Pupils sometimes say things in class that prompt a reaction in me. It might be instantaneous, a sort of verbal ping pong if you like. It might leave me pondering the pupil opinion in the train on the way home, or it might even cause me to write something, as in this case.
The pupil concerned was a boy in one of my third year classes (ages 14-15). Let us call the pupil Jack. Jack said something that didn’t so much make me angry as unsettled when he expressed an opinion that is certainly shared by many of his peers I suspect, but in Jack’s case it was just so up front, it confronted me. I reacted by writing the following text on the train on the way home, initially with the full intention of mailing it to the whole class just to get it off my chest. In the end I didn’t preferring my own brand of ‘slow burn’ solution of classroom persuasion and enthusiasm. It does however make quite a good blog post though.
The written reaction I wrote to Jack’s provocation goes like this:
I’m not picking on you Jack, but your comment about producing work of ‘average’ quality being OK has set me thinking on my way home today….thanks for that! Let me share a few of my thoughts with you all.
I tried to make clear to you this afternoon that I didn’t see ‘average’ effort being quite enough in my lessons. Let me enlarge on this….
Imagine at the start of the school year, your form teacher is telling you your new timetable and who your new teachers are going to be. Do you want average teachers, or would you rather have all the best ones all week?
On a Saturday morning would you rather play in a football or hockey team of players who just gave ‘average’ effort? Or would you rather play in a team of players who are trying to do their best?
Your mum or dad need their car fixed, do they want an ‘average’ mechanic who does just enough to get the car on the road again, or would they rather have one who understands fully what they are doing and can carry out the work to the highest standard?
Would you be happy with a dentist doing work of an ‘average’ quality on your teeth? Personally I’d like to have one you knows exactly what they are doing and works to the highest standards!
I guess I also like to work with others who are trying to produce their best work. That goes for my colleagues, but also for the pupils I work with. I see myself as being part of a team with my colleagues, but also as part of a team with you….dear pupils 😉
I don’t give you a great deal to do outside of my lesson time, but what I do expect/require is a focused and ambitious attitude in the lessons. This is equally true for pupils with enormous creative talent and for those who find my subject, let’s say, more challenging!
Jack’s initial point of being average might often seem enough on the short term (getting you through into the next school year). But increasingly showing you can do more and shine in what you are doing is going to become important.
I could have ranted on a lot further, but it’s a problem that most of those who work in education will recognize to a lesser or greater degree. In the Netherlands we call it the ‘sixes culture’. Scoring five out of ten is a fail, scoring a six isn’t, although it is only marginally better. But when you can pass with a six, why bother going for an eight?
Much has been written and discussed about this problem. It does seem to be a problem that particularly afflicts boys, but by no means all boys. The peer group does often to be playing a significant part. Sometimes it almost reminds me of the middle distance (1500m to 5000m) athletics races that my son runs.
When he’s trying to run a personal record in say a 1500 metre race it is all too important that he finds himself in with an appropriate group of athletes. Obviously the abilities in the group have to be reasonably well matched, competition is important in bringing out the best performances. Yet a too evenly matched field, particularly in a championship race where being the first over the line is everything can throw up a bizarrely slow race as everyone spends all their time watching what others are doing, the whole field clumps together and nobody seems willing to take the race on and show how fast they can run.
I understand fully why this happens on the athletics track, but it does kind of remind me about some behaviour that I sometimes see in the classroom, a behaviour that I remember experiencing myself and seems, as I said earlier, particularly to afflict boys.
Ambition to achieve well can be a strangely unpredictable measure in teenagers. It can run hot and cold. Working in the art room I certainly observe this. Triggering interest and engagement is the initial challenge, but sustaining this into often quite extended practical assignments is still more important, and that is what I will be working on with Jack.