And Now for Your Next Lesson - Basic Compassion

‘Tree of Life’ — Terrence Malick

Last Friday, while attending our latest fortnightly programme-focused day, my Year Here cohort was treated by Sophie Howarth to the second day of her course On The Shoulders Of Giants. The aim of the day’s session was to get us to think critically about the role that compassion can and should play across society and, most importantly, in public services. When Sophie mentioned that the school I’m on placement at was the last venue she’d run that session, I quietly joked of there being an irony there. When she enthusiastically agreed, I knew that my perceptions about the school weren’t far off the mark.

When I first watched Terrence Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’, I hardly expected I’d be using it to launch a critique of a public service, yet here I am. In the film, Malick, a former lecturer of philosophy at MIT, attempts to make broad comments about a duality which he sees as persisting through life, of “Nature” and “Grace”. He displays how on both a macro and micro scale, a tension between these two forces is a significant determinant of the future. By his definition, Nature is a Darwinian law of self-preservation, a survivalist driving force which compels things to act competitively. Grace, on the other hand, is compassion. In the film, these two forces are portrayed plainly in how the mother and father interact with their kids, with the father acting sternly and aggressively to imbue his children with a fight and independence, and the mother supporting her children emotionally and offering unconditional love and compassion. Suffice to say, Malick clearly makes a case for the necessary presence of both of these approaches.

Back to South London, and school, and I’m sure Malick would say Grace falls short. A few years ago, when the school was first academised, it was undoubtedly in a far worse state than it is now. Katanas were found in lockers, fireworks were set off in assembly, and gang membership was significant. Since then, the school has markedly improved in Ofsted reports, and behavioural issues are a fraction of what they were. This is partly down to the implementation of a strict code of ethics which the school now rigidly sticks to, with such success that it is seen as a role-model for other schools in the academy chain. What I am told by students, though, is that in adopting this ethos, the school now spends far less time trying to understand the personal issues which cause behavioural problems, and that for this reason some of the best teachers are leaving.

Yet the ethos has been a success, the school has been turned around, and the point of this article is not to cast any doubt over that. With the majority of the students at this school eligible for free school meals, and therefore probably living in relative poverty, the theory behind the stricter ethos was that many of the students who attend this school do not have an authority figure at home who can claim to know better and steer them in the right direction. While this may be true, the school should have similarly acknowledged how some of these students may lack the unconditional love and support that everyone requires as they grow up, too.

A firm authoritative hand does not preclude a supportive approach, but the manner in which the strict code of ethics has been ruthlessly applied throughout every level of the school has made staff members wary of being truly open and relaxed with their students, and has made many students distrustful of anyone in a position of power. Some students have complained to me of being put in the IEC (the exclusion room) for a day, for not wearing the right coloured trousers (in 6th form). Other students have pointed out to me how, at various times, the school has expelled or “advised to leave” a number of their friends simply, from their perspective, because they were poorly behaved and the school wanted to uphold its improving reputation. While I was sat in the detention room with my line-manager, a student came in, looking young and sheepish. My manager snapped, “why have you been sent here?”, immediately assuming that the student had been sent there as a result of poor behaviour. After a tense exchange, the student eventually got to the real reason why he had come to the room — “It’s my first day and I don’t have a timetable yet”. My manager looked duly guilty, but the damage had been done. There was a presumption of guilt in her mind-set which I’ve seen several times since beginning here, and it’s something that makes me feel quite uncomfortable. In case I haven’t portrayed the picture quite clearly enough, I recently got an email from a deputy head asking me to monitor the passing of Year 9’s (13/14 year olds) through the corridors between classes. The email stated these students must, among other things, walk in silence, with pace and purpose, and must avoid physical contact with other students. Failure to do so results in a Saturday Detention, and I have been urged to report any transgressions.

For poorly behaved students, who garner a bad reputation and increased scrutiny from all members of staff, the result is an atmosphere of me versus the school. It is this which is the biggest crime. Each and every member of staff is here to help the students to progress, yet the school comes to be seen by the students in the same bracket as every other institution which disadvantages and discriminates against people from their background. At times I personally have felt uncomfortable, particularly when urged to correct “slang” in favour of more “professional” language. Particularly as the “professional” dialect is my natural way of speaking. The intentions are good, the school doesn’t want people discriminating against its students in job interviews because they can’t speak “properly”, but from the perspective of some students this must be hard to see. How are teachers supposed to build trust and strong relationships with disaffected young people when at every minor transgression they are supposed to correct or punish them?

I have no doubt that there was an appropriate time to implement a strict ethos, but it is now clear to see that with a certain level of order restored to school life, compassion is just as much in demand. During a brief encounter with the Headmaster recently, he described how he wished to double the length of Form Group every day to help nurture positive relationships between teachers and students. As he recalls, it was the loving, supportive people who got him to where he is today. While I was relieved to hear he was addressing some of the issues I’ve mentioned, I couldn’t help but think it had been a long time coming. To use Malick’s analysis, these students have had Nature impact their lives plenty, with most being born into relative disadvantage in South London. For those who have also had Grace and compassion from their parents, I have no doubt that the paternal, authoritative school helps bring these students up to an academic standard which they may need to reach to achieve their goals in the future. However, for the students who may lack family support, or worse face persecution and abuse, a school ethos which ruthlessly upholds such high professional standards limits the ability of teachers to offer Grace and compassion to the students who need it most.

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