If you want to know about inequality, you need go no further than your local primary school. It’s all laid out for you there. I got an insider’s view of it when I volunteered at my son’s primary school from 2000, when he started kindergarten, to early 2008.
Over those 7+ years, I helped children learn to read and do basic maths in both my son AM’s classes and later, those of his younger brothers 50 Cedis and Abrantie. Sometimes it was one-to-one, other times I sat at small tables with groups of children. I also participated in a mentoring program for kids with behavioural issues. I only stopped when AM was in high school and Abrantie and 50 Cedis moved to Ghana for a year.
Schoolrooms expose many different kinds of inequality. People often focus on gender inequality in education, and globally, that is of course a huge issue. But while it still plays out in various ways in Australia, gender wasn’t the main form of inequality that I observed at our local public school. In fact, in a system that’s now dominated by female teachers, I’d say that the boys were in some ways having a harder time of it than the girls. This too, is becoming researched and discussed. For example a US study found that ‘teacher bias regarding behavior, rather than academic performance, penalizes boys as early as kindergarten’.
I sat at 50 Cedis’ table once a week for half a year when he was in Year 2, trying to creatively interrupt the persistent, subtle needling by three nice little white middle class girls which would inevitably result in him exploding, behaving inappropriately, and getting penalised … because the girls’ provocation was invisible to the teacher.
I described this to a friend and she suggested that the niggling bitchiness, while certainly unhealthy, was often the only way that girls get to defend themselves against the pervasive sexism of our society. That may well be true, but it doesn’t detract from the reality that at the age of 7 or 8 Isabelle, Indigo and Imogen (not their real names) were using class, specifically middle class expectations of niceness and conformity, as a weapon. Male, Black, and working class, it seemed like 50 Cedis felt he had only his anger to defend himself.
Which brings me to the inequalities I was noticing the most: inequalities related to class and ethnicity.
When AM started kindergarten the school was 70% children of migrant parents. By the end of 2007, it was only 30%, as the area became more ‘gentrified’ and poorer working class families of colour moved out. As schools go, it was relatively well resourced for supporting those children, and the Principal and many of the teachers were highly motivated and politically aware of the social inequalities that affected their students … but still … there’s only so much they could do.
Volunteering in the classroom confirmed for me that schools are not a level playing field.
Children who excel academically — usually due to being middle class — are supported and encouraged, and children with special needs also usually get some attention. The support isn’t always there for children who are just middle of the road achievers — maybe because their parents don’t speak English well and aren’t able to decipher the sometimes arcane language of homework and assessment tasks. Maybe because the teachers are stretched and therefore focus at the upper and lower ends of the classroom. If there isn’t adequate funding and resources, something has to give. Children with behavioural problems can also suck up a lot of a teacher’s attention. But were do those problems come from?
Children who are able to display middle-class niceness in the classroom and playground are rewarded, even though it may be a front for some rather nasty attitudes and behaviour. Children who can’t manage this — because maybe the pressures of inequality are disturbing their home life, or maybe they’re being targeted with covert,’casual’ racism, or are being put down for being ‘dumb’, or for not having a new, clean uniform; children who are acting out anger and fear, in a cultural environment that’s very different to the one at home — well, they’re punished.
They are made to sit in a corner, or outside the Principal’s office. They’re reprimanded, isolated and excluded. All in the name of ‘discipline’. They ‘earn’ a name for themselves. The name is ‘disruptive’; or ‘ADHD’. They may take out their feelings on other children and then the name is ‘bully’. These names follow them throughout their school career. They get stuck in a cycle of misbehaviour, punishment, and underachievement.
Of course it’s not just migrant, working class children who are ‘naughty’ or ‘troubled’, and plenty of them also succeed and excel; but the school system seems to work in such a way that they are more likely than middle class children to end up labelled and disadvantaged. I admit I haven’t gone looking for hard data to back it up, but that’s my perception. Certainly schools that have a higher proportion of working class kids and/or children of migrant families can have the same notoriety and poor reputations as the ‘bad’ kids themselves.
