Ambition 2: Other people’s and what to do about them.

I suppose there is just a slim chance that those headmasters were sagging because they had spotted in me the potential for top management and were trying to nurture it – but I doubt it. More likely they were after more bang for their buck – for a classroom teacher I don’t come cheap.

Nurturing talent is a difficult business, for it potentially involves trespassing on the sovereign territory of others’ lives. As teachers, we are of course paid to interfere, even when they would rather we weren’t doing. In some ways, it’s the point when the ethics of our vocation is probably at its most critical, but getting it right isn’t easy.

During the last term, I was presented with several difficult situations and I hope I got them right.

Case X was a member of Year 13. The pupil concerned has learning difficulties but is still moderately able. I was approached as form tutor to assist with developing the student’s UCAS personal statement. Despite some concerns on my part, we were able to refine a suitable document. I absolutely refuse virtually to write these things for pupils in the way that some staff do: I believe at this stage students need to live or die by their own abilities (including written English), and my role is merely that of sounding board. However, we worked at it a little more than most, such that in tandem with a suitably qualifying academic reference it would have made an appropriate submission. But just as we finished, I was told that it had been decided by other authorities/parents that the student was not capable of going to university and the application was being withdrawn in favour of a local college. I’m not going to say the decision was wrong, but somewhere along the line, the wishes of the student appear to have been overridden, and I hope it will be for the best. Quite apart from the time wasted. Perhaps that application should have allowed to stand.

Case Y concerned a year 11 student and father at a parents’ evening. The pupil is quiet but bright and could easily succeed at ‘A’ Level. I tentatively enquired whether this was the intention. I was told by the father that the girl would instead be taking a diploma in a certain (rather masculine) line of work, so that she could enter a career of a sort that surprised me that a 16 year old girl would consider from her own volition. By ‘coincidence’, it turned out to be her father’s line of work. I was told there are ‘stupendous’ wages to be earned there, and that seemed to be all that mattered. The girl was silent throughout. I certainly do not wish to perpetuate career/gender stereotypes, but I was left wondering whether this bright girl’s future is being constrained by the vicarious wishes of the parent in a way that maybe I should have challenged more strongly. But is it my place to do so? I closed the conversation with the emphatic point that she would cope well at ‘A’ Level should she wish to.

Case Z also concerned a tutee applying for university. The student was applying for a highly competitive subject, and the draft statement provided fell far short of what would be needed to make the necessary impression. It has to be said that the student’s general track record is probably not commensurate with this course either, but a clear determination to pursue this route was evident, so we went through the usual process of hands-off refinement. A subject teacher closer to the student than I later agreed with my diagnosis, but informed me that “Father seems very determined that this is the course to follow”. I guess in this case, ‘market forces’ will take their path – but will the student lose out in the process?

These are all real cases and I hope I have not strayed too close to breaching confidentiality here; the purpose is only to reflect on the particular dilemma. In all three cases, I as teacher had to make a judgement about someone else’s future. I am sharply aware of the scenario where (in the anecdotal past) a teacher would airily dismiss a pupil’s aspirations, only later to be proved wrong. I wonder in how many cases the advice was heeded and the pupil in question never realised their ambition. So I am always very wary in putting children off a particular course of action, even when it seems clear that there is little chance that they will succeed. On the other hand, by letting them follow their (or others’) noses, there is a serious risk that those individuals will follow a blind path, only to fail at some point and in the process ‘waste’ a number of years of their life when they could have been making better progress with something more appropriate. Or at some point in the future, the individual may resent the path they were pushed down. Should the teacher be prepared to let pupils fail? At least in doing so, they may discover certain truths for themselves.

There is no formulaic answer to this of course – it is just another example of where the teacher needs to proceed heuristically using soft skills and long experience as a guide. Personal aptitude is an essentially subjective thing, and no mechanism of points and tariffs is going to point to an ideal solution. That said, over the years one gains a feel for the capabilities of individual students – I am currently gently ‘nurturing’ one whose wish to become an architect seems reasonable – but it is clear that some are simply never going succeed as top barristers/brain surgeons/fighter pilots. Is there (still) a case for a teacher sometimes to say to a pupil, “Don’t waste your time: you’re never going to make it as a….”?

All I can say is that as far as is possible I try to have the genuine interests of the individual at heart, rather than my own views or prejudices – which may be more than could be said for those sagging headmasters.

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