Narcissism is something we have a problem with in education. We may have had the course on bias, but there is something deeper that has grown roots in schools, Twitter and society. The comfort in seeing ourselves reflected in others.
I was not the best behaved student in school. In fact, I was awful, rude and gobby. I was rude to Geography teachers and often sent to the head of Geography at the time to be routinely shouted. I used to graffiti text books. Go to page 13. Go to page 78. Go to page 99: you are a wazzock! I routinely got kicked out of Physics for giggling. I unscrewed the desks in French and then placed the screws in an innocent student’s bag. I also had anger issues. In Year 5, I stopped on a teacher’s foot because I was angry. I think she had a foot operation not so long ago as well. I’m probably the reason why some schools don’t allow open toe sandals. It goes back to 1987 and the Curtis incident. In my teens, I gave a student a bleeding nose because he mentioned something about my wearing glasses.
For most of my time growing up, I was best described as a ‘handful’. I wasn’t just a handful at school, but I was a pain at home. I’d fight with my brother and father, physically. I may be little, but I can be fierce.
I then went to university and then … No. It didn’t last. I grew up. I can never really pinpoint why I was such a handful as a child. There was no unmet need that I know of. That was me. As an adult, I’d rather hide in a corner than draw attention to myself. I walk away from an argument.
Now, as a teacher, I am living in a form of purgatory for my past sins and behaviour. Not really. But, I have to admit that buried in my subconscious is this child. When I see that child reflected in a class and particular student, I understand, connect and see things from my point of view. I don’t teach with them in mind, but I understand them. Over the years, I have met quite a few of these students. I am still in contact with quite a lot of them and true to form they turned out lovely, kind human beings with families of their own but they were a handful when younger. I see myself in them. I understand them.
But, I know, I am quite alone with this viewpoint. What if your childhood experience was different? What if your behaviour was more Lisa Simpson and less Bart Simpson? In the classroom, who do you connect with? Lisa? Bart? Millhouse? Wendell? Ralph? Dolph?
[Ignore gender: I see Lisa and Bart as two opposing models of behaviour in students. There are many boys and girls that behave like Lisa, and like Bart. For this discussion, I am using Lisa and Bart to characterise the behaviour and not to typify behaviour related to gender.]
I became a father and raised two daughters. Two Lisa Simpsons. And, I struggled and still struggle to this day. When they do anything Bart-like, I can cope, but when they behave like Lisa Simpson I find it difficult. I was never like Lisa.
My expectations and ideas are rooted in something a long time ago. That’s where I think we have a problem. Our expectations in the classroom are linked to the student we used to be. That’s the model for our expectations in the class. We base things on how we behaved as a student. We look at things from how we thought as a student. We see that student as the norm by which everyone must fit. Bart, you need to be more like Lisa. Well done, Lisa. We even reward Bart when he copies Lisa’s behaviour, because he is fitting the model of Lisa.
We even have schools dedicated to making Lisa Simpsons and schools who actively work hard to get rid of Ralphs, Dolph, Barts and Millhouses so they just have classes full of Lisas. There are schools that would have got rid of me, because I wasn’t Lisa. I can handle money excluding me from some schools, but I cannot handle the idea that a school could exclude me because I didn’t fit a narcissistic model of a student.
It was interesting that I had a conversation about reading and the student's attitude towards reading. I, the only male, had a very different relationship towards reading. I was explaining how my reading as a teenager was largely information based and not about stories. That model challenges the whole idea of reading for pleasure. I read for information and I continued to read as a teenager because I wanted to know more. It wasn’t about feelings. You can attach feelings to the process, but, for me, the process is emotionless. Purely functional. Not about comfort or enjoyment. Yet, the Lisa Simpson model tells students that they should love reading and get lost in the story and characters because Lisa reads books and that’s what happens to her. We tell Bart Simpson that he has to see things as Lisa sees things. Some of you are probably suggesting that I did feel some pleasure on some level, but that is you enforcing your view of the world on to mine. It isn’t pleasure. I was the one reading. It was simply a process.
The problem is rooted everywhere in education and I’ve seen it spread in discussions and arguments. I’ve seen arguments and threads all to feed Lisa’s viewpoint or her narrative. They work for Lisa so they should work for all children. It worked for me. Didn’t I do well.Therefore it works. The problem with having this narcissistic narrative is that Lisa describes a student with a natural desire, motivation and aptitude towards learning and she has the physical tools and materials to enable her to learn. All too often, Lisa is the angle of the debate. It works for Lisa so it must work for all. Lisa is the default method.
I think we have to look away from the reflection. The image of ourselves shouldn’t be the dominant archetype. Yet, I feel, in education we are slowly enforcing binary archetypes on students. Lisa = good. Bart = bad.
If you don’t think we have a problem, then look at how almost every Secretary of State for Education tries to revert schools to their own experience of schooling. And, look, it worked for them! There are so many Lisas these days. Because, as you’d expect, each different Lisa could have a different experience.
Let’s step away from looking for ourselves in the classroom and rewarding the students when we see our behaviour, mannerisms, words, phrases, ideas reflected back at us. We all have a past and let’s not be guided and controlled by it.
I teach Bart and I teach Lisa. At the same time, I teach twenty eight other students with their own names and their own ways of behaving. I have to actively challenge my own biases. Lisa Simpson is not the factory default for students. They are much more complex.
Thanks for reading,