The first disappointment of my degree came via email a few weeks ago. I hadn’t been accepted into a subject reserved for a small number of teacher candidates chosen by application and interview. I’d made it to the final round of selection, and the interview had gone really well. So, foolishly, I’d let myself imagine.
The second disappointment came a week later, again via email, in response to a request for feedback about my application. So far I’d only been told how strong it had been. Was there something specific that tilted the decision? Well, yes, according to this second email, namely how strong it had been.
A bit of context. I live in Austalia, within a culture that has been analysed under complementary frameworks of “tall poppy syndrome” and “cultural cringe.” Here, we’re trained to locate excellence somewhere else, partly because we like it that way. But I also attend the third-ranked school of education in the world – despite its location, not the kind of body from which you expect encouragement to be less excellent.
And yet, there it was, cryptic but crystal clear, a sentence-long retrospective justification for non-inclusion in a postgraduate subject because I had too much to offer. “So, a teacher candidate might offer an exemplary set of skills, experiences and orientations to [the subject] that are hard to fault, but might be found as unlikely to gain the same benefits from involvement as other applicants,” the educators explained. In short, stop striving.
I’d heard this before, as an undergraduate student, receiving feedback about an application for a scholarship decided through an interview process conducted by, among other people, the Governor of South Australia. “We wanted to see the real you,” the academic explained. “Even at the level of language, you seemed distant. Next time, choose vocabulary that’s more robust, less – Latinate.” (Confused, I became a medievalist.)
I’m not sure, but it seems that this strategic valuing of mediocrity has become no less ubiquitous in the era of mature-aged students, lifelong learning and multiple careers. Maybe you’d be “bored” in this job, or “overqualified” for this program? (You might be found as unlikely to gain the same benefits from involvement as other applicants.)
As well, substitute “teacher” for [the subject] in the email above and you get the kind of message offered by some members of my family when I announced my decision to become a high-school teacher: wouldn’t my “exemplary set of skills, experiences and orientations to [the profession] that are hard to fault” be better utilised – somewhere else? Well, not according to research that correlates good educational outcomes with high-quality teachers, to which scholars within my graduate school of education have made significant contributions and to which the rhetoric of the institution subscribes.
That’s why my initial feelings about the email have transformed into a kind of sociological interest. If a message of “be excellent, but not yet” is resilient enough to survive the heat of an elite graduate school, we can be pretty sure that it’s still thriving in the real world, including within secondary school classrooms.
But so am I.