Tilting at Windmills by @bennewmark

Pedro was clever.  When in lessons his contributions were insightful and original.  When he bothered to write, his work was a delight to read. He was also witty, charismatic and well-liked.

Unfortunately Pedro had a problematic home-life.  He could be lazy, was usually disengaged and could be really disruptive and rude.  As a result of bad behaviour and general poor attendance his grades were much lower than they should have been.


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High KS2 data meant that he received lots of support.  His teachers, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously, made the focus of entire lessons engaging Pedro.  He was taken on lots of trips to raise his aspirations.  He received both academic and pastoral mentoring.  Recognising that his poor behaviour had resulted in knowledge gaps, his teachers developed detailed personalised revision schedules for him.  Although in these sessions Pedro wasted time chatting, his teachers rarely sent him home because they didn’t want it to seem as if they weren’t recognising his efforts, paltry as they were.

When results day came around Pedro had, in the context of his long-term failure to engage with education, done as well as could be expected; three A*-C grades and a clutch of Ds and Es.  Pedro’s teachers were quite disappointed but consoled themselves with the certainty that they couldn’t have done any more.

Scores of other students achieved the same pattern of grades but few, if any, had received the level of help Pedro enjoyed.  Indeed, with time and resources a zero sum, it’s likely that many students did not get support at least partially because Pedro got so much.

Pedro received so much help because he was vulnerable, charismatic, bright and underachieving, a magical formula that draws teachers like moths to candles.

For all our affected cynicism the embers of films like “Dangerous Minds” still smoulder too brightly in the hearts of too many of us.  We still dream of being the first to recognise and unlock hidden potential.  (Award-winning playwright Pedro Da Silva thanks his old teacher for ‘being the only one who saw his true potential.’)  For many of us, helping those we perceive to be the least fortunate is the very reason we went into teaching in the first place.  But however well-meaning we are in doing so, it is usually wrong to devote disproportionate levels of effort to students who aren’t responding to it.  It does little long-term good and certainly damages the attainment and achievement of other equally deserving children.

We should recognise that the kind of dramatic breakthroughs we see in films very rarely happen in real life.  A child who cannot read or write well will not begin penning award-winning poetry because of mentoring sessions.  A student who has missed a third of their history lessons can’t learn all they’ve missed in a week of fevered lectures after school.  Learning requires consistent, methodical study and is incremental more than it is dramatic.  If a child isn’t ready to learn willingly most of what we put in place is wasted.   Children who become accustomed to herculean levels of effort from their teachers soon come to see this as an entitlement and drown when support is removed.

It would have been better if Pedro’s teachers had focused their help on where it would have most impact rather than attempting to compensate for circumstances outside their control.  Other students in Pedro’s year also had problematic home-lives but weren’t as clever.  Others were as bright but were quiet and uncharismatic.  Others were harder working but not as bright.  All these students were as deserving as Pedro was and would have made better use of the school time.  Had these students received some of the help Pedro got, more lives would have been transformed.

I’m not arguing that students like Pedro shouldn’t be supported but we can’t help those who aren’t interested.  If there are genuine signs a child is switching on we should run through walls to help.  I’ve written on this here:  http://bennewmark.edublogs.org/2016/05/06/making-the-most-of-the-final-sprint/

But, until this happens, our extra effort should go to those students who will benefit from it and we should accept that chasing lost causes is usually more quixotic than it is noble.


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