I suspect we can all picture a student, present or past, with whom there came a point where we felt that we weren’t making a difference. Where we felt exhausted by the effort of trying to battle against them because we could see what they couldn’t: their potential; their progress and the possibility of their success. A point where we began to believe that no matter what we did, we wouldn’t have any impact. The problem is, if we allow ourselves to believe that the cost of continuing to try is greater than the chance of success, we might excuse ourselves the effort.
Research studies into adolescent brain anatomy suggest that the part of the brain that regulates foresight is still developing at a time when students are undertaking exams that may well determine their future. Therefore, getting these students to see that what they’re doing now might have far reaching consequences is going to be a challenge – and a frustrating one given that the benefit of our experience shows us all those students that have come before and trodden the same well-worn path to disappointment. Let’s stop the pep talks and quiet chats and discussions about long-term consequences (even though we know they’ll kick themselves in the future) because the chances are that their foresight isn’t suddenly going to kick in. Instead, let’s put all of our efforts into believing in those students and not giving up on them. Let’s not allow ourselves to say, ‘John will never achieve a 4’ and instead believe that he might. Because if we stop believing in him then the golem effect means that John’s outcomes are likely to be poorer as a consequence.
If we see exam success as opening doors and the obverse as closing them, our job with these students is to jam our foot in the threshold of the door they appear to be slamming despite themselves. My contention is that we need to keep trying and keep giving those students a chance of success (even if that chance is only as wide as the foot you have squished in the door) because they won’t have a second chance at this and you won’t have a second chance with them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about second chances recently. Last November I wrote about my dad dying suddenly, aged just 56, of a massive heart attack whilst on holiday with my mum. Nearly six months later, I often find myself replaying the last day I spent with him and thinking about what I might have done differently. How I might have hugged him a little longer before he left my house that last time. How I might have taken up Mum’s offer to pop over for a cup of tea before they left for their flight. How I might have called him after I found out he’d gone to hospital with a suspected heart attack but sent back to the hotel with a diagnosis of indigestion. And so on and so on. But the sad reality is that there are no second chances for me to get that right. In life there are times, without us knowing, that the last time we do something is simply the last time ever.
Being educators, we may not want to see students completing their exams as being some kind of death but there are parallels: we get one shot with each cohort of students and we need to do what we can to get things right for them. And that’s true even for those students who really challenge us and push our buttons. Those students who don’t seem willing to try or are difficult or who seem wilfully incapable of acting on feedback. Because even the most unlikely of individuals can surprise us…
My dad that I wrote about in November was, officially, my step-dad. He came into my life when I was 9 and raised me as his own. He was the man who looked after me when I was ill, taught me to drive and walked me down the aisle. All that and more. However, I also have a biological dad who I thought I’d never see again. A man who cut all contact with me when I was about 13 and who kept trying to slam the door on any chance of a relationship with me. A man who took me completely by surprise this January when he asked to come and see me and meet my boys. A man I decided to give a second chance.
I can’t put into words how pleased I am that I did give my dad a second chance. He’s shown me that people can and do change. He’s shown me that even the most unlikely of characters can suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, turn things around. He’s shown me that having belief in someone doesn’t make us weak or stupid or pathetic (even when they repeatedly let you down) because it takes real strength to keep your foot wedged in a door it would be easier to let close. He’s shown me that giving second chances is one of the most important things we can do.
So, when you return from your Easter break and you’re faced with that student who you feel you’re not making a difference with, stick with them. Don’t give up on them even when they’re giving you good cause to because they may just surprise you. Keep believing they can succeed. Keep believing that they will turn things around. Be ready, with your foot jammed in the door, to be let in because you can and you do make all the difference. Keep doing what you’re doing, and I know it’s tough, because you know that they won’t get a second chance at this and you won’t get a second chance with them.