This sounds like a personal reflection, not teaching-related, but I will get on to education, honest!
Recently I visited our rather lovely local Botanical Gardens and sat under a tree, gazing into the distance (yes, I had got many other things I was meant to be doing, but I didn’t feel like doing them…). For some reason, a whole lot of things from the past started popping into my head, accompanied by a load of “what if”s; it’s amazing how much emotional charge some of those things from the past carry, even if it’s 20 or 30 years ago. One thing that really jumped out at me – the things I’ve regretted the most have all been things I didn’t do, not those I did. Now don’t get me wrong – like most people, I’ve done my share of inadvisable things, and had quite a few ” I can’t believe I did/said that” moments, but whilst many of them were embarrassing or just plain stupid, and some had substantial consequences, they don’t attract the same lasting genuine sadness as the missed opportunities.
So how’s this relevant to education? Well, I think we often need to encourage our pupils to think explicitly in terms of what they’d regret more long term, rather than just making the “easier” decision now, and that often means being braver. To take a simple example – most of us have had a bust-up with a friend at some point, or just been out of contact for too long. It’s really hard to make the first move, isn’t it – we’re scared of rejection, we feel awkward… but a year (or five years) down the line, the embarrassment or hurt of rejection (if it happened) will have faded, but if we didn’t try, we are likely to regret it when we think of the person.
It’s true academically as well – if you always wanted to have a go at learning Russian, say, but you are worried that it might be too hard and decide to play it safe, that may well be a very sensible decision, but if it was something you felt really strongly about you may well regret it. Now being bold in these circumstances can come with consequences – if your passion to learn Russian is not coupled with reasonable linguistic ability, then the consequence may be a poor GCSE – but that may be worth it, if your other GCSEs are likely to be good. Or it may not – that depends on the individual. I’ve done something a bit like this myself – I did a Level 3 OU history module in its last presentation despite the fact I’d studied no arts modules at a lower level and hadn’t written an essay since school – I was nervous as hell and completely unconfident about how I’d do, but would never have forgiven myself if I’d missed out on it.
This comes up with university applications too. I am always torn on this. Almost every year, I talk to a pupil who says “I’ve always wanted to study for a degree in X at Y university, I love the course, it’s just perfect, and I’ve visited and thought it was fantastic at the Open Day, but I don’t have the right grades so far”. Of course, not all such “dreams” are well thought out – if the kid knows nothing about that university really but just thinks “it looks pretty”, then I’m likely to be a bit less sympathetic. But in many cases I’m really not sure whether I should be saying “No, there’s no point applying there, you don’t meet their criteria, it’s a wasted application” (even if put slightly more gently) or “Look, if that’s your dream place, and you’re always going to regret not trying if you don’t, then put it down”. In many cases I go for the latter, albeit counselling them that one “unrealistic dream” out of five choices is fair enough, but the others need to be sensible.
And it goes for jobs. How often do people not apply for jobs they’d love because they think they’ve no chance of getting them and don’t want the rejection? While I don’t think I’m too good generally on being brave, I’m not bad on this one – I’ve applied for seriously unrealistic jobs more than once (didn’t get’em), but don’t regret doing so in the least – if I hadn’t tried I’d be kicking myself to this day (much as I enjoy my current job).
In fact, I think it’s true for anything where opportunities won’t come again. I’ve had a somewhat unconventional career and there are some consequences of that, not least the fact my pension won’t be as high as that of many of my colleagues. But I don’t regret trying out the different things I’ve done – they weren’t all happy experiences, but I’ve learnt a lot from them and they were important in making me the person I am. I do, however, regret being far less adventurous when I was younger and not, for example, going travelling when I had no commitments, or spending my university holidays doing something more exciting than working for Kay’s Mail Order. I actually regret those far more than my stupid decision in 2000 to go for a Sunday morning walk in Shropshire in inadequate footwear which landed me in plaster for 3 months and with leg problems to this day!
This is also, of course, coming back to my hobby-horse topic of resilience – picking yourself up when things go wrong, moving on and hopefully learning from the experience. Being brave and seizing the opportunity requires resilience to back it up – but we acquire resilience through taking the risks. Let us try to help our pupils to be brave and to follow their dreams, rather than to be cautious and go for the safe option at all times, but also help them to cope and have back-up plans if things don’t go right.
Whilst there is a lot of talk in educational circles about encouraging risk-taking (and rightly so), to back it up we need more of a culture of flexibility and second chances – it is no good all of us going on about taking risks if the practicalities are that anything other than perfection first time is problematic.