Lessons from my own youthful academic demise

From the Welsh newspaper Western Mail http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/news/wales-news/2007/11/22/lessons-from-my-own-youthful-academic-demise-91466-20142481/.

At the end of his first term as head of Atlantic College, Neil Richards ponders what education should be

I was an extremely poor student. I state this with no sense of pride, nor with any pretence of humility. I offer it merely as an observation concerning what should have been, arguably, the most important period of my life.

In my case that long ago universe divided without any fuss, allowing my untapped potential to slide away and disappear down the back of the sofa.

My one saving grace during this time was a natural talent on the rugby field.

My schooldays passed in a haze of complacency. I failed to gain any sense of wonder about the world beyond the confines of my native mining valley or the limits of the dead ball line.

That I played no small part in my own academic demise I do not doubt. And so, along with politicians and other guardians of the public virtue, I suppose I could be tempted to pour scorn and heap blame upon the teaching profession in general, and upon my own teachers in particular. Except that I am one – a teacher, that is.

I am not the least bit surprised that I processed in stately, unconcerned fashion through my formative years: state education was, and arguably still is, about being processed. Unfortunately, it was not my lot to salivate at the thought of a quadratic equation, nor be seduced by Nuffield Science; I struggled enough to be understood in my own language without learning how to find the butchers shop in Rouen, or to buy a train ticket in Frankfurt.

I was neither inspired nor inspiring to others, especially not to my teachers. I was marooned by the tides of my own indifference, in what seemed to be a vast sea of banality.

But this, too, should not come as any great surprise. State schools were originally engineered to create compliance and conformity. State education is, after all, about creating good citizens of at least some minimal economic value to society – although some fortunate individuals may find the necessary self-motivation, or else have a sufficiently strong survival instinct to apply themselves a little more energetically to the task in hand.

Unfortunately, when society begins to crack at the seams, it is usual to flail around for someone to blame, and education in general, and teachers in particular, tend to be the easy target.

Yet when teachers are totally incarcerated in a government-sponsored curriculum which is designed to be “teacher-proof ” , and then bullied by results and league tables, such criticism seems almost perverse.

I obtained my first teaching post overseas, and never looked back, other than to wonder, and certainly not before time, at the incredible patience of my own teachers. But I have also become increasingly dismayed at the rapid erosion of respect for my chosen profession.

My career has become rooted in anger – anger because our schools were created to fulfil the needs of an industrial world and an industrial society that no longer exists and, as our economic and social systems redefine themselves, our school systems atrophy and lag behind. Yet politicians seem obsessed with “standards” , as if the social health of a country could truly be measured along sliding examination scales. To suggest that positive social development will occur as a result of enhanced test scores is surely too great a leap of the imagination, yet much government policy on education seems to be predicated upon just this absurd idea.

The way in which we now hamstring teachers and train children to jump through hoops, it should not be too long before the majority of our children achieve A grades, and perhaps only then will the bankruptcy of effective educational policy become apparent.

Humans cannot help but learn – it is actually what we do best – therefore lessons devoid of relevance, or opportunity for authentic dialogue, will still leave a lasting impression, and help to shape attitudes for life.

Education is an emotional experience; at its heart it is about humanity itself, and it is rooted in the emotional dialogue between an adult – a mentor – and a student. In Japan the word “sensei” is still loaded with significance, as is the word “guru” in India. In Egypt there is a saying that the “the teacher is a prophet” ; there is a sense in many non-Western cultures that education has much to do with wisdom, and leading a good life.

By contrast, in the West, the word “wisdom” has fallen out of fashion, and we seem to take great cynical delight in observing that “those who can’t, teach”.

I have had the great good fortune to be appointed as principal of the United World College of the Atlantic, or Atlantic College as it is more familiarly known. I returned to my homeland of Wales, and to me at least, the most inspiring and possibly most awe-inspiring of all international schools.

Students from around the world are selected for Atlantic College on the basis of merit, regardless of their background, and around 350 students come from more than 75 countries to work, debate and serve together as they embark upon an International Baccalaureate Diploma.

It is not the formal academic programme, however, that makes this place special, rather it is the emphasis placed upon community service and action, which dominates the daily routine and lives of the students. Yet it is not just this, somehow this authentic experience is magnified in some wonderful sense by the bonding of different cultures and nationals in service to others. Through authentic service, a deeper understanding and appreciation is developed, which allows these students to fully open up to each other, and to learn from each other.

Are Atlantic College students exceptionally gifted? Certainly they must be capable of accessing the academic curriculum, but the reality is that it is the openness of these young people, the willingness to share their lives, which makes them special. And this is why they are eagerly sought by some of the best universities around the world.

It is not the academic programme that makes them special, or makes an Atlantic College education so different, it is the human context in which the programme is delivered – not the coastline, not the castle, not the syllabuses nor the grades, but by being embedded in the community and in service to others. It is the voices of students like Ruth Acevedo Cruses from Peru, who explained how she has been working selling soda since the age of six, and how she applied to get a scholarship to come to Atlantic College. “I really wanted to be here, it was more than a dream, it was a challenge,” she said.

The education of our young people has to be a messy, emotional undertaking. It is about choices and opportunities, but, above all else, it must be about compassion.

Students take to streets in aid of Burma
Students from Atlantic College collected 4,000 signatures for a petition calling for an end to human rights abuse in Burma during an event in Cardiff.

More than 140 students performed street theatre in the city centre to raise awareness of global human rights issues.

They marched from Cardiff Central Station to Queen Street, dressed as monks in red and orange costumes.

“Their aim was to raise awareness and collect signatures to protest against recent atrocities in Burma,’’ a school spokeswoman said.

Atlantic College student and organiser of the street theatre event, Izzat Shamroukh (CORR), a refugee from Palestine, said, “Organising 140 students took a lot of work but it all went well and we created a lot of awareness about the situation in Burma. The big news is we collected more than 4,000 signatures on our petitions which we will be sending, via Amnesty International, to the Burmese Foreign Minister.’’

Many of Atlantic College’s students have witnessed human rights abuses in their own countries and global awareness is a key part of the curriculum.

– United World College Student Magazine –


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