My father rang me up last week and explained he had found my old school reports and would I like to keep them. My reaction was adamant. No. Never. Full stop.
There are reasons for this instant decision. I did not do well academically at school. My reports are littered with examples my failures punctuated, rather unceremoniously with pompous and sardonic comments that did not, in any way, show who I was then, or am now.
That got me thinking. I was fortunate to go to a rather selective (and expensive) private school. I was told that it would provide me with a platform for the rest of my life. The school did provide good, solid ‘sit up’ education; I learned the classics, took 3 languages and played sport using facilities most people would give their right arm for. But by the age of 17, I was failing in every imaginable way.
I found that the education system I was in required a level of self discipline that I just didn’t have. If there was a crack connecting Set 1 and Set 2, I would seep through it into the next level and so on. I continued to seep until I hit the water table in Set 6. It was not for lack of ability. Teachers would mutter that I was ‘wasting my talents’ and ‘wasn’t it a shame’.
At 17, I made the decision to leave the school where I was, at that time, only studying 2 A-Levels (although studying is perhaps the wrong word) and moved to another school. Actually I decided to move to another country, in another continent.My father was working in Abu Dhabi and I applied to Dubai College. The condition of me going there was that I drop a year and begin my A-Levels again.
In my opinon, doing this demanded a tremendous amount of inner strength and a desire to not fail anymore. It is as if my educational gag-reflex had suddenly kicked in. Here was a kid who could have continued to coast, done nothing and gone nowhere, a product of a spoiled, Public School education, but I knew it wasn’t right.
Knowing something isn’t right and being able to change, however, is an entirely different proposition. In the film The Day The Earth Stood Still, John Cleese’s character said that ‘it is only at the precipice, that we change’. I didn’t change when I moved schools. But I moved to a system that would not allow me to fail. The teachers there spent hours (unpaid) tutoring me and motivating me and, from my teenage perspective, punishing me. They would not allow me to stand on the precipice unsupported, they tied a rope to me and said, “Go on then, if you’re that determined to mess it up but we’ll only pull you back afterwards”.
I couldn’t understand why they did this$ I didn’t know why they’d be interested in a kid like me who broke the rules, picked fights, was rude, argumentative, lazy and, in all honesty, a tosser.
Now I do.
This self-destructive pattern is one that I see in every classroom I go into. There are children who have ability – and intelligence – but who lack the discipline to get what they need out of it. So the question I ask myself is, was it my fault I failed so spectacularly, or was it the fault of the system that I was allowed to?
As a teacher, I tell the children that I struggled at school. I tell them about my mistakes and we talk about how I should have done things. It grounds me, as a person, to hear them, at 9, extrapolate how I should have acted. It also enlightens children who see themselves in the same way that I used to as a child.
I could come up with a condition, like ADD, I do fit the profile, but I rather like Sir Ken Robinson’s approach to this ‘epidemic’. It’s a fallacy. I simply wasn’t saved in time to achieve my academic potential. But I was saved in time to realise that I could achieve something if I worked hard. After becoming a teacher, I have worked hard, but I’m always conscious of addressing the needs of the children I teach as individuals, not as a class. That way, they’ll look back as adults and realise that I caught them just in time.