Part of growing up as a teacher is becoming used to being given advice, both requested and unsolicited, and learning how to react to it in the culturally appropriate way. This means smiling, nodding and making a pretence at gratitude even if the advice is poorly timed, unwelcome, unhelpful or just plain crazy.
This cynicism, while useful in surviving the day to day, could of course lead to us missing really great pieces of advice with the potential to genuinely improve practice.
But usually we don’t miss the really good stuff. It sticks, burrowing deep into our psyches where it connects to other great stuff until, eventually, we find ourselves passing it on to those less experienced than us whether they want us to or not.
To my shame I cannot remember who first told me “children don’t want to be successful adults, they want to be successful children”, but it stuck and I think it a useful insight to understanding so much of what goes on in the lives of our students.
Childhood is a strange, bizarre and often surreal world that most adults forget soon after they leave it. A few writers retain an understanding. Phillip Pullman, Donna Tartt, William Golding and, of course, Roald Dahl among others seem to have a talent for authentically describing the shimmering, dark world that children inhabit. The very best understand that childhood is as full of fear is it is curiosity and is filled with dread as much as it is wonder. One of the reasons Stephen King’s best work, which often does involve children, is so unsettling is because he reminds us what it was to be filled with joy one moment and deep foreboding the next. A time when weeks lasted years and years were incomprehensible. A time when most of what scared us was completely beyond our own control.
Childhood is all-encompassing and those in it, usually in full on survival mode, do not spend time thinking systematically about what will happen them to when it ends. Indeed, I wonder if this is really any easier than it is for adults to think about what happens to us after we die.
I remember feeling this very keenly as a boy of about eleven, when I moved from a local primary school connected to my church, to a middle school some distance away. Here, for the first time, I felt different. I was different. It was a predominantly working class school and I was middle class. The other children already knew each other well, I did not. I went to church every Sunday. Few other children there did. For these reasons, and perhaps others I was not aware of, I did not fit in. Quickly labelled posh, I was mimicked and laughed at. For a while, I was very down and knowing this upset my parents made me even more sad. There were tears. I stopped working as hard at school because I felt that ‘clever’, on top of all the other things that marked me out as atypical, was a label I was better off without. I became obsessed by football I think now, not really out of genuine interest but because I knew this was what the other boys liked and thought learning enough about it might be the key that led to acceptance and contentment.
I do not share this story for sympathy. I would be a fool to. My privileges have, of course, in the long run very predictably turned out to be enormous assets, educationally, financially, professionally and personally too. But, as a child I neither recognised this, and nor would I have cared if I had. My school life was miserable and I would have done anything to be happier. The idea that by working hard I was more likely to be a successful adult one day, and should take comfort from this abstract idea, was inconceivable to me because my world was all-encompassing and the idea of ‘growing up’ had very little meaning.
To accept this is to accept that trying to motivate children by asking them to imagine their lives after school might be at best limited and at worst ineffectual. If we are to make children want to be successful at school, then we must make being successful at school part of being a successful child, not a sacrifice necessary for a better future. This is easier in affluent areas where academic success is culturally valued and celebrated, but much tougher in areas where to achieve well academically is to mark yourself out as being fundamentally different to your community. In such instances we need to become the community. Although visits, external speakers and good careers support can be part of the answer they can only ever be part. To normalise hard work and academic success we need to create a culture and ethos in which working hard, and being proud of doing so, is regarded as part of the criteria of being a successful child. We must have strict rules and routines that create a culture in which no child feels ashamed or different for working hard. We must wage war against insidious nasty terms like ‘boff’, which are designed to alienate those who study diligently.
We must not dumb down or over-praise. We must normalise following rules, wide reading, the practise of difficult tasks and an appreciation of art. We must work with our local communities to normalise success but not be afraid to stand as unashamedly different when values diverge.
We must not imply that the point of all this is just the exam grade because, by doing so, we re-inforce the impression that school is only a painful necessity and make learning for its own sake seem weird and pointless. In doing this we also run the risk of creating a very misleading view of the future; school is only ‘the end of the beginning’ and implying that it is the final hurdle is to invite disillusionment and high drop-out figures.
It is, of course, possible. I take heart from the great northern colliery brass bands, which show that world class standards of achievement are not beyond the reach of poorer communities when they are made part of a strong identity. In my time in Ethiopia I marvelled at how one of the world’s poorest countries produced some of its best runners and came to see why; when high class achievement and the hard work necessary to attain it is normalised, it is possible to do exceptional things.
Children do not want to be successful adults. They want to be successful children. We should make that easy for them by creating conditions in which being a hard-working academically engaged child is part of successful childhood identity.