Teachers know that every school is the same, and yet every school is different.
Every school is the same in the sense that they are set up to do ostensibly the same job: most of them have classrooms, teachers, desks, timetables and other things of that ilk. Every school is different in the sense that the culture, expectations and unwritten rules of each and every school is absolutely, completely, insanely and utterly unique.
Even the language, cant and argot of each school is unique. Even for the staff.
In one of my previous schools, the staff codeword for a “bottom set” student was “womble”. Although some might view such terms as demeaning to the students, I believe that the Head of Science who originated it actually used it with genuine affection and humour (try saying it with a Scottish accent through a thick beard for best effect), and I`d like to think that we used it in a like manner too. (I think that it’s certainly less judgemental than “muppet”, although I’m not sure why.)
Teaching a class of wombles is a skill in itself. There are times when you feel like the best teacher in the world: wow, you say to yourself, nearly everyone got that idea — I am a teaching genius!
And then next lesson comes around. Remember what we covered last lesson? you begin with a confident smile, willing and eager to move on. Cue: thirty blank looks and slightly-furrowed brows and you can see the thought “Huh? We were here last lesson…? We did something last lesson…?” forming in their brains. And you realise that you are still at square one. Or, possibly, square zero.
Not that I am suggesting that we should give up. I am game to try and keep trying and keep on trying.
The point I want to make is simply that so much of educational discourse ignores the both the existence and the needs of the wombles.
Part of the problem is that education in the UK is still very narrowly focused on academic achievement: if you don’t get into Oxbridge then you’re a failure. Oh, and it’s your fault. And your teachers, of course.
I cannot shake the feeling that what are we going to do about the wombles? is a question that is not asked often enough. We concentrate on the A*-C grades (and anyone who can be cajoled or armtwisted into getting a C), and are seemingly content to allow those getting below those grades to think of themselves as failures.
Not too long ago, I set up a talk by an Oxbridge admissions tutor for a group of very mixed ability inner city kids. My oh-so-well-meaning aim was very “growth mindset”: you can achieve anything you want if you work hard. The tutor was genuine, funny and charming and so were the undergrads from inner city backgrounds that she brought along. But my little Dweckian-soiree achieved the exact opposite of what I wanted. Hearing that a few GCSE grade Bs won’t necessarily completely scupper your chances of entry to an elite Oxbridge college isn’t what you want to hear when even a grade D seems a distant unattainable dream. My students feedback was that the event merely confirmed what they thought: this isn’t for me.
Now just because I have filed someone in the “womble” drawer doesn’t mean that they will be unsuccessful. One of the more encouraging — and yet humbling — recurring events in a teacher’s life is meeting past students who have moved on. Some of them will be parents, craftsmen, artists, pilots, business owners, chefs, firefighters and police officers. And as they chat amiably with you about schooldays past, their passing references to their life and career begin to make you feel like the womble.
And very often, they have warm memories of you not because of anything that you did, but because you had a sense of humour and were kind on occasions, and above all else, you tried.
And then you realise that, actually, those were the reasons why you liked some of them more than many of the lazy, tiresome, arrogant jerks in the top set: the wombles were often funny, kind and frequently tried hard.
After all, the truth is that each and every one of us is a womble to someone else.
Salieri : I will speak for you, Father. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all!
Amadeus (1984) by Peter Shaffer