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Latvia: The Schoolboy who burned the cactus


I Care How You’re Doing

The Brocēni school is trying to help Dāvis. In eighth grade he was involved in a «folder» project. That was a novelty in the school — each «problem child» had their own folder, where at the end of each week the class teacher would put together all the pluses and minuses for behaviour and grades the student had collected, for long-term analysis of the development dynamics of the particular child.

The idea is similar to the «character report cards», introduced by Yale graduate David Levin at his South Bronx high school. In 1999 the school he had established was an incredible success story — its alumni, almost all of them from underprivileged neighbourhoods, improved their grades so much that the school went on to rank the fifth best in New York. Almost all of the alumni enrolled in universities, but only 21% graduated— the ones with strong character.

Levin realized it’s not just knowledge that is important for these kids, it’s developing their personality. Together with academics Levin devised a special programme to develop seven character traits — zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. A «report card» was introduced for each student. Teachers took notes of progress, and at the end of each term discussed it with the child and their parents and set goals for the next term.

Brocēni discontinued the «folder» system the following school year. The system means extra work for the teachers, and some of them thought it disciplines only in the short term.

The Brocēni secondary school also has a support group, meeting once a week with those children having problems studying. The group includes the head of the teaching department, a psychologist and a social educator, who discuss grades with the student and set targets for the upcoming week.

John Hattie, an authority figure in the field of education, has analysed and summarised 800 studies on education, and he considers that an evaluation of each student’s progress over the year should be the main indicator of how effective the particular school is. If there’s no development, the methods are ineffective.

Dāvis doesn’t have to go to the support group, as his grades are not considered very low. Art and chemistry are the two subjects where his grades are failing in the last six months. Chemistry is the hardest. «The teacher is good, but I don’t understand a thing there.» He doesn’t go to the so called after-classes to work with the teacher to improve his grades, because «the teacher says you can’t go there if you don’t know anything. So I don’t go there, because she’ll just throw me out.»

In mid May Dāvis was in seventh heaven — he got an 8 in chemistry! The first person he rushed to break the happy news to was the social educator Inga. «Teacher, have you seen Dāvis? He’s been looking for you all over,» Inga remembers the day. «It was such a triumph, the best gratification!»

Inga has been working with Dāvis since November 2014 — before the principal had lodged that complaint. Dāvis’ mother was summoned to the school to discuss her son’s behaviour. Then it was agreed that the boy should see the school’s social educator once a week.

«I tell him — you should come to me and tell me how you’re doing. Because I care,» Inga tells Re:Baltica. She is slightly over 40, with a warm voice. Dāvis comes to her more often than required, sometimes together with his little brother after picking him up from the kindergarten.

«He really wants attention. He’s ready to communicate with everyone,» she relates. Inga thinks that’s the reason for Dāvis «being rude» in class — to attract attention.
It was Re:Baltica who brought Inga the news of the fine and police intervention. Unravelling the sequence of events, it turned out the principal had lodged the complaint without letting Inga know. He thought Dāvis had been missing the mandatory meetings, so he took drastic measures.

Paul Tough reminds that teenagers need someone to take them seriously, to trust their abilities and to encourage them to keep progressing. That person can be anyone at the school — the class teacher, the gym teacher, even someone from the technical staff. What’s important is that the child feels they can talk to someone anytime and not feel like a nuisance.

«Behaviour issues in class most often point out the weak spots of the teacher, this is what the effective teachers have told me unanimously,» says the journalist Kristīna Rizga, who spent four years studying a school in San Francisco and recently published the book Mission High about it. «If a child is creating problems in class, there are reasons for that. Sometimes they are psychological disorders, but most often it’s directly related to the teacher’s lack of pedagogic knowledge. Maybe Dāvis is lacking certain knowledge, maybe some things in the curriculum or the teaching aids are difficult to understand, or maybe it’s just presented in a very boring way. Dāvis is the only one to resist it by being loud, while other kids (half of whom haven’t done their homework) protest in silence, they don’t participate in the class, either emotionally or intellectually,» Rizga elaborates.
There are teachers at the school who Dāvis has no issues with, and teachers who he is in constant conflict with. Education quality researcher Ilze Johansone believes that is because «teacher training in Latvia is poor on the whole. Teachers seem to be especially poorly prepared to recognize learning problems caused by anxiety, attention deficit syndrome, emotional or even physical violence in the family.»

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