During the recent half-term break my wife and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. A simple post on Facebook elicited an unexpected but very moving response from a former student. I was Mikey’s form tutor and head of year in the early 2000s. Mikey was a challenging student who caused us no end of problems and suffered a number of temporary exclusions. Despite all that I always saw a spark in Mikey. His was not out and out destructive ill-discipline; it was more a constructive disobedience that we have to condemn within the framework of behavior policies, but that we secretly admire for it’s creative challenging of authority.
I left the school when Mikey was about to begin Year 10 and I genuinely didn’t know whether he’d make it through his GCSE years at the school, whilst being quietly confident that at some time Mikey would find his place in the world and use that spark to light a fire of creativity in a more suitable environment. So it was that I was moved and delighted to receive the message below:
It’s also 10 years since I left school and never had to darken your classroom again, ha ha. Also, I remember a speech you gave at assembly once and said you'd failed your exams. You where in not such a good place at the time but you went back passed, didn't give up and said it was never too late. I worked for 4 years in retail and simply because of those words you gave they inspired me and as of yesterday I found out I’d been accepted to university; the first of my family to do so and although I was shouted at many, many times by you it takes a long time to realise that it was because you cared about what you did. Happy anniversary Mr Kaye, the best teacher I ever had (even if I was a nightmare and didn't realise it at the time). Wishing you many more years of married bliss.
Indeed, my speech about failure is one I have delivered countless times in class and in assembly. Every word is true. For me education was not a sprint, it was a marathon. Indeed, whilst some teachers think they know all there is to know about their subject by their mid-twenties, and are keen to let us older lags know it, I’m still learning about my subjects and I put pedagogical knowledge at the heart of my drive to carry on trying to be the best teacher I can be.
I did leave school with no O Levels and I held no expectations of furthering my education, let alone going to university (places I frequented only to see bands I liked at student union bars, not a place I’d ever walk into for academic purposes).
Since finding my place in the world I have maintained the belief that we all get two chances at education: the one we’re legally bound to attempt during formal schooling and the second bite of the cherry that comes in the right conditions at the right time.
In the current climate of target driven teaching it would serve school leaders well to remember that there are plenty of Mikey’s out there. Head teachers will never hear about them because they don’t retrospectively show up on school performance data and we only find out about them through messages on Facebook. But, the Mikey’s of this world are of equal value to those students who sail through first time and amass 12 A*s at GCSE. Equally school leaders would do well to think about students and teachers as human beings, vulnerable to all the vicissitudes that life throws at us, and not treat us as some cross on a scatter diagram, or some data point on some spreadsheet.
So, hats off to Mikey and all those other students like him. He’s found his time and his place and I salute his perseverance. Let’s remember that education is not a sprint to some hypothetical finish line, it is the first tentative steps on that great marathon of gathering knowledge that makes life’s journey so fascinating.