Teacher and Writer
CHALLENGES IN EDUCATION
15 May 2015
(originally published in the Queenwood newsletter)
ON THE VALUE OF SCHOOL UNIFORM, ZERO TOLERANCE ON BULLYING AND THE CHALLENGES FACING PARENTS AND TEACHERS IN THE AGE OF DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIAL NETWORKS
I distinctly remember my first thoughts when I visited Gordonstoun School in 1991, prior to starting my first teaching and boarding job in the North of Scotland. One of them was: “How on earth will I ever remember the names of the pupils? They all look the same!” The reason for that fear was that all the students wore a school uniform, a concept I was unfamiliar with. In my home country Germany, even in deepest, darkest Wilhelminian Prussia, school pupils have always been allowed to wear to school whatever they like. And as clothing says a lot about personality, I always used to remember people, amongst other key features, by the way they dressed: Thomas is the boy who always wears a tracksuit. Lisa is the girl who likes wearing a lot of make-up and elegant dresses. Annika is most comfortable in jeans and t-shirts. My colleagues laughed about my fear of not being able to tell students apart. “They do have faces, you know, Astrid. And personalities!”
And of course, as I was to discover, they were right. As a Modern Languages teacher, I still had some qualms about the concept of uniform though. One of my units of work for Beginners’ German was about learning items of clothing and colour, and the easiest way of teaching this is through an interactive classroom exercise where pupils point to each other and say (in rudimentary German): “This is Tim. He is wearing white trousers, a blue shirt and beige shoes. This is Franziska. She is wearing a pink and purple skirt, a yellow blouse and black shoes.” This is not the most riveting exercise at the best of times, but just imagine the monotony of doing this in a school where students wear uniform . . .
Nonetheless, I must admit: after approximately 20 years of teaching in countries where uniform is the norm, I have become a convert. School uniform becomes part of a “corporate identity” and often a symbol of pride and belonging. It makes our students identifiable in public. And most importantly, it creates a sense of equality and removes the need to compete with regard to following the latest fashion trends or wearing the most expensive brands, at least during the working week. Interestingly, when we recently announced a mufti day for our Senior School, amidst all the joy of the pupils there were also one or two concerned voices and, as one senior student put it to me, “the fear of being judged.”
We should never judge people by the way they dress, but that does not stop us from expecting our students to adhere to the standards we are setting. These include wearing their hat to and from school and wearing their ties appropriately, not “flying half-mast” with the top button of the school shirt casually undone. It may seem petty, but we do (and will continue to) issue detentions for offenders, not only because we want our girls to look neat and tidy, but also because research has shown that discipline in the seemingly small matters tends to improve discipline in other, bigger matters as well.
Teachers are always actors to a certain extent – it comes with the job description. We are not REALLY angry with students who don’t do their shirts up properly, nor do we think any less of them. We are simply doing our job by ensuring consistency and coherent standards. Constant nagging is another part of the job description of those of us who oversee school discipline.
There is, however, an area of discipline where even my sense of humour stops and where my intervention, and that of my colleagues, becomes real and serious, and this is where unkindness and bullying are concerned. As we all know, girls can sometimes have subtle ways of being unkind to each other. I remember cases of bullying in coeducational schools where I taught, one of the most notorious being a group of senior boys (including the Head Boy) locking junior boys into a trunk and throwing the trunk down a long and steep staircase. A cruel and dangerous act, but easy to spot and easy to discipline the culprits.
Girls don’t tend to engage in physical bullying, but they do find other ways of hurting each other, often with devastating and long-lasting effect on their victims. Nowadays, schools will not stand for this and girls and parents should always feel confident that they can raise concerns without fear of repercussions.
When I think back to my childhood: we, too, had the odd friendship issue or fall-out. But then you went home in the afternoon, did your homework, chatted to your parents, maybe watched a family quiz show together, talked about your day and went to bed – without a computer/laptop/i-pad or smartphone to draw you back into the day’s arguments. A good night’s sleep usually did the trick, and the next morning everybody had moved on and we were friends again. Proper friends, not Facebook friends, and measured and judged by our worth, our kindness, our helpfulness, instead of by the number of Instagram followers or “likes” for meaningless comments.
Another difference was that friendship issues usually occurred between two people, or sometimes, rarely, small groups of friends. They did not have the potential to spiral out of control because somebody had posted a humiliating picture or remark on a social network site, for the whole year group to see and comment on and with the possibility of someone ending up completely and totally isolated. This potential has increased considerably, and sometimes the girls are unaware not only of the harm they do to others when posting thoughtless comments, but also of the potential harm they do to themselves when they create their indelible digital footprint, which one day may reflect very badly on them.
What can we do to support our girls in this increasingly complicated world?
As a school, we will always intervene and investigate when we become aware of any forms of unkindness or bullying. You need to have faith in our systems and let us know of any concerns, and most importantly encourage your daughters to come forward – not only with concerns for themselves, but also with concerns for others. We also educate the girls on a regular basis, both through our Personal Development program and through talks from our Police Liaison Officer about Cyber-Bullying and related issues.
As parents, you will be doing your daughter a great favour by not allowing her to use technology in her bedroom or to engage in late-night social networking. Reading a few chapters of a good book before going to sleep is far more restorative and conducive to a good night’s rest. The pressures of constant social networking can be relentless as well as addictive.
The job of teachers and educators has always been to accept that young people occasionally err, but to put them back on the right path. We will continue doing this; it has just become so much more complex in our modern world.