figure in my daughter's life.

    John Holt should be required reading for teachers (I was a teacher and never heard of him until last year!)


I love hearing from you! Thank you for your heartfelt, thoughtful responses—they lift me, and give me light.