The Shortcomings of Schools in Teaching Life Lessons

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 9: Thinking Different

In the “good old days” of teaching, British schools believed in striking their pupils for misbehavior, in learning by rote and in the Three Rs: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.[^It’s somewhat ironic that modern teaching methods concentrate on a phonetic approach to early-years English, given that the second & third Rs inaccurately undermined the very foundations of learn-by-rote. These tools were the cornerstone of future success for generations of schoolchildren.]

There are two competing philosophies on the future of education: some argue that a return to basics is the only way, based on the incontrovertible fact that civilisation has survived on that basis, and continues to exist just fine thanks-very-much. Others insist that the old ways are outmoded and the future is systems-based. But both lines of thinking are short-termist, overlooking the fundamental reason standardised education exists: as a preparation for work.

Equipping children with the right skills for the future has always been a major shortcoming of British schools. Examining a child’s accomplishments and strengths may put the right ticks in the boxes, but the real world is not like school at all, especially during the often-bewildering early stages of employment.

It puzzles me that no-one seems to care. One popular explanation is that a recruit’s potential matters more than having some (or any) basic knowledge of the industry. In this model, an examination certificate is an evidence only that a child has the skills to pass an examination. It shows they have a capacity to learn, but not that they are any good at the job they’re applying for – it’s a foot-in-the-door.

A child’s near future is easy: many children want to emulate their parents or are afforded the opportunity and support necessary to branch out towards something new. I wanted to make my Dad happy by interviewing at either The Post Office or British Telecom (the UK’s primary phone provider, privatised from the Post Office.) I failed. I also failed at a local HVAC company. I failed at the local sewage works too. (I drive past the latter every working day and make my own daily, albeit indirect, contribution towards its continued existence and future employment opportunities.)

Following Dad into delivering post or telecommunications wasn’t what I really wanted to do; I wanted to design machines. Thirty-something years later that’s what still spreads my toes. But the school didn’t prepare me for a career in mechanical engineering – I did that myself. It happened by default more than design; I picked subjects that interested me and worked as hard as I could to do well in them. An obvious career as a draughtsman beckoned, despite my school’s insistence that I drop technical drawing.

Surely things have changed in the intervening decades? Perhaps, however, no-one I’ve spoken with has given me hope that a school’s career advice ever leads to anything but a ticked box.

The “other” Three Rs – Redundancy (laying off), Resignation and Retirement – were not on the curriculum during my school days but that at least is easy to understand. Talking about failure isn’t easy for career teachers; how do they describe a company’s lack of sustainability, about the associated dissatisfaction with a job or a career choice, about needing to plan for that point 50 years on when you’re too tired, unwell or disaffected with work to carry on? Even if they succeeded in doing so, there’s no way to measure how effectively a child has absorbed the knowledge until a time outside the school’s control, so why bother?

I have experienced both redundancy and resignation; I hope one day to see retirement beckoning benignly, with any luck in a manner most unlike (and way before) that of the gentleman with the black hooded robes and the scythe.

Talking about failure isn’t easy for career teachers; how do they describe a company’s lack of sustainability, about the associated dissatisfaction with a job or a career choice?

Redundancy

Luckily for me, the experience of redundancy was an easy one. A quick meeting, followed by a stunned silence at my desk as I processed simultaneously the news that I was out of a job, but that they expected me to be able to function as I had before until I’d worked my notice period. Then, a phone call and an instruction to return upstairs; they’d made a mistake and I had to leave that day. Looking back I’m impressed that the company believed the lawyers who’d thought it possible that I could inflict damage if allowed to stay.

I made a phone call to an ex-colleague who put me through to his boss, with whom I’d worked a few years earlier. Then followed an informal interview, a real interview, and a subsequent job on the other side of town – with my old firm’s competitor. Satisfying.

I became, in my mind, a perfect fit for the company from about the third month onwards and, despite 2 rounds of compulsory redundancies and a firm conviction I’d be the obvious choice to let go, stayed until…

Resignation

…A a few years later, when I was offered loads of money to leave that job and return to my former employer. With the responsibility of a young daughter and faced with money worries, my decision was easy. I approached my boss with a resignation letter. He in-turn approached his boss with my letter and we had a meeting. I wanted to work a notice period but was asked when I’d like to leave. I said I’d LIKE to leave that Friday with full pay for the month, obviously (laugh, wink) but would work my notice to ensure I’d get the money and I could hand my work over in an orderly fashion.

A letter arrived on my desk later that day – I was to leave on Friday, paid until that Friday. Call me naive if you wish, but my first response was to query the “obvious mistake” with Payroll and Human Resources – surely they’d messed up? No. My humorous remark had been taken literally and acted upon accordingly. So I left with no fanfare, no fond memories of my boss’s boss, but a hope that the future would be brighter and that my contribution in my new role would be pivotal.

Two weeks on and my new job was a waking nightmare – which I endured for 2 years.
I discovered later that I should have simply asked my employer to match the competition’s offer. I’d probably have got it, or at least a financial sweetener. An obvious strategy? Now, yes – then, no.

Resignation again

My resentment towards the top management’s dictatorial style was open by the time I got an offer to return to the across-town competition. The day I submitted my resignation letter the sarcastic comments and refusal to acknowledge the hard work I’d put invalidated my decision to leave. As luck would have it, I wasn’t required to work the next day. Again no fanfare, again no fond memories.

I’ve never had a career, never had a plan. I have a job; A job I was incredibly lucky to fall into, a job I love.
I’ve spoken over the years to a great many people about their careers. Most people have a responsibility – whether career or personal – thrust at them and adopt strategies to keep their heads above water. A small percentage – the risk-takers- relish a life lived at the edge of sustainability. Somewhere between lies the most influential group – those who adopt a philosophy of ‘I am my own business, to be sold to the highest bidder’ – team players only when they wish to be.

Retirement

I’m not ready to retire yet. A lottery win would help of course, but there’s the small matter of a mortgage and car loans and the monthly credit card and utility bills and…

At the end of a working life one’s pace must, by necessity, shift from that of employment to a more sedentary, reflective existence. The temptation to examine the successes and failures of one’s past and pass them on to younger colleagues becomes extraordinarily attractive.

A reputation of an elder statesperson isn’t easily earned; It takes an entire lifetime. Yet some retirees seem to assume the position with alacrity. Succession planning strategies – where actually present and not just talked about – ably reinforce egoes, but at what cost?

“Sit with me young ’un, I’ll show you what I know. There won’t be enough time but I’ll give it my best shot. If this lot had given me enough time… In the good old days, before the current regime took control, life was rosy. We worked hard, got fantastic yearly pay rises, in short life was great. The current owners, what do they know? Your pay’s rubbish so I’d advise you to do what I did – find the highest bidder, go work for them. You’re young, you’ve got your life ahead of you, make the most of it.”

Will you be this person when the time comes? Will you distill your life’s work into a bitter pill for others to swallow and choke on as they try to find their own path in this confusing, disorienting world?

Equipping our youngsters to deal with life’s challenges more ably may be an impossible quest. Perhaps the quantum effects of every decision made, every random event render such efforts futile against the ensuing chaos that we call life. Maybe the easier, more rational choice is to focus on the short-term; To bestow as much “knowledge” upon our children and hope they’ll figure out the rest, as generations have before them.

But I can’t help but reflect on the first day of school and the last day of work – both important, both definitive. Why not, in addition to a cursory examination of the beginning, teach a little of the end?