I was reading a review of Hitchcock’s Psycho in a 1960 film magazine. In it, the reviewer Peter Baker recommended that Mr Hitchcock “should stick to the things he knows about, and can do so well”. Along with the fictional Mr Birling’s ‘the Titanic will never sink’ and Alan Hansen’s declaration that ‘you never win anything with kids’, this goes down as a reminder to us all about how our predictions can come back and haunt us, teaching us how wonderful it would be to have the benefit of hindsight in order to rectify them, or even have the opportunity to erase them from history and memory.
This got me thinking about predictions. We’re all making them again. You’ve probably gone back to your schools and mulled over the summers’ GCSE results in department meetings: your head in your hands because Jackson didn’t get his C grade despite your weekly revision sessions; despite your finely tuned lesson plans which spelled out that question’s assessment objectives in bold type on a PowerPoint with a pastel coloured background; despite your daily reminders about how he could equally fine tune his PEEZL skills in order to make the most of the ten minutes he has to answer the question; despite the weekly calls home to parents to update them on his progress and how the ten lines he’d written in the lesson that day (you did give him seven minutes to write them after all) were simply not going to cut the mustard when an examiner gets up at 5.00 in the morning to mark it on screen; despite his weekly meetings with his SLT mentor and constant RAGGING (red/amber/green; are you on target this week? Why not? What can we do about it); despite the gentle pat on the back, the stroking of the ego, the “I’ll put all the lessons on–line so you can go back and see what we’ve done” reminders; despite the last-minute, morning-of-the-exam-it’s-eight o’clock-and-I-should-be-giving-you-fruit-but-hey-here’s-a-chocolate shortbread (just do your best) moments. Despite all this, he gets a D. It’s there in RED; you predicted a C; it’s D. Everyone looks at you because you’ve got one more red square than they have. The red blotch grows and grows until it fills your vision (like the screen in Marnie). You’re inept; you’ve forgotten how to teach; you put stones in your shoes and walk the four miles home in them, beating your forehead and chanting “I must do better” as you pass other teachers on their way home from school, the top down on their convertibles as the strains of “we are the champions” booms out of their quadrophonic stereo systems.
(What you don’t know is that (a) Jackson’s mum subscribed to Netflix and he spent half of May and June binge-watching Daredevil with a crate of Pepsi Max that kept him up half the night and (b) he’d grown a beard, realised he could get served in the pub and spent most evenings there (before watching Daredevil) working with his older brother on designing a new app which can help lawn-lovers to identify which dog in their neighbourhood has pooped on their garden by taking pictures of the said faeces and scanning it against a keenly worked out algorithm.)
On the other hand, you might have been given a sheet on which your predictions were recorded for everyone to see, your accuracy rate stymied because some kids had the temerity to ace the exam, getting Bs instead of Cs. (Note to self: don’t teach them so well next time).
And now you have to do it all again.
Except you can’t because everyone’s asking for numbers instead of letters and no-one has really worked this out yet – although there is someone with a clipboard who walks down the corridor every now and then who looks as if they might know. You ask him. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I’ve given you a flight path.”
Cue hula music and a hazy image of a golden beach; Elvis in Acapulco; tequilas beneath a salmon-pink parasol.
No, not that flight-path – this the one that works out where a pupil should be at the end of each month of their secondary school life from Year 7 to Year 11 and against which all your data will be judged.
Oh, that flight path.
The first page of results from a Google of ‘pupil flight paths’ already reveals the manic enthusiasm of the converted. “Flight paths sound great”, “trajectories which pupils need to perform to if they are to meet KS4 targets”; “did you know that you can provide a flight path for students” (this from Capita); “they must give pupils the opportunity to make great progress”; “they make it easy to identify; they put data in the hands of students”; “our students are assigned an initial flight path in year 7. Etc. etc. Seminars for the willing and the dazed and the bemused assembled in large halls; at the front a young man (he had a flight path, I’ll bet) with an open necked shirt, mic’d up, his youthful image beamed out from an oversize screen to his right, preaches the mantra, the emissary from some off-shore company who’ve managed to secure the rights to flight-path programmes for Year 7s across the world. I am reminded of Donnie Darko and we know how that worked out.
This got me thinking about my own flight path. Left school at 16 with a handful of O levels; went into the building trade; did an English degree in my mid-twenties (stick to what you’re good at Mr Hanson); stumbled into teaching; ditto Head of English and assistant head-teacher; gave it all up (well, mostly) to do a PhD. As far as flight-paths go, mine has a lot of turbulence and more than a few nose-dives. The truth is my life path has hardly been linear and I think that if I were a pupil in school today my name would top every ‘target red-alert’ chart there is. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left school and maybe I still don’t. I decided to do my degree in the mid-1990s (I had a mortgage, a full-time job – lots of raised eyebrows) – several people asked me if I knew what I was doing; others questioned the economics of it (“will you ever get back the money you lose from quitting your job?”). I remember talking to a friend about it. I asked him whether he thought it was the right thing to do; I told him I regretted not following the academic path when I had left school.
He just replied: “Maybe it wasn’t your time, Lance.”
That little throwaway has stayed with me ever since.
When I joined the teaching profession (I was almost thirty), I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do. I felt that I had joined an endless race and that I was already several laps behind everyone else. Almost seven or eight years older than others joining the profession, I needed to catch up and catch up quickly. I threw myself into the work, long hours (you all know what I mean) and the neglect of everything rational and life affirming. Once, a colleague asked me what motivated me: I said that I needed to catch up. By then, I had been teaching for five years and I was a Head of English. They said: “Don’t you think you’ve caught up now?”
The truth is? Not really.
I’m not sure how much of my manic determination is my personality or whether it’s my lack of a flight path. The secondary school I attended had no interest in me failing; I joined the school as a clever clogs and it all went down hill from there. Would a flight plan have helped me? Maybe it would have; maybe it would have given my adolescent backside the kick it needed (I doubt it though – I can claim extenuating circumstances that cannot be published on a public forum!)
Now, as a teacher, I deal daily with students whose anxieties are fed not only by the chemical imbalances in their adolescent bodies, or the synaptic misfiring in their amygdala cortex but they’ve also got flight paths to deal with. They need to be here by then or else face the fact that the rest of their lives will end up in the soup. But don’t worry, we can deal with their anxieties later – put them on a series of CBT sessions and ask them to write down their problems every night (therein the patient must administer to himself) – if they can overcome the additional anxiety that this creates of course.
So the student who comes to you who isn’t a C grade, whose flight path predicts that they won’t reach college but will crash into the coast somewhere off Apprentice Island; and they wanted to be a doctor or a dentist or a scientist and now they have no chance because the flight path was wrong – it didn’t factor in those little problems called life. And they ask you: “what am I going to do?”
You stroke your beard, run your fingers through your gradually thinning hair and for a moment you’re stuck. Then those words from twenty years ago come back to you.
“Maybe it’s not your time yet.” And you tell them not to worry; that there will be time. Maybe not this time. But some time.