Although you don’t have to have experienced something to understand it, experience helps a lot when it comes to avoiding misunderstandings. On today’s news there was a story about the Queen. She was overheard discussing a visiting Chinese delegation, and how rude they had been. I giggled inwardly at this, because when we visited China with our children a couple of years ago, my definite first impression was that the people were rude. They spat in the street, they didn’t know how to queue, they wanted to take photographs of our children all the time, and they seemed to stare at us constantly. But within a day or two of arriving in China I realised that the problem wasn’t with them, it was with me. I had to adjust my cultural expectations and stop thinking that an entire nation should behave as I saw fit, just to fit in with my own opinions about what was and wasn’t ‘rude’.
Something similar happened to me when I moved from primary into secondary teaching. At first I was all at sea – the things that I had held to be true did not seem to apply in this new environment. I could no longer take time to discuss my expectations with my classes – I had 250 students and barely any time to get to know them. Working with teenagers was like working with an entirely different species compared to the playful, earnest and keen-to-please four and five year olds I had previously known. The same thing happened when I moved from teaching in a London comprehensive, to teaching in an international school in Portugal. The style that had worked so well for me before was basically pointless in this new place. And again when I moved back to a different school in the UK. And again when I began to do supply teaching. And yet again when I moved to an early years setting.
I’m lucky enough to have worked with 3 to 18 year olds in schools, and to teach adults as well, but there are some teaching experiences that I haven’t had. Because I haven’t had them, I wouldn’t feel comfortable to have expectations about what they might be like, and how hard it might be to do those things. I’ve never worked with babies in an early years setting (I’ve had a couple of my own, but I don’t think it’s fair to assume that having your own baby is the same as working with other people’s). And although I’ve worked in tough urban secondaries, I’ve never taught in a primary school in a deprived city location. I haven’t walked that walk, so I think it’d be a mistake for me to talk the talk to those who do. All too frequently it seems, I see people standing on the sidelines shouting “you have low expectations!” and “they need powerful knowledge!” (whatever that is) and “for gawd’s sake don’t let them play!” But how on earth do you know, if it is outside your experience?
Despite the best attempts of the DfE at complete incompetence, I haven’t yet seen this week’s SATs tests. I don’t have much of an idea of what was in them, beyond the few snippets of information I’ve been given via the teacher/parent grapevines. I don’t teach Year 6, and neither of my children is in that year group, so I don’t have any experience in that respect. I won’t have a proper idea of what the tests were like until I actually see them, so I’m going to hold back on commenting on them until that point. I’ve been told that, while some of the children at my kid’s primary didn’t have a problem, others were in tears because they couldn’t finish. I know these children, they are confident kids, and it strikes me that for them to be in tears then something about the tests was probably not right.
I have often seen it said that you don’t have to have taught in a specific phase to comment on it, and indeed that you don’t have to be a parent to comment on the effects of testing on children. (Both of which are patently true – since the advent of the Internet, people can comment publicly on whatever the hell they like.) But one of the very great dangers of commenting on something outside your direct experience is that you end up commenting solely from your own perspective. You take your own experience and you extrapolate from that, without really understanding how and why the context is different. And before you know it, you find yourself saying something that highlights your lack of knowledge and your stereotyped presumptions. Like I did when we were in China, and maybe like the Queen did as well. So before I see fit to judge you, I should walk a mile in your shoes. Because then I might understand why you’ve got blisters on your feet.