What makes one child work hard at school while another doesn’t? I decided to ask my students themselves what they thought. Most of the 25 kids in my class were from poor families. Very few were white or middle-class. But I didn’t expect their answers to differ greatly from what any child would have said.
I constructed a list of all the things I could think of that might make them spend longer on their homework. Was it: To avoid detentions/getting into trouble; to please your parents; because you love the subject; to impress your teachers; to get good exam results and go to a good university; because it will lead to a good job; or to do better than your friends?
I suspected the biggest lever would be detentions, which are freely dispensed at the inner-London academy school where I teach.
My students spend more time on their homework today because they believe it will one day make them rich — or stop them from being poor
Before I became a teacher, I was a columnist on the Financial Times for 23 years. I was in my late 50s when I decided to leave my high-paying job
This turned out to be true only of my most disengaged students, and even then fear came from home rather than school. ‘I work or I get yelled at by parents,’ one of them explained.
Instead, the biggest motivator turned out to be one that would not have occurred to me as a teenager in a million years: money.
My students spend more time on their homework today because they believe it will one day make them rich — or stop them from being poor.
‘I work so I can provide for my family when I’m grown up,’ one student wrote. Others said: ‘So I can have a big house’; ‘I wanna earn loadz of money’, and, most tragically: ‘I don’t want to be homeless in the future.’
I felt sad that the kids thought intellectual effort was only worthwhile if it might lead to money one day — but then I felt ashamed of my response. The reason it never occurred to me as a teenager that there was a link between effort and future riches was because my parents never suggested as much. They were never poor, so the chances of my becoming so were minuscule.
Before I became a teacher, I was a columnist on the Financial Times for 23 years. I was in my late 50s when I decided to leave my high-paying job to try doing something more useful.
By then, I had spent the best part of six decades associating exclusively with people who were just like me, only more so. My friends were mainly Oxbridge, almost all middle-class, and all white save two or three.
Never did it occur to me that everyone in my remit thought more or less the same things. I lived in a bubble which from the inside seemed stimulating and capacious, but which now strikes me as tiny.
Very slowly, the penny is dropping. At work now I’m in a minority on almost everything: class, outlook, income, age and, most obviously, ethnicity.
The people I meet have different views to mine, as a result of their very different experiences of life so far. In my new world, I’m an innocent and a know-nothing who is stumbling about clumsily.
Back in the Seventies, my own attitude to school left much to be desired. The night before my English A-level, I came crashing home late and very drunk.
My Mum, who was an English teacher at my school, didn’t tell me off. In fact, she had encouraged me to go out.
In August 1977, a brown envelope dropped through the door telling me that I’d got a C in my English A-level, a B in maths and an O-level pass in French. Dad gave me a hug and said everything would be all right. Neither of my parents said the obvious thing: It serves you right for not working.
What interests me now is that they didn’t do anything to prevent the car crash that was bound to happen. They never gave me nagging speeches about how it mattered to get good grades. Mum never once told me to do my homework — or asked what it was or whether she could help.
I skulked in my bedroom at the top of the house, smoking and listening to Neil Young and Patti Smith. Sometimes I would sit at my desk doing a little light work, but mainly I would play obsessive games of Patience.
Both Mum and Dad had a horror of pushy parenting. The point of school, in Mum’s view, was that children should be happy, as only then would they be able to learn.
I don’t think Mum noticed this theory was being disproved right under her nose by her middle child.
I was happy at Camden School for Girls but I emerged with poor exam grades, eccentric spelling and knowing nothing at all. Instead, what I acquired was a veneer of coolness and the idea that breaking rules was good if it made you seem different.
Progressives like my parents would have denied that education was about knowing things. They would have said it was more about skills, about learning how to think, and, most importantly, learning how to think originally.
I would have accepted this myself until I started teaching. I now see that originality is not much use if you don’t know the basics.
There was another reason my parents shrugged off my A-level results: they knew I still had a chance of getting into Oxford.
Back then, the university had its own exams which were less about memorising facts and more about spotting potential.
I can’t have done very well as my first-choice college turned me down. Then Lady Margaret Hall, where Mum had got a starred first, and where my sister Kate had a scholarship, said it would interview me.
