There can be no doubt that self-esteem (perhaps self-worth is a better term) is an important part of people’s lives. It is also true that we all like to be encouraged and affirmed in what we do and who we are – it makes us feel good about ourselves.
Historically, British schools have been pretty poor at developing pupil’s self-esteem; in fact I would argue that they have often done serious damage to pupils in this regard. Some years ago I came across a young man in his 20s who when he was 16 and about to go into his GCSE maths exam had been told by his maths teacher, that it would be a waste of his time and that of the exam marker if he actually bothered to sit the exam. Five or six years later when I met this young man he still regarded himself as ‘stupid’ – not merely in maths but generally.
In 2009, Dr Carol Craig delivered a paper at the Association of School and College Leaders conference in Birmingham where she suggesting that our schools are in danger of producing narcissistic children who are likely to develop an “all about me mentality”. Dr Craig runs the Centre for Confidence and Well-being so should know a thing or two about this subject.
The ‘praise culture’ was something that also arose in a conversation I had with a former colleague. We had worked together for a number of years in special educational needs within a mainstream school. She told me of a new member of staff who was inclined, in her opinion, to praise children for ‘almost anything’ – if a child sat quietly for five minute, he was praised before the rest of the class; if he wrote two or three lines in English, he was similarly praised. In the opinion of my former colleague this devalued praise – the child was simply being praised for what he should have been doing in the first place!
Teachers are, however, in a very powerful position within their classrooms. Ultimately, it is teachers who decide what is correct and what is wrong, even, in a very real sense, what is truth within their classrooms. I have often chided teaching friends of mine by saying that as teachers we are the only individuals who ask people questions to which we already know the answer! That position of power is so easily abused when a child is scorned or even mocked for not knowing the answer that the teacher is looking for.
Whilst Dr Craig and my former colleague may well be making a valid point, in my experience, far from creating a generation of narcissistic egoists, my feeling is that teachers do not give children sufficient real praise. Indeed, I would argue that the system itself is actually stacked against teachers providing such praise with its enthusiasm for one size fits all testing and measuring.
Those of us who are home educating need to guard against the same failing – our children need to be encouraged not only when they do well, but also when they have tried their best – and as parents we are best placed to tell the difference. We also need to aspire to create an environment where success and development naturally occur, albeit at a different pace and in different ways for each of our children.
By the way, if you are interested in what happened to the young man with the appalling maths teacher, he eventually went to university and secured a very respectable 2:1 degree, but only after good people convinced him that his school experience was inaccurate and that he was actually quite able!