As a profession that invests a serious amount of emotion into our job I think highs and lows are a daily experience. I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to date to have many personal highs, but one stands out for me.
In my first year of teaching at my current school I took over coaching the 1st XV in rugby. The young men in my squad had not spent the summer preparing, instead they had enjoyed a number of the many festivals that are on offer. They came back unfit and out of shape to cope with the demands of a full season of rugby. On top of that they had a new coach, who did not know them and wanted them to play in a style of rugby that they were unaccustomed to. Needless to say as a group with had a disastrous season winning one game from fifteen. At the end of the season, my colleagues placed a mock P45 in my pigeonhole.
One young man in Year 13, named George, who experienced that awful season with me had even a worse year. Firstly he missed the only game we won for a university open day. Secondly his personal life was so very chaotic he failed academically and missed out on his preferred choice of university. He was given the opportunity to repeat the year which after much soul searching he took.
The next year George was by himself as a ‘Year 14’. He came to play rugby for the school and once again we had a difficult season. This time we won 3 from 15 games, which for me was quite an improvement. I felt touring would help raise the standard of rugby and had already set in motion the paperwork require to take 48 young men to New Zealand for 3 weeks rugby touring in the following summer. During this season he talked about ‘giving up’ not because he didn’t enjoy his rugby anymore, but the constant losing in all aspects of his life were too difficult. He found it very difficult to cope with that from rugby and stay motivated. We had many conversations about the real meaning of failure, which required you giving up and walking away. We came to the solution that he would take a month break from rugby, but would come back afterwards. However this coincided with our 3 wins.
George came back to rugby and preserved. He also had a part time job and fundraised enough money to come with us to New Zealand. I’m glad he came, he was the father figure at 19 to some of the 16 year old boys and gave them some wonderful advice and support. We had 6 games and we lost the first 5. In the final game of the tour George scored the winning try to win his first game of school rugby in 31 fixtures. I managed to capture a picture of the moment, George in full flight, big smile on his face, knowing he had just won the game. He celebrated with the rest of the team.
George got his grades he required and went to study mathematics at Birmingham. He gave up rugby and started playing American Football. He was so good he got England trials in his first year of playing but didn’t make the squad. This happened again in his 2nd year. He got called to trials in his third year and we spoke on the phone and said he wasn’t going to go. I found the picture of him scoring that try in New Zealand and sent it to him in the post with the immortal words of Rocky Balboa: ‘The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place. It will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is going to hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you’re hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!‘ Pretty macho I know, but I’m sure George knew what I meant due to the many conversations we had over the years.
A few months later I received a parcel back. It was from George and was his England Jersey. With it was a note that said simply ‘thank you for being a teacher’.
Most of us get to see the highs and lows of our teaching everyday in school. What we don’t get to see is those many potential highlights that could be attributed to what we say and what we do, in our students many years after they have left. I’ve been lucky enough to share in one of those highlights. To misquote Maximus Decimus Meridius in the film Gladiator ‘what we do in the classroom, echoes in life.’ What we say and what we do may have significance later on in their life, and it is with that thought that I keep teaching.