By Amanda Towers
Date Posted: Thursday, 13 December 2007
The Right to be Normal – how my childhood experience has influenced my thinking about my work as a Teaching Assistant
I open my essay with the powerful word ‘normal’, but what is normal ? is it how to be like others, like everyone else ? Is normal about society’s cultural values, religion, social status or is about individuals ?
My school years
I was born in the north-east of England, miner’s country. My mother had five children. I was the eldest. Throughout my school days my mother did not ever communicate with my school teachers. My mother never asked me about my homework, let alone check it. My mother did not ask me what subjects I liked, or what I was good at in school. What I did at school was not an issue for my mother. To my mother it was enough that I was out of the house from 8am to 4.30pm five days a week. That was what was normal in our house. When the time came for me to leave school, going on to higher education was out of the question. My mother already had a waitressing job lined up for me.
My mother’s lack of engagement with my education was mirrored by my teachers’ lack of interest in me. They never knew about my background. They didn’t know that my father had left us when my siblings and I were all little children. Our status was that of a poorer family. We were always undernourished and our clothes were bought from jumble sales because there was a lack of money. We were usually tired at school because since my mother worked long hours we had to do the household chores in the morning before we went to school and in the evening when we came back from school. Yet as long as we attended school none of our teachers seemed to be concerned about us and we were not seen as a family with problems. Poverty may have been a problem in my family but we were by no means the only poor family.
The importance of parental involvement in a child’s education
Coming from this background, and in my role as a mother and my job as a teaching assistant, I am very interested in how parents’ involvement impacts on a child’s educational experience. Peter Mittler (2000) suggests that a parent’s interaction with a child through nurture and encouragement helps to develop a child’s self-esteem. He argues that parents who read to their children enhance a child’s chance of educational achievement by building up the child’s confidence. At the same time it gives both the children and the parents a sense of sharing. This is just one example of how children and parents can act as a ‘team’ giving a sense of mutual satisfaction at the same time as developing the child’s potential.
The importance of cooperation between parents and teachers
It should not be surprising then, that a proposal I can identify with is ‘the closer the parent is to the education of the child, the greater the impact on child development and educational achievement ‘ (Fullan 1991, p227). I also believe that bringing teachers and parents into a better relationship is important because firstly it has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the educational achievement of children (Fullan 1991) and secondly because there is, I believe another wider benefit. This is that positive collaboration between children, parents and teachers meets not only the children’s developmental needs, but also meets the needs of the parents to nurture their children well, and meets the needs of teachers and teaching assistants to feel satisfied and successful in their work. I am attracted to the idea of this kind of teamwork. It is like a vision of a continuously functioning extended family. Here everyone is included and no one is excluded Achieving such teamwork is important since in a secondary school a child may have as many as 16 teachers to relate to, and this is quite a frightening prospect for a child unless the adults – parents and teachers – are working in unison.
Committing to a cooperative approach as a parent
Now that I have my own children, I have committed myself to supporting my children’s educational needs by adopting the cooperative approach I have described. I know the names of my children’s teachers. I made time to read to my children and each day I ask them, ‘How was school ? What did you do today ?’ I think this has paid off. I was, you could say, an under-achiever at school. I struggled and got lost in it all. I know I needed support from my mother and from my teachers but this was never recognised or acknowledged. With my own daughters I believe the time that I have been determined to give in supporting them with their education has brought positive results. Both my daughters have passed their 11+ examinations and gained a place at the local grammar school. This is their biggest achievement so far and I can share the satisfaction which they have gained from it. The satisfaction is shared by their teachers also. I believe my daughters have felt that they have ‘belonged’ in the education system. This is something I did not experience as a child.
This feeling of ‘belonging’ is what I believe is meant by inclusive education. Inclusion is not about blindly ensuring that all children are ‘rammed’ into mainstream schools. It is about those schools changing so that they become more responsive to the educational needs of all children however different those needs may be. Inclusion is about helping teachers and teaching assistants to accept responsibility for all children in their schools as well as preparing them to teach children who have been excluded – for whatever reason – from their schools and who are now returning to them. Inclusive education should mean that there is concern for all children and that all children should benefit from it and this will mean looking at what we are actually doing when we separate children out as having ‘special needs’. To my mind all children have ‘special needs’. In an inclusive education system it should be ‘normal’ to listen to children and value what they have to say. We have to recognise that all children have a right to be included in a unitary education system and that all parents have a right to have their views about what their children’s needs are heard and equally valued. For a variety of reasons I have felt that parents who have no economic power or little social status do not have their views heard as much as others. The direction the Warnock Report was pointing educators towards all those years ago was a more all emcompassing education service (Warnock, 1978). As a society we seem to have lost our way on this. Opportunities for choice and self-determination have been lost rather than gained.
What is best for a child?
I suppose some might answer this question with another question ‘ Who knows what is best for the child’. I suppose in writing this essay I am suggesting that the experiences in my own childhood, of bringing up my own children, as well as working with other people’s children as a teaching assistant, as an advocate for children who have been abused, in my past work as a support worker for a group of young carers, and as a welfare support worker for vulnerable young people has given me the right to feel I have an informed view about the question of what is best for children. Yet why am I so uncertain about claiming this right ? I can only guess that it is because in my own childhood I felt excluded from the opportunities the education system provided for me. I felt like an alien in an educational system designed for the children of more affluent, more influential and more interested parents. My view is that many children still experience the alienation I experienced at school. I believe that all parents should be helped to be aware of this right from the birth of their children and I think those who have a professional role with children should be trained to avoid stereotypical responses to particular children by observing and listening to them so that they are valued as individuals and not as ‘a type’. By doing this we can learn that every child has different needs and we can get closer to getting the right answer to the question ‘What is best for a child?’
My greatest concern is that the stereotypical responses which I met during my school days are still evident, even when parents do try to challenge the system. I watched a documentary film recently, What’s So Special About David ? A Barrier To Inclusion. David was a boy born with Downs Syndrome. His local authority had sent David to two different special schools which both David and his mother felt were not helping him. David had been unhappy at the first school he was sent to, and he had an equally unhappy experience at the second special school he was sent to. David’s mother removed him from this school and asked the local education authority to place him in a mainstream school. David wanted to attend the local mainstream school because that was where all the children he knew from his local area went to school. David’s mother fought unsuccessfully for two years to get David a place at a local school. In the meantime David lost two years of schooling. Eventually the local authority made a final ruling denying David a place at the local school because it would be too costly to meet his needs there and so his presence would disrupt the other pupils. David had to return to his last special school where he had been so unhappy. Although not in such obvious ways, it can seem to me that the previous educational history of the students I support in a Pupil Referral Unit are littered with rejections such as those experienced by David.
I think we speak a great deal about inclusion being the norm or that it should be ‘normal’ in our education system but when it comes to action we still segregate.
Fullan, M (1991) The New Meaning of Educational Change London : Cassell
Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Young People, (Chairman, Warnock, H.M.) (1978) Special Educational Needs : The Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Young People London : HMSO
Mittler, P. (2000) Working Towards Inclusive Education : Social Contexts London : David Fulton Publishers