Letting students surprise us: The power of being proven wrong

I think it’s really interesting how people can change over time. For example, I now really enjoy working in a school setting in a pastoral capacity, but I had a history of being disengaged at school. In primary school, social services had to get involved because I refused to go to school. In secondary school, I missed nearly half a year of lessons and had to sit in an isolation room whilst various adults tried to convince me to attend classes. During GCSEs I probably missed more than a third of each academic year. I was never really outwardly defiant or rude, but for whatever reasons (that admittedly may have run a little deeper than simply not liking school), I just didn’t want to be there. It wasn’t until I got to college that I felt like I started to become the student and person that I was capable of being.

Perhaps it was because of the fresh start of going to a new ‘school’. Perhaps it was because I had a chance to reinvent myself. Perhaps it was the chance for me to surprise the adults in my life. 

Who I was at age 6, screaming and kicking to get out of school. Who I was at 13, making my Mum’s life a nightmare by uncontrollably sobbing every time I had to go to school. Who I was at 15, thinking homework was a waste of time and that I just wasn’t getting anything out of school… was not who I was anymore. 

Perhaps the space afforded during the transition from school to college, and college to university, allowed me to become bit by bit, the person that I was.

Sometimes I feel that as teachers, we can get frozen in our ideas of who we think students are… ‘Johnny just does the bare minimum, he’s so lazy…’, ‘Katie is such a spoilt princess, she sulks whenever she doesn’t get her own way’.

At one point in time these perceptions may have been a true reflection of these students. But how someone acts at one point in time is not who they’ll always be. Let’s not forget the surge of hormones that children experience during their teenage years, which can literally turn some of them into monsters for a while!

Additionally, I think it is important for us as educators to recognise that we often see only one side of our students, when in fact they have many. We only see the side that turns up to our lessons. What we may not see is the side that turns up to the subjects and hobbies that students really enjoy or excel in. We don’t see the side that they share with their friends and family. Whatever their ‘best’ side might be, we might not get to see it. Our interactions with them, particularly if it is during a subject or activity they dislike or find difficult, may not be reflective of who they truly are.

The main contact that I have with students now is for either university guidance, or football coaching. Within these areas I often can get a gauge of the students that are motivated, or completely lost when it comes to deciding what they want to do next. At football, I can see which students have a natural aptitude for sports, and which simply enjoy playing and hanging out with their friends. What is one of the most refreshing things to me, is to be involved or to see students outside of a university guidance or sports-based capacity. Seeing students’ passion in MUN, seeing their teamwork skills in International Award, seeing their creativity in the arts – seeing a different side of students other than the one they often show up with in the capacity that I work with them in, is such an important thing for me.

One of my favourite things about working in education is seeing students’ characters develop and seeing who they become. There is nothing more satisfying to me than having my (negative) assumptions about a particular student proved wrong. 

The student who picked on their friends turns out to be a cheerleader for others. The student that never did their homework went on to be successful in their university studies. The student who hated school turned into someone that really enjoyed working in education.

People can change.

Everyone once in a while I have to check my own assumptions about people. People change, and I shouldn’t assume that I know who they are now because I taught or coached them one, two or five years ago. If we allow students, just maybe they’ll surprise us for the better.

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