The cost of this labelling, disadvantage and lack of support, is that those children don’t have the same doors open to them in future. That’s a cost to society as well, with all their potential for creativity and innovation lost.
Then there is the whole other argument that schools are inherently unfair places, with the power inequality between young people and adults creating its own set of problematic behaviours, no matter what colour or class you are. Just ask any high school student. Don’t get me started.
Schools need to be fairer places. They need more money, more resources, more parental involvement, smaller classes and more attention to leveling the playing field, filling in the cracks and ensuring no-one falls through. They need a different approach to ‘discipline’ that starts from a position that ‘badly behaved’ kids need understanding and support, not punishment.
Schools could do better in addressing inequality, but it’s not just up to them. The problem is that inequality is so prevalent in our society that it will take more than some extra school funding to address it — and right now, it seems our government is more interested in entrenching inequality, than in ending it.
But at the small, ‘personal is political’ level there are things that can be done by ordinary people like me.
When I was volunteering at the school, I did my bit for the children I was assigned to help by listening to them with a warm and respectful attitude. I played games with them, found new ways of explaining maths problems (like using colour with the kids who were more ‘visual’ learners), encouraged them, and showed them how confident I was, that they could figure things out.
One day I was in a Year 3 class helping ‘Anh’ with maths. I was surprised that he needed help, because the year before he’d been doing fine in the advanced maths group, but he came and asked me. Anh wasn’t a ‘problem’ kid, but he seemed to be slipping behind academically. He said he couldn’t do the work, because he was ‘stupid’.
Me: No you’re not.
Anh: Yes, it’s true, my mum said so. She told me in Vietnamese. (As though the use of language was the clincher).
Me: She was probably just feeling grumpy with you. She’s right about a lot of things, but she’s not right about this.
I’m aware that migrant parents have a lot invested in their kids’ education, especially if they were poorly educated themselves. If they don’t do as well as hoped, the disappointment (and fear of the consequences) can manifest as criticism. And if the school’s not giving the children the extra support they need, due to lack of resources, or lack of concern, then they won’t be meeting those expectations. And so another cycle develops: underachievement, criticism, failure.
Anh and I argued about his alleged stupidity for a while. Mostly it was fairly light-hearted, as Anh brought forth more and more ‘evidence’ to prove that he was stupid. ‘My brother calls me stupid and says the F word to me’; ‘Sammy calls me stupid’ … out it all came. At one point he looked close to tears. Later he laughed a lot, when I made the claim that I was more stupid than he was. So we competed in the stupidity stakes: No, I’m more stupid! No, me, me!
Laughter’s a good way of releasing tension. It can really alter your perspective on things. So can respect. I told Anh how sorry I was that other people had been so mean to him.
After a while, the feelings about being stupid had cleared enough that Anh decided he was able to do some of the maths task at hand. We quietly worked together on it (thus, incidentally, proving his competence) until the bell went — and he asked if he could stay with me a bit longer! We kept going for another ten minutes, until the lure of handball overcame the satisfaction of solving maths problems.
I bumped into Anh’s mother recently. Apparently he’s at Uni, studying accountancy. I’m impressed, not so much because he’s destined for a middle class job (you can be creative, innovative and fulfilled in blue collar jobs too), but because in spite of a bumpy start, he’s now studying for a career that requires mathematical skill. I don’t take any credit for that; my classroom help was minor, and a long time ago. But I like to think that perhaps my belief in his intelligence, way back then, made some small difference to Anh’s own confidence — that it showed him an open door.
My strategies in the classroom were a bit unorthodox but I was often in demand from the children, like Anh, who weren’t supposed to be needing help. I think it’s because they were slipping through the cracks created by inequality, but they knew they would get equal treatment from me.
Find more blogs about inequality here, or via the Blog Action day tags: #BAD2014 #Blogaction14, #Inequality, and #Oct16.