The US Open tennis final between Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez is a godsend for teachers in search of an assembly topic. Raducanu’s progression from Wimbledon heartbreak to Flushing Meadows dominance incorporated twin narratives of overcoming setbacks and youthful relatability that children crave, as well as a backstory centred around the prosaic, old-school virtues of dedication and resilience.
Arguably more interesting, for teachers especially, was the case of Fernandez. The defeated finalist attributes her dogged attitude to a teacher who, she says, told her to “stop playing tennis, you will never make it, and just focus on school’’.
This refrain – of celebrity success in the face of sceptical teachers – is one that gets picked up on in the media again and again, undermining even the most diligent planning of careers and university advisers.
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So how can we support students who come to us with improbable ambitions while maintaining a sense of perspective? The acronym TOTEM – trust, outline, test, explore and maintain – provides a handy approach for such conversations.
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Youthful ambition and fragile confidence are two sides of the same coin: as children move towards adolescence, their brains are hard-wired for risk-taking, but when these big bets don’t pay off it can be crushing.
With that in mind, the golden rule of managing goal-setting conversations with students must be fostering trust. Even if our misgivings about a student’s goals are reasonable, starting from the position of belief in at least the possibility of their dream coming true creates a trusting dynamic on both sides.
With that in mind, starting with something like ‘"Ah! So you don’t want to do ballet any more – monster truck driving is more your thing?" rather than "This is just another flash in the pan" can make what follows much easier.
Once you’ve established what the dream is, start to talk about what getting there might look like. This is all about breaking down the distance from their current reality to an ambitious goal into manageable chunks, and it’s a process that can be really instructive to undertake together. If they’re fixating on one role model as someone whose career they want to emulate, then it’s crucial to widen their frame of reference. It’s also the moment to be really clear that the process you’re drawing up together is not a guarantee of success, but a list of things that could shift the odds in their favour.
How many Premier League academy graduates, for example, end up playing first-team football in the top flight? What did those players do to get to that point, and what can we hypothesise about those who didn’t make it to the top level? Outlining these steps and barriers to success from an adult point of view gives the student a chance to reflect on their lofty goals.
Testing the waters
At this point, students have the opportunity to test their own motivation from a more informed perspective. It’s a moment of revealed preferences: if the next step towards a goal is unpalatable – for example, a student who wants to be a doctor but can’t stand the thought of the chemistry A level required for medical school – then the chances are that they need to think again, at least for now.
It’s worth emphasising to them at this point that progression towards goals isn’t always linear, so stepping away from a distant goal doesn’t mean saying goodbye to it forever. Inviting students to reflect on how well the paths you’ve outlined fit with their talents and tastes can be challenging for them, but it’s better for it to happen now than further down the line.
Exploring what’s next
By this stage, students are likely to be in one of two broad camps: either your conversation has cemented their desire to pursue their improbable goal or they’ve been given pause for thought and want to think again.
Either way, exploring what comes next ensures that they have something concrete to take away from the conversation. Is there someone in school passionate about the same things that they are that they’ve never spoken to? What opportunities are there for them to do something that they currently find rewarding that could also help them explore or uncover their passions? Keeping the tone purposeful but exploratory prevents the discussion from becoming too onerous.
Maintaining the conversation
After all this, you’re probably hoping that your newly enlightened charge will sally off into the sunset, clearer than ever on where their destiny lies. More often than not, though, the same child will come bounding through your door next week with a different, equally zany proposition.
Revisiting their goals not only allows you to show them that they’re still learning about the world and where they want to fit in it, it also allows you to pick up on patterns they might miss: maybe all the jobs they aspire to have an element of public performance, despite them being really shy in class, or have a mathematical bent despite them never completing their maths homework.
Even if they don’t come back to you to thrash out a totally new plan, it’s still heartening to check in with them if you see them in a corridor to see how they’re getting on with chasing their dreams. Maintaining a casual but curious dynamic allows students to explore multiple potential pathways, jumping from one to another with minimal fear.
Will Yates is the gifted and more able raising standards officer at Barnhill Community High School