Saturday 25 November 2017

Yeats was 'poor', Lennon a 'clown', and as for that boy Einstein . . .

A bad school report is no barrier to success. But teachers are less blunt than they used to be, writes Kim Bielenberg

Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of History at UCD is still full of admiration for his primary teacher Mr Horgan.

In January 1983 the teacher at Holy Cross, Drumcondra, wrote in young Ferriter's fifth class school report: "Diarmaid seems to resent correction. If he is corrected he clamps up and refuses to answer. He sulks if he does not get his own way."

Looking back at this remark Prof Ferriter says: "At least my teacher was prepared to tell it like it was, and that probably did me good, because I was a little bollix at the time.

"He was actually a teacher who gave us a lot of encouragement."

Teachers spend long hours filling out reports about their pupils, but the bad notices can make them look foolish many years afterwards.

On the other hand, a critical teacher could argue that they helped to put a student on the right track with a choice remark.

Take the example of the pioneering scientist Professor John Gurdon, who recently won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on cloning.

Inevitably attention has focused on his school reports, which he keeps with gloating relish above his desk in Cambridge.

The report by a Mr Gaddum suggested it would be "a sheer waste of time" for Gurdon to pursue a career in Science.

According to the teacher, Gurdon's work was "disastrous''. He wouldn't listen, couldn't learn simple biological facts and "insisted on doing work in his own way".

History is littered with examples of apparent chumps, who go on to achieve great things after being written off by their teachers.

The most famous report is that of Albert Einstein. A Munich schoolmaster said of him: "He will never amount to anything."

John Lennon's teacher confidently predicted he was "certainly on the road to failure''.

Teachers used to delight in the waspish tone of their dispatches, and were not afraid to use terms such as "impertinent'', "insolent'', and even "imbecilic''.

Nowadays, most teachers are reluctant to say anything too negative, and school reports tend to be much blander affairs. The delinquent student is now said to "exhibit challenging behaviours".

In 2012, there are not many teachers who would follow the example of the staff member who said of Winston Churchill at Harrow: "He is so regular in his irregularity that I don't know what to do.''

In many Irish schools the teachers do not write the reports. The system is computerised, and teachers can pick from a menu of numbered comments.

This can lead to some students having comments that are more-or-less identical. Some teachers find this system too impersonal.

There is a greater reluctance to trample on the egos of students.

"Nowadays it is all about massaging their self-esteem,'' says Susan Hall, a past president of the ASTI. "It is a shame if a teacher cannot be honest. You have to strike a balance between criticism and providing positive encouragement.''

Hall says teachers may not be wrong if they fail to give a glowing report about a student who turns out to be a genius.

"You have to remember that people can develop enormously over time. They might have no grasp of a subject at a certain age, but that can always change dramatically.

"I know of students who had no interest in history at school, but later on it became their passion."

High-achieving pupils may be slated in school reports, because they are not always the most compliant students. They may annoy their teachers, because they are impatient to move on.

Parents do not always appreciate that the compilation of school reports is a massive bureaucratic undertaking, especially when each one is hand-written by an individual teacher.

"It is quite common for a teacher to be writing reports for up to 300 pupils,'' says Hall. "It requires a lot of co-operation between teachers to ensure that the report for each student is kept in the right envelope."

The job has become less labour intensive as a result of computerisation, however.

School reports are also less important than they once were, particularly at second-level. Thirty years ago, they were often the only communication between a school and a parent. Teachers and parents did not hold meetings.

"The parent-teacher meeting is now a crucial part of school life," says Fintan O'Mahony, an English and History teacher at Scoil Mhuire in Co Tipperary. "So, the school report may not have the significance that it once had.

"However it is still useful to have a paper trail -- something to look back on. When you are having a discussion with a pupil or a parent, you can use the school report to compare performance with previous reports.''

Increasingly pupil records such as school reports will be stored in digital form.

Parents are likely to receive reports by email, or gain access to them online by using pin codes.

Any electronic system will have to have tight security, however. The recent reported case where an Irish student obtained a password, which would have enabled them to gain access to confidential school records, shows that such systems can be hacked.

Whether they are on paper or in electronic form, school reports are unlikely to be as colourful in the future as that given to the diminutive English comedian Norman Wisdom: "The boy is every inch a fool, but luckily for him he's not very tall."

What their teachers said about them


School report from the late 1870s: "Only fair. Perhaps better in Latin than in any other subject. Very poor in spelling."


"Hopeless. Rather a clown in class. He is just wasting other pupils' time. Certainly on the road to failure."


"She writes indifferently and knows nothing of grammar."


From his school report in 1905: "Moral conduct, very satisfactory; Diligence, irregular; Gymnastics, excellent."

Irish Independent

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