Sunday, February 5, 2012

Because children are not crisp packets: why I prefer inexperienced teachers

So I said to a teacher friend, that I suspected there was a generational aspect at play in the problems we had encountered at kindy. The thing is, the kindy teachers are good at their job. They are well respected in their community. Like many schools who are abysmal with SN, they have a great reputation with neurotypical kids. So - rather than assuming there is a black hole in their heads where the word "developmental disability" is concerned and into which all empathy and intelligence disappears without trace - I am guessing that they are not fully up to date with research into autism, special needs, developmental delay and the like.

My teacher friend was surprised that I found the older generation of teachers to be less helpful. She said that in her view that it is better to have an elderly, experienced teacher who has vast experience of kids than a new graduate with lots of book-knowledge but little expertise in teaching yet. I couldn't agree more - except where Special and Developmental Needs is concerned. It took me several days to work out why I thought this, because it was the opposite of common sense, surely? I mean, everyone knows that the more experience the better?
It's a bit like crisps. Which I am missing, a bit, discovering how much poorer the range of "chips," as they call them here is, than in England. They have them, but they are expensive. I mean, how can an English-speaking country not recognise the importance of cheapo prawn cocktail, sour cream and chive and salt and vinegar on every corner? What do New Zealand parents DO with their whingy children, if they can't nip down to the corner shop and have an argument about which is better, barbeque sauce or tomato ketchup flavour? I digress. Anyway...

1) A teacher who has been in the classroom twenty or thirty years has doubtless taught many kids on the spectrum, especially at the high-functioning end. Almost all of them until recently will have been unlabelled, Aspergers for example was only officially identified in the DSM in 1994. Therefore a lot of spectrummy behaviour they will see as normal. It's not "neurotypical," but it is normal to them, in the sense that they have encountered it before. They may indeed have intuitively developed some strategies that work well with these kids, that may have been labelled "geeky" "difficult" "sensitive" or "a bit slow." They may genuinely have taught them effectively. Why on earth, the experienced teacher thinks, would these stupid parents bother to LABEL their child, when it's quite clear that Joseph and Amelia, who were very similar kids in lots of ways, did just fine without specialised intervention?
The thing is, of course, that "just fine" doesn't really cut it, if you are looking at the whole child. Just fine covers Joseph and Amelia's moderate or even outstanding exam results, the fact that they were lovely kids who were a pleasure to teach. It doesn't cover what happened outside the classroom doors, the meltdowns and struggles at home, or what the other kids said to them when the teacher's back was turned. It doesn't cover the failure their parents had trying to persuade Joseph to get involved in anything extra-curricular, or Amelia's anxiety about exams that meant she didn't eat or sleep for months beforehand. It doesn't cover what happened when Joseph left education and couldn't cope with the social stress of a workplace, or Amelia dropped out of university because she didn't have the support to enable her to access learning at an unstructured pace. It doesn't cover the terrifyingly high number of suicide attempts amongst adults with Aspergers. Unlabelled, Joseph and Amelia didn't do just fine. They were just unsupported. The teacher who remembers them doesn't know what happened next. They saw the crisp packet, but not the taste inside. So extensive classroom experience actually becomes a hindrance in seeing the need for effective support for those "diagnosed," "labelled" kids entering the classroom today.

2) The experienced teacher tends to believe that she or he knows a lot. This is true, they do know a lot. They know an awful lot about the average child, and quite a bit about the ususual or even exceptional child. They have taught plenty, after all. Most experienced teachers tend to believe that they have more understanding of children in general than their parents: this is quite reasonable, because the parent knows one or two or three children, whereas the teacher knows or has known thousands. Where this creates problems is where the child has a label - like ASD, or GDD, or ADHD - and the teacher has met children with this label before. If the child doesn't "look" or behave like other children with this label, then the label must be wrong, right? And if the teacher has taught other children with this label successfully, then they know how to teach this one, right?
As parents and paediatricians will be well aware, each child with a spectrum or developmental condition is unique. Unique means exactly that, different from all the others. An experienced teacher, a truly experienced teacher of children with SN, will of course know this, and will take time to get to know THIS child. But many, many, many teachers do not know this. "Oh, he'll be fine with me, I had Jake last year." The teacher who doesn't bother to listen to the parents or specialist professionals - because they already know about autism/GDD/whatever before meeting the child - is very unlikely to be newly out of college. They tend to be the ones who have taught for many years, run across quite a few labelled children in the past and reckon that gives them the knowledge they need for this one. If you have eaten a lot of cheesey crisps, you expect to recognise the packet. Cheesy crisps come in a green packet, right? When the manufacturers change the packet colour, you get a bit of a shock to the tastebuds. Doesn't matter with crisps, but for a child that day or week or even year whilst the teacher gets used to the differentness of THIS child with SN, that can be crucifying. A missed opportunity for learning, or the beginning of a slippery slide out of formal education full stop.

