When I was a younger teacher I believed that my work would have a direct, immediately clear link to positive future outcomes. For example, I thought that if I worked hard at my job and was good at it, poorer pupils in my classes would get better exam grades. This would lead to them studying at better universities, which meant they would get better jobs, earn more money and become more economically, socially and politically influential than they would otherwise have been. This would, of course, make them happier people. Eventually, the world would become a better, fairer and happier place because of my work. While perhaps naïve, I was no fool for believing this; the narrative is familiar and to many of us, a reason we chose teaching as a profession.
I now accept that life just isn’t as simple as this. It’s very difficult, probably impossible, to separate out any contribution a teacher makes to a pupil from the sound and fury of the rest of their life. Even, for whatever reason, poor pupils do achieve better exam grades, financial and cultural barriers may well prevent them taking up any offer from any university. For those that do, a degree is no guarantee of success, and even those who make it this far down the road might, as has been really well written about by Michael Merrick, find themselves no happier for having walked it than their friends who did not. Or they might. We just don’t know enough about how happiness works to be able to say.
My error, as revealed to me by my unpaid philosophy tutor Bernard Andrews, was that I was deriving my professional (and self) worth from a belief in consequentialism. I could only be successful and fulfilled if my work had definite and certain outcomes that were caused by the things I did. If these outcomes did not happen then I was a failure. As convenient as this is for recruitment campaigns and to unimaginative and ill-informed decision makers with views of success and failure based around numbers, it is a fallacy.
When this brutal message finally sank in I found myself somewhat disillusioned. If we cannot be certain the education we provide our pupils will benefit them then why bother at all?
The realisation of my error cast me, for a short period, into a sort of existentialist funk, which I got through by recognising the inherent worth in learning and education regardless of any concrete, measurable outcome. This was actually hugely freeing, because it allowed me to guiltlessly appreciate the learning of all my pupils regardless of the exam grade they might or might not eventually achieve.
But I’ve found it hard to shake consequentialism completely. It’s difficult not to have hopes and dreams for our pupils even when we recognise that we may have a very limited role in helping our pupils achieve them, or indeed even whether it is our place for us to have them at all.
I’ve thought about this hard and I’ve decided having hopes and dreams for my pupils is OK, and that it’s also OK for these to play into the decisions I make at work.
We all have hopes and dreams, for ourselves and those we love. Most of us are wise enough to know that there is no guarantee we’ll ever achieve them and that circumstances outside our control are probably more significant than anything we can do, but this does not mean that we are foolish or misguided to take steps to maximise our chances. Of course, having dreams for others is more morally problematic, but it is also inevitable; we cannot educate a child while wilfully failing to think about what will happen to them when they step blinkingly out of their final exam and walk away from us for the last time. As adults in charge of children I think the bedrock of our role is to decide what we want for them and then to create a conducive context, and that avoiding thinking about this is actually a failure to meet one of our key responsibilities.
So if it’s OK and perhaps even desirable to have hopes and dreams for our pupils, what should these be?
While we all want our pupils to go as far as they can, it would be illogical to look out on a whole school assembly and hope for all pupils to get top grades in every subject, go to top class universities and then go on to have influential and high paid jobs. As Martin Robinson has explained well, our system is set up deliberately to preclude this; there are a limited number of top grades just as there are a finite amount of high-flying careers. To wish for this would be to wish for the impossible. Still worse, to hope for this would inevitably mean being disappointed by some pupils, and probably most in some schools. Given that pupils do, regardless of how unwilling some are to accept it, have varying levels of aptitude, this seems to me a cruel hope to have, because it condemns the most vulnerable to failure and means we inevitably end up devaluing the contributions of those who don’t soar to such obvious heights.
Instead of this sort of thing, I hope that the children for which I am responsible become open, curious people able to take satisfaction from many different places in their lives. What I want for my pupils is perhaps, to me at least, best articulated in the poem Ithaka by CP Cavafy, which I heard read on Radio 4 many years ago now. It’s a beautiful poem, and you should read it, but for those who haven’t the time the gist is that while we may have an ultimate destination in mind we should aim to appreciate the journey, because we might never get to where we want to go and even if we do, we may find it less satisfying than we’d thought it would be.
This is why a knowledge rich curriculum, based on the best that has been thought and said (and painted, composed, sculpted, danced and so on), is so important. It’s the canon, rightfully contested, debated and argued over, that has the best chance of giving pupils the keys that unlock life’s richest treasures, the things most likely to give them satisfaction and pleasure on whatever walk of life they find themselves. Some of life’s greatest rewards are counterintuitive and hard to begin with which is why, just as most of us have to work at appreciating olives or coffee, we must sometimes teach children things they initially find boring or irrelevant. Of course, and as I have already acknowledged, nothing is certain; pupils may choose not to engage with school for a myriad of reasons outside our control, or their lives may take really tragic turns that mean they never get the chance to properly open the gifts we give them. But all that said, a good curriculum offers all children their best shot at fulfilment because it gives them at least a fighting chance of joining the Great Conversation.
This is why we should teach Frankenstein and not Holes. It is why Shakespeare belongs to everyone just as the Beatles and Maya Angelou do.
By teaching all our children their cultural entitlement we also give them the best chance of seeing themselves as being entitled in the most proper, fair sense. Entitled to respect. Entitled to attention. Entitled to proper healthcare. Entitled to a place at an opera house, concert, museum or exhibition should they choose to go. Entitled to laws that protect them at work and entitled to pensions for a dignified old age regardless of their station in life.
I hope that by teaching pupils the things that matter most they will come to see they matter too.
Although I can’t be certain of any of this I will allow myself my hopes and and dreams, and make the decisions I think most likely to make my dreams come true.
This is why I am proud to be part of a Trust that sees things this way too, and proud that this Trust is part of the newly formed Midland Knowledge Hub, which aims to help those who dream our dreams too. Get in touch.
Have a good summer everyone.