A pupil is still a person
A School Where Children Never Fail
Mrs. Denholm is a former teacher, now a free lance writer, living in the Haliburton area of Ontario.
There is a school ' in Haliburton, Ontario, where children never fail, where no one is punished, and where everyone is totally involved in each day's learning process. "We give tests to have everyone get 100 per cent" says Bill McGinty, the principal, "and the way to do that is to help kids study. If they don't know their work, they just need help. That's the only reason children fail."
Around the word "help" is built the entire programme at Browndale's Eagle Lake School, where 40 young people who have had serious emotional problems are now preparing for re-entry into community schools. Eagle Lake provides the bridge between the more home-like school programmes in the treatment houses and the district elementary and secondary schools. There is more of interest at Eagle Lake, however, than just rehabilitation. Some of the ideas and methods at work here could perhaps be used in other schools to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.
At Eagle Lake there are the same hours, bells, subjects, recesses, and good behaviour found in most schools. The building is the old Eagle Lake village elementary school. It is bright and clean with two large classrooms and a tiny office on the first floor;two playrooms, washrooms, and a kitchen in the basement.
The staff is made up of four teachers and four assistants. Bill McGinty, a psychology graduate, planned and organized the school and is now chief administrator. Barbara McGinty, his wife and enthusiastic assistant, is a qualified secondary school teacher. Bill and Barbara worked as treatment staff in Browndale therapeutic families for three years. Fay Mansfield is an occupations teacher with five years of secondary school experience and two years of experience as a part-time academic advisor for Browndale. Eileen Hughes studied the social sciences at university for three years raising a family of her own during this time. Connie Love, a teaching assistant, is a housewife and mother with experience as a helper in one of Browndale's treatment houses. The other three assistants are young people from Browndale's treatment staff who are on hand to help youngsters with study problems.
Bill McGinty thinks that it is more important for a teacher to have a willingness to work hard and become involved with children than high academic qualifications. "Ninety-five per cent of teaching has to do with 'how', not 'what'," he says. "The 'how' of teaching can only be learned by doing; by watching good teachers and becoming involved with children. The idea that the basics of good teaching are contained in a set of academic credentials is a false one."
The knowledge of the professional teacher is important, but it is only a part of the total picture. The McGintys feel that teachers often hide behind their titles and qualifications and put students in categories to avoid having to relate to them. The so-called problem of motivation, say Bill and Barbara, is actually a problem of non-relatedness. Many attempts have been made to find substitutes for a close relationship between teacher and pupil—grades, elaborate learning devices, special teaching techniques—but none of these have been effective.
Barbara is certain that "the possibilities are endless for making schools warmer, happier, more vital places. Non-professional helpers, for example, could be used in schools to provide the extra help and personal contact that children need."
Every child at Eagle Lake has help whenever he needs it, and lots of help can prevent failure. Barbara explains this non-failure philosophy: "It's not a case of fooling them into thinking they are doing a good job when they're not; it's a case of helping them do okay as much of the time as possible. Many of these children were having emotional problems about the time that they were learning basic sounds, words, and mathematical concepts. Each year in the community schools, they were promoted or transferred because they were bigger or older than the others, and each succeeding experience was more and more of a failure because they didn't have the basic information on which to build. Now they're catching up."
Students may be studying subjects at vastly different levels. One girl is in grade two for reading and grade seven for mathematics. If she were in grade two for mathematics she would be bored, if she were in grade seven for reading she would be lost. Each youngster studies each subject at his level of understanding. This upgraded approach to learning relieves anxieties about peer relationships as well as academic progress. Every child has ample opportunity to feel a part of his age group even if he is behind in certain areas.
I watched a class learning long division. A teacher was at a blackboard explaining the ideas. Since the class was small—eight or ten pupils—she talked rather than taught. Sitting with the children was a young man from one of the houses. He helped anyone who found it difficult. The teacher stopped and helped at intervals until everyone was ready to go on. There was a murmur of conversation as questions were asked and division was explained. No one was lost; no voices were raised.