3) The experienced teacher can lack humility, an awareness that they need to learn. You never stop learning, with children with SN - you never find the strategy that works with ALL children with such-and-such a label, only some of them, some of the time. You have to constantly experiment, change the way you work, be creative. That is what inexperienced teachers are doing all the time: it is the same process, just applied more intensively, with an SN child. I cannot describe in words what a relief it is when a teacher says "I wonder if we might try..." or "What I've started doing with him is..." It is a sign that they are thinking, that they are aware that they do not have all the answers yet. Hey, I don't expect teachers to reinvent the crisp, but it would be nice if they didn't insist that they had tried three flavours and never needed to try any more.

4) Teachers spend a lot of time calming anxious parents down. Betty's reading is going slowly, but it's OK, there are a lot of children who start that way, don't worry. John is pushing other kids around a bit in the playground, we need to work on that, but don't worry about it, we often have that with the more energetic boys. They are used to reassuring parents where the worst fear is that there is something "wrong." So teachers with a lot of experience can get stuck in a default mode of "it's fine, don't worry" which makes it harder for them to accept that sometimes, actually, worry is wise.

Of course, the very best teachers are the ones who have lots of experience AND openness and willingness to learn. I've been privileged to work with one of them, for one of my sons, she was brilliant and in less than a term completely transformed him. That kind of special relationship, where you get the wisdom of age and the alertness to a new challenge, is phenomenal. Ultimately, that's the Holy Grail, isn't it? An exceptional, experienced, wise yet humble teacher, who works with parents as equals and loves the child as they are, without trying to pigeonhole them into prior understandings of learning and relationship. Such glory is akin to the beauty of ripping open and tasting the first crisp in a favourite packet (yes, I am REALLY missing Walkers and Gary Lineker right now). But in its absence, give me an inexperienced teacher who doesn't yet "know about" children any day, and we'll work on the unexpected together.


  1. Would you like an emergency parcel sent? mind you I remember in Australia at least you get something called ?? Twisties which are cheesy gnarled sticks- like a condensed and elongated Wotsit that are really delicious.
    another thought provoking post- not least for me with a son that I suspect probably is on the 'spectrum' but remains un-'diagnosed' and un-'labelled' to date and I go round in circles whether to do so would be helpful or not. Teachers feel it unnecessary (sound familiar?), and I know he wouldn't ever be statementable and I'm not sure what additional support would even be helpful at this stage. So hmmm. Same (delightful obviously) child with same qualities and conundrums whatever I call him. I'll continue to watch this space ;)

  2. Ooh, I must look out for Twisties.

    It is an impossible conundrum, isn't it Polly? My rule of thumb is always - is the child happy and thriving? If so, if child is happy and learning, and the parent is coping happily and successfully with parenting, then I can't see the advantage of getting a label. But if child is starting to struggle academically or socially, then I think the picture changes. It's an interesting question, hmm I can feel another blog post coming on...

  3. Wikipedia tells me they are called 'cruncheese' in NZ and slightly less dense.
    Yes. he is happy and thriving at the moment with the sort of teacher that you just want to clone for the good of mankind.
    The problems (and the labels) may come further down the line when he's less free to follow his own agenda I guess...

  4. Yes, I can see, it is a tricky one.

    What you could do is kind of keep your options open and amass evidence, so that in the event that he is struggling in a couple of years you have reams of paperwork to throw at experts if you do want a diagnosis. You could ask whoever has hinted if they would put their suspicions in writing, explaining that you don't want to do anything about it now but that it might be useful later - then you have a paper trail if you ever need it.

  5. The last time I was in the Kiwi Shop in London they had Twisties - unless they're renamed them recently?