‘Fearless 10-year-olds are just as exciting to teach as Oxbridge candidates’

Working with younger pupils can open your eyes to ways of thinking that most adults have lost, writes Phillip Evitt

Back in 1999, when news of my appointment as head of Highfield School was posted on the common room notice board at Dulwich College, my colleagues were not sure whether to congratulate or commiserate.

What was I thinking moving from a senior school to a prep school, what possible stimulation could there be in teaching children so young, surely I would miss the A-level teaching, the Oxbridge teaching? One colleague went as far as suggesting I wanted an easier time, so I could finally write my PhD.

However, raising my own young children at the time had already opened my eyes to just how wonderfully inquisitive pre-prep and prep school age children were, and in ways I felt that teenagers had already forgotten how to be.

Looking back over my years of teaching at Highfield, I can genuinely say that the pleasure and excitement of teaching an inquisitive, fearless ten or eleven-year-old, or a lively Year 8 scholar is second-to-none. When they are still willing to take risks and suffer no fear or embarrassment by going beyond what they have been told is every bit as exciting, if not more so, than teaching any Oxbridge candidate.

“One colleague suggested I was moving to a prep school so I would have more time to write my PhD.”

To be asked questions that have sometimes left me stumped has regularly reminded me just how important it is to remember that truly great learning comes to us, and our children, when we remember that learning is a two-way street. Given this, I wanted to distil what I have learnt from teaching younger children over my career and what makes this job so wonderfully rewarding.

First, learn to reconnect with the child’s gift to be truly inquisitive. Children aren’t afraid to ask questions that we sometimes have no answers to. Their inquisitive and “left field” thinking reminds us that driving independent thought is really important.

We should all remember to question things more. As adults, we become very good at not taking risks, at rejecting our dreaming and grand plans by thinking “that’s impossible” or “that will cost far too much” or even “what’s the benefit to me”?

“Children aren’t afraid to ask questions that we sometimes have no answers to.”

We shut down our dreaming. Children are blissfully unhampered when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things. Consequently, children can be full of inspiring ambitions and hopeful thinking.

Sometimes a knowledge of history and past failures can be a real burden to adults, while children still dream about doing extraordinary things and working to change the world. This can all too readily be dismissed as naïve, but I think it’s a good thing, because to make anything a reality you have to dream about it first.

In many ways, the audacity of children to imagine the seemingly impossible helps push the boundaries of possibility. One only has to look at how Greta Thunberg has changed the way young people and many adults view the issue of climate change to appreciate just what young courage, imagination and fearless thinking can achieve.

In my experience, children are very good at not limiting themselves. They can dream of being an astronaut, a pilot, an architect and a professional footballer all at once, and then work towards this without doubting themselves. It would do us all good to really chase our passions the way they do. Our dreaming should be unrestricted and unlimited.

“I have learnt from teaching children is that we adults can far too readily underestimate children’s abilities.”

Children are also very good at showing us what they feel. They aren’t afraid to open up emotionally and show what they are feeling at that moment. We adults tend to assess the situation before showing emotion for fear of looking weak or being judged and, as a result, often bottle up anger, sorrow or fear.

Something else I have learnt from children is that patience is underrated. A child can take what seems like forever to fully grasp a concept. This doesn’t mean you repeat the same explanation to them ten times over. It means you find different ways to help them understand. And they still might not get it. This may seem frustrating at first, but the process cultivates patience and trust both in you and in them.

Any teacher will tell you that our work is never boring. We are dealing with human beings who can be brilliant one day and not so brilliant the next. But it’s utterly priceless when that eureka moment comes, when the penny drops and a child tells you that they “get it” – they understand something, and they feel clever and confident.

“Children love challenges, but when our expectations are low for them, they will sink to them.”

Perhaps the most important thing I have learnt from teaching children is that we adults can, if we are not careful, far too readily underestimate their abilities. Children love challenges, but when our expectations are low for them, they will sink to them, and this really matters, because our children grow up and become adults just like us.

But our goal as teachers should be to ensure that we turn our children into better adults than we have been. Real progress comes when new generations grow and develop and become better than the previous ones. Of course, some might think this naïve and fanciful, but I can guarantee that those who do will all be adults, not children!