I had just turned 17 when I arrived back at Churchill, a well-known senior public school. It was at a low point in my academic life. I had just transferred from St. George's College, a private school where I had ignominiously failed all my school leaving exams. I felt apprehensive and beaten up, but also a resolve to dig myself out of the hole I had dug for myself. As nobody knew me at Churchill, I had no “bad boy” image to live up to. This would give me the chance to recommit myself to getting my act together. It was reassuring to feel that I had just been given a clean slate.
Two teachers at Churchill made significant contributions to my academic turnaround. The first was my geography teacher, a gentleman by the name of Pete Snyder. He was passionate about his subject matter, which reflected in the enthusiastic way he taught us. He wanted the best from his students. He showed us respect, and we reciprocated.
I remember how, early on in my arrival at the school, he stopped me as I was coming out of class and said, “Tim, would you like to try out for the rugby side?”
I thought his statement to me was quite remarkable: not only had he obviously known that I’d played rugby at my old school, but he had invited me to join the team in such a polite way. It was nothing like most of the interactions I was used to having with adults.
After Snyder gave me the chance, I became determined not to let him down in either my academic work or on the rugby pitch. This also meant making the personal decision to get back into shape, and being willing to put in the work. In the end, I was one of only five players to be recognized for their outstanding contribution to the team’s performance, playing on a side that lost only one game throughout the whole season. I was also made a school prefect for the first time in my life.
The other gentleman at the school who made a critical a contribution to my life was our English literature teacher, Mr. O’Brien. As the name suggests, he was of Irish stock, with smiling eyes and a full black beard. Like Snyder, he was a passionate teacher who commanded the respect of the whole class. Any pupil caught goofing around in his class would face a startling reprimand, which meant he didn’t have to use it too often! I'd seen teachers before who were able to scream and shout at their students, but most were lousy teachers and didn’t even manage to keep control. His commitment to teaching made learning infectious. It allowed us to gain so much more from his lessons in a subject most of us would not typically have enjoyed.
A turning point for me happened when O’Brien asked me one day, out of the blue, what university I was applying for. To be asked this question was a shock to me given my previous academic failures. The thought of attending university hadn’t even crossed my mind, let alone the notion of picking one. But here was a teacher who thought that I was automatically headed to university. His regard for me, in turn, was the catalyst that gave me the confidence to think that maybe I did have the potential to go further in my studies and in my life.
Both these teachers, whether consciously or unconsciously, applied what has been called the Pygmalion effect. The Pygmalion effect is a psychological concept where high expectations lead to improved performance in a given area. For this effect to be positive, it must also be assumed that the student is ready. As an old Buddhist adage says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” In this case, I was the student who, after a long and painful freefall, was more than ready to be receptive to, to listen to, and to act on the belief in me from teachers that I respected and who could see my potential.
In life, one of the most gratifying things we can do for anyone, regardless of age, is to let them know we believe in them, particularly in moments when they doubt their own competence or potential.
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