This week we were honoured and humbled by a visit from holocaust survivor and author Zdenka Fantlova, who shared her harrowing experience of the concentration camps. Her account of surviving six camps, and even finding love in the process, was truly inspirational. Perse lessons were hastily postponed as a packed lecture theatre listened spellbound to the 92 year-old’s story. How did she endure, we asked? By refusing to feel like a victim, she replied.
Quite apart from the obvious lessons her experience teaches us about the atrocities of the past, I was struck by her amazing sense of self, and what we might learn from that. She refused to accept her oppressors’ assessment of her value, simply accepting the situation in which she found herself and dealing with each circumstance as it arose.
At the Upper we have been talking recently about how to help our pupils develop self-esteem. We know that academic and extra-curricular success are dependent on personal happiness and confidence. If children do not feel secure, supported and valued in school and at home they will not realise their potential. Beyond that, it is the child’s own sense of his or her worth that is central, and our challenge is to help pupils develop the ability to value themselves for who they are, regardless of others’ opinions of them or indeed the outcome of their best efforts.
When children have a secure sense of self they believe in themselves, take on new challenges and progress. In contrast lack of self-esteem is pernicious and debilitating; children think they are not good at things, do not deserve love, support or respect, and fear failure. Life constricts.
Self-esteem is not a constant and even the child who is most confident in his or her own skin will have some moments of self-doubt and worry. These can sometimes be triggered by the emotional trauma associated with bereavement, divorce, health problems, relocations, or the physical and chemical changes that characterise adolescence. Schools play a key role in helping pupils learn how to maintain their sense of self when it is challenged by circumstances.
The self-esteem of children is of particular concern in today’s society. There are many possible causes of what is a complex issue, but one is the comparison children make between themselves and ‘perfect’ celebrity role models who appear to be variously so bright, physically fit, attractive, popular and wealthy that they put everybody else to shame. Schools can address the negative effects of such imperfect:perfect comparisons by reminding children that outward appearances are often misleading and beneath the public relations facade celebrity role models struggle with the same doubts and worries that affect us all.
A similar line is needed when children compare themselves unfavourably to their peers in school and can always find someone they consider more bright, successful or popular. Yet even such apparently perfect students will make mistakes, get things wrong and have bad days. In reality the perfect is always imperfect.
Schools can create a culture of openness and honesty, where it is recognised that everybody from the Head down makes mistakes, has doubts, and needs support. None of us is perfect – we are all fallible, and all the better for it. The open discussion of imperfections helps everybody. We need to appreciate ourselves and others for our perceived strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. This should not stop us from striving to be better, or celebrating our successes, but it should console us when we fall short – as we all do on occasion.