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Secret Teacher: private school students are great – it’s their parents I worry about

  Academia | The Guardian As teaching goes, I have little cause for complaint. I work with sparky, engaged students in a small independent preparatory school. My classroom was once a grand family dining room. I read the tales of English author Julia Donaldson beneath its original cornices as the breeze comes through the French doors. PE lessons take place on rolling fields and small class sizes come as standard. I enjoy teaching as much as my enthusiastic students enjoy learning.But in my five years in this luxurious setting, I have witnessed an often incomprehensible level of competitiveness from parents. When we begin a new topic, I am besieged by young voices informing me that they have already done this, read that or learned all about it. This, of course, is because many parents employ tutors to pore over class newsletters and teach 90% of the term’s listed objectives in advance (albeit in the solitary confinement of their kitchen island).I regularly receive notes from parents requesting much harder books for their children, as I have vastly underestimated their reading ability. On one occasion, I welcomed a father into the classroom to view our poster-paint butterflies, only for him to insist that his four-year-old son recite all of the species native to the UK. When the child struggled with the Latin terms, his father’s face contorted in frustration.I was once sent an email which simply read: “Please test Yuvraj on his mixed seven and eight times tables today.” It was the child’s first day of year 1 in a new school. And a colleague of mine still speaks with astonishment about the time he met with parents of a six-year-old student who began with the words, “You should know, Marcus is applying for Yale.”For many of our parents, success is simply not measured by their child’s progress, contentment or kindness; it can only be understood in objective, numerical terms, pitched against the attainment of other children.I have had to develop countless stock phrases to evade parents’ enquiries about the academic profile of the rest of the class. After one parents’ evening, I returned to my darkened classroom and found a mother frantically opening the desk drawers in search of my elusive mark book, such was her desire to measure her child’s worth against that of other five-year-olds. Incredibly, she offered no apology as I politely requested that she return my personal belongings.Parents eagerly distribute party invitations to the students they suspect will one day found companies or perform groundbreaking surgery. Adults in respected professions enter classrooms without warning and demand to know the reason that another child is in a different coloured spelling group to their son.This culture of excessive competition only seems to get worse as students grow older. Further up the school, staff have known children to vomit with worry in the week that the secondary scholarship awards are announced. The parents of the children who receive them often wear this accolade with ungracious arrogance; some even send round robin emails with the news, lest any party is unaware of their success. An older student recently told me, through sobs, that he was no longer getting a much longed for family kitten because he had not performed as well as a friend in his end of year spelling test.Undoubtedly, this school achieves great academic success. The students outperform regional and national averages by a significant margin, and their progress is rarely anything but rapid.But there’s an elephant in this staffroom, and it is too dangerous to be ignored. These children are learning that only the best will ever be good enough, that no amount of effort will ever trump attainment. And, as a result, they are being denied their right to a childhood free from pressure. This will undoubtedly blight their futures.There is no crime in wanting your child to succeed; in striving to have the best brought out of them in school. Most parents seek exactly that. There is, though, a balance to be struck between academic excellence and the freedom of childhood.What I really wish I could say to parents, when I am being put on the spot once again about the reading ability of the new pupil in the class, is this: your child’s infant years are remarkably precious. No money in the world will bring them back, and they will fly by in a heartbeat. Slow down, value them. Ask my colleagues and I, foremost, if your child is happy and kind. Value this above their mental maths score. Allow them to make mistakes without scrutiny and to enjoy the magic of their early years, free from constant comparison to their playmates.I feel your suffocating pressure daily. I am certain that your children do, too.

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