An open letter to this year’s Leaving Cert students

The Secret Teacher: Your grades are not a reflection of who you are as a person

The journey through schooling is a catalogue of valuable formative experiences for what is still to come. Photograph: iStock

At my very first Leaving Cert parent-teacher evening over 20 years ago, I complimented the mother of my very best student on having a daughter who was an “absolute credit to her”.

She beamed back at me. Her daughter had shone academically and socially in my classroom for close to 18 months.

A few minutes later I referred to some aspect of the exam preparation, and casually remarked that I expected she knew all about it from her daughter.

She said she hadn’t heard a thing about it, and matter-of-factly stated that her daughter didn’t talk to her. Having established that I had not misheard, I learned that this girl had barely addressed her mother for more than two years except to get money or help in finding something she had mislaid.


Embracing family moments rather than avoiding them is a tremendous thing for an adolescent to do

I expressed my sympathies, only to be told that they were not necessary as the girl “is an absolute delight to everyone she meets, and that matters a lot more”.

I disagreed entirely but kept that to myself. For this mother, being cast aside seemed not to matter as long as her daughter came across well to other people. I had only ever had the best impression of the girl, and had seen nothing to cause me to suspect such a relationship might have existed in the home.

Character developments

Despite knowing nothing of the circumstances, or the girl’s perspective on it, I could not help feeling an extraordinary outpouring of sympathy for the mother. I have never doubted that she was telling the truth.

That girl will be 40 next year, and possibly has children of her own. Have they cast her aside? She went on to do an excellent Leaving Cert, but I remember wondering what good that was when she was so lacking in other ways.

In one sense all your years of schooling have been leading you here to this landmark event of school-leaving exams.

Alongside the academic work other huge developments have taken place in your character, and you must not underestimate all that you have achieved before you even enter that exam hall.

What I have seen of you in school is perhaps indicative of even greater deeds at home.

I can easily guess how the lives of your family members been enriched by your presence. There are evenings when many of you entertained younger siblings to enable your parents to have a well-earned break, and such gestures speak volumes about the kind of person you are.

When grandparents are conscious of their age and you choose to share some of your fun-loving youth with them, it reflects very positively on you. Embracing all those family moments rather than avoiding them is a tremendous thing for an adolescent to do, and merits far more recognition that it usually gets.

Similarly, your profile as a student in the school you are about to leave tells its own tale. All the positive relationships you have formed and the responsibilities you have taken on will prove crucial to your integration in the next phase of your life.

If you have a seriously blotted copybook from years of being the school bully and general trouble-maker, maybe you can use the new start to turn over a new leaf.

True measures

How you make others feel about themselves is a far more crucial barometer of your prospects than the number of honours grades in your Leaving Cert.

These things matter because they too are setting up the future you. The Leaving Cert results and CAO points are simply one way of measuring the passing through one phase of life, and they are not even standardised across the globe.

More useful measures of your worth are good deeds, kind acts and all forms of generosity. Consider your understanding of the relative importance of giving and sharing, both at every opportunity and at all costs, as opposed to taking.

All the cooperation and collaboration you have shown during your years at school have been noticed and commented on without you even being aware of it.

'Be cheerful. Strive to be happy', which is how to approach life

You impress us all the time, even if we have too little opportunity to formally recognise and record it. We notice when you include the student who often sits alone. We are aware of your punctuality and good behaviour, even if we seem to spend more time on those students whose records are badly blemished.

At the time they needed us more, often for reasons you and I did not even know, but your role in facilitating this is valuable too. Your undemanding profile allowed us to concentrate on them and it gave them something to aspire to, even if they were not ready yet.

The journey through schooling is a catalogue of valuable formative experiences for what is still to come. All the problems and challenges you have faced and overcome have left you stronger, and with valuable coping skills for similar experiences in the “real” world. It is so important that you do not lose sight of the long list of achievements you had in the bag long before today, never mind Leaving Cert Judgment Day.

If you find a moment this evening, look up Desiderata by Max Ehrmann. It starts by inviting you to "go placidly amid the noise and haste", which is precisely how you should approach the Leaving Cert. And it ends: 'Be cheerful. Strive to be happy", which is how to approach life.

Everything in between is worth noting too. Come back again before too long and tell us how it’s all going for you.