“The privilege of being able to sit still”

“Sit still!”, Michael shouts, for the third time in two minutes.

The circus school asked him some time ago to teach a new group of kids in a small ‘social circus’ project. They all come from a nearby school in a poor and multicultural neighbourhood.
They’re about ten years old, and come straight from school to the circus school, for ten Thursdays in a row. The city council thought it was a good idea to give these kids the chance to experience some organised leisure time, knowing that none of them is subscribed to any other form of organized youth, cultural or sport organisation outside of school. The council acknowledges the benefits of this kind of non-formal education for disadvantaged children. The kids are really enthusiastic to practice circus techniques, and the circus school is happy for several reasons. Bringing in less privileged kids into the circus school is an act of idealism, but it is also good for the image of the school, and there’s some extra money coming in.

But Michael isn’t that happy. In fact, he is frustrated on many levels. He has more than five years of teaching experience in the circus school, and is known as a very skilled and motivated teacher. Most of the children he usually works with have a middle-class background, and go to high quality schools in richer and ‘whiter’ neighbourhoods. Those kids are happy to have him as a circus teacher, and he never has to shout at them.

But the kids from the ‘social’ circus lesson he is leading today, just won’t sit still! He doesn’t expect them to sit still all the time – after all, it’s a circus lesson. But he’s convinced they should be able to quietly listen to him at the beginning and the end of the session, and whenever a new technique is introduced. It’s not that the kids don’t want to play circus – on the contrary, but it seems they want to play it on their terms, and not his. Michael is a dedicated teacher, and needs the kids to be quiet and attentive when he expects them to be. This way, he believes he can best take care of the emotional and physical safety of each participant.

He also believes his method reaches the highest learning goals for everyone, and that’s what the circus school pays him for, isn’t it? So, the last weeks he decided to be a bit firmer, and ask more discipline from this specific group. He knows what he is doing, and what works for his middle-class pupils, should work for these less privileged kids too, right? So he shouts from time to time, and sanctions kids that don’t follow his rules. Last week, he gave his last warning to a kid that just wouldn’t listen properly to him (“I wanna keep on playing the diabolo!”), so now she’s banned from the circus sessions. And others will follow, if need be. Without discipline, chaos would reign, he argues.

Michael wants to love these kids as much as he loves his middle class regular pupils. He is convinced that colour of skin, migrant background, economic class or learning disabilities shouldn’t be an obstacle to fully form part of his circus school. He wants to give these kids equal chances, so he uses the same pedagogical tools with them, as he would with other kids. What more can be expected from him? Now it’s up to the kids to behave themselves and integrate… Sounds familiar?

‘Social circus’ is booming all over Europe, and beyond. Private and public funders are often intrigued by the successful method of using circus techniques as a tool to reach a diversity of underprivileged people. Who can resist colourful pictures of people in need, young or older, practicing social circus, and smiling from ear to ear? So, quite some public money is flowing towards new, and bigger, social circus projects, that promise more smiles on more faces. Social circus projects often start out of sheer enthusiasm, by charismatic trainers with a lot of idealism and a good ‘feeling’ with the ‘special- needs’ groups they are working with. They are mostly underpaid, if paid at all. But they undoubtedly create a whole series of social, emotional, motoric or cognitive benefits for their participants. Inclusion seems self-evident with those gifted pioneers: the participants feel welcomed, respected, and can truly be ‘themselves’ in the safe circus group.

Through experiments, exchanges with more experienced teachers and social circus training for trainers, more and more new circus trainers acquire a good amount of Skills and Knowledge to help organize and lead social circus projects. And we do need more trainers, as there  are much more money and opportunities available for social circus projects in recent years.

Unfortunately, Skills and Knowledge are not enough to organize social circus projects that aim to be inclusive and truly respectful for the participants. Without a fair part of Awareness, our social circus projects can become hollow and uninspiring, or worse, reproduce the same exclusion mechanisms of mainstream society. Without sufficient Awareness from our social circus teachers, the kids that attend social circus projects can
get the same message that they already get so much in society and in school: “you don’t fit in”, “you’re naughty” or “you’re stupid”…

So how can we program more Awareness for our circus teachers, in working with diversity? There’s probably no easy answer for that. If there was, we would by now probably have a world with a lot less discrimination and exclusion, with a completely different educational system, and a different kind of society all together.

