Values: Structural Inequality in the Classroom

We all know that privilege is a thing that is often overlooked in life. Every one of us has a certain amount of privilege ; may that be because of our gender, our race, our sexuality- the list is endless.  Often, it is those who are perceived to be the most privileged who become blind-sighted- described as ‘living in their own little bubble’, seemingly unaware and disinterested in anyone living outside of it.

I attended a workshop last week as part of my ‘Values’ module at university. There were roughly about 40 of us in the classroom, and we were divided up into four smaller groups and each given a big envelope full of various objects. Before we opened the envelope, the lecturer explained our task; we had twenty minutes to work in our groups and use the contents of our envelope to create a useful resource for students beginning university. The one rule was, we were only allowed to use what was in our envelopes. Inside ours was lots of coloring pens, sheets of paper and card, scissors, sellotape, paperclips, sticky notes- basically a whole stationary shop.

Deciding what to make in the end proved to be a challenge, as we had so many options with all the materials we were given- but we eventually went for a ‘student essentials box’ which would be a box filled with different things students might find useful, like vouchers for restaurants, a campus map, stationary items, etc. One member of our group constructed the box out of the card and sellotape, and then we used the rest of the materials to create the resources inside. Once the twenty minutes were up, we were asked to present. My group went first, and one member confidently presented our idea to the class, explaining the different aspects of our student essentials box. While they spoke, I heard a few members of the class muttering different things to one another, and one of the groups looked very confused and a little irritated. But at the end of our presentation, the lecturer seemed very pleased with what we had done and gave us a score of nine out of ten.

With our presentation over, my group relaxed and listened to the other groups presenting their products. The group that went after us had made a leaflet detailing useful places to go for Education students on campus. Using the paper and the pens, they had drawn a campus map and written down the names of key buildings we would have to use. Their presentation was fairly good, and the lecturer scored them seven out of ten.

I noted while the presentations were happening that there were a few people, especially from groups three and four, muttering among themselves, and the muttering grew louder as the presentations went on. Group Three had made a campus map out of paper and blue tack and scored five, Group Four had only a piece of paper to show and scored two.

We didn’t find out why until they finished and the lecturer asked our group how we felt about our score. My group were pleased to have scored the highest, and expressed that we thought we were fairly marked as we had made use of the materials and worked well as a team. She then asked Group Four how they felt, and they had a very different response. Group Four expressed that they thought the marking was unfair, as they had noticed that our group had access to much more materials than they did and therefore we had made something more intricate. They only had paper and a pencil to work with so were frustrated when they were graded the same as we were despite making the best of their materials.

And then it clicked with me. This task was not about having fun and making things like I had first thought it to be- it was about demonstrating structural inequalities. Each envelope had different contents; while our envelope had been packed to the brim with resources, each following group had less and less leaving Group Four with only a pencil and paper. And yet we were graded the same. This made me think about the task contextually, and I realised that there are examples of this type of societal disadvantage everywhere, in and out of the classroom.

There are four key principals in the GTCS Standards for Provisional Registration that I think are particularly relevant for teachers looking to eliminate these types of structural inequalities in the classroom; Social Justice, Integrity, Trust and Respect, and Professional Knowledge and Understanding. I have highlighted these aspects in bold.

As a teacher in training, I found this activity a perfect way of demonstrating the thought that must go in to making sure every lesson in inclusive to all members of the class. Regardless of how much privilege a child is seen to have, my lessons should aim to ensure that no child has an unfair advantage, although I recognise that it is impossible to completely eliminate privilege altogether as an extraneous factor to a child’s learning. Standardized tests in my opinion are therefore not a good way of promoting this idea of social justice, as they do not take in to consideration the factors in a child’s life which may affect their learning.

Integrity is also massively important for successful teaching practices- a child’s individual circumstances or things that may potentially negatively impact their learning must be identified in order for the teacher to plan lessons which are inclusive and non-discriminatory. This ties in with Trust and Respect; all teachers should have a unbiased and non-judgemental attitude towards all pupils, and judging an individual’s success on the progress they have made, rather than by achieving a perfect score on a test.

And finally Professional Knowledge and Understanding underpins everything we do as teachers to protect the young people in our classroom. Understanding when to intervene if a child is showing signs that there may be a welfare concern is crucial so that we can put families in contact with the appropriate services to help and ultimately protect the children we are working with from harm.



The Right Path

I’ll admit from the start that teaching was never the definite career path I wanted to follow. When I went back to school after spending a summer volunteering at a Playscheme for ASN children, I toyed around with the thought.  I had loved every minute of that summer, and even though I was only fourteen, I knew I wanted to work with children from then. It was just working exactly how I wanted to work with them. So when I was offered the opportunity to help out in primary school for a couple of hours a week, I jumped at it, thinking that I would love it as much as I had loved playscheme.

This turned out to be a pretty bad experience which ended in me deciding for definite that teaching wasn’t what I wanted to do after all. As an inexperienced and very shy fifteen-year-old, I definitely wasn’t ready to be left alone, in charge of a group of lively and unruly six-year-olds, and be expected to teach them maths- which was exactly what the class teacher had me do on my first day. Rather than do the sensible thing and ask for help, I silently struggled, too scared to ask my class teacher for help in case she thought me incapable. I dreaded going back to the school every week desperately trying to teach them what looked like a fairly simple maths game each time, and decided that I wouldn’t make a very good teacher so had better try something else.

But my love for working with children didn’t go away and I felt frustrated when I heard of the great experiences my friends had had with their teachers and classes. Although it was all I could picture myself doing, perhaps I just didn’t have the knack for working with kids? Thoughts of becoming a social worker or some sort of therapist came and went as I desperately tried to find a career that suited me.  It wasn’t until I had matured a little, and had managed to secure a youth work job in a different playscheme, supporting children with more complex needs and behavioural issues, that my confidence began to develop. For the first time in my life, I had to work somewhat independently to help care for very demanding children, and although this was slightly terrifying, it made me realise I could handle it. I watched the children struggle to communicate, lashing out in frustration when they couldn’t tell anyone what they wanted, and I longed to help them. This was what brought me back to teaching. Maybe with a bit of experience and confidence in myself, working with children would become much easier, and much more enjoyable. So I tried again.

Deciding to revisit the idea of teaching again, and doing work experience in a different primary school, was the best choice I had ever made. My first day in my new class confirmed that teaching was what I definitely wanted to do; the class teacher made sure to include me in the lesson and made it clear that if I ever felt she was asking too much of me, to tell her and she would help. There was a completely different atmosphere in that classroom compared to the one I had been in previous, and it is that atmosphere that I aspire to have in my own classroom one day. Ever since that day, the prospect of becoming a fully qualified teacher with my own class has excited me more and more.

Teaching is a path that I am now certain I want to be on, and although I often wished my first experience in a classroom had gone better, I am glad now that it didn’t. It has taught me that if you’re passionate about something, sometimes you’ve got to go back and try again once you’ve had more practice. And I will always be happy that that is what I did. 


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Teacher, Lorraine Lapthorne conducts her class in the Grade Two room at the Drouin State School, Drouin, Victoria

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