Little sea horses

By: Mervi Kaukko

Schools are nests of bridging and bonding. They are filled with many arrangements that enable and constrain learning but also how people inhabit the shared place and relate to one another.

This autumn I had a chance to spend three weeks observing such arrangements and practices at North Park Primary School [1] near Melbourne, Australia. At North Park, the native language of 88% of the students is not English, the majority of them having recently migrated to Australia. Most of the students live with one or both parents, but some children are unaccompanied minors. You might assume that loneliness and isolation would be a problem in a place like this. But the way North Park has addressed the potential loneliness is extraordinary. Every detail of the school practices, from the physical arrangements of learning spaces to the pedagogical tools the teachers use and the way they address students and their families, is carefully planned with the guiding principle of the school in mind: Positive relationships are at the core of all successful learning. This philosophy goes beyond mere rhetoric. In my field work, for instance, I had to interview the children during their lessons, instead of their breaks, so that none of them would miss valuable socialising time.

The guiding principle also means that instead of only acknowledging isolation and loneliness as common problems of migrant students, the school has the responsibility to fight them. For instance, the teachers do not have a yard duty; they have play support during recess. Adults participate in the games with children, making sure everybody is included. Children’s families and close ones, be they parents, relatives or workers of child welfare units, are included in the spirit of the whole school approach. Also interestingly, considering the school is located in quite a disadvantaged neighbourhood, one of its core values is optimism. Be hopeful and believe that good things will come is declared with colourful pictures on the walls.

During my three weeks of ethnographic field work, I witnessed a lot of these ideals in practice. A lively, multilingual chitchat filled the space. Headscarves and dastaars were complemented with hats to protect children from the burning sun, a variety of outfits (ranging from sari to Superman) were combined with school uniforms. Not once did I see or hear of threatening behaviour towards another person. I did see a sad student beating a rattan chair into pieces with a baseball bat, under the supervision of a teacher. Letting the student physically work out his anger in a supervised, safe space indicates that teachers care (rather than punish). Another instance from the recess shows that also students care. I escorted a crying child back to her classmates in the school playground. When I asked the other children whether they would play with the girl, their answer was immediate: Of course! Anyone! Unsure of what I heard, I checked what the children meant. They meant that the inclusive approach was unchallenged: children would play with anyone who came to play, how silly of me even to ask!

In my field work, I experienced several amazing moments with children and young people. I untangled wool in a cross-stitch work as a teacher, which led to untangling complex teenage problems. I discussed domestic violence while painting tabletops together with a group of students with behavioural challenges. I learned about the parenting roles of sea horses (male sea horses have a pouch and responsibility for the offspring) with six-year-olds, who were wondering where they would survive if they were sea horses. Not in their fathers’ pouches, as the fathers were not in Australia. The solution was an agreement that it is good to be human, without having to squeeze into anybody’s pouch. As a parent, my heart sank during many of these conversations, but as a researcher and a teacher, so many issues also astonished me. Children’s joy, optimism and elaborate analyses of how they cope without their parents’ pouches surprised me. While children amaze me everywhere in the world, little things in this Australian school make a world of difference in enabling optimism in children’s lives.



[1] Name changed


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