What the hell is wrong with you people?

I attended the ‘Presentation Day’ at my son’s primary school today. As a matter of principle I put all my children through the public school system (as opposed to private schools). There are probably 300 or so kids in the school and has reasonable ethnic diversity. It was the principal’s last presentation day – not sure where he is going but he is leaving. The cadre of female teachers appeared scarily close to 5 years from retirement.

It was my first presentation day – you should know that too. I have successfully avoided any involvement with the school (from parents’ nights to fundraising events to presentation days) for the better part of 14 years now. My deal with the school is that I will educate my children (including a solid set of values) and the school can provide the schooling: call me if you have a problem, otherwise we leave each other well alone.

This is not as weird as it sounds at first; but as an educator myself I feel that riding shotgun for my child while the teachers are trying to do the best they can is not a good idea.
The only male teacher was the (departing) principal.

So much for background.

The Presentation Day ’07 confirmed my worst fears and upset me deeply. It was bad on so many levels, that I did not know whether to become enraged or to cry. As any self-respecting blogger would, I choose to wail into the ether.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhh

Let me count the ways (bear with me) and then I will explain why I feel so strongly about this:
  • The choir was bad. Not just slightly out of tune, but really, really bad. 95% of those kids could not sing. They should not be in a choir. They should not be encouraged to sing, they should be instructed to keep quiet.
  • The band was hopeless. They could not carry a tune, but they did get make sure that both drummers got equal opportunity to bang on – if you think that is important.
  • The classroom awards (6 per class) included one for ‘Academic Achievement’ and the other 5 were all variations of ‘nice try’, ‘good effort’ and ‘good job sucking up to the teacher’.
Why is this bad? Because schools/ teachers have the misguided notion that participation should be rewarded. It is not a subtle distinction, but participation must be encouraged and supported but NOT REWARDED. What the hell is wrong with you people? What kind of life lesson is that for our children when you reward mediocrity and even outright poor performance?

The whole event becomes one massive lie where the adults pretend that the kids don’t notice. I have a surprise for you: if my 10-year old can notice it, 90% of the kids will know it. Life does not work like that, but it is OK to pretend that a good effort is equal to winning. The only kids who value any of these lame awards are the ones you least want to encourage because they are already building up a resume to become a prefect.

Life’s real lesson is this: Effort is its own reward, if it has any reward at all. But most importantly, effort is a pre-requisite. Without effort, there is no reward, no clapping parents, no results and no food on the table. Effort is the oxygen of achievement and no athlete is rewarded for their breathing technique. Simply ‘trying’ is not to be rewarded, that breeds a culture of mediocrity. That is why the band sucks. We should have had one kid doing an inspirational solo but instead we get a false choir.

Everybody who ‘tries out’ for the band or the choir should not get a place in it. Showing up is not the qualifying criterion; talent and ability and skill are what should be required. Don’t let the kids be lulled into a false sense of achievement when you should be encouraging them to search harder and work harder at finding their true passions.

Some years ago a teacher made a substitute in the middle of the grand final netball game. It happened to be my daughter, but that is beside the point. The substitute could hardly catch a ball, but it was ‘her turn’ and the teacher thought my daughter ‘had scored enough goals.’ How lame is that? The message: winning and losing does not matter, as long as everyone gets a go. What the hell is wrong with you people? Winning and losing are the left step and right step of LIFE. That is how you walk towards your destiny.

This is NOT what the Aussie ‘fair go’ means. It means – and should mean – that everyone gets an opportunity to try, regardless of race, sex or socio-economic status. But if you had a go and you are not good enough, you don’t get to be on the team unless you carry the oranges. That is life!

This attitude also clearly illustrates the intellectual snobbery that permeates the school system. It is funny that the sports jocks are turned away from the debating team and will not be substituted in the chess team just because they happen to be on hand. No sirree; unless you can actually play chess you won’t get picked. Unless you are Maths whizz, you don’t get picked for the Maths Olympiad. But it is OK to give everyone a fair go when it comes to Netball, irrespective of your hand-eye coordination.

None of the teacher could command respect from the student body by their sheer presence. There was no obvious respect for a teacher calling for silence. A teacher used to be able get absolute silence with one word: “Quiet.” There was respect, there was even a bit of fear. But mostly the students used to know there were consequences if they did not shut up. Those days are now replaced with something new. Do I hear you say that is a ‘good thing’? Well, allow me to enlighten you about how they now achieve ‘silence.’

The teacher would talk to the one half of the gathering and compliment them on being quiet, and then turn to the other half of the gathering and proclaim that they were now waiting for them to be quiet. Very clever, but psychologically manipulative don’t you think? The ‘good guys’ fall silent (the principle of consistency) and then collectively turn to the ‘bad guys’ who now have everyone staring at them until they fall quiet.

Here is the other one: the teacher instructs them to give three claps, then point their hands in the air, then rest it on the shoulder, then two claps and then ‘twinkle stars’, then one clap and fold in you lap. Close your lips. Hey presto: everybody is quiet.
Just brilliant how they induce compliance through suggestion and psychological manipulation, right? And this sooo much better than being smacked on the arse, correct? (But let's not digress.)

The principal spoke for a good 20 minutes – a farewell speech of sorts – and after I don’t know how many years and how many thousands of kids that he has educated, shaped and influenced, he could not make a single original, intelligent observation. Every cliché you can imagine: ‘co-operation…’, ‘working together…’, ‘without the help of…’ blah de blah de blah. Where is Mr Chips when you need him?

Is this the best the man can do? Did he have influence over the children? Did he have any fun or any sadness? Not one special kid in all that time? Was his tenure really defined by the wonderful achievement of $600, 000 of building works including air conditioned class rooms?)
What a sad, sad person to lead a school that might contain presidents, scientists and captains of industry.

My attitude has always been that my end of the bargain is to educate my children, feed them and encourage them and then let the school teach them the basic skills required in life. (This includes socialising skills as well as the 3 R’s.) I then pay my fees and my taxes (when I really have to) and hope the system works.

I don’t believe in the elitist system that is the Private School System. I believe it is in the interests of a country to have a public school system that is healthy and is rigorous enough to afford anyone – irrespective of their background – the opportunity for a great education. If we abandon the public school system, the end game is that only the rich get to have a decent education. We need a critical mass of ‘rich enough’ and ‘smart enough’ to stick with the public school system to keep it a decent system.

But if Presentation Day 2007 is really what is happening inside our schools, I must begin to wonder what the alternatives are? And am I doing my son any favours by keeping him in an environment that I hoped represented ‘an ordinary life’ – but may well be a toxic environment?
What the hell is wrong with us people?