Eyes on the Prize

s 2016 draws to a close, so too does my 27th year in teaching. Term four is in many ways my favourite of the terms, containing as it does all the very best and worst education has to offer. To start with the positive, this is a term of school camps, and for our drama department, junior productions. Two weeks ago I spent my days at a local bush reserve, orchestrating teams of thirteen and fourteen year olds in a Survivor style competition. They worked together, struggled together, cheered on their rivals, celebrated their victories and comforted the defeated. They held one another, climbed over each other, argued about the solutions to devilish puzzles, shared jokes and collectively took a small step towards becoming caring and well adjusted adults.

This week will finish with three nights of drama productions, just under ninety teens performing three plays in a festival of expression. Again these young people will face their fears, this time in front of a paying audience, and at the end of it will have experienced the special thrill of theatre. They will be proud of all they have achieved, and crucially they will have achieved it as a collective. Their efforts will be in the name of the show, and the privileged act of communicating with strangers, not personal glory. And, because they have not entered the sausage machine of formal assessment, we will not be called upon to rank them from best to worst, as if such a thing is ever meaningful in the arts. No wonder I love my job.

First though, a small cloud hovers overhead, as it does each year, for this is also the season of the school prizegiving. As long as I have taught, I have loathed the event. I remember in my first years of teaching volunteering for car park duty, so as to avoid the inevitable gloom that comes over me on such occasions. Prizegivings represent, for me, all that is wrong with our education system. It is not just that the event is designed such that the last message our students receive from us is ‘most of you weren’t very good’, although God knows that’s problem enough. It’s also the strutting display of our inverted priorities.

Prizegivings are built upon two deeply flawed premises. The first, that the measurables are more important and worthy of celebration than the immeasurables, and second, that to be excellent is to be exceptional. Schools, when they are functioning well, teach a lot of things. They teach young people how to be kind, how to read social situations, how to exhibit self control in times of high stress, how to find intrinsic value in the small moments and activities of everyday life, how to laugh at the absurdities, embrace the complexities, take responsibility for our own failings and face the world with optimism and curiosity. The students who begin to learn these things are lucky, and frankly wonderful. We also teach algebra, and literary analysis. The students who learn these things are, well, good at algebra and literary analysis, and while the former is at least of some practical importance for a small number of our graduates, neither are the sorts of human skills one instinctively feels are worth celebrating. But celebrate them we do, for the simple reason that they’re easier to measure than empathy or humility, and so winners can be chosen.

The second error is even more egregious, for it proposes that so long as you are better at something than anybody else, that something must be a remarkable thing. So we deify Usain Bolt for example, on the grounds that he is marginally faster than the next fastest human being, and significantly faster than most of us (although a touch slower than my pet cat, as it happens). Now I am as wowed as the next man by the magnificent sight of the man in full flow, and was glued to a screen come the Rio Olympics in the hope of watching history be made. But the glory of sport in the end is its triviality. It’s a circus distraction, and a rather wonderful one at that, but surely we all understand, deep down, that the world would not be a better place if we were all just that tiny bit faster when we fully extended.

Compare that to the truly magnificent skills, like parenting. There is something worth celebrating, because when we get that right, almost everything else follows. And it’s hard, ridiculously hard, and those who do master it, which in fact is the vast majority of parents, are truly excellent. Yet, we do not celebrate this form of excellence at all, because we have fallen for the trap of thinking that only the exceptional can be excellent, and so we have failed to attribute value to that which matters most. And of course parenting is one of a hundred examples. Think of the loyal partner, the true friend, the attentive sibling, the dedicated nurse… The people our prize givings tell us not to care about. Better to raise up the anxious, the externally motivated, the socially insecure and the compliant, and cheer them on into their fragile futures.

But happily, it is only one night, and sanity will return soon enough. One school I taught at didn’t even have prizegivings. Perhaps one day far more will have the courage to follow.

4 thoughts on “Eyes on the Prize

  1. sightbyte says:

    Such a relief to read this Bernard; thank you – so thoughtful and and reaffirming of what teaching and parenting are essentially. I haven’t taught for a long time but used to have uncomfortable feelings when I went to prize-givings as a parent. At the last school I taught at, prize giving was less a tribute to academic achievement than a celebration of cultural diversity and integration – 87 ethnicities as I recall – and the students, whether in the audience or receiving recognition, were dressed in the clothes of their country. The other thing I remember, which I never saw anywhere else, was the staff rising to honour the students.

  2. Thank you. Yes, there are a number of ways in which the leaving could be honoured quite beautifully. I’ve also seen a model where, in lieu of a prize giving, students organised their own celebration of their time together. It was lovely.


  3. At my son’s school Awards Night we had to listen to 3 hours of how wonderful other peoples children were. Our son ( quiet, gentle and intelligent) got no acknowledgement at all.

    • Thanks for sharing that Linda. You’ve made the point I was trying to get at far more eloquently in only two sentences. The good news, I suppose, is that your son’s quality go with him through life, while the certificates are already fading.

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