Hey, I’m important

Teachers can learn from the message behind small classes – says Hilary Moriarty – that each and every one of us is important

Scan the many virtues – selling points – of independent schools which parents believe to be important when choosing a school for their child, and class size will come high up on the list. Chinese schools do things differently – huge classes, excellent results – but in Britain, we cherish the belief that small classes make learning more personal, more productive.

We read of many a family turning to tutors for particularly difficult or important subjects – one-to-one being the ultimate in small classes.

We believe that a child will learn better/faster/more thoroughly with more individual attention from the teacher, especially when it comes to A-levels, when fine distinctions of grades can make career paths glitter or disappear in the twinkling of a B grade.

Even before the big exam years, parents – and probably pupils – often believe that small classes will ensure appropriate attention is paid to their child and that he or she will be noticed. He or she will matter. Not to be noticed, to appear not to matter, is dangerous.

Schools recognising this are actively involved in much more than teaching, even (perhaps especially) the larger schools with a built-in possibility of a child slipping through the net.

The excellent comprehensive school down the road has an annual intake of 300 pupils into year 7. They are divided into classes/bands/groups which means a classroom will replicate the smaller-scale primaries from which they have come, and even if they don’t know everyone, they will each be known. And that’s one of the big selling points for independent education. It’s important.

The big picture

Such observations have been prompted by a discovery in the post-Christmas recycling – a receipt and directions for the return of an item.

I’ve kept it because I like the message. In big letters, the front page says, “Hey, I’m important.” The second page offers the usual explanation of your rights to return. Not interesting. But the big message – hey, I’m important? Now that’s worth thinking about.

I thought, wow, wouldn’t it be great if we could all remind the world, however large our circle and however slight our claim, that we are, indeed important?

Better still, remember that it is true of others – friends, enemies, great teachers and super ladies serving dinner.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could carry a mental image of this slogan – for want of a better word – and quietly imagine it worn proudly on the lapel of every student or colleague who comes our way? It would remind us of the singularity, and indeed the importance, of everyone we encounter.

Tall or short, old or young, with or without fancy titles or pots of money, each of us believes it of ourselves and we can be very upset, damaged even, if this simple truth fails to register with the world. There comes a time when mum and dad thinking you are important just isn’t enough.

In Britain, we cherish the belief that small classes make learning more personal, more productive

In our own heads I think we may all be Spartacus. The tricky bit is getting the global approval without actually looking as if you think you are Lady Muck, as my children used to call it.

And apparent pride can come before the proverbial fall: some years ago, as national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association, I was asked to be the speaker at a member school’s speech day. I was so pleased to be asked. Posh suit. Not a hat occasion, but definite possibility of a bouquet. Affirmation. I was, as we might have said back in the day, dead chuffed.

But between the head’s pre-event coffee in his office and the prize-giving hall there was enough of a melee for me to part company with the platform party and arrive through a different door and be confronted by a teacher holding a clipboard.

Clipboard teacher takes me for a late parent and says, “You’re very late. You might find a seat over there at the back, or you can sit on the floor,” indicating a couple of chairs up against the back wall, behind about a thousand people. Cue for my instant apology, followed by my embarrassed mutter that I was really sorry, but I should actually be with the platform party.

“Really?” Sceptical glance at clipboard.

“Er – yes,” I tried to be helpful.

“You’re not on my list.”

“No? Er, well,” I play my last card, “That may be because I’m the speaker.”

And honestly, it didn’t come out as visible self-importance or, as a colleague used to call it, ‘the big I am’. I thought it was gently humble in the face of her error. Time slipping away and the head on stage looking slightly terrified and scanning the audience for his missing speaker. Stuff of nightmares. Clipboard teacher, however, was completely unphased.

A look up and down the length of me, from the newly cut hair down to the crippling shoes, and she said, “Ye-es, you look as if you think you’re important.”

Isn’t that a gem? You couldn’t make it up. There’s a complete sock in the chops for anyone even just slightly, as my mother would have said, ‘above themselves’ and lording it about.

It made a big impression on me, mostly, I will admit, for its comic value. I have repeated it at several speech days I have been fortunate to attend. It prefaces the kind of address which almost always tries to stress the importance of each and everyone in the school, from the chairperson of governors to the youngest entrant, from the ones with the best exam results and the most prizes, to the ones still finding their feet, or talent, or voice.

All are of infinite value to the school, their community and, all too soon, the wider world. My clipboard encounter was a warning against presumption, arrogance and premature judgment.

I think what most of us are looking for is to be blessed with the talent, time, energy, opportunity, encouragement, appreciation, even simple teaching that will help us to feel justified when we believe, or declare, or whisper, hey, I’m important.

To believe – really believe – that we are not important, that there is no role or purpose for us, that we are not contributing in some way to things and issues that matter to us and to others, from climate change to competing in the house play when you know you can’t act – “I’ll do the makeup! I’ll mend the costumes!” – is crushing.

Schools provide rich territory and safety nets for pupils from pre-school to sixth form to discover, nurture and develop their own interests and likely points of growth and involvement, times and places and events in which they can realise their own importance, and in which staff as well as parents can join the affirming chorus.

I think I’m going to start repeating it every morning – beyond the hearing of anyone with a clipboard – I’m important.
And, for yourself and the many children in your charge, in your reach, within your sight or care or control, so are you.

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former head and former national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association

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