Then a funny thing happened. These usually terrifying boys, now like putty in his hand, watched intently – hanging on his every word – as his manner changed. Dad shifted in his chair and looked sombre. “Thing is,” he said, “I’ve sat in union meetings over the year, I’ve listened to people in suits telling us how to do our job and getting rid of us when it suited. I’ve watched friends lose their jobs and lose their families because of them. They didn’t know more than me, or the other blokes on the buses. But they wore the fancy clothes and got paid three times our wages. And do you know why? Because they had the degrees you need to get those jobs. What could I do? If I questioned them people only had to ask me how many exams I’d passed and what could I say? I knew I was cleverer but I couldn’t do their job, it wasn’t a choice and no matter how much you think you’re the big man, how good it feels to take money home to your family at the end of the week, it still plain hurts when some pillock gets more money and more respect than you because he has a piece of paper that says he’s smart. Don’t put yourself in the position where someone else can look down at you just because you thought it was funny to mess about when you were 16. Be a bus driver if you want. Be the best bus driver you can be. But do these exams and do them well, because you’ll regret it if you don’t.”
Darn, he had got them good. In 6 months I never saw those boys respond to anyone like that and though it didn’t make them angels overnight something seeped in for the majority of them.
Two years ago I was waiting in a lengthy queue at the post office. From about 8 people back I can hear someone shouting “Miss Mc! Miss Mc! It’s me Ahmed”. It was Ahmed. I waved silently across the 8 confused people. He carried on yelling: “Miss, do you remember when your dad came? Tell him I didn’t become a busdriver. I did A-Levels Miss, I’m studying at uni now.” I beamed and put my thumbs up across the Post Office. “Seriously Miss TELL HIM” he yelled as I was called to the counter.
I tell this story on TeachFirst Summer Institute to new trainees, not as an ‘inspirational’ tale but as a practical one. Some people argue the reason why students go on and do different types of jobs is down to how varyingly smart, articulate or attractive they are.. But ‘social capital’ also matters – that is, who students know and what those people can bring to their experiences. As teachers we bring a huge amount to our students in terms of their in-class learning, but it is also incumbent on us to share our social networks and the other adults who help us understand the world. My network involves lawyers, journalists, nutritionists, environmentalists and, yes, a rather smart busdriver. All of these have been involved with speaking to students or hosting a visit to their workplace and I strongly urge others to do the same..
I give trainees two simple tasks:
1. Write a list of everyone you know and their jobs – and I mean everyone, even if their job doesn’t seem suitable now you never know what other extra-curricular activity they might do that a student engages with
2. Decide which way is most suitable for them to help your school: a trip to their workplace, a visit from them to share an idea, a skype call, letters, or email? Everyone can do at least one of these and I have yet to find a friend who won’t at least email if asked nicely.
Keep the list and share your network with students as often as you can. Sometimes I send classwork to friends to get their thoughts on it and pass it back to students (most recently a comic was reviewed by a friend in advertising, and a maths project by an engineer), or sometimes students ‘win’ a phonecall at the end of a topic so they can learn more about something we have studied. Meeting other adults introduces them to new jobs and provides new role models. Education secretaries and policies will come and go, but cultivating a social capital-enhancing network for your class will enliven your classroom for years to come regardless of looming reforms.
Sadly my network recently lost a member. In December, Dad retired from being a busdriver. Thankfully, in May, he will be re-added when he becomes Mayor of Halton – his hard work finally delivering the recognition he deserves. One month later Ahmed will graduate from university.