Reality check

There are many things about the British state education system over which I despair. The teachers seem to be expected to work in a constant state of flux as governments meddle with the curriculum in an attempt to fool the electorate into believing that standards are rising. Hard though it may now be to actually educate our young people, it is the kids who suffer these ill thought out attempts at quick fixes as the exams they work so hard for become discredited. It doesn’t help when the teachers encourage our young people to expect too much for too little.

My children attend a large, mixed gender, state comprehensive school. Today my daughter was discussing career aspirations in class. Her teacher was emphasising the importance of aiming to do something that could be enjoyed. She told the class not to consider the remuneration but rather the pleasure to be gained from a career. Whilst I would certainly agree that money is not as important as happiness, and having money does not lead to happiness, not having enough money to cover essentials is going to put anyone in a very unhappy situation. I did not consider that the teacher was giving realistic advice.

Unless one has a vocation or another source of income, choosing a career can be a very tricky decision, not least because there is rarely only one path to each destination. Most people will go out to work because they need to pay their bills. They will want a few extras on top of the essentials and these must also be paid for. The money has to be earned.

In an ideal situation a person’s job would be enjoyable and fulfilling. However, in reality, most people will have to compromise in order to achieve a lifestyle acceptable to them. To suggest that the first requirement of any job is that it should be fun is to ignore life’s basic economics. Having to go each day to a job that one hates may be miserable but so is being unable to pay for food or heating. It is to be hoped that the choice need not be so stark, but not all jobs are well paid and the implications of that need to be understood.

Our young people are put under pressure to constantly work towards exams but are not given good advice about which subjects will be well regarded by prospective employers. They are encouraged to aim for tertiary education but are not advised as to which courses lead to jobs where there is demand for trainees. These things cannot always be known, but to encourage a young person to start their life with a huge debt and a qualification that few employers will want seems to me to be unwise and unfair.

I would never wish to stifle a young person’s dreams, but I believe that we do them a disservice if they grow up believing that what they want will happen just because they want it. Most things worth achieving take a huge amount of effort and dedication as well as a degree of luck. Having a back up plan which may not be so enticing but is more realistic should be considered.

State schools seem to be so intent on treating all pupils equally that they have forgotten how to manage expectations. There are careers that will suit the more academically able and careers that will suit the more practical students. Ability will not change just because it is not discussed. There are different routes into many careers for those who may not be able to manage exams successfully. In my view, explaining these alternatives and possibilities serves the child better than encouraging them to foster unrealistic ambitions. If a child wants to be an astronaut he can be encouraged to work towards that but with the understanding that being an engineer or scientist could also be pretty awesome.

The most important lesson that we can teach our children when they are considering a career is that they will have to put in a lot of effort to get where they want to be. It is not going to just happen. Suggesting that work should always be fun ignores why people are paid; the incentive is needed. None of this is to suggest that a career that is of no interest whatsoever should be aimed for just because it pays well. There is a balance to be reached between fulfilment and remuneration. Both matter.

Encouraging a culture of self entitlement is going to lead to dissatisfaction. Encouraging an attitude that accepts a bit of humility and a lot of drive to learn and succeed through hard work is more likely to take our young people to where they want to go. There will always be a few who get to live their dreams. For the vast majority it is possible to live a pretty good life by working hard and enjoying the rewards this brings. A great deal of satisfaction can be gained from knowing that achievements have been earned through an individual’s effort and commitment. I would rate a feeling of self-fulfilment over temporal fun.

Money Queen

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Responsibility and Control

Parents and teachers will be all too familiar with the outraged child, unfairly blamed for some misdemeanor, crying out in protest ‘But it’s not my fault!’ Nobody likes to take the blame for something over which they had no control. ‘That is so unfair!’ the child will cry. They want to be heard, to be understood, to be exonerated of blame. It is a hard life lesson to learn – that sometimes things are not fair; that sometimes blame will be apportioned based on what seems obvious without questioning what went before; that some people are expected by others to behave in certain ways and will be judged accordingly, whatever the facts of a particular situation.

I am a great believer in taking personal responsibility for the path that my life follows. In most situations we have a choice. Choices have consequences and, because we do not live in isolation, those consequences can impact others just as their choices can impact us. This must be taken into account in decision making, but need not be seen as a negative. The happiness of those close to us will feed our own happiness so what is good for them is often what is good for us too. I do not wish to burden another person with the responsibility of making me happy. I may find happiness in their company, but if I am to achieve happiness then I must make it happen. If I am unhappy then it is up to me to sort it out.

In order to take responsibility for the way I live my life I must be allowed control over what I do. I have found that this can be very difficult to achieve. There are so many rules that we are expected to follow, so many conventions and concerns that have been drilled into us since childhood, so many expectations that we will act in a certain way whatever we may think or feel. I have never liked being told what to do. As a teenager I found it incredibly frustrating to have to live by my parents rules. I could see that many of the rules were sensible but I desired autonomy. The sense of powerlessness that I felt helped to mould in me a resolve to gain financial independence. I saw this as the means by which I could run my life by my rules. I studied challenging subjects that would lead to employment rather than subjects that I enjoyed; I was determined that I would succeed. The sense of freedom that I felt when I was able to move into my own flat in a different country was cathartic.

I think that a lot of people confuse independence and freedom. The independence I gained allowed me to make my own decisions and I felt free of the strictures imposed on me by my parents. However, to enjoy life I knew that I needed to earn a living. I was not free to do exactly what I wanted but rather free to choose the course my life would take. I made the choice to marry and have a family and thereby took on serious responsibility for others. I still hate being told what to do though. If it affects me then I wish to be consulted, not coerced. I can still feel the despair and impotence that I felt as a teenager. How can I take responsibility if I am denied control?

It is the seemingly little decisions that have the greatest impact on my happiness. I get angry about the creeping, invasive, corrupt and foolish decisions made by governments who seem to wish to control so many aspects of our lives that are better looked after by family. However, on a day to day level, it is the actions of those close to me that will either pick me up or knock me down. Does that sound as if I am holding them responsible for how I feel? One of my biggest challenges is making myself heard and understood. It seems that this will not happen if I just go along with what is easy. I have come to realise that it is up to me to consider my well being and act accordingly. However selfish that may sound, a miserable wife or mummy is not good for any family.

Just as the enraged child will cry out against unfair blame over which they consider they had no control, so we as adults must sometimes deal with situations where problems are heaped on us through no obvious fault of our own. Perhaps we did not see the signs; perhaps we made decisions without realising the consequences; perhaps those we trusted proved to be untrustworthy. It can be very hard to put the reasons behind us, to move forward as best we can. Shouldering regret or bearing grudges can be exhausting. If I am to take responsibility for my life then I must be willing to accept what has gone before as it cannot be changed, make the best of what I have now and move forward. There are so many variables in life that will affect us and we cannot know them all. We can only hope that by learning from our worst times, not blaming others, we can find peace. My life, my rules but not in isolation. I do what I want, but what I want is to be a good person; a good wife and mother; to be accepted and loved for being me.

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