Despite considerable research, one of the more difficult areas to navigate in education is the hidden curriculum.
It is such a broad, ill-defined area, but one of real importance – including the untaught survival strategies about getting on with people and surviving not only school, but also the world outside. Teachers and parents often feel ill-equipped to guide or train the youth, yet we try. Sometimes, however, I suspect these things can’t be taught.
When a parent – an influential CEO of a well-known publishing house – arrived to make an appointment with his son’s housemaster, I was a little anxious. Uneasy. If truth be told, angst-ridden. Because I was that housemaster, very, very newly appointed. I knew the child well. He had twice been sent to the housemaster. Now what? Was the parent going to remove his son from the school? Not good – our numbers were not as high as they should be, as the headmaster warned me, and a new housemaster losing pupils …
In an effort to cover my nervousness, I shook the man’s outstretched hand; his Carducci-cuffs slid back revealing a gold Rolex. But worse followed. On a rising note I spewed out: ‘Hello-good-day-pleased-to-meet-you-how-are-you-I’m-fine-thank-you-and-yourself?’ Raised eyebrows met this garble. I tried to cover: ‘Ha-ha. Asked and answered, I believe! Please have a seat.’
He began by abruptly glancing at his Rolex. He had abruption down to a fine art, from shooting cuffs to penetrating stares to forward-into-my-space-leans.
‘Do you teach reading at this school?’ he asked.
I tried to lighten the atmosphere.
‘Yes, indeed. The first of the three “Rs” do feature in the curriculum…’ tailing off in the face of more eyebrow raising. ‘Indeed. And do you encourage reading?’
I admitted, now somewhat defensive/aggressive in the face of his penetrating stare, that we did encourage reading.
‘Indeed. My son was gated for reading.’
What? Whoa! ‘Surely not! I said. ‘How? I mean, when? I mean, who?’
‘In your house. By Mr Henson. Last night. Do you know how important it is for me to get him to read?’
Ah! Light dawned. ‘I can explain,’ I said. “The house rule is 21:00 lights out for juniors. I can see reading is important to you… but the rule is there for a reason! They may not use cellphones in bed!’
There was a pause. Then he disarmed me. Leaning back, he said: ‘I see it now. My son is, I am sure you’ve noticed, going through a rebellious stage. He doesn’t have a cell phone – I confiscated it to try to stop him using it so much and do some reading. But he doesn’t like reading.’
Where is this going I wondered anxiously, as the father continued: ‘So he deliberately took a book and carried on reading beyond lights out. He wanted to get caught! Then, I’m sure against the rules, he phoned me on his friend’s cell and made an issue about not being allowed to read.’
The father nodded to himself before continuing. ‘My son’s gating must stand. Until he learns the lesson of having to accept things even if you feel they are unfair, he won’t grow up. Strict rules? He may well have a boss like that one day – and woe betide! That boss could be me!’ The wry look he gave me at that moment made him almost human.
‘No, wait. A better solution may lie in what is, I believe a time-honoured tradition. Torch under covers?’ His eyes had a faraway look. ‘I can’t get him to read. Imagine if he got a taste for reading by believing he is beating the system – a system which happens to be trying its best to get him to read. Suggest some titles, authors – I can get a supply of books …’
I said, ‘So he was reading? We thought he was just using a cell phone. Perhaps the gating is too harsh. And we may try lights out a bit later, say, 21:00 – reading only time, strictly enforced, of course.’
On that note, we shook hands, properly.
Of course the real lesson was learnt by me. About assumptions about parents. And twisted tales to parents by pupils with strict fathers. And maybe letting pupils have some leeway in getting away with things for a good cause.