I knew him when…

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.

A letter from a frustrated four-year-old to a future employer

Dear Future Boss,

I’m writing to you because I’m confused and need some advice. I don’t know what industry you work in, or what my job with you will be. Of course, it’s quite possible that my job doesn’t exist yet (when you were four who wanted to grow up to be a web designer?)

I get to watch a lot of television, because both Mum and Dad work, and there aren’t enough places in pre-school. I really like the cartoons, but I must admit that after watching them for hours I do feel as though another bit of my brain has gone numb. Anyway, recently the TV was left on the news channel, and I heard someone talking about what employers (like you) will be looking for in future employees (like me). She said that the important qualities will be things like curiosity, imagination, adaptability, a ‘can-do’ approach to solving problems, persistence in the face of difficulty, the ability to communicate and collaborate with others, and a willingness to take risks and to learn.

I got very excited when I heard this, because I’m really good at all of these things (and I mean really, really, REALLY good at them.) I learned to talk just by listening to other people, and I learned to walk by constantly falling down, I love playing and exploring with other kids, and I am always poking around looking for new experiences and new things to try out. (I used to be even better, before the cartoons). An educator on the TV said that it’s because my brain has evolved as a machine designed just for communication, collaboration, curiosity and learning. (But he also said that I have to keep using these skills or I will lose them. Cartoons don’t help, apparently.)

But Mum only lets me go to playgrounds that have been officially approved as completely safe and risk-free, because she says I’m too adventurous, and I can’t have a tree house, let alone help my Dad build one, because I might hurt myself, and I’m not allowed to explore because I might get lost. So how I am supposed to practise my curiosity and risk-taking?

I’ve really been looking forward to going to school, but my sister says that school is boring, because you’re not allowed to talk, but have to just listen to what the teacher tells you, not learn whatever it is you want to find out, and you have to memorise lots of stuff for tests (which my sister says is pointless because all of the stuff is on her smart phone anyway, but she’s not allowed to use that in school), and you’re not allowed to work together much or help each other, because that’s called cheating. So how will I practise my imagination, communication and collaboration?

And my brother tells me that a lot of the fun stuff that he used to enjoy after school – clubs, sports, music and camping trips– don’t happen anymore because of liability issues and teacher contract disputes. But he also says it doesn’t really matter, because he wouldn’t have time for them now anyway, because Mum makes him take extra lessons after school to make sure he gets good enough grades to get into university. So how will I practice my adaptability, persistence and imagination?

This is why I’m confused. It sounds as though the educators know what I’m good at, and how to make the most of my capabilities, and it sounds as though those capabilities are exactly what you employers say you need. And yet my parents and the politicians who decide what happens in school seem not to be listening, but act as though they think that curiosity and imagination and collaboration and risk-taking and independent thought are all bad things. So here’s my real question: are you employers, educators, politicians and parents ever going to get together and do something to feed the insatiable appetite I still have for learning all about this exciting and fascinating world in which we live, or should I just sit back and enjoy the cartoons?

The world is a complicated place

In a recent column in the Observer newspaper, humorist David Mitchell took aim at the Heads of English Public Schools who, apparently, are fed up with not being recognised for the good work their schools do (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/03/private-school-teachers-david-mitchell).    (For those not familiar with the oddities of British labelling, in the UK the term ‘Public School’ is reserved for private institutions catering to those who can afford them; the remainder attend ‘state’ schools).   Like Mitchell, I attended an independent school (only a mile or two from his, as it happens), where I benefitted from an excellent education;  I concur with his suggestion that ‘if there was no independent sector, our state school system would serve us better’, and with his characterisation of the privileged tax status accorded to UK independent schools as ‘the establishment taking care of its own’.

Mitchell’s purpose is to entertain, but his sarcasm makes a serious point:  independent schools are, by and large, far more comfortable places to teach than state schools, and those who work in them must live with the fact that the moral high ground is reserved, rightly, for those who struggle daily to educate the most needy in society in the most difficult circumstances.

Mitchell mentions Anthony Seldon, the Head of Wellington College, who has complained of jealousy and hostility towards Public Schools.   Writing in the Guardian newspaper last year, Seldon also stated that ‘British public life would be unthinkable without the contributions made by [Public Schools]’.  He was quite right, but I question the assumption that British public life, as shaped by the Public Schools, is an asset to the nation.  After all, as he points out:  ‘…many senior politicians, newspaper editors and proprietors attended them’;  the list should also include bankers and financiers, and comprehensively covers those segments of society which are widely held to have failed!

Mitchell rant singled out for particular attention the ex-Heads of Roedean and Cheltenham  Ladies College, who are ‘flouncing off to the moral sinkholes of the world’  (such as Switzerland and Saudi Arabia) to take charge of international schools, and it is here that he goes wrong.  His lack of awareness of the international education scene leads him to assume that all international schools are similar in nature, the sort of ‘cushy school for the rich’ to which he would expect the Heads of Cheltenham Ladies College and Roedean to migrate.

Such schools certainly exist, and in ever-growing numbers.  The ‘for-profit’ sector in international education is a booming business, particularly in the field of franchising the names of famous Public Schools to cater to wealthy elites (either expat. or local) in the Middle East and Asia.   However, many international schools operate on a not-for-profit basis, and in many cases costs are borne by the institutions or companies whose employees insist on the availability of an English-medium school before they will take a post abroad.  This results in such schools having more in common with a good suburban state school, rather than an elite private school.   They take very seriously the idea of diversity, whether of nationality, language, ability or economic status, and they benefit from one huge advantage:  they need not be constrained by political oversight or national curriculum.

The best international schools (and all of my international teacher friends reading this teach in the best international schools!) really do provide a setting in which education and children can thrive.  Of course, expat. parents can be as demanding as any in the world, but the international educators I know find huge satisfaction in simply being treated as professionals and being able concentrate on helping students learn.  The diversity of students, staff and parents also gives them a distinct edge when dealing with global issues;  tolerance and international understanding become a part of daily life rather than an theoretical ideal.

There is no doubt that Switzerland has more than a few moral issues to deal with, particularly in the financial sector, but it also plays host to more than a few international organisations whose moral credentials are impeccable.  International schools in Switzerland cover just as wide a spectrum, from elitist to idealist, and Mitchell’s generalisation is inaccurate and unfair (though, admittedly, complicating his argument with nuance and shades of grey would probably spoil the humour.)  Nevertheless, there really are schools that actively strive to make the world a better place, and those who teach in them consider themselves fortunate indeed.