Want realistic career prospects? Ask the pupils

Children, like adults, are not all the same. But sometimes teachers can be guilty of trying to push them all towards the same goal, says the secret supply teacher


Coronavirus: What's it like for supply teachers going into different schools?

It might seem an obvious thing to say, but kids are not all the same. As teachers, we know this on a fundamental level. 

Most of us probably throw up our hands in despair when we read another article in the popular press blaming young people for social disorder, knife crime or just being a bit feckless and grumpy. Yes, of course there are kids like that (I think I’ve taught most of them), but, for the most part, kids, like actual people, are well meaning, thoughtful and decent. 

But that doesn’t mean they’re all the same. Sometimes, as teachers, we can be guilty of trying to push them all towards the same goal, and for some it’s possibly a goal that’s neither realistic nor desirable. Top grades and a place at a good university may be what most teachers spent their time striving for as students, but that doesn’t make it the right choice for everyone.

Road to hell

I was reminded of this recently when I found myself covering a Year 10 class for an hour of learning support. The lesson was in an ICT room, and the work the class had been set was to use a variety of educational websites to revise for an upcoming RE exam

I’m confident when I say that any teacher, supply or permanent, who has ever taught a lesson with a class given access to computers will know exactly how things proceeded from this point. Everyone began the lesson with good intentions, clicking on the designated links and half-heartedly answering multiple-choice questions about the New Testament. 

But, as anyone who’s already passed their RE GCSE will tell you, good intentions are just the kind of thing that the road to Hell is paved with. Within five minutes, I was looking out across a room full of screens showing the previous night’s football highlights, live-streaming Fortnite battles and phenomenally inappropriate drill-music videos (did I mention it was an all-boys school?). 

I reminded the kids about the work that they were supposed to be doing, while also offering the more pragmatic suggestion that they have another browser window open in the background with something legitimate on it, to click on hastily in the event of a proper teacher showing up. My duties discharged, I took a stroll around the room to see what other mischief they were up to.

Knuckling down

The first student I spoke to, who was clearly not all that keen on learning what Christianity had to say on the subject of the acceptable causes of a just war, was googling the average salary of bus drivers in London. 

“You thinking of becoming a bus driver, then?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he replied, a little guardedly.

“Why do you want to be a bus driver?” I asked, mostly to make conversation, but also because I honestly couldn’t think why anyone would want to be a bus driver.

As I awaited his reply, I was already preparing the stock teacher response that would encourage this young man to aim higher, knuckle down, improve his grades, and who knows how much more he might achieve. But I never got the chance, because this student – who, in my arrogant and unthinking way, I’d already written off as unambitious and probably a bit lazy – launched into a thoughtful and rational argument about why a career as a bus driver was perfect for him. He liked buses; he liked driving; the pay, as he’d just been checking, was more than enough for him (only a little less than for an NQT); and he was already on target to get the required grades. So why waste time learning about what Buddhists like to eat?

It felt like he had a far more realistic view of where he was heading than any set of aspirational target grades might. 

I was suitably impressed but, having been a teacher for nearly a quarter of a century, I couldn’t stop myself from offering some advice. I cautioned that if the likes of Google and Uber had their way, there might not be any bus drivers left in 10 years’ time. 

He’d already thought of that too, though. There was no way, he said, that he’d want to stay in the same job for 10 years. What kind of dullard idiot would do that? I nodded ruefully at the wisdom of youth and slunk back to my desk.

The writer has recently taken up supply teaching after 20 years in a full-time teaching job

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