Oliver who thinks 73% is good enough for him!

It was a sunny day in April 1999, and I was teaching at an independent boys’ school in St Albans, Hertfordshire. I stood in front of my classroom waiting for my students, with a pile of test scripts that I’d been marking on my desk. I watched the boys come in one by one, transitioning from a state of exuberance, as they had been doing sports during lunch time, and beginning to calm down and settle into their chairs and desks. There was usually no need for me to say anything as they came in, my gaze and body language were enough to send out the message of what was expected of them as they come into a lesson.  On that afternoon, when they had settled, I called the register and began to return their test scripts to them one by one. I was not necessarily giving out the test in the order of the marks they had scored, but I intended to hand out the scripts last to the students to whom I wanted to have a word with.

As I walked around the classroom giving out the scripts, there was some sort of unspoken communication between me and one particular boy – Oliver. I did look in his direction more than I did others when they first came into the classroom earlier, and, from my face, he realised there must be something I was concerned about, so he was looking at me all the time. He saw me giving another student, Connor, who scored 55%, his test script back and patted him on the back to say “well-done” (it was still just about allowed at the time  for a teacher to pat a teenage boy in the back when saying well-done!). When I came to Oliver, who was the last student to be given his script, it was a slow process and I looked at him for a couple of seconds longer than I should have done. Oliver usually sat on the front row, slightly to my right my desk.

As Oliver finally took the paper from my hand, there was a look of an utter bewilderment on his face. He said to me, “Mr. Musty, I got 73%, how come you are not happy?” I tried to explain to him, and I started by saying, “Well, Oliver, you have scored higher than the last test; however, …” He did not allow me to finish, and, to my surprise, he started crying and he actually angrily walked out of the classroom. The best thing I could have done at the time was to leave him for a while and allow him to calm down a little before calling him back and then speaking to him after the lesson.

About 20 seconds or so later, one of my colleagues, called Glen, a chemistry teacher, opened the door to my classroom  and told me that Oliver was crying outside my classroom and that he would  be taking him to the office of the head of the science department. Later that afternoon, Glen looked at me in a strange way; he did not say anything, but it was apparent that he could not believe that I was unhappy about Oliver scoring 73% in my test. I guess he had spoken to Oliver and the boy had told him his own version of what had happened.

Wind the clock forward to the following day at about 6pm, I was in the staffroom and I had just returned from helping the PE department  do a bit of cricket training. The telephone rang and it was Glen who picked up the phone;  he cast a wry glance at me before saying “Idris, it’s Mr. Clifton (the father of Oliver) on the phone.” Although he did not say it, his expression was that of “you’re in trouble, matey!” To surprise Glen even more, I had a broad smile on my face, as I knew what to expect, and Glen just could not believe why I was so sanguine.

After taking the call and mentioning my name, the first thing Mr. Clifton said was “I’m calling to thank you Mr. Musty, as Oliver told me you were not happy with him getting 73% in the test…” It was less than 20 seconds after  Mr. Clifton had started talking that I heard the wife on the phone, she must have snatched the phone from her husband! Mrs. Clifton was even more animated and excited about speaking to me. She had finally met  a teacher who expected so much from her son and who was willing to demand more.

I must say that I only started teaching in that school about six months before the incident with Oliver, and I had not met his parents before. However, I had been observing Oliver, who was actually a good student. Here was this boy of about average height, well-mannered and wore these glasses with very thick, strong lenses. He always did  his homework; however, with minimum to average effort. He contributed in the class, played sport with moderate ability and was quite jovial and popular amongst his peers.

From my observation of Oliver over a period of six months or so, I could predict the sort of family background he came from and that his parents had high expectations. My prediction later proved quite accurate. I discovered that the parents were not quite as wealthy as some other boys’ parents in that independent school. Both father and mother were accountants and Oliver had an older brother and a younger sister. They lived in a semi-detached house in Hatfield, and were probably just about well-off enough to pay the school fees for three children at a private school in the late nineties. They were strict in the sense that they would make sure their children did their studies and were the type who would attend all parents evenings and speak to their children about school reports. At the same time, they were very friendly and quite easy-going people, with plenty of banter in the family. In fact, on one occasion, well after the incident with  the 73% test mark, I later got to know them well. They  had  invited me to their house and, at the dinner table, Oliver grabbed the last cake on the plate, and his father tried to tell him off by mocking him, Oliver responded by saying “look at your own belly father!”

About two months earlier, before the main incident in this story about Oliver’s test score, I started to provide Oliver one or two other boys with extra lessons. I decided they could do better academically and asked them to arrive at 7.45am every Tuesday morning for an extra Physics lesson, and Oliver was one of those who tuned up regularly. His parents did not know me, and I did not know them at the time, but they made sure that they dropped him off on time every Tuesday before 7.45am, for his extra Physics lesson. I guess they realised that this new Physics teacher was a little different, and they liked that kind of attitude and commitment.

Now, you can interpret this story as you like, but the main point that I’m trying to put across is that of the importance of high expectations from parents and teachers. I think, providing high expectations backed up with the right level of support  can go a long way in bringing out the best in a child.

I applauded Connor for scoring 55% and scorned Oliver for scoring 73% because I knew that he was capable of more. Whilst I understood the important of encouragement in getting the most out of people, I also knew (or thought I knew) the kind of treatment that would motivate each of the two boys.

I have taught in all types of mainstream schools, starting at a good compressive school (now an academy) in the early nineties, I then went on to spend most of my teaching career in grammar schools and in independent schools. What motivated me to leave the mainstream and set up an organisation that provided booster classes at GCSE and A-level was my intolerance for low expectation, which, in my view, is so prevalent in all types of schools – including state and private schools.

Oliver went on to study Maths and Finance at Warwick University and later completed the professional course to become a chartered accountant. There is another story relating to when I had call from one confident and successful young man, but I’ll leave that for another time.

I hope you enjoyed reading this story