Telling the stories of past school-life experiences, I purposely chose the most striking, curious cases — those that can better highlight the areas of discomfort and, meanwhile, also the opportunities for change, absolutely necessary for the school system.
One is the case of a lawyer family that suddenly experiences their daughter’s school failure. Feeling it unfair, they decide to file an appeal against the school, for irregularities occurred in the meeting held for assigning grades.
Indeed, the school board made the decision of failure basing it on a strict majority rule, showing a clear difficulty in dealing with the situation. Furthermore, the decision appeared to be taken thanks to the religion teacher’s vote, that, by law, cannot be decisive. All things considered, the school board decision appears to have, towards the family, some points in favour of the appeal.
As usual, the problem reaches the Head of School, who is in charge of talking to the family. The meeting immediately starts developing on quite precise legal tracks, and the technical reasons are at least plausible.
The father starts off like this:
Good morning Mr Casonato. We came to you because we believe that the school made a serious mistake.
The mother, who seems far more enraged than the father, adds to this:
It cannot be tolerated that such things happen inside a Catholic school. We felt abandoned, disappointed and hurt by the indifference with which the whole school staff purposely ignored our daughter’s difficult situations.
We wanted to inform you that we are a family of lawyers and the appeal will continue until needed to make the school admit its mistakes and take our daughter to the next year the father continues in a way that seems like he has already pronounced the sentence.
I feel hindered but want to play the trump card of doing the good for the student. I therefore use the language tone more suitable for a school rather than a court and answer:
How is Federica? May I meet her to talk?
The parents, a bit surprised by my way of reasoning, go on:
She’s been crying the whole day. And by the way, we are here to discuss with you the matter of the appeal. You see — taking out of his bag a 25-centimeter-high dossier — we would like to discuss with you about the unreliability of the statements made by some teachers.
At that point, trying to keep calm in that burning situation, I firmly reply:
If you are here acting as lawyers, I need to look for my lawyers too — then, see you with them. If we want to act for Federica’s own good, give me the possibility to meet her, hear how she feels, try to understand with her the reasons of her failure and understand with her what to do.
No matter her choice, whether she wants to remain in our school repeating the school year, or to change school or win the appeal and keep studying, I hope I can be of any help to her cause: finding the reasons of her failure!
The family is again floored by my statement. The lawyer tone little by little disappears and I can listen again to mum and dad talking.
Finally, the meeting turns to the actual problems faced at school, to the situation of discomfort that the girl has been living for years, because of a teenage situation not yet overcome, that causes them distress as parents. By seeing that their daughter is weak and insecure, these parents feel the need to wholly support her, but, maybe, in the wrong way, or at least wrong in regard to the implicit requests of the young: her need to face the school failure alone and learn, from life itself, a new way of being herself, without her parents’ protection that look at her as a future lawyer.
This point reached, I start thinking about all the families that, through their emotional kindness, are not fully able to make educational choices for their children. This particular case is about the fear of what awaits us in the future, and more, about failure as something to avoid in order to reproduce a stereotyped idea of success made of a winning side and a losing side, exactly like lawyers in a court.
However, there is often more to look for, inside the logic of failure.
During my several visits at international schools, I have deeply appreciated the Anglo-Saxon mentality and in particular the English one, about the rejection of failure: none fails at school, everyone passes the years.
Grading is made by verifying the students’ skills and knowledge. In particular, during high school students are guided through the professional or study options for their future, in accordance to their predisposition and proficiency achieved. Therefore, the student is allowed to begin a high school and then change to a vocational school and vice-versa. The English School is fully oriented towards the favoring of personal choices.
Teachers make themselves available for a certain amount of counseling-hours per week that are contractually required. In Italy there is an international school I visited, recognised by the British government, where teachers don’t have teaching hours, but working hours: thirty per week. Of the thirty total hours, twenty are teaching hours, whereas the others are to be employed for meetings, tests correction, preparing of tests and classes, and especially, for personally meeting the students. Consequently, the teacher has his/her own working hours, beginning at 8.30AM and ending at 4PM, with some pauses for lunch and morning break. Their wage is higher than 2.000,00 net euros per month, as a first job.
Moreover, the recruiting system is, to say the least, wonderful. Indeed, there are companies specialised in teacher recruitment. The software made available by the school, allows the head of school to evaluate the teachers worth hiring — avoiding, for instance, the risk of Tourist Teachers: those that often change their living town, only for the sake of travelling and living in different countries, therefore resulting less trustworthy in offering a continuous presence in the same school for a long time.
When, for instance, the school is looking for a Maths teacher, the CV coming from the recruiting agency is evaluated by the head of school through a 1 to 10 grading scheme. The same is done by the closest collaborators of the head of school and by the department chiefs in charge. The result is a list of 10-15 selected candidates among whom the head of school picks three. Once the teachers are identified, meetings in the London headquarter are scheduled. Therefore, the head of school moves to the headquarter to finalise the last step needed before the hiring. This selection always verifies the knowledge of the teacher, where these knowledges have been achieved, his/her professional skills developed in the teaching field, his/her experience as a personal tutor for the kids.
