At the chalkface: Batter them with kindness

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

“No-one ever said I was any good at anything,” Daisy said. This isn’t self-pity, just a statement of fact. No-one has done. Someone should be lynched.

I’m with a low stream 9th year, giving back homework.

I get to Daisy Plum, a painfully shy and lonely pupil, who badly lacks confidence – a situation that is not improved by having been labelled Level 3 and plummeting for the last three years.

It causes her to be mighty glum. It would cause you to be mighty glum. It’s not much fun being called rubbish for so long.

Daisy spends most of her time failing something or other. She’s just another poor, comprehensively undernourished child. Still, she’s done her homework, written a poem about her recently deceased cat Dolly. It displays rare effort and much care. There are some lovely illustrations in the margins. The writing is pretty sentimental and banal, but so what? It’s a start. She’s taken a risk and this is some kind of breakthrough.

“I really enjoyed this,” I say, “it’s a lovely piece.”

Daisy hides her face with her fingers. She starts to weep.

Why? The death of Dolly?

No. She simply can’t cope with the compliment.

Her face is smudged with tears.

“No-one ever said I was good at writing.”

“Well, it’s really good.”

“No-one ever said I was any good at anything,” Daisy said.

This isn’t self-pity, just a statement of fact. No-one has done. Someone should be lynched.

I correct the spellings, type it up and put it on this week’s wall of fame. She’s secretly dead chuffed.

Most of Daisy’s school life passes unremarked. She slips under the teacher’s radar. She’s not melodramatically dysfunctional, not floridly bonkers enough for the school shrink. She lives a life of quiet desperation, like so many of our pupils in these bleak times.

There are so many Daisies. Attention must be paid. Which is why, of course, Pupil Premium interventions are so essential. How can teachers be cognisant of all their pupils’ social, mental and emotional health problems? Teachers can have 30 children from any class, creed, race, tribe, war zone and religion, from high rent, low rent, no rent homes, hostels, hotels, canal barges, Kings Hell mansions and gated palaces.

The teacher can’t possibly be aware of all the damage out there – the child who’s too tired, too bruised, too hungry, too angry, too drugged, too bored or who works all hours in the family shop, who must take care of his little brothers and sisters, or is running drugs or is an undiscovered dyslexic, a disguised bulimic, a secret anorexic or is carrying a knife or getting groomed or even radicalised.

It goes on. Meanwhile Daisy drifts through school. She needs what a headteacher has recently said all children need – simply to be “battered with kindness”.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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