The college had clearly thought that this latest Kellaway looks a dud on paper but maybe we should check, just to make sure.
And so, on a minimum of work and dire A-level results, I got into one of the best universities in the world — in part thanks to the old-girl network. This stroke of good fortune changed my life.
There was another reason my parents shrugged off my A-level results: they knew I still had a chance of getting into Oxford
Progressives like my parents would have denied that education was about knowing things. They would have said it was more about skills, about learning how to think, and, most importantly, learning how to think originally
The Oxbridge badge opened doors to smart jobs, but an even bigger prize was the change inside my head. For eight hours a day, five days a week, for three years, all I did at university was work.
At first, I worked to prove that I could. But as I sat there slogging, I found that I was actually interested in what I was studying. I had transformed myself from idler to swot.
But my new life in a Hackney comprehensive has made me see my school days from a different angle. The ‘just-be-happy-darling’ school of education was a luxury for the middle classes — and even then it didn’t always work.
My own children, I thought, would do better. So when my son Arty got a place at the City of London school, I was jubilant. Then, in 2007, I went to a parents’ evening and was told he was doing badly in all subjects — and what was needed was a system at home with strategies to ensure good working habits.
My ‘system’ was to come home from work, tired, to find he had done nothing. Here are some of the ‘strategies’ I deployed.
I tried to reason; if he did no work, he would get bad grades and his life would be harder. I tried to help, which ended up in shouting.
I bribed: if you do all your homework, I’ll let you play Call Of Duty.
I shouted more. I went into denial and left him alone, hoping for the best. I confiscated Game Boys and laptops. Lowest of all, I used emotional blackmail.
Sometimes I would yell: ‘I am working really hard giving speeches to make extra money to pay for this school so that you can do NOTHING!’
At AS-level, Arty did badly in everything. He says now that he didn’t believe any of my warnings that he was ruining his life chances. His existence seemed so comfortable, it was impossible for his adolescent brain to imagine that it might stop being so.
On A-levels results day, he went to school while I sat staring at my phone. By lunchtime the message came: ‘I’ll pay you back the money I owe you.’
I read this and cried, out of shame. How could I have made him feel guilty about the cost of private school, when the decision to send him there was mine?
That autumn, Art got a job in a Chinese takeaway in the next street from our house. This was where his education began.
Within a month, he had acquired more motivation than in seven years at one of the country’s finest private schools. He’d made friends with some of the chefs, who were on minimum wage and were failing to support their families. He decided then that he’d better get some qualifications after all.
Meanwhile, I’d found that he could go to Nottingham to do engineering with his Cs in maths and physics so long as he did a foundation year.
Just as I’d done, Arty buckled down, emerging five years later with a first-class MEng in electrical and electronic engineering.
His reasoning was the same as mine: he worked because he hated wearing the badge of academic failure. He’d also given himself a monumental fright and was not going to let that happen again.
The moral of his story is similar to mine. He got away with it, partly because he had middle-class parents who found a way.
He could afford to fail, because he had a safety net.
Teachers change lives. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this trite phrase, but every time I do, I wince. After four years of teaching, the lives I’ve changed so far can be counted on one finger — and that student was a bright but lazy boy in Year 9.
One day, I mentioned in passing how much investment bankers earned, and at the end of the lesson Jaward asked how he could become one.
I told him that he didn’t have a hope unless he got top grades — and he had no hope of getting those unless he started working right now. The transformation was instant and lasting. This boy is no longer slightly below the middle of my class but is one of my top two performers.
Maybe when the history books are written on Jaward, the visionary financier, I will have played a bit part in changing his life because I accidentally planted a seed.
Even though I didn’t go into teaching to swell the bloated ranks of investment bankers, the day Jaward gets a job at Goldman Sachs I will dance a jig.
Yet I absolutely failed to change the lives of Jordan and Deniz, two boys from the bottom set who both left school at 16 without managing even the lowest pass grade.
I recently ran into the pair lurking in the churchyard close to my house, sitting on the tomb of someone who’d died 300 years earlier, drumming their heels into the side of it. I had taught these students for a year and left no mark on their lives.