Why do I tell all this? What does is have to do with the case we are looking at?
The most experienced would not have missed the, I’d say, technical-political, comparison between the Italian and English system concerning the counseling service for professional life. Inside the Italian school system, failure is the issue. Inside the English one, the issue is counseling.
On the one hand, the school evaluates whether the student may proceed to the next year; on the other hand – the English one – the student is counselled on his/her study choices. The first is a system centred onto the examiner and the school programmes. The second is a student-centred system, and, consequently, it is supported by school programmes to develop talents.
The focus has changed. The object has changed. Above all, the relationship with the families has changed. The English system aims at a fruitful teacher-student relationship likely to bring more easily a good school-family relationship.
The point, then, is not the given grade or failure, but whether the future of the student should be a high school or a vocational school, more theoretical or more practical, short or long. Hence, the future is discussed with the family, and the student attends school without any performance anxiety and stake his/her abilities.
I don’t want this description to result in the narration of an ideal or idealised school. I may say that even English schools have their problems, starting from the exaggerated rigidity in evaluating the qualitative system of learnings, that is the evaluation of school themselves.
Getting back to Federica and her discomfort, I think that in a counselling school the meeting would have probably have gone much much better. However, I feel the moral obligation of finding a good solution for the school, for the family, and for the the student.
When I meet Federica, I find a girl less sad than the parents described. The meeting unfolds with courtesy, starting from her dreams. Her mum’s attendance is not in favour of a free discussion, therefore I can perceive some moments of embarrassment when, imagining a future as a lawyer, the girl hangs his head and hides through her silence a lot more than she could ever say.
Why can’t I talk to Federica about dreams?
Let me tell you, Federica, about when I used to dream to become a teacher when I was a child, about how life events brought me to become an employee in a firm first and in a bank later, to find then a job as teacher in the school where I grew up. About how beautiful it was the moment I was hired in my school, that I felt like a token of appreciation for the great good received when I was young.
Federica, let yourself get carried by the violent wind of your dreams, make a vision out of them and caress them like you do with babies, because it’s by nurturing them with love that they help you grow. Your dreams, not your parents’.
Those parents who are aware of their educational role listen to their children’s dreams and help them first figure out the vision, then the professional aims and finally the needed autonomy to enter the job market with very special skills and attitudes.
Those parents who pay attention to the dreams and working reality help their children proceed towards professional goals rich in passion, genius and selflessness.
Parents, let’s wake up!
Children don’t need protection, but need to grow up. They ask for a safe environment, to be able to peacefully nurture their talents.
Parents, tell your children the dream of an old hope.
Teach them the magic of life.
Stay always close to them, trust love, the rest is nothing, as a beautiful Giorgio Gaber song states.
I believe that this too could be the secret to deal with hard times and failures.
I don’t think the educator would ever say:
Let’s sue them, then file an appeal and later you get back on track as it’s required to students.
Dear Federica, where is the story of the old hope? Where is the magic of life? Where can you learn to trust love? This is what I wanted to tell you that moment, but listening about your discomfort, my sincere will to help you and my respect towards your parents’ grief prevented me from doing it.
I have nonetheless obtained the family’s abandon of the cause.
You, at last, accepted the failure. You changed school. The question swirling around in my head is: did you also change your life? Did you start choosing without letting your parents choose for you? If this did not happen, even the failure was useless, even the struggles would be nonsense, even your life would have to wait till the next opportunity.
In the Italian school system, everything is scheduled. I was delighted to find out that in some Finnish schools there is the schedule of distraction. Classes are scheduled to grant the student, since he/she is a child, the time to organise his/her time. Amazing! Here everything is organised. Everything is previously decided. There are responsibilities. There are the risks linked to potential suits. There are the insurance companies that don’t cover all the risks if the teachers’ behavior is not impeccable. The head of school puts at risk his/her whole career if rules are not strictly followed.
What’s next, at university or in the job market, is not something many are interested into. What’s considered important is that the responsibility doesn’t produce property, personal or even legal consequences.
The Italian school strategy is based on fear. Fear of appeals, fear of incidents, fear of inspectors, fear of educating. Through fear, you don’t make choices but grids.
Grids for tests correction.
Grids of mind maps.
Grids of knowledge.
Grids for skills, because even though it’s impossible to grade them, a grid always allows you to find a solution.
Grids for school programmes — I beg your pardon: national guidelines.
Grids for permanent rankings concerning future tenured teachers.
Grids for becoming tenured teachers.
Grids of school trips.
Grids of trans-disciplinary activities.
Grids for behaviour.
Grids for educational credits.
Grids for internships.
Grids for work-related learning.
Grids to burn the chief at his next suggestion of making a grid.
One grid less and one educational relationship more!
It could happen that we lose an appeal, but we could risk to win the battle of life.
Less grids and more relationships: this is the school I see in the future.
Head of GSO School