Richard RussellFri 22 Feb 2019 08.00 GMT
As a teacher, how do I show my pupils the right values when they see so little of it from their adult ‘role models’?
The children’s climate strike has become another lightning rod in the never-ending culture war. Those on the left applauded them for their brave moral stand. Jonathan Freedland – not without basis – pointed to the strike as evidence that children were acting more like adults than the adults. But on the right the focus seemed to be on chiding them and telling them to get back to school – from the prime minister’s spokesperson to Toby Young, who saw the children’s behaviour as an argument for raising the voting age to 21.
So far, so predictable. And then came the waves of abusive comments and tweets in response. Teachers who “support this strike should have their assets confiscated and [be] sent to work down the salt mines”. “Oh do shut up you total fucking arse” the actor James Purefoy tweeted at Young to his 107,000 followers.
With all this discord you wouldn’t blame any child, unsure of what they think about the strike, for wishing that the adults would all stop fighting and just play nicely.
Who can blame young people for having little faith in adults when they see the chasm that separates what adults tell them and what they actually do themselves. It must seem to them that we are playing one huge game of Simon Says, where the object is to do the exact opposite of what we tell children to do. On a societal level we seem to be saying: do as I say, not as I do. So ask yourself: if you were a young person, would you really have much faith in adults to deal with the greatest challenge facing humanity when those selfsame adults – even teachers, such as me – are such blatant hypocrites?
We tell children to treat each other how they wish to be treated themselves, yet the House of Commons regularly resembles a playground fight, with the different sides jeering and sneering at each other. In the streets, we blare our horns and shout obscenities at other drivers. We hurl abuse at the opposition during the football and scream angrily at powerless call-centre workers when we are unhappy about something. All the while, our children watch.
Just the other day, I took the children in my class to task for laughing too forcefully at the misfortune of one of their classmates. We talked about how they didn’t have the right to make another person feel worse about themselves, and I asked them to imagine how they would feel if they were in that child’s shoes. Fast-forward only a few hours, and I sat laughing as Jeremy Corbyn mocked the transport minister for yet another mistake. MPs, and indeed all of us, relish this sort of thing. Many a standup’s career is made from perfecting the pithy putdown.
Our hypocrisy doesn’t stop there. As parents, families and teachers we tell children that mistakes are a good thing and that they are proof you are trying, a chance to learn. And yet we are far less forgiving when we are asked to put this in to practice as adults. Errors – true or perceived – by politicians, business leaders, sports people and co-workers are pounced on as evidence of their incompetence, unsuitability and negligence.
‘We tell children to treat each other how they wish to be treated themselves, yet the House of Commons regularly resembles a playground fight with the different sides jeering at each other.’ Photograph: UK Parliament/Mark Duffy/PA Is it any wonder that so few of us are good at accepting responsibility for our mistakes when the response to doing so is damning? Just think how rarely we hear someone say: “Sorry. I was wrong.” Even when those words are uttered, more often than not they’re qualified by a conditional “if you misunderstood me” or “if anyone took offence”. It makes it hard to muster the audacity to stand in front of a class of young children and tell them to grow up and start taking responsibility for their actions.
In my classroom in Spain, as in most others, “partner talk” is an essential part of most lessons. Children are encouraged to share their thinking with their partner and we even take time out to practise listening effectively. “Listen to understand rather than just to respond,” I tell them all. Because that’s how adults behave, isn’t it?
I’ve stopped listening to BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze and Question Time as I just can’t cope with how little anyone actually listens (Melanie Phillips could learn a thing or two from my year 6 class). The contributors seem to have their idea of what the other person thinks – and is going to say – and will respond to this rather than what is actually said. But it’s not just in politics: I regularly argue with my wife about something she has said only to find out 10 minutes later that we were saying the same thing all along.
The more you think about the depth of our hypocrisy, the worse it gets. We shouldn’t physically hurt others, we say, and yet violence is glorified in films, sport and music. Being different is good, we tell children, yet we live in monolithic echo chambers, cross the road to avoid people acting “weird” and pull funny looks if someone does something out of the ordinary in a public place. Knowledge is power, we say, yet experts are derided and belittled at every turn. Clever people are nerds, often figures of fun.
And that brings me to the biggest hypocrisy of all, the mantra that you need to work hard to get ahead. Should our children really believe this when there is so much evidence to the contrary? Yes, we have inspiring examples, famous and non-famous, whom we can point to. But with social mobility decreasing, unthinkable amounts of wealth being held by just a tiny percentage of the population, and with an upswell in racism and bigotry across the western world, it stretches credulity to breaking point to suggest hard work is all that is needed for success.
Maybe, just maybe, if we as adults actually started practising what we preached then our children wouldn’t need to go on strike and could instead focus on their own futures. But for the time being, with the adult world so filled with hypocrisy and inaction, I’m glad we have an ever increasing group of young people who aren’t listening to their elders, and instead are being seen and heard.
• Richard Russell is a primary school teacher