Before I started teaching, I thought the best teachers were the ones who were incapable of dullness. I was determined that my lessons would be an entertaining spectacle with me going at full throttle, a cross between Miss Jean Brodie, Hector from The History Boys and my mum.
After switching from teaching maths — never a good fit — to economics, I would go through the motions of teaching the curriculum, straying at the smallest excuse.
One day, I went off on a long, impassioned rant about whether budget deficits matter. The discussion pinged to and fro between my six economics stars.
I was just congratulating myself on the quality of the lesson when a girl called Alicia stayed behind to talk to me.
She said she didn’t understand what we were talking about. Then she started to cry.
As the enormity of this landed, I felt like crying myself.
Sometimes I wonder how Miss Jean Brodie or my Mum would have fared with students like Alicia. Their pupils mostly just needed to be pointed in the right direction, whereas Alicia needed actual, skilful teaching of a sort I simply was not providing.
Since that day, I’ve realised the best way of helping Alicia is not to try to make economics a fun show; it is to get her to pass her exam. If it is a teacher’s job to open doors, those doors are GCSEs.
Changing lives turns out not to be about making instant transformations: it is about hard slog and tiny, incremental improvements. This realisation has changed my own life — or at least how I teach, and the sort of teacher I want to be.
At my school, there is no nonsense about happiness or creativity. If the kids do well in their GCSEs, they will leave this school, which has no Sixth Form, bound for somewhere decent to sit their A-levels.
A few will go on to great universities, and the world in all its gloriousness will beckon.
If they do badly, they will go to a college that admits teenagers who have already failed, with a high chance that they will be spat out two years later with no qualifications and the prospect of a life of delivering pizza from the back of a bicycle.
There are few second chances.
When I started teaching, I thought exams were a necessary evil. I still think that. I hate the way schools talk of them as if they are the purpose of education, when in fact they are merely (flawed) evidence that you’ve acquired some.
I despair at the way teachers spend as much time teaching exam technique as the subject itself. Yet despite this, I, too, am teaching the exam first and economics second.
There were two things in my mind when I decided to be a teacher. I suspected (rightly) that I would love showing off at the front of the class. I also suspected (rightly) that I would get pleasure from being useful.
What has changed is my understanding that the two are linked. I’ve discovered there is little fun in showing off for the sake of it; it only feels good if you know you are being useful, too.
One day, when I’m more experienced, I still hope I may be able to do both: to be rogue and exam stickler at the same time.
But for now, for all my students but especially for those who struggle most, I know the sort of teacher I need to become.
My prior attainment in this area is indisputably low, but I’m aiming to be the greatest exam stickler the world has ever seen.
n Adapted by Corinna Honan from Re-educated: How I Changed My Job, My Home, My Husband And My Hair, by Lucy Kellaway, published by Ebury on July 1 at £16.99. © Lucy Kellaway 2021. To order a copy for £15.12 (offer valid to June 26, 2021; UK p&p free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.
A baggy boiler suit? So cool, I thought
Since becoming a schoolteacher in my late 50s, I’ve been surrounded by young teachers — and I find I’m slowly drifting towards wearing what they do.
Almost everything I’ve bought in the last couple of years comes from eBay, and because hardly anything I buy costs more than a tenner, I can take risks.
Then one day, a bit over a year into my new life, I went into a clothes shops and spotted a baggy boiler suit made of chunky scarlet corduroy.
I took it to the changing room and got one of the assistants to take a picture which I posted on our family WhatsApp.
Presently my son Stan replied: So cool! haha. defs buy it.
I needed no further encouragement: I handed over £80 and skipped out of the shop.
My glee was slightly dented on the boiler suit’s first outing, when I wore it on a date with a man I’d met online. He seemed untroubled by my grey hair but drew the line at my outfit, which he said would be just the thing to wear to a Super Mario fancy- dress party.
I have banished this memory (as well as the man). All my life, I have dressed either to fit in or to look attractive or to look powerful. Looking back, I don’t think I ever managed to look any of these things particularly successfully, and so it is thrilling to discover that I’m no longer trying to look anything in particular.
These days, for the first time in six decades, I dress only to please myself.
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