I have always loved the summer term, not just as a teacher but also when I was a child. There may be exams, yes of course, but there was also sunshine, long evenings, cricket, and a sense that all was well with life. Nevertheless, it probably seems like a pretty big term for many in this room who go into exams in the coming weeks, and so it is to those people in particular that I speak today, though I hope the lessons are universal.
I was sent the other day a YouTube clip of a headmaster standing up at the start of term and telling his pupils how important was the term ahead, that it would set the path for the rest of their lives, indeed that those leaving would be ready for university immediately, settled in jobs at 25, married with a first child by 35, working steadily to retirement at 60. It sounded so boring, frankly. Then happily another teacher comes in and tells them a completely different story: he tells them that life is much more exciting than that, more spontaneous, that all live at their own pace, that there is no single blueprint for success and happiness, that they will all go through high points and low points, that they have time to find a path which works for them as individuals. Well the clip reminded me of three conversations in the holidays.
The first was a man called Frank, about 50 years old, who has just decided that after 20 odd years in the city, he wanted to be a teacher. He had not been sacked, nor side-lined; he had not, to my knowledge, earned a fortune, though he has clearly earned well – and knew he would earn far less as a teacher; he had simply decided that he needed a change and that he would be happier in a school than a bank. He was determined to do this and was actively looking into how to make that change, taking time off current work to visit schools, talk to teachers, read up on his subject, become more marketable.
The second was a man called John, who decided a few years ago at the age of about 40 that it would be he, rather than his wife, who gave up his career to look after young kids. It is not as unusual a decision as it might have been a few years ago, but I’ll bet when he was growing up, he had not expected that this, ultimately very rewarding life, would be how he ended up living. This particular conversation reminded me of the news earlier this year that New Zealand’s third-ever female Prime Minister, and their youngest ever Prime Minster, Jacinda Ardern, was pregnant and is due to have a baby in June whilst in post at the age of 37. Her partner, a man called Clarke Gayford, a successful TV and radio broadcaster in New Zealand, will break from his career to stay at home to look after their child. This of course was a wonderful story on all sorts of levels. A high profile, thoroughly modern woman, was having a baby whilst working in the most public and demanding of roles; a similarly high profile and well-regarded man was giving up his career to look after a child. Both, in their own way, make no demands upon others to do as they did, but by their actions they certainly provide thereby a form of permission for others to do the same, if they so wish. In the same way that Ms Ardern, who had been her own party leader for only three months when she was elected to be Prime Minister, probably never dreamed of this as a child, neither, I suspect, did Mr Gayford expect his lot either.
Perhaps the most well-known career change of recent times has been that of Justin Welby. This current Archbishop of Canterbury was working in the oil industry until the age of 33. He was doing well, too – his final post was as Group Treasurer for Enterprise Oil, a company bought 13 years later by Shell for £3.5bn – before he decided to give it up to study theology and train for the priesthood.
For my own part, I have often been asked “what next” or “what is your ambition”? I can happily say I have no idea, and nor have I particularly ever had. I have always found it hard to predict what will happen tomorrow, let alone next year or next decade; and as a result, I commit myself to trying to enjoy today. Obviously, that does not mean that I do not plan ahead, consider, dream and so on – of course I do – but I do genuinely think it helps not to expect too much. Today is far more important than tomorrow.
So to those who have exams this term, I say this. Enjoy the challenge. Do your best. That is the best that you can ask of yourself. Do not think that this will change the rest of your life: that is too much pressure and life is too long, with luck, for that. Your fortunes will probably ebb and flow. However, if you can look after today well, then tomorrow will nearly always take care of itself. The best you can do today is to explore, be curious, work hard, and be kind and good to others. And of these, the last is probably the most important of all; which leads me to the third and last of the holiday conversations I had with a good friend of mine. He has in fact lost his job in his early fifties, but he is one of the kindest men I know and has spent a life helping others. It is notoriously hard to become re-employed if you lose your job later in your career, but he has had a host of offers from those who he has himself helped along the way. He said to me that the best thing I could pass on to you today was the life lesson that “what goes around comes around”; a happy life is rarely lived alone; if you are good to people today, the chances are they will be good to you back when you need it.
Enjoy the term.