Twice in my career I have watched the visible sag as I admitted to head teachers that I had no management ambition and was quite happy teaching children. The same happened again a few days ago when I encountered the father of a former friend whom I had not seen for ten years. A retired Head of English himself, he met my admission that I am still a classroom teacher with the comment, “What a shame”.
I hope readers will permit me a degree of immodesty in what follows as it is not without purpose. So no matter that in that time, I have continued my intended career of teaching children – and that I have come to realise that I am not in the least attracted by the desire to direct others how to do it. My understanding has evolved to envisage teachers as largely autonomous, highly intelligent individuals who are more than capable of professional independence, which is the model for my own behaviour too. And all the more so as it became increasingly apparent just how much of one’s life and soul (let alone independence of mind) one has to sell in order to make it on a modern management team.
I am pretty sure that my own managers see me as a no-hoper, the sad case who never made it beyond the classroom. I see it differently: I am doing what I set out to do with increasing refinement and am reasonably certain that I command a degree of esteem from my colleagues and pupils, perhaps even more than some of those who have sold the aforementioned souls.
But in those ten years I have also received a degree of (international) acclaim within my hobby for a book I wrote and a series of programmes that I presented. I have taught myself a new musical instrument and now have half-a-dozen to reasonable performance level in my arcane musical neck of the woods. I have honed various other practical skills, have flitted out a fine if modest modernist home – and most importantly of all, sustained a marriage the superior of which I cannot conceive. (Which is more than my erstwhile friend, who is now on his third, with various bits of family scattered across Europe; yah-boo for his fine career…).
I have also re-polished my second language and am working on a third – and have established a small but faithful following with my blog and other writing. See if you can find me on the magazine shelves of W.H. Smith (again) next month!
If readers detect a degree of defiance here, then they are right, for I won’t pretend that the disappointment of others doesn’t sting. But the point is this: by different criteria there is no way my particular life can be seen as lacking either ambition or success. Even in my fifties, I am still hungry to achieve more. And this does not exclude my profession – for as my blog hopefully shows, I am more than engaged in the issues and personal development that it involves. But neither am I constrained by it: I also delight in the simple exercise of my own educated mind, which allows me to range across the landscape of life itself, purely for the pleasure of doing so, and particularly for engaging with like-minded others in high-minded intellectual jousting. Put in educational terms that I understand, this is a definition of success, not failure.
My school supposedly celebrates the personal successes of its staff. But to date the only things mentioned have been a handful of professional qualifications and some sporting achievements, despite the fact that we have many variously-talented people there. It seems that only certain kinds of success are acceptable – and that they too are externally defined by those who hold what they perceive as power. The fact that some people’s successes lie in obscure hobbies, or simply in their personal lives does not warrant attention by those who value only career glory and high incomes. I concede, though, it is likely that success stories of the quieter kind simply don’t trumpet themselves.
My wider point is this: schools are increasingly guilty of perpetuating this discrimination. With their obsession with exam results, and (at least in areas like mine) the implication that education is simply a passport to career, wealth and power, we exclude many other forms of ambition and success that are at least as valid, and probably more sustainable. Not everybody can – or wants to – be a celebrity or have a power-career. I read some time ago about high-functioning people: the uncomfortable phenomenon that some people simply function at higher levels than others – and that such people need to do so across all aspects of their lives, not just their careers. I do not claim to be one, though I find the polymath an attractive ideal. But achievement can also be defined in relatively ordinary – and certainly arcane – ways, not simply that which happens to attract mass adulation.
One thing that strikes me in the countries I admire is that ‘ordinary life’ is of a high quality, materially, culturally and societally. People in those countries do not seem to have the same craving for fame and fortune that is now such a feature in Britain. Perhaps this is because ordinary life is not seen as failure in the way it is in the Britain of The X Factor and The Apprentice. Put another way, maybe success is a more personal and pluralistic thing than it is here, where social status and standing out seem as rabid motivators as ever.
In education, by narrowing the criteria by which we define success, we may be casting onto the scrapheap the kinds of success that the majority of our pupils can actually achieve – and the kinds of lives they may be able to sustain. We need to ask which model offers the more realistic objective – a well-rounded general population or an impoverished one punctuated by a few superstars.
And in teaching too, we could well learn the lesson that it would be better to establish a life-balanced, secure and consistent profession than one that focuses on a narrow and rarely-achievable form of exceptional excellence that burns bright – and then dies.