Lessons from the Olympics 2: Wanting the World is not enough

It's like opening a window and smelling fresh air. Listening to people's reactions to the Olympics is almost as heartening as watching the damn thing themselves. Any cynicism about our four weeks of superhuman gasping is lying low for now like dry ice, and boy, is the air clear up here. There are plenty of things to get snippy about, to carp and mew and harrow; this is not one of them. No event is beyond reproach; nothing is ideal. But at least this aspires to be.

One of the saddest things I ever met in teaching was in a poor, poor school in a rough, rough area, where, when you asked the kids to what they aspired, they replied- seriously- 'the dole'; 'ASDA'; 'hustling'. That taught me that the cages we build inside our minds are at least as important as the economic circumstances from which we emerge. Being wealthy isn't enough- it sure helps, of course, and the concomitant support and culturally inherited aspirations are strongly correlated with that position. But it also takes something more, something that has been paraded prodigiously in the last week at Stratford.

It contains ambition of course, but many Alfred Prufrocks and Walter Mittys have ambition; I see many kids banished to school corridors, bunking school, bursting with ambition. That isn't enough by itself. The child who answers my earlier question with 'International Rap star blud' or 'Player for Chelsea' is being just as flippant with his future self if he isn't doing anything about it. He might as well say Peter Pan if he spends his weekends playing Call of Duty and his school days inhaling Dorchester Blacks. Ambition, without inspiration that translates into a plan, is just desire, wishing. I have yet to meet anyone whose dreams came true this way.

Careers advice in schools ranges from life-changing to life-changingly bad, as with any profession. A lot is said about teachers inspiring their students. I think these is truth in this, but not the bunny-hugging manner of those who think it means telling them Disney platitudes are true: 'Believe in yourself!' they say breathlessly; 'Follow your heart and be true to yourself!' they say, confident that they have ticked the box 'inspire' on the to-do list. Well meant, but this has the opposite effect from the desired one.

Tell a child that they have to be true to themselves, and they might decide that means they don't need to change because the';re just dandy as they are. Tell a child to never give up on their dreams, and they may find that those dreams have kept them from fulfilling another dream they never knew they had.

No. Here's how you inspire a child:

Part 1: You tell them they are capable of just about anything
Part 2: You tell them how hard it can be to achieve it.
Part 3: You show them how others have achieved it. No bullshit. No pretending it's easy.
Part 4: You tell them they can do it. Then you pass it to them.

That's inspiring. I recently did a series of classes for Year 9 and next year's sixth-form cohort where I talked about Uni and other options; it was 50% 'Go for it, you can do it' and 50% 'This is going to be really difficult. Are you ready to put the work in?' I tell them that for the vast majority of them, how well they will do at this point now depends on them, no one else. I tell them that from the second they leave the class they are masters of their own destiny. I tell them that they can get any grade they want...if they want it badly enough, and if they are prepared to put the effort in to achieving it. And I tell them, just as importantly, what failure looks like- not in the form of a grade, or a career, but in terms of the gap between what they want to achieve and what they will achieve if they don't want it enough, and don;t do anything about it.

It is a joy for me as a teacher to see so many people holding up the Olympians as role models, because they are; they represent a clear and clean metaphor for success and achievement and ambition that doesn't entail wealth, consumption or possessions, but instead the noblest goal of all- an object pursued for its own intrinsic worth: excellence. I don't want children to try hard solely to be rich (although by all means do so as well); I want them to try hard so they succeed as themselves; as the best that they can be in their own field.  These are the men and women I want my students to write essays about, and other Olympians in the fields of maths, science, literature and charity, to put stickers on their bags and phones, to look up to.

There is nobody hammering around the track, or draining their blood of oxygen in the Olympic Stadium right now, who has not practised and practised for more hours than most people would think existed in the day. The joy of it is that there are men and women there from the most modest of backgrounds. It is the duty of every teacher to believe that any child is capable of some form of greatness, because we all are.

It is also our duty to inform them that being great is rarely a product of not giving a damn.


  1. Having just written about this myself, I couldn’t agree with you more Tom.
    I was lucky enough to coach rugby, athletics, cross country and even riding and shooting pretty much every afternoon for many years and know how important it is to teach teenagers the connection between effort and success. I’ve often been asked since I left teaching, if I miss it and I always say no, but in the past few days, having been lucky enough to see some performances live as well as on TV, I’ve been reminded of so many times I’ve seen an ordinary child achieve something remarkable through sheer physical effort and will, but crucially… because a teacher encouraged them to.

  2. Thought this was your best blog yet.


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