One of my biggest hang-ups in my career to date is to do with qualifications and particularly those achieved formally, so through school or university. When I say hang-up I am referring to whether the quality of your qualifications will affect your future prospects.
Okay, so quite obviously I have hit a bump here, for instance, it’s highly unlikely that you would let a doctor anywhere near you if you knew that they didn’t have any qualifications in medicine. However, pieces of paper achieved from completing a course or a degree tells you and (significantly) the world that you are ‘successful’ in X,Y and Z. Qualifications also help build a bridge to where you might want to go, whether that be university or a job, and they perhaps tell us a little bit more about what you might want to be. They provide legitimacy to what you do.
This has become particularly apparent for me at this point in my life where I am re-evaluating my career. I know that I have reached an impasse with teaching and I am looking at what I want to move into next. Teaching has certainly provided me with a tremendous amount of skills and experiences and for me now it’s about recognising what these are and refining them for other potential career paths. However, there is a part of me that quickly becomes stuck when I consider the issue of qualifications and particularly my own.
I wasn’t the most focused of students whilst at school, preferring to play sports and hanging out with friends than knuckle down to study. I was also hopeless with revision. I had heaps of notes that I assumed simply through re-reading I would retain the information through a process akin to osmosis, which I would then recall. It turns out, your memory needs a bit of extra help – who would have guessed?
So as results day came around on a sunny day in August when I was 18, rather than celebrating with my friends down at the local pub I was left crying in the school toilets. I was a cliche. I hadn’t completely bombed, but I wasn’t far off.
A whole manner of possible futures presented themselves to me at this point, which mostly swung between repeating my exams the following academic year or taking a year out to travel. However, with little in the form of savings behind me and a resounding ‘No!’ from my parents when I requested a loan, it looked like I was doing the former.
But there was a silver lining. Miraculously my first choice university actually accepted me. Perhaps the rest of my university application was strong enough to counterbalance the poor grades. Whatever the reason/s I am still grateful for whoever was behind this because over the next four years I completed my undergraduate degree and then went to graduate school. With the benefit of years of hindsight, I don’t believe that I would have achieved some of those things, particularly attending graduate school without that (what was to me an) epic fail back in school. It provided me with perhaps one of life’s hardest but best lessons: it’s okay to fail.
I have spent my career training or coercing students (whatever way you want to see it) into preparing for annual examinations, and over the years I have found myself increasingly frustrated and more so despondent at the demands of the seemingly mystical workings of examination boards. Further to this is the pressure placed on young people by the government, the media, parents and educators, including me to achieve those often lofty and possibly unachievable grades for some. Achieving an ‘A’ grade is more important than any possible enjoyment of the content of a subject.
When I hear educators (like my boss) tell students that examinations, particularly those taken between 16-18 years are the most important they will ever do, I genuinely want to scream. And that scream has gotten louder over the years. Opportunities don’t simply dry up and nor is it the end of the world if you do fail. Your path may take a different and possibly unexpected turn but failings don’t define you, they, in fact, become part of you. They make you stronger, more complex and imperfect – which is the best way to be.