The end of the holiday – and like many kids (and I suspect, quite a few teachers) my immediate feeling is NO! DON’T WANNA GO BACK TO SCHOOL!
I remind myself that I work in a lovely school, that I have classes I usually enjoy teaching and many colleagues whose company I actively enjoy and even more whose professionalism I respect. Sure, there are annoyances, as at any workplace, but overall I am happy with my job – I’m only averse to losing the freedom I enjoyed in the holiday. I think the same is true of the majority of the kids at the school.
But what about those who really don’t enjoy school? Why does that happen, and what can – or what should – we do about it?
We do need to make a distinction between those who actively dislike it, and those who just don’t positively like it, and also between this being a temporary or permanent view.
It’s natural for all of us, I think, to have events that we are really not looking forward to – be that a difficult meeting at work, an injection, an examination or having to see someone we’ve had an argument with. Just wanting a particular day or week to be over is part of life. Children inevitably find it harder to see beyond the immediate unpleasantness and to have a sense of proportion – so we may hear “I hate school” when actually “I’m scared by this Physics test” or “Oh no, Mrs X is going to tell me off” or “I don’t want to do hockey – I’m rubbish at it” are a more accurate description.
You can get longer periods of unhappiness of the same type, too – for example, when the difficulty of the work goes up a notch, so a child finds they are having to work and even struggle with something they previously found OK, or when they have a change of teacher away from one they really liked. Of course the child needs support in dealing with this, but in a calm and moderate way, indicating that this sort of experience is natural, almost everyone has it and works through it. What isn’t helpful to anyone is panicky parents demanding the previous teacher back (not least because that won’t happen) or thinking something is dreadfully wrong because their child finds something tough.
Sometimes a child may get really demoralised because they keep comparing themselves to their peers. This may be exacerbated if they are unconfident in a subject where competition is commonly part of lessons, but even if it is not, children do often have a good sense of where they are compared to their classmates. People in a child’s life who mainly praise them in comparison to others (“well done, you beat your cousins at that”, “Ooh, you were second? Well done – can you come top next time?”) can contribute too – a degree of competitiveness is fine (speaking as someone who has oodles of it!) but if the sole good is seen as exceeding others, then it’s no wonder that a child who does that rarely is a bit miserable about it. Nor does it help pretending to a child that they are best in everything – that both creates an unrealistic expectation, and promotes fear about falling from that lofty pedestal. In my experience, kids who are near the bottom in their academic performance do not necessarily get upset by this – some plug away and work hard to do the best they can, taking pleasure in their achievements and gains in their own right. Others really aren’t fussed by academic success (often that’s why they’re not achieving more highly, of course!) but are very involved in drama, sport, music etc. Then there’s the “too cool for school” brigade who wouldn’t be seen dead doing too well until it counts. But unfortunately, some really do take it to heart – and undoubtedly they do need help and support, as much with their self-esteem as with their performance.
Then we have the issue of the pupil-teacher relationship. I always feel that I cannot expect every child to like my subject or me, but I would be appalled if they were to dread my lessons. I do try to make a distinction between criticisms of their work and/or the effort they put into it, and how I feel about them as a person. I really hope none of my pupils feel I dislike them – I can still greet them with a smile in the corridor and exchange a light-hearted remark with them, even if they are not the world’s hardest worker or greatest mathematician. But when I was at school myself, there were some teachers who I really felt did dislike me (and I still think they did when thinking about it now). Although whatever you do, some kids will take any criticism as personal, I do think we all need to do our utmost to make sure there’s no grounds for that feeling.
But of course, most of the unhappiness that arises isn’t about academic work – it’s the social side. To be honest, I think it’s amazing that kids gel as well as they do – we are throwing together, for quite a few hours a day, a collection of disparate young people at a very turbulent time of their lives – it sounds like a recipe for disaster. It’s hardly surprising that many of them make all sorts of compromises to try to fit in – being comfortable in one’s own skin is a comparatively rare talent at that age anyway, and tolerance of difference not much more common.
It really doesn’t help that sometimes people feel that kids “ought” to be engaged in all sorts of activities and surrounded by friends. Some of us are just not as social as others – it’s a perfectly legitimate choice to want to go and read a book on your own at lunchtime, rather than spend time with your classmates. Being continuously in the company of other people – even if you really like them – can be exhausting for some.
It’s quite hard for schools and parents to know what to do if a child isn’t happy with their peer group. Most of them will have the odd fall-out with their friends – that’s to be expected – and whilst some help may be needed to cope and achieve a relatively peaceful neutrality if the friendship can’t be restored, that’s not the same as longer term unhappiness.
It’s horrible to see a miserable child, of course, and entirely natural to want to intervene to make it better But you can’t produce friends for a child – you can suggest strategies, or gently try to caution them against doing X Y or Z that alienates others (which may include just trying too hard). You can try to manage expectations – I remember we had a parent calling up in distress that her child “hadn’t got a best friend” within a month of joining the school – although the child concerned did have friends and had fitted in well! It is so difficult to strike a compromise between encouraging a child to be comfortable with who they are, even if it makes them stand out from the crowd, and encouraging them to do a little more to fit in. Of course, a school should aim to develop a culture in which difference is accepted and celebrated – I think that’s always been one of our strengths – but peer pressure is often perceived to be present even in a comparatively accepting environment.
We won’t ever eliminate unhappiness at school, and of course it’s unrealistic to think everyone will be blissfully happy at all times! Our school is a pretty happy one, I think – I remember a past pupil saying how amazed she’d been when talking to her new friends at university, to find that many of them had not enjoyed their school-days, as she and her classmates had always loved school. But we still find some children for whom the balance is not sufficiently towards the positive. But surely if we want to promote well-being in school, we need to promote a whole-school attitude of respecting each other and kindness and consideration – one of those unquantifiable things that are so important, but liable to be neglected as they are hard to assess.