Teachers: do you praise them like you should?
Ahead of the new academic year, Hilary Moriarty reflects on how schools praise their pupils and why maybe it's time teachers got the same treatment
I you are attached to a school – teacher, parent, governor – you’re likely to spend some time at the end of the summer term expressing lots of praise and thanksgiving, congratulating many people – staff as well as pupils – for achievements many and various during the school year just ending. In my case, as a governor, the last week of term featured four speech days and two splendid musical productions – more clapping – as well as two governors’ meetings. Much paperwork, reviewing the year just ended and peeping over the parapet to take a squint at the year to come, and all very interesting, but not clapping events as I recall.
Which was just as well, because you do a lot of clapping at a speech day, which features much applause for the success of the year just ended, much encouragement for all present to try harder, do better, do more next year so that you too can be a prize winner.
It’s a bonus for all if the prize-giving speech maker is an alumnus/a of the school. If this is the case, he or she stands like tangible evidence of the efficacy of the school and its systems, sometimes many years ago, turning out people who are successful in their field in the here and now to which (presumably) they were aiming back in the day when they came to the school, a scared 11-year-old or a homesick boarder. What they say in their speech almost does not matter – though it’s great if they’re fast and fluent and funny. Their very existence demonstrates that the school – for them at least, and possibly a lifetime ago – did a good job, finding talents, creating stars. There’s an unspoken presumption that the school will still do exactly that for every child now within its gates, even the ones who today are prize-less.
These august and successful individuals spur you on to do more, work harder, in pursuit of the glittering prizes in the real world above and beyond the books, book tokens, cups and shields being presented today – ‘Right person, right prize, please God, and if it isn’t, take it anyway and get off stage and we’ll sort it out later!’ I have been the deputy who organises that short journey for the books and cups, from table to speaker with the right child in front of him – perilous, not easily forgotten.
“Could you imagine a school where prize day included a category for staff – Best Science Teacher, Best in Humanities, Best at Languages?”
The irony is that not every Old Boy or Old Girl will tell a happy tale of their own time in school, and it’s not uncommon for such a speaker to have found his/her way in the world only after being politely asked to leave the school to which they now return, trailing clouds of glory. I have heard several versions of “The best thing this school did for me was kick me out…” Such speakers are seldom academics, professors and pillars of the education community because almost without question they will have enjoyed school and all it offered and hated the leaving of it. The ones who got kicked out were almost certainly already demonstrating that school was not their environment, not a place in which they felt likely to thrive. School may have asked them to leave, but they had probably demonstrated that they would get out one way or another. I recall one very reluctant pupil walking into the school lake – “You can’t keep me!” she called, and indeed it seemed wiser to let her go, however much her father was convinced the school was perfect for her.
No, the renegades with little taste for their school when they were pupils are inclined to grow up and do the kind of unusual things that mark them out as a possibly interesting – entertaining, even – speaker for speech day. They’re the entrepreneurs and businessmen and women, or possibly rock stars and TV people. No doubt there will come a day when they are the former contestants from Love Island. Now there’s a thought.
It’s great fun hearing such people – “The day I escaped through a bathroom window to meet my boyfriend, and the Head said that was the end, and it was horrible. But when my Dad was driving me away, the Head stopped the car, tapped my window and said, ‘I know you’re going to be a big success – don’t despair…’ And she was right – because look at me now – with my own business, now breaking into Europe, and I can’t remember the last time anyone asked me what my A-level grades were!” I don’t think she said, “Ha!’ but she came pretty close. And who would blame her? After such an exit, it must be sweet indeed to return in the dazzling car, a guest of honour where you were once a pain in the neck.
“It’s not uncommon for a speaker to have found his/her way in the world only after being politely asked to leave the school to which they now return, trailing clouds of glory.”
And when you think of most prize days, a speaker who has found tremendous, tangible, demonstrable success in the world’s terms without having enjoyed a successful school career is entirely appropriate for an assembly in which those without prizes will actually outnumber those who have them. By definition on such a day, there will be more pupils empty handed, not clutching trophies, not feeling successful just yet. When such a speaker was at school, they were also one of the have nots who didn’t get prizes.
The speakers I’m describing have all been quick and convincing in talking to that part of their audience which appears, for this day at least, to have had a grim year, winning nothing, shining in no endeavour. The message is usually, “Well done everyone who did well this year in any of the many activities which school offers you, and you have a prize to prove your worth. And let me tell anyone without prize, maybe next year you will be a prize winner because you’ll be taller or stronger or the light will dawn in a tough subject or you’ll have an inspiring teacher or you’ll discover a talent or interest you never had before – and all this is possible and I wish you all every success. But school is not the world, and there are many, many ways to lead a successful life outside the school gates. Keep looking, till you find your way, and what matters to you.”
Is it completely mischievous to wonder about a prize day for staff? Most schools now operate a system of staff appraisal which, logically, ought to inform both staff and superiors about the state of play in any classroom. Imagine a school in which staff were not content just to see the usual boxes ticked for performance, but actually sought to perform better than their colleagues, just as pupils will compete with each other for exam grades. Could you imagine a school where prize day included a category for staff – Best Science Teacher, Best in Humanities, Best at Languages? Given the example of an international competition for the Best Teacher and considering how very seriously pupils take their duties in the many school councils which now give students a voice, a prize for the Best Teacher in the school may not be so far away. I can’t wait…
Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of the Boarding Schools Association