Do you have a family member or friend who is starting a new school or encountering a new form teacher any time soon? This may be of interest to you.
I’d like to repeat something told to me by a teacher. “Make sure your child behaves him/herself for the first term at least. Otherwise, the teachers will have made up their mind about that child and their reputation will be carried on throughout their school career - and possibly influence their future prospects.”
I was shocked. I was disturbed by the idea that still-developing personalities could be judged on a comparatively short-term acquaintance in a strange and unfamiliar situation. And what I found particularly unsettling was that the teacher - part of a team of professionals who has so much power over young lives - did not seem concerned about the approach.
Most of us know that we make judgments about one another in the blink - or even less - of an eye. That stems from way back when. Our reptilian brain - the amygdala - is on high alert in new situations to keep us safe from danger. It is the part of the brain that activates our fight, flight or freeze reaction and it is so fast to react that we are likely to be unaware of what is actually going on until we reflect on it moments afterwards.
An example we’ve given before is of someone walking down the street looking at their smart phone, not concentrating and being unaware of the world around them. They come to a road and are about to step off the pavement when something stops them and they stand stock still. A moment later a bus goes by and they feel the rush of air as it passes centimetres (or inches if you are still on imperial measures) away. They are shocked. As they feel a rush of adrenalin and an extremely heightened sense of awareness, they think: “If I had stepped out …”
The amygdala - their reptilian brain - has saved them. It is amazing and fantastic and astonishing to think that a part of our brain that has been here since we first arrived millions of years ago is still of vital importance to us. Vital, of course, in the truly literal sense of the word.
But (hu)mans cannot live by amygdala alone so, fortunately, we have the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex to complete the limbic system, and us.
What this means is the combined intelligence of the whole of our brain allows us to move from instinct through to emotions and memories (ie learning from experience) to reason, judgment, self-control or freewill and to manage the decision-making process. In other words, the whole emotional and reasoning experience that goes to make us a complete adult. I say “adult” because these parts of our brain develop as we mature - the prefrontal cortex will develop during adolescence and should be fully mature by the age of around 25.
Let's return to the school teacher meeting a child for the first time.
The child is likely to have mixed emotions because they are facing a new experience. Some may welcome it, some may be hesitant, some may be very resistant - however they are, there is every chance they will act different to how they might do in a situation to which they are used.
Meanwhile, the teacher - while clearly an adult in a physical form at any rate - who may be more used to, and more understanding of the situation, is also going to experience his or her own complex emotions.
It might be their first day in charge, they might be a last-minute stand-in, there could be unexpected trouble at home or, even, they are in a state of high excitement and can’t wait to meet the new intake. Whatever their emotional state, they will still make a judgment and it will still be instinctive and that judgment, so that teacher tells me, is very likely to stay with the child during their school journey.
I know I'm talking about an initial meeting but imagine that initial impression being stretched out over the next few weeks. The child who is compliant, keen, eager to please, may be easier to like. The resistant child who is determined not to give of themselves no matter how hard the teacher tries is likely to find themselves "dismissed" more easily, leading to more resistance and so the pattern continues. And that is what made me so sad.
This blog, I hope, will give some understanding to both sides of what may be going on within, even when we are unaware.
Perhaps parents and others taking children to a school for the first time could encourage their child (don’t frighten or threaten or the point is lost!) to understand the importance of first meetings and the impression they want to give. Urge them to give as good as they can, in every way. I'm not suggesting selling out their individual and precious souls but thinking about how they appear or how they might want to appear and see how the two can come closer together, if need be. The power, after all, is most likely with the teacher.
And teachers, remember these are little people (teenagers, too, however big they appear) with a long way to go. They may have stuff in the background of which you are unaware. May I ask you to aim to work with all those parts of your mature brain before you judge and decide the worth of the child in front of you. Use your instinct, your emotions and your reasoned training wisely. How you react to that child over the course of the term may have a strong and influential effect on their future - either good or bad.
Perhaps there’s a lesson here that all of us would do well to learn.
By Lulu Sinclair