What was your greatest achievement at school? What is your strongest memory from your school days?
Perhaps you were one of those people who succeeded academically and revelled in the day when you could walk to school to collect your exam results.
Or perhaps you weren’t.
During my schooldays, O-Level and A-Level exam results were posted on the floor-to-ceiling windows of the sports block; none of the current privacy of receiving your results in a sealed envelope to open in your own time and space. The entire list of ‘achievements’ were listed there for the whole world to see. As a predicted Grade ‘A’ student who somehow managed to fail her French ‘O’ Level, I can distinctly remember the horror of walking into a room where everyone was gossiping about the fact that the precocious linguist had failed!
Perhaps this crude means of reporting successes and failures is why I still have issues with seeing children’s grades written down on a chart. The humiliation of failure is still a very strong memory.
I managed to pass my exams eventually. There were many reasons why I ‘failed’, and not one of them was to do with capability. I never ‘attained’ in accordance with my ability but I was determined that I wanted to be a teacher, so I eventually settled down and grafted in order to achieve this goal. I don’t think I ever worked really hard until the day I had my own classroom and was finally ready to do myself justice because I finally felt I had a proper purpose in life.
However, even if you asked the most successful exam takers what was their greatest accolade or their strongest memory from school, I suspect their answer wouldn’t lie in their academic triumphs – for whilst GCSEs, O-Levels and A-Levels are extremely positive for those who were successful, they probably don’t hit that ‘joy’ button in the way that other aspects of school life did.
So what is the most likely response to that question? What is your strongest memory from school?
Of course, for many it is about the friendships that were made – the ones that felt so strong that you couldn’t envisage a time when you didn’t spend every day with a certain group of people.
Or perhaps it was about a sporting event that you took part in, or a school play, or a trip away from school.
In my somewhat limited research on the matter, the overwhelming response from most people has nothing to do with exams and absolutely everything to do with a time when they felt they could express themselves creatively or physically; when they were in their element. When asking the children that I taught what their memories of school are, almost all of them talk about the “singing assemblies” or the “Christmas celebration”. They talk about the end of term concerts and the all-important school journeys, as well as exciting trips to museums and walks around London.
And I still get a tingle of excitement and pleasure when I hear a 30 year old person who left my ‘in loco-parentis’ care two decades ago speak of such things with such enthusiasm.
In England it is end of term time; a weird sort of time when change is happening before our eyes and yet we can’t contemplate what that really means until September brings the yearly cycle back into focus. Throughout the country, there are children either performing their much-rehearsed concerts or are building up to that climactic end of the year in a few days.
Walk past any primary school in the first few weeks of July, and you are sure to hear the wonderful strains of young voices preparing to impress.
In the Education Guardian this week, there was a report from someone who remembered fondly her starring role as an Oompa Loompa in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.
Anyone who knows the story knows that the Oompa Loompa’s aren’t exactly the main characters but to this young woman, and to the family of that young woman, it was her starring role, and one that she remembers so fondly.
It doesn’t and didn’t matter whether she was playing Violet Beauregarde or Charlie’s Mum. She was in her element, up there on the stage, with her friends, enjoying their last few days together, celebrating friendship, celebrating entertainment, celebrating those hidden talents that hadn’t had an avenue for expression prior to this event.
I’m surprised there aren’t more comments on this piece as so many people have talked to me about similar experiences they have had, and in the main they are positive, though I appreciate it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Music, cooperation, performance and the adrenalin rush of ‘natural highs’ that you get from being involved in such productions is not just a trick of memory. Seeing children buzzing immediately after the applause that they have received is an absolute joy to experience. Seeing certain children becoming themselves – sometimes for the first time in seven years – is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a teacher, and indeed a performer.
One of my strongest memories is of standing on a stage (not a natural place for me) and enthusiastically singing “Hello Young Lovers” as part of my role as Anna in “The King and I”. As I wandered across the stage, I could see the front line of the audience and saw my deputy head teacher wiping a tear away from his eyes. Although I don’t know for sure whether it was the effect of my high notes that created this mini cascade or a genuine ‘lump in the throat’ moment, I suspect it was the latter. Perhaps he was moved by my performance. Perhaps he was remembering the time when he was on the same stage a few years prior to this playing Professor Higgins to my sister’s Eliza Dolittle, but something stirred him enough to feel something from what he saw.
Another memory is from the teaching perspective. A group of boys in Year Five had continuously been in trouble; nothing serious, nothing violent but they weren’t exactly behaving themselves. In a slightly tongue-in-cheek moment, I asked them and their parents if they would consider singing a song for me in the Christmas concert. They had to come and meet with me regularly beforehand and learn the song by heart.
The four of them wandered onto the stage with some nervous teachers wondering whether they would pull this off. I started up the piano, introduced them and off they went.
I’m gettin’ nuttin’ for Christmas
Mommy and Daddy are mad.
I’m gettin’ nuttin’ for Christmas
‘Cause I ain’t been nuttin’ but bad.
The audience response was overwhelming. For many months, these children had been treated like the scourge of our school society, and whilst I wouldn’t advocate doing this sort of thing unless you were absolutely sure of what you were doing, these kids instantly responded and loved the joke that they were involved in.
I’m not saying they were little angels for the rest of their time in school but giving them this opportunity certainly helped in subsequent discussions with them about their behaviour, their attitude and a reminder at what could happen when people gave them a chance for a change.
More than anything though, my most poignant memory of these performances are of the collegiality it brought. Sitting in a room with over four hundred people joining together in an impromptu (ish) singalong, with parents, carers, families, staff and pupils all sharing a moment of togetherness is indeed a very humbling experience, especially when you have been partly responsible for making it happen.
Giving really is the very best way to receive your own natural high.
The end of year productions and the school journeys take an incredible amount of time to plan and prepare for but the reward is there for a lifetime.
This is the sort of learning experience that we want for all children all of the time. At 3Di, we query the idea of ‘happiness lessons’. Being in a continuous state of happiness is not natural, however naturally it has been induced, but children and young people are certainly entitled to an educational experience that enthrals and excites them beyond the end of year production and the school journey.
As a teacher and as a pupil, I have experienced these moments. I’ve also experienced moments in maths lessons when I have finally got it (thanks Mr A) or in a conversation with my wonderful English teacher when he would spend that extra amount of time with me to try and drag my latent ability out of me (thanks another Mr A). I’ve experienced the times when a child suddenly learns to read for the first time or finally appreciates that they are good at story-telling even though they can’t write the words down.
Our greatest role as educators is to facilitate the enjoyment of learning and bring forth a lifetime of learning. What we see and what we do in these moments of our strongest school memories should be something that we hold close to us as we help our next generation experience the very best of what is on offer.