The thing with exclusion and discrimination is, that it is taking place under ‘our’ radar, most of the time. Less privileged people suffer from their lack of social status in many mixed settings, while more privileged people, like most of the circus teachers, haven’t got a clue of what is missing for some people amongst them. We simply miss out on all those subtle exclusion mechanisms, because we are included in most groups we interact with. But people do feel the difference between being warmly welcomed and treated as equals, or simply being tolerated in a group.

So many tensions, conflicts and envy in our society are being created by the unawareness of privilege and social status by the more privileged members of our society. When you have the dominant skin colour, enough money, a good education, a nice job, an able body, when you are heterosexual and pleased with your gender, when you have the ‘right’ looks, size and weight, the right network and experience, and were born in a loving and stable family, you actually have quite some privileges at the same time. Most of us accept these privileges as a given, and are unaware of them. And so it is difficult to grasp how these privileges, or the lack of them, influence our informal power in a group (being heard and seen), our communication style, our attitudes, learning abilities, concentration, social competences, self-confidence or self-image. Or the way we are motivated to learn circus…

Michael projects his privileged, middle-class experiences onto his less privileged kids. He expects them to be quiet and still when he wants them to, although these kids just had a long day of school behind them, an experience that for them is way more frustrating than it has ever been for Michael when he was a school kid. These kids want to play and move and decompress a lot first, before they are able to sit down and listen again. Michael is also convinced that it is beneficial to introduce one or two new circus techniques every week, and expects them to cope easily with all the trying and failing in the learning process. He never had problems learning new things and failing many times before he could master a circus technique. But are his less privileged kids willing to easily fail in front of their peers, after a hard day at school, where they already feel like ‘losers’ so much of their time?

Seeing kids as ‘all equal’ can blind us from some important differences to take into account. It can exclude kids unknowingly, out of pure good intentions. But seeing kids as ‘all different’, and some kids as even more different than others, can also have unwanted effects. We can unconsciously stigmatise kids, and create envy, because we label them as different, and let the label replace their personality. The truth is, that we are all a unique
collection of different labels, and that we are never ‘just’ a migrant, or a disabled person, or a smart one. And yes, we all have different needs, backgrounds, dreams, learning styles, levels of self-confidence, types of intelligence, personalities, etc., most of which are not visible at a first glance. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy ourselves in one diverse group. We can feel unity, in diversity. Isn’t that true ‘inclusion’?

It’s possible to mix a diversity of people in one circus group. But sometimes that’s just too ambitious, if we want to keep the group safe and inclusive for all. Circus schools around the globe are blessed with thousands of charismatic, authentic teachers and artists that are successfully working with diverse groups. We have a ‘treasure chest’ full of great
pedagogical good practices, tools and techniques to inspire, motivate, teach and differentiate. A treasure chest that we can share with the rest of the world of education and youth work. But also a treasure chest to dig into, to explore and to learn from. Most jewels of the potential of circus pedagogy still need to be discovered…

So how can we help Michael? First of all, it would be helpful if Michael became a bit more conscious of his privileges and started listening a bit more to the specific needs of the children in his ‘social circus’ project. Is there space for some individual learning goals, for more play, for two-way agreements, for letting go of some of his fixed pedagogical approaches? Is there more space for more authentic communication and expression, where the kids as well as Michael can more easily express their true needs
and wants, in a respectful dialogue?

When Michael starts to become more and more aware of the real diversity in the group, when he experiments more with differentiation, with games and approaches that tap closer into the needs and wants of the participants, he can allow himself to become more and more ‘human’ in his group, he can use his intuition more, so there can be more trust in the group, and the kids can take on more responsibility for the learning process of themselves and their peers. Of course, it’s never easy, but if he succeeds, it not only benefits himself and the kids from the ‘social circus projects’, but also his more ‘middle class’ circus groups. Because there’s a huge diversity also there, waiting to be uncovered. And the more awareness of diversity in a group, the more empowerment of each member, and the stronger the group, the teacher, and the learning becomes.

Michael’s journey has also been mine, and along the way, I discovered that circus is not only learning, and playing, but also an art form. And wasn’t it the famous feminist writer Iris Murdoch that once wrote:

“Art and morality are, with certain provisos…one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.”

 

Steven Desanghere

 

(This article was first published in the Altro Risorsa seminar-report of AltroCirco (Italy))

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