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What I Learned When I Spent 24 Hours With Your Child

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The school holidays are upon us.

As a trainee teaching assistant, last week was my first experience of saying goodbye to a group of young people that I would probably never see again.

I spent just two months volunteering in a class full of 9 and 10 year olds. Your son. Your daughter.

Three hours a week. Only 24 hours in total.

It doesn't sound like a long time, but it's amazing how much you can learn when you spend 24 hours in a classroom.

Thank you, parent, for all that you have done to raise your child. I'm lucky to have had the opportunity to know them, even for such a short while.

Let me tell you what I have discovered about the child that you wave goodbye to at 8.30am.


Your child has hopes, goals and dreams...

The footballer. The engineer. The YouTube star.

I sat with your son as he described the many hours he spends watching YouTube videos, learning advanced techniques that will enable him to shape pieces of metal and use a hot glue gun to its maximum potential. I watched him put those techniques into practice, in the classroom. I saw how his eyes lit up. He's researched in his own time, and he's using that research in the classroom. That's amazing. He has a bright future ahead of him.

I listened to your son as he told me that he was desperate to become a professional footballer, even though he isn't in a team outside school. I saw him nod, so enthusiastically, when I asked if I should look out for him in a future World Cup match. That enthusiasm is something so special.

I noticed when your son, not engaged with the work he was supposed to be doing, announced that he didn't need his school education because he was going to be a YouTube star, playing games and reviewing them online. I noticed the look in his eyes when I explained how this particular piece of work could help him achieve those goals, even though it didn't seem the slightest bit relevant. I recognised that moment when he understood what I was saying, and got on with the task at hand. Why? Because he was motivated by his goal, and this work could now help him to get there. That motivation will be so important, and it's wonderful to see.

In just 24 hours, I discovered the hopes and dreams of so many young people. They were all so willing to share. They sparkled as they spoke about the future. And I truly believe that all of them can reach their dreams, with the right support from you and other people in their lives.

Your child is under so much pressure...

Your child is learning things at school, at 9 or 10 years old, that I didn't even begin to learn until I was 12 or 13. The pressure is on, and it's immediately obvious what an impact that pressure is having.

What surprised me most was how quickly everything moves.

When I was at school, we had time to delve deep into a topic or subject. We could work on a project. We could follow an interest. We'd learn the surface information, then we'd have time to develop some deeper knowledge and to answer some more specific questions.

Your child doesn't get to do that.

Your child's teacher spends 20 minutes describing a task. Your child gets an hour to work on the task. Then, the teacher is introducing something completely different. That's it. Move on. All done. No return.

Everything feels so rushed, and I don't believe it's the fault of the teacher. Too much needs to be covered. It's so clear that there are so many facts to learn, to accommodate the design of the curriculum, that any opportunity to develop an interest in a topic, or to follow anything from start to finish, is gone.

The walls are filled with key words and phrases. Buzzwords that the children can bring out in exam conditions. But there are no projects anywhere to be seen. There are no display boards filled with information about rainforests, or beautifully decorated pages of poetry. There simply wouldn't be enough time to write a poem and to add an illustration or two. In fact, you'd be lucky to finish the poem!

You wouldn't believe how often, in my two months at school, I saw a vast majority of children unable to finish their work. Leaving pages half-complete and moving on to something entirely different, simply because the time limits weren't realistic. Sometimes, they could only write a line or two before being asked to move on. And would they return to the topic in the same lesson next week? No, they'd have moved on to something completely different.

I firmly believe that following one topic through an entire term would give young people a much better understanding. That they could actually learn. Instead, they're memorising and reciting so that they can fulfil the criteria and their teachers can objectively mark their progression. Ticking boxes. Never taking into account any deeper understanding, or any real engagement.

It's shocking to see, and I can only hope that you, as a parent, can encourage a deeper love of learning in your own time. I can assure you that if things continue as they are, then your child will not find that love of learning within the walls of their classroom.

Your child is one-of-a-kind...

You might worry that your child, the most precious person ever to walk the Earth, gets lost in a sea of young people in the classroom.

Let me assure you, that could never be the case.

Every child is special. Every child is noticed. Every child is appreciated for exactly who they are.

Some children are more attentive than others. Some work harder. Some are disruptive, chaotic and hard to manage. That's a simple fact. Let's not pretend that every child is the 'ideal student'. Let's not believe, even for a second, that it matters.

I see your star pupil. The child that takes so much care over every piece of work, giving each project the attention it deserves. I notice them, sitting quietly and absorbing every word. I see the effort they put in, day after day, whilst making everything look absolutely effortless. They're one-of-a-kind, and I will make sure they know it by telling them how much their effort is appreciated and how this piece of work is so amazing. After all, when every piece of work is as amazing as the last it's important that we don't just expect it. It still takes hard work. I see that.

I see your little rebel. Cool hair. Attitude. Leaning back on two chair legs, stabbing an eraser with a pencil. Whispering to a friend. Talking about a TV show or game, whilst the teacher's describing writing styles and running through the rules of grammar. I know that your child is trying to find their place in the most complicated of social groups. It's tough. Really tough. But they're doing so well! Don't think I didn't notice when this cool kid offered a kind word of encouragement to a friend. Don't think I didn't realise that they'd contributed an answer during group work, even though they work so hard to show their disinterest most of their time. And trust me, I noticed immediately the rare look of frustration when they couldn't do a particular piece of work, and I picked up on the truly heartfelt and genuine 'thank you' that I received when I offered my support. Because your child is cool. The coolest in the class. And I can tell that you're going to have some tough teenage years ahead of you, but beneath that attitude there's a truly incredible young person that still struggles occasionally, and really appreciates when that's recognised.

I see your child struggling. I know they find it difficult. Every single bit of work seems out of their reach, beyond their capabilities. I've watched them rip up a piece of work that they've been working on for an hour, because it's still nowhere near what their classmates can achieve. I know your child feels useless, stupid, frustrated. I've seen your child holding back the tears, stammering as they've struggled to explain that none of it makes any sense - that they can't even begin the piece of work, because even the instructions are too confusing. I know they're comparing themselves to others in the class. And even when they're not comparing, they're all too aware that their work just doesn't feel 'good enough'. I noticed when they walked out of the classroom because it all got too much and they just couldn't cope. I know they were washing their hands in the bathroom not because they needed to, but because they just needed to escape for a moment. And trust me, I noticed when they took a deep breath and tried again. I saw that resilience. I so appreciated that moment when they walked back into the classroom, sat down in a chair and started all over again, because I still believed in them and needed them to keep believing as well. I've listened to your child apologise, admitting that they know they're asking for a lot of help, but that they just don't know how to do it on their own. It takes the most amazing child to ask for help. It takes the most wonderful young person to admit that they just can't do it, when all of their classmates can. And to go into school each day, knowing how difficult every single moment will be? To come back into the classroom and start again after just throwing away an hour of the most intense effort in a moment of absolute frustration? To take a deep breath and do it all over again? That takes a hero. And your hero should never, ever feel the need to apologise.

I care...

I care about your child. Genuinely. I may have only known your son or daughter for a total of 24 hours, but I will remember them for a lifetime. I will always wonder what they've achieved, where they are, who they've become. I hope that you always celebrate everything that they are, because they're truly incredible.

I don't think I ever could have imagined, when I made the decision to work in a classroom, that your child would make such a mark.

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