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“If makeup is so truthful, why do they call it concealer?”

(Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory)

This article is based on three contentions. Firstly, I believe that we all wear masks. I certainly do – I depend on them, to be honest, and, I suspect, if you’re honest, you do too. Indeed, as the proud father of a child on the autistic spectrum, I have seen him struggle to understand a world where most people are not what they seem.

I do not mean to imply that we are all, somehow, trying to deceive; purely that playing by the myriad rules that govern today’s increasingly complicated society is not easy and requires a toolbox of multiple masks.

This is certainly the case for the typical, international school child. Imagine you are learning in a language other than your own, with the curriculum rendering you relatively powerless until you acquire a new tongue; perhaps you are a Third Culture Kid, joining your third school in six years, and playing ‘find a friend’ yet again; not to mention the countless pressures on children and young people in general today. Sometimes, the only way to survive is to inhabit a mask (or several), so that you are not going unarmed into the fray.

This brings me to my second contention: as teachers, we cannot expect just to ‘know’ our children; indeed, I fear it may be the height of arrogance or the depth of naïveté to think we do. This is the cornerstone of #themonalisaeffect, the road towards truly personalised learning down which we are fiercely treading at the International Community School (ICS), Amman.

We believe that, just as Lisa Gherardini will look specifically at you should you visit her in the Louvre, we owe to each individual child a learning and wellbeing experience which is looking directly at them, beneath their masks. Student-level data lights our way; if you visit us, you’ll see that the brightest point on our ‘data triangle’ is the attitudinal mindset unveiled by a student’s score on the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) survey; and constantly shaping, and being shaped by, those attitudes is their wellbeing.

I have also been fortunate to work with schools worldwide on their own student-level data. For example, Jane was one of only a handful of female students in a male-dominated cohort, and her ‘happy mask’ was well-developed and convincing. However, her PASS score for Learner Self-Regard was woefully low, and the digging this prompted revealed the systematic and relentless bullying she had endured of late from her tiny peer group.

Meanwhile, Max was not only consistently exceeding the potential indicated by his Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT4) profile, but his glittering PASS scores spoke of a student who loved everything about school, and exemplified a ‘growth mindset’. In both of these cases, the data triangle provided a key which unlocked an authentic understanding of the students’ wellbeing, and, crucially, enabled the school to investigate, intervene and have a positive impact.

In Tim Minchin’s musical, Matilda sings, “I wonder why they didn’t just change their story”. As teachers, we have the opportunity to help each student do just that. However, invariably, the masks are so hard-worn and hard-won that we will have to dig, which brings me to my third contention: we are treasure-hunters; metaphorical shovel in hand, we are duty-bound to mine a deeper understanding of what lies beneath the masks each child has chosen to wear. This is how, at ICS, and in an increasing number of schools across the world, we are now able to keep wellbeing first.

By Matthew Savage, Principal, International Community School, Amman