“Children only have one chance at education!”
How many times do you hear that bandied about by politicians, parents and sometimes even by teachers themselves? It can make us all feel like failures can’t it?
Don’t let it. It’s a bunch of crap.
It’s a horrible, insidious phrase that isn’t intended to inspire and motivate the best in teachers, but to bully them into fearing that any kind of failure - at all - is both inadequate and unacceptable. It's like a publicity slogan intended only to induce anxiety.
Worst of all – it’s just not true.
I went to Goldsmiths’ College recently to give a lecture to some trainee teachers. It brought back some fond old memories. I did my PGCE there way back in 1978 and I remember, about a month into my first teaching practice, my tutor gave me some sympathetic advice at the end of a disastrous day: “Tomorrow is another day,” he said. “Come in and start fresh in the morning.”
As a newly qualified teacher my first term - come to think of it, the whole of my first year - was punctuated with awful days that sent me home feeling utterly depressed. I thought I was a total failure and not cut out for the job.
Then one day a wonderful, treasured colleague – Olive Irwin – took me aside and said: “Don’t think you’re a failure just because you have a few bad days, we all have them. And don’t bear grudges because some kids show a pattern of bad behaviour. In teaching, you can turn over a new leaf every day. So can the kids. Keep telling them that. And don’t forget to tell it to yourself too.”
It was good advice and because I believed what she said, I eventually saw things improve. I still had some awful days when I just couldn’t seem to get anything done – but when that happened, I told myself to "go home, forget about it, get some rest and start again the next day."
It was the same for the kids too - when some of them drove me to distraction with their endless petty-squabbling, fighting and apparent lack of ambition, focus or desire to learn - I’d try to say to them at the end of the day: “When you come in tomorrow, come in with a positive attitude. We start tomorrow with a clean slate.”
As my experience grew, I could put things into perspective - the ups and downs, the set-backs and pitfalls, the workload that seemed insurmountable, the pressures and problems that seemed unresolvable - I could see more of the big picture and where I fitted into it.
It was a picture that revealed to me that education was always going to be a mix of successes and failures - both for teachers and for the pupils. It has to be. That’s life! If education was only about success and achievement every minute of the day it wouldn’t make any sense. Nor would it have any value.
Don’t believe people who say kids only have one chance. They don’t. They have lots of chances to make a success of education and of their lives - both throughout school and beyond. Every day they come in to school they can make a new beginning.
And so can you!
A couple of years ago I went to an exhibition dedicated to Paul Smith at the Design Museum in London. It was fascinating and inspiring. I love Paul Smith’s designs – his clothes, his ideas, his wit and his wonderfully ‘British’ creativity. He left school at fifteen with not a single educational qualification to his name. But he went on to art college and his teacher Pauline Denyer, inspired him to become a designer. He credits her for everything he has achieved - mind you, he did go on to marry her too!
I was very struck by the maxim that he greeted you with both as you enter and as you left the exhibition. It said in large letters up on the wall:
“Every day is a new beginning.”
It’s true. Believe it.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk or book him as a speaker to your ITT students. His book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.