It’s a strange question when you think about it because everyone assumes it refers to work, although why this is important when it’s 20 or so years away, I don’t know. The usual answers in my day were nurse, policeman or fireman. These seemed exciting and quite realistic (no one said: “I want to work in an office” or “I want to be a traffic warden”).
These days, children reply: “I want to be famous/a celebrity/a television star.” This, of course, is less realistic, but when I ask them what they want to be famous for, they’re surprised, as if that hadn’t occurred to them. “It doesn’t matter, does it? You asked me what I want to be. There, I’ve told you.” Interestingly, this interpretation of the question is different, referring not to work but to the quality of life.
In some respects, 21st-century children have got it right. We define success or greatness – the attainment or over achievement of quantifiable and measurable goals and objectives – should perhaps be defined not so much by what we do as by who we are. Adults think we can tell what a person is like from their work, which is why one of the first things we ask each other is what we do for a living. Perhaps this is a subconscious reason for asking children too. Yet the young have no such scruples. When strangers asked my son, aged 3, what job he wanted as an adult, he would say “van driver”; I, on the other hand, would give a nervous laugh and explain his addiction to Postman Pat.
The cost of success
These days, the problem is that instead of seeing “ordinary” jobs being held up as worthwhile and rewarding, children are constantly exposed to the extraordinary. Much has already been said about the potential harm caused by reality TV programmes showing the meteoric rise of unknowns to stardom so I do not intend to dwell on that here. Suffice to say that, in my opinion, the issue lies not only with subtle messages about fame – anyone can be a celebrity – but also with the fact that programmes such as these constantly expose children to the outcomes of greatness without properly documenting the process.
When we were young, everyone knew what you had to do to become a nurse or a banker: work hard, pass exams, be good. Now, apart from the touching two-minute cameo preceding every reality TV contestant’s appearance, there is no real indication of the “cost” of success.
Yet many of the qualities needed to be a successful singer, dancer or baker – resilience, problem-solving, flexibility – are the same as those needed for other jobs. And this will be the case whether you become famous or not. Greatness is to do with character, not a career.
But communicating this will be challenging for teachers. Our schools are part of an outcomes-based system. We explicitly prepare children for testing situations, place them on numbered steps or levels and tell them what they need to do to get to the next one. To help them learn how to be successful, we need to teach strategies to develop character as well as learning. Some schools have already chosen to prioritise this. Here are three possible approaches:
1. Make character a whole-school initiative
Values-based education is an example of this. With VbE, the school decides on the characteristics it wants to nurture – for example, resilience, kindness, courage, flexibility, respect and sense of humour – and then base assemblies, reward systems and personal, social and health education (PSHE) lessons around these qualities.
The values are listed, explained and displayed around the school and in every classroom. All the teaching and support staff refer to them frequently and reward pupils for demonstrating them. The values are explained to parents and are prominently discussed on the school website. They underpin everything the school and its members do. Celebrities, as well as a range of “ordinary” people, can be offered as examples of those who practise these qualities.
2. Promote citizenship and PSHE lessons
In the UK, a 2015 report by the House of Commons Education Committee pointed to a growing concern that 40 per cent of schools did not have good quality citizenship or PSHE lessons. These are vital for boosting well-being, teaching about character and providing valuable life lessons in how to deal with conflict, how to navigate social media, how to grieve and so on. PSHE education will soon be made compulsory for all schools in England, probably in 2019. However, before then teachers need better training and designated curriculum time for lessons. A variety of teaching packages are available for teaching and learning in this area, such as Jigsaw’s whole-school, lesson-a-week approach.
3. Model the attributes you want to teach
Children copy what they see, which is why we spend time modelling great writing strategies and calculation methods in our lessons. But our own behaviour is the most powerful model of all. If we want pupils to learn about greatness of character, we need to demonstrate it. If we are inflexible, easily angered and prone to shout, we are modelling that it’s OK to behave like this. We all have our moments, of course, but if we are generally firm but fair, adaptable and patient, over time we will become compelling examples of resilience, flexibility and good leadership.
Real greatness is a lifelong journey with many setbacks and complications. The place you end up is not always the not one you’d hoped for. But I would not particularly want to have “outstanding teacher” or “famous writer” written on my gravestone; I’d prefer “creative”, “curious” and “kind”.
Perhaps one day I’ll say to a pupil: “What would you like to be when you grow up” and they will reply: “Brave.” Courage is one of the most important qualities for any job; I’ll know then that I did mine well.
Deborah Jenkins is a class teacher at Heathfield Junior School, Whitton, south-west London