We Are The Change

There are many times I was convinced by the system to send my daughter into the fire. With promises that they would take care of her. Specialists who you trust. My story isn’t Hollywood worthy but I think it is a story many of us can tell. This isn’t a story of a big tragedy, it is one of a small tragedy that we caught and managed to fix.

B was eight years old when she came home one day and told me how her teacher had shamed her for not being finished yet. How Mrs Row didn’t stop the rest of the class from doing the same. A few days later I was standing in the passage when a second teacher tutt-tutted at my daughter’s tennis skills, “She is a very weak player,” she sighed with pursed and irritated lips. I remember these words as if they were spoken yesterday. B was standing right behind her. A week later I came in to fetch her from an extra maths class Mrs Row had insisted on, and found her reading a magazine at her desk while B sat alone, still only eight years old, trying to do a worksheet on her own.

I entrusted my daughter to this school every single day, believed that they were treating her well, that they were respecting her as a little girl trying her best. This is a great school, and at the time had a wonderful headmaster. My other daughter loved it and thrived there.

Only, they weren’t treating B very well at all. She was being bullied by the teachers and they didn’t even know it. She was trying so hard to tell them that she didn’t understand the work, that they were going too fast. But they had deaf ears.

A week after that, nine days before her nineth birthday, we walked away.

After deciding to start a school so that I could afford to pay my bills while educating my own daughter., I was getting ready for the first day. I had rented space from our local recreation centre. The rent was low, the parking lot was big and the playground was going to be amazing. It was a huge field.

I was there the week before to pick up litter. The building wasn’t open yet after from December holidays, but it was easy for anyone to enjoy the field and the playground whenever they wanted. As I bent down again and again with my big black bag, I watched a young boy with his mom and his gran walking up the gentle hill. The three generations, side-by-side.

His mom was talking away in the same way we all do, offloading our lives onto our parents’ shoulders, as they did with theirs not too long ago. They seemed content in each other’s company. I enjoyed being able to watch them from afar.

There are rabbits in this field, not so many as to be a concern, but enough to make any little boy want to chase them. He spotted his first one, “Look, mommy. Rabbit!” He was pointing at the black one sleeping against the base of a large shady tree. All of the rabbits here slept on the West side of the trees, reversed right up against them, all pointing in the same direction. It was odd if you happened to notice the pattern.

The little boy kept hold of his mother’s hand, or perhaps she kept hold of his. He looked up at her with a big smile, so excited about having been the first one to see a rabbit that day. His mom kept on chatting away, his gran nodding at her daughter’s words and looking forward.

His arm lowered and he kept on walking with them.

But another rabbit came into view, this one a mottled colour. It was hopping across the paving. His arm flung up again to point out what he had seen, smiling with joy at the wonderous creature that was free to hop anywhere it liked. I imagine him itching to chase it around, laughing as it slipped away each time he reached out his arms to capture it. He looked back up at his mom, she was still holding his hand and talking to gran, She hadn’t noticed him or the rabbit.

From my vantage point, I wished I could show him that I had noticed him, that I felt his enthusiasm and was smiling back at him with a smile just as big as his. But he wasn’t my son, and I wasn’t his mom. I was just a stranger, far away, picking up litter.

Watching still, I saw his body shift again in the same way it had with the first two rabbit sightings. Only this time, his arm didn’t go up to point, he didn’t look back at mom. He smiled at the third rabbit, enjoying his own curiosity all by himself.

It took only three tries to teach him that his enthusiasm wasn’t going to be noticed. That this wasn’t that important to his mom, that what he wanted to show her had little value when she was talking to gran. Perhaps he thought none of that, he was so little.

I wondered if he would try again. Make another bid for connection with his mom, and if she would see it the next time.

If my attention to children had in any way been less than my best before that moment, I vowed that from that moment on I would see, really see. I wondered how much I had missed with my own daughters, busy with my own life. As a mom, I would miss a lot because my time with my children wasn’t always only about them. Time at the shops with them or getting on with chores, I would easily miss important moments, maybe leaving them feeling unheard and unseen. I cut this mom some slack.

For my new professional life – my life as a teacher and principal – this was going to be key to proper remediation. My heart ached to watch this little guy give up in his bid for connection, it made me think of how many times my struggling daughter was dismissed by teachers and coaches who were unable to put themselves in her shoes. Focused on what they thought their job was. Focused on getting through the work.

“If you have taught but no one has learned, then have you really taught.” Lauren Edmunds

If this project of opening a school was going to achieve what I wanted it to, our first principle was going to be modelling respect. Picking up litter was part of this. It was a symbol of paying attention to the detail that gives the right feeling. A feeling that everything is being looked after, not precision nor perfectionism, but progress and care. This was going to be one of the keys I needed. We didn’t need manicured lawns but we did need a clean space, it shows respect.

I wanted them each to feel respected, that we are listening and looking. If we aren’t noticing everything then we are missing something. I knew right then that I wanted every student who walked through these gates to feel seen and heard. This hasn’t changed at all. My first ‘rule’ for all teachers is respect. Respect the child as a fully formed and autonomous human being that is entitled to our patience and attention.

No eye rolling and calling them weak, no dismissive lessons where children are left to battle alone, no irritated sighs because a teacher cannot get a child to learn something.

I continued to change every day after I started the school. I continued to implement the opposite of the things I had seen happening to my B. This is a passion, not just a profession. It is a life’s work to make sure that the children we teach never feel unseen and unaccounted for, that they never go home and think that they are not worthy.

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