Another school year comes to an end, and the memories, experiences and lessons learned during my time as the teacher and director of the school in Manresa spring to mind. Being surrounded by parents, students and teachers all the time made me feel like I was part of a tiny universe where every kind of species could be observed. I watched parents and their children. I copied what I saw produced good results and I avoided what didn't. I have always felt as though I have a unique and privileged position in that I am able to see how human beings grow, and observe the influence that both parents and friends have on children.
Today, however, I am not going to talk about that, although I might one day. Today, I would like to talk about a prejudice held by people in our society, a prejudice that, unfortunately, stigmatises children and robs them of the opportunity to thrive through learning. Today, I want to talk about 'repeating the year', and, although we could apply this to all areas of education, I am going to focus on English, which is what I know best.
At that time, when I worked closely with both students and their parents, the type of situation I am describing was more customary than desired. On occasions, I came across students who found it very difficult to follow the syllabus, mainly because, as language students, they had lost their way at some point. Faced with this situation, the inevitable time came when I had to talk to their parents, reveal the situation to them and confront it.
No parent likes to be told their child has difficulties, but refusing to accept what is in front of our eyes, far from helping children and making it easier for them, actually makes it more difficult. After revealing the 'problem' and suggesting, with my heart in my mouth, that their child would need to repeat the year, I found myself on the receiving end of a whole host of reactions. From, "Are you suggesting that my child is stupid?" to "I am not surprised. The method doesn't work." Or, "Don't even think about it. My child is not repeating the year. Give them extra work and you'll see how they improve!" Somebody even insinuated once that it was in my interest that their son repeated the year, as they would have to pay for English classes for longer!
But, leaving the tales I could tell to one side, I would like to stress just how important it is to approach this type of situation — a situation that can affect anyone with children — with a positive and constructive attitude. Whatever the reason may be for a student not keeping up, it is obvious that if they do not have a solid base for their learning, they will never reach their full learning potential. While it may occur in lots of different areas, it makes a bigger impact where learning a foreign language is concerned. Learning a language, the same as maths, requires internalising rudimentary knowledge on top of which future learning is built. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that students need to learn to add, subtract and multiply before they are able to divide. In languages, however, it seems less obvious. Nevertheless, if we want to acquire a broad-based knowledge, the reality is that what can be applied to maths can also be applied to languages. I am convinced that any parent who signs their child up to learn English does so with the intention that their child will learn, and I doubt that any professional working in this sector is trying to earn more by making students repeat the year.
To illustrate my point, I would like to share a personal experience. When I was 17, I started learning German, while I was doing my A levels as well as learning two additional languages. I was naïve. I thought I could do everything at once and do it well. I underestimated the difficulty and commitment that learning a new language like German would require. The fact of the matter is, on finishing the first year, there were gaps in my knowledge, and, when I started university, I decided to repeat the first year and start again. Seemingly, like magic, all the pitfalls I had encountered the first time round disappeared at an astonishing speed.
The fact that I gave myself the chance to start again, without having to start from zero, made all the difference. It enabled me to enjoy the process, gain confidence and build a solid base. For this reason, I am completely against revision classes that have the sole purpose of patching up a student to pass an exam. Far from solving the problem, putting a patch on an inadequate base simply perpetuates the problem. Often, repeating a year gives a student a second chance, to learn, gain self-confidence and improve their self-esteem. Because of my own experience, I am sure that repeating a year is not a wasted year but a chance to thrive through learning.