Many of these children have never before had a nice experience with a person in authority. They see teachers as unpleasant people who punish them. One fourteen year old student told me about former teachers he had known and added: "They aren't really like teachers here; they help us all the time." As the children's attitudes toward authority change, they became more co-operative. The atmosphere of the classroom becomes relaxed and comfortable.
But these are high-spirited, bright, elementary school-aged youngsters and teenagers; and this is a school. What happens when someone does misbehave? Is there no punishment for a youngster who starts a fight in the middle of a lesson?
When something like this happens. Bill and Barbara can phone a child's house to say that Mary is having a bad day and that someone should find out why. Someone from Mary's house then arrives to take her home for that day, not to be punished, but to find out why she is having problems. If Mary gets things straightened out, she will be back in school tomorrow. If not, she will be tutored at home until she is able to get through a school day without letting her emotions interfere with her school work. Because the houses are treatment centres which can handle feelings and are places where troubles can be talked about, the school is free to operate as a school with a concentration on academic education in the classroom.
Trouble can often be prevented. One morning when I was at the school, a boy came to Barbara to tell her he thought there was something wrong with George because he was breaking all his pencils. Barbara went to George. "Danny says you're breaking your pencils. This seems kind of silly to me; it makes me think something is wrong." They talked for a few minutes, and George felt better. Danny was able to come to a teacher on George's behalf because he knew George would not be punished.
During the school day there is a constant intermingling of staff and students. Everyone comes to know everyone else. Teachers understand their students as they are now, not from files containing previous marks, I.Q. scores, and fathers' occupations. First names are used for staff and students alike. Teachers have no spares. There is no staff room. There is no duty roster telling what teacher will supervise where. At recesses, after lunch, and for a daily 45 minute physical education period, every staff member and every student goes outside to play games, to run, to laugh, to build snowmen in the winter, to tumble in the grass in summer.
I mentioned to Bill that I could never teach in his school—I couldn't work that hard. He assured me that I would become so involved with the students that it would not seem like work.
When mutual understanding and trust develop among teachers and students, a system of authority can operate without tension or hostility. The McGintys feel that their students need clearly defined limits and expectations in order to do their best. They need and want teachers to be in charge. "Bill holds the school together as a strong, guiding authority person," Barbara says. A good authority, she goes on to explain, must be enlightened, not punitive, neither cold nor unrelated. He must feel, himself, that he knows what is best for the youngsters and be comfortable in telling them what will be done today and what will be expected of them tomorrow.
"Permissive schools might work for some kids," Bill says, "really with-it kids who are able to motivate and discipline themselves." He goes on to say that many of the people who are running "free choice" schools have such anti-authority feelings themselves that they are unwilling to take a firm stand on anything and chaos results. Most young people, he thinks, need assistance in motivating themselves and controlling their impulses.
It is often felt that an authoritarian approach to learning standardizes behaviour and stifles creativity. An enlightened authority, however, knows when students should be free to choose, as well as when they should not, and gives them an opportunity to do so whenever possible. Furthermore, an authority who knows his students' needs can easily insist on individualized assignments and rewards. He can expect 10 pages of work from Jim and only one from Joe without giving the impression that he is persecuting Jim or that he thinks Joe is stupid.
Competition at play or work runs high in any group of youngsters. It is not permitted at Eagle Lake when it takes the physical form of poking, pushing, wrestling, or fighting. Verbal disagreements are not permitted either if they interfere with the day's planned activities. The children who attend this school are able to learn to control their aggressive impulses for the sake of productivity and channel them into non-physical, non-argumentative forms of competition. This is an important lesson in control. It is natural for children to test their strength to the limits, but this can be done at home.
When games are played, the word of the referee is law, and there is no argument. Instant replays on television show that even professional referees can make mistakes; but right or wrong, their decisions stand. The children at Eagle Lake can "have it out" at home with authority people. At school, however, they are learning to cope with situations that are not open to negotiation. They must accept the pattern best suited to the group as seen by the person in charge.