Reflections of a teacher: Careers guidance

Kevin Hewitson

Kevin became a teacher in 1977 and has been head of department, key stage coordinator, and assistant principal. He now works as an educational consultant in a range of roles. Kevin is also an author of educational resources (you can find his new range of posters here), and runs a range of teaching and learning workshops including managing learning needs and his concept of “Learning Intelligence” or “LQ.”

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In the first part of this series, I described how through the 11+ system I was sent to a Secondary Modern school. The glass ceiling that it represented comes into play again as I discover my options in the 4th year (Y10). “Think like a learner” is a good maxim for those involved in teaching or guiding learners. Empathy could go a long way to reducing the trauma of school.

A meeting with the careers teacher in the 4th year (Y10) did not go well for me. That is a comment, an "I am pleased to see apprenticeships once again being promoted and acknowledged."observation, made with ‘hindsight’ but like many crossroads in life, you do not see the full extent of the landscape at the time. Time and experience gives you a sort of ‘helicopter vision’, allowing you to see where other roads may have led when you were at these important points in your life.

Disappointment and deafness

When you are told you cannot have something you were expecting to have, something you had thought you were working towards but is no longer an option, it is hard to take in. What you see at the time is the way ahead blocked, and what you wanted unavailable. You lose forward momentum. This puts you off your stride and you make poor decisions, you stop listening. Anyone who is in a position to advise or guide students (and I include parents here) must recognise this.

By dealing with disappointment, or what you see as delusion, in an abrupt way or without exhibiting empathy you are creating a form of deafness. You may think those you are working with are listening but they are not, they are in a sort of state of shock and deaf to what you are saying. This happened to me at age 15 when I met the careers teacher, and to one of my sons when he got his A level results. It happens a lot and how we deal with it affects us not only immediately but potentially for the rest of our lives.    

The day I met the careers teacher

I was full of hope and expectation on the day I met with my careers “teacher”. The government had raised the leaving age to 16, meaning that in 1973 I had to "stay on” at school for another year. I had another year to look forward to at school and some examinations. I would be able to leave school with CSE qualifications, unlike many Secondary Modern students before me who had left at the end of the 4th year without any formal qualification. Apprenticeships often provided the qualifications for these students, as well as a route to higher education for some. I am pleased to see apprenticeships once again being promoted and acknowledged for the opportunities they provide many students who do not fit the education model we have pursued over the years.

A little bit of necessary history. The Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) would be the measure of my success and my passport to my career. It was not the same as an Ordinary Level, or O Level, being considered inferior. O Levels were what you took at the Grammar school and everyone knew what they"The book showed not one teacher, architect or scientist. Perhaps they were in another book." were and their currency. After O Levels comes... yes, you guessed it, Advanced Levels!

There were five levels to the new CSE, 1 being the highest and a 5 the lowest. As you can imagine, being used to O Levels, people (employers and teachers) asked for a comparison with the O level. It was decided a grade 1 at CSE was equivalent to a “pass” (not a grade) at O level. They were still inferior! The whole issue of examination value and currency has stayed with us. It has always irritated me that as year on year teachers work harder at planning and delivering lessons that will help students learn more effectively that some continue to complain “standards are slipping” because more students do better in their examinations. You can’t have it both ways. Either we accept the progress made in teaching and learning, or if we are concerned about the number of students passing or getting certain grades then we raise the bar openly. If not we risk damaging the value of any examination taken at any point in time.
Back to my careers visit.

I could hardly wait to get my career underway, and despite the issues around bullying in school that I experienced, I enjoyed learning. After the initial “Hello” and introductions I was asked “What do you want to be?” By this she meant what job I wanted when I left school. We are not talking about a career here, only a job. There is that glass ceiling I mentioned. But glass ceilings don’t work if you do not carry a label. Let me explain.

The Issue of labels

Education is not alone in being seduced by labels. They can be both very useful things and very damaging. Damaging to people’s self-esteem, aspirations, and beliefs. Strange though, how we seek out our own labels looking for those that align with our self-perceptions or ambitions. How many people born under the sign of Virgo (apart from me) consider themselves a perfectionist? Our names are labels; there are those who will tell us their meaning, and perhaps we try to live up to them. In education labels are for more than your coat or you work tray - they define your potential to learn. “Gifted and Talented”, “Special Needs”, “Visual Learner”,  “EAL” There are many more.

The Career Teachers decision

On announcing that I wanted to be an architect she declared that I was not clever enough! That was it – no beating about the bush, no sugar coating it. My label said I was not bright enough, so end of discussion. Carol Dweck and Guy Claxton would be most upset at this approach now.

Not to worry - she had a strategy that would help me find a “suitable” label correct career. Just like with the 11+, I faced some rather bemusing questions, this time from a “careers” book to which I had to give answers. Here are a couple of examples from memory (interesting what stays and what get lost in memory!):

Would you rather clean out pigs or put things on shelves?
Do you like to work on your own or with other people?

There were more just like these. After the questions, which were aimed at identifying what job I would be best suited to, she opened a 1970s careers guide book with pictures of people at work. The book showed various stereotypes of farmers, joiners, plumbers and the like (not one teacher, architect or scientist. Perhaps they were in another book you were shown at grammar school). She pointed to one picture she thought appropriate. It was of a man in a white lab coat standing at control panel. I cannot remember the job title, but apparently because I did not like the idea of cleaning out pigs, working on a building site; or in an office (the result of some 1960s psychometric testing), this was the job for me.

I studied the picture; it was sterile, nothing creative about it and the man did not look particularly interested in what he was supposed to be doing. I have searched the web for a similar picture but to no avail, so you will have to imagine a green tall control panel with rows of lights, a strange circular window (oscilloscope screen), what looked like typewriter keys on a shelf and a rather bored man stood wearing his white coat and holding a clipboard and pen. I asked what the man was doing, to which my careers teacher said, “I don’t know”. At that point I lost interest in becoming a bored man in a white coat and in careers education. I was at a loss, the shadow of the steel works loomed large and dark on my horizon.

The issue of careers education in schools

There is no doubt the term has changed a great deal since my experience of careers advice. My experience of careers education in schools as a teacher is varied too. The poorest examples include a teacher with spare capacity on the timetable being drafted in or given a responsibility point to take"The best careers guidance has included Connexions, with dedicated staff based in the school." on careers (probably using the same picture book too, updated a bit though). The best has included Connexions, with dedicated staff based in the school with access to information on each student so they could undertake informed guidance, help in selecting work experience and being there to answer questions in an informed way. This is how it should be.

No doubt few students will experience a single job or career in their working lives, and they will be working to a much greater age than my generation. This emphasises to me the changing nature of careers education, and indeed education in general. There is no longer a ‘jumping off point’ where you are fully equipped with the qualifications you need to start adult life or a career. Instead I believe the key is an understanding of self, lifelong learning skills and resilience to overcome challenges.

Back to school

I did eventually find out what the job was that the bored man was doing; he was a technician, and he was working with the very first commercial computers. This is only significant in terms of life direction when you consider Bill Gates is one year older than me (and considerably richer). What I was shown was the start of the computer revolution. If only that careers teacher had known what the man in the white coat was doing, I may have listened and been the British Bill Gates - a little like Cliff Richard was the British Elvis! Since my first computer, the Sinclair ZX81, computers have been a significant part of my life and teaching. One of those crossroads in life, perhaps, but if only!

After such a disastrous careers experience, why or how the decision to become a teacher?

Something for the next instalment.

How do you handle careers guidance in your school? Let us know below.

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