[interview by Stephen Lawson]
Who hasn’t thought of giving up the day job to follow their passion? Pierre Pirard, one of the speakers at TEDxGhent 2013, has done just that. In 2008, he left the world of big business to become a teacher in Molenbeek, a poor area of Brussels. Gaffe prone George W. Bush once said ‘Enterprise, the French don’t know the meaning of the word’. Well, this French-speaking Belgian does know its meaning and is determined his pupils not only know but live its meaning. We got a chance to ask him about his voyage.
Why did you want to give up your dynamic life in business to become a teacher?
I wanted to create added value for humanity instead of shareholders. My aim was to pass on what I learned in my professional life to young people and to plant a ‘can do’ attitude in them – to encourage them to grab life’s opportunities. Many of my pupils had never been motivated to do things for themselves. I wanted to show them they were capable of turning their lives around. Give them a genuine alternative to sitting at home watching television or turning to a life of crime.
What was your main challenge in the transition from business to teaching?
Patience! When you are in charge of a company you can click your fingers and most people fall into line. You are the boss and your subordinates are paid to follow instructions. In teaching, you are on another planet. With young adults, you need to coach and cajole them. Show them that it’s worthwhile to invest time in learning a subject. In addition to teaching, you are also a salesman and you need to market what you are teaching to ensure it serves a need. Of course, there is also a lot of catching up to do: pupils from richer areas in French speaking Belgium are four years ahead of pupils from the poorest areas. According to the OECD, the French speaking education system in Belgium is bottom of the class by international standards.
What have you learned in your four years teaching?
I have written a book ‘Vous n’êtes pas des élevés de merde! (‘You are not shit pupils’) in which I put down my thoughts. In Belgium, there is a real need to improve the quality of teaching in our schools in order to get the best out of pupils. To improve quality it just needs a few ingredients: to find good teachers, to instil self-confidence in pupils, and to ensure we have a mix of pupils from different ethnic backgrounds in our schools.
How do you measure your success?
I don’t fill in my own report card at the end of the year! For me it’s crucial that what they have learned has a long term impact rather than just passing an exam at the end of the year. Therefore I try to keep in touch with my pupils after they have left school to see how they are getting along. I’ve only been teaching for four years therefore I still need more time to be able to evaluate what I’ve achieved for my kids. Ultimately for me, teaching is not a job – it’s a vocation.
After leaving school do you think there is enough assistance in Belgium to help your pupils into the job market?There are sufficient courses provided by the job centres in how to write a letter of application or how to prepare for an interview. However, the challenge has been to motivate my pupils to go out and use these services, as they are used to just operating within their own environment. In terms of skill based training, my books recommends that companies with over 10 employees should be obliged to take on a trainee. We should remove the regulatory obstacles to enable this to happen. We can also learn best practice from our neighbours in Luxemburg where employers can register available traineeships on a website allowing employers to come in direct contact with trainees without the need for intermediaries.
Do you think the education kids receive prepares them for the world of work, like what’s the point of Latin?
For me the world of education should include subjects that increase the general knowledge of students and subjects that have a more specific application for the work place. There is a subject I teach, ‘Working in an office’, which includes knowing how to file papers. Please, paper files! We need to ensure courses are relevant to the world of computers.
Apart from TEDxGhent and your book, have you any other plans to promote your work?
I am currently setting up a non-profit organisation called Teach For Belgium. This scheme is based on the teaching initiatives in the US, Teach For America and Teach First in the UK. The objective of the Teach For Belgium is that every children will achieve great academic results regardless of their socio-economic background.
Pierre Pirard will be one of the speakers at TEDxGhent 2013, the 22nd of June at De Bijloke. Curious about the rest of our full day program & the other 17 inspirational speakers?
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What an inspiring TEDX talk! I want all teachers to see this, perhaps on a staff day instead of the usual uninspiring ‘admin’ work!