I don’t often get the chance to drop the name of an Oscar winner who was once a student of mine, but in the tradition of the Academy Awards, I will not open that envelope until the end.
I will say that I remember this student as an intelligent, articulate, friendly and independent-minded young man, and it is no surprise that he has been successful. However, I doubt anyone (except, possibly, his mother) who claims that they foresaw, without the benefit of hindsight, that this particular successful student, more than any of his equally successful classmates, was destined to rise to the very top of his profession.
There is no shortage of stories about successful people who were poor at school, or who failed initially in their chosen field. Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein are most cited examples (although in Einstein’s case the claim is dubious), but the list includes Jon Stewart (now, officially, ‘the most trusted man in America’), Michael Jordan (cut from his High School basketball team), Sir Richard Branson and Simon Cowell (both dropped out of school at 16), and Beppe Grillo (dismissed as ‘stupid’ by his father and his school, fired from his first job as a jeans salesman, and now the leader of the largest single party in the Italian parliament.)
I certainly don’t believe that failure at school is a predictor of success, but I have never seen a convincing demonstration of any correlation between school marks and future achievement (however defined).
Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop us teachers from being far too ready to make judgements and predictions. Too often school reports go beyond simply describing the learning that has taken place (or not), and wander into making supposedly insightful comments about the innate ability, or even the personality of the student. Partly this happens because parents demand to know where their child ranks in the competitive struggle, and schools therefore spend an inordinate amount of time in making comparative measurements, with other students, other schools, and now other countries. (I used to tell parents who demanded to know where their child ranked as a student, that I would give them this information once they told me where they ranked as parents. This did not always end well!) At best these pronouncements and predictions are of little significance, but at worst they can create a self-sustaining label that will get in the way, particularly in the case of school systems and programmes that are selective.
People leave school with most of their lives still ahead of them, and while we try hard to equip our students for life, the reality is that they carry on learning, carry on growing, and carry on developing long after they have left us. The best we can do is to give them the values and attitudes that will make that process as natural and productive as possible, and point them in a good direction. If we miss out on particular skills or knowledge, our students will correct that for themselves if and when they need them. However, if we kill their curiosity, their enthusiasm, their independence, or their capacity for critical thought, then these attributes may never be rekindled. Perhaps teachers need their own version of the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath: ‘First, do no harm’.
And so, to the envelope…
Huge congratulations to David Klawans, the Executive Producer of Argo, who was a student at the International School of Brussels when I taught there in the 70’s and 80’s. Much as I would like to, I can claim no influence on David, but as his mother was a good friend and colleague of mine I remember him well. It is certainly no surprise that he took the hard, independent road to well-deserved success. He did take the wise precaution of having a gifted English teacher as a mother and an equally gifted jazz musician as a step-father, which I suspect provided a perfect foundation for life as a film producer.