I know that what I do works.
I know, albeit from just over five short years of experience, that the way I teach children English works. Students enjoy coming to English. They do what I tell them to do. They interact with ideas. They put up their hands, give responses when prompted, discuss when directed, and smile lots. They make good progress, sometimes excellent, progress.
Before, when I was challenged about my practice, I would probably have said something similar to the above.
Now, I am not so sure this is a valid response. Because there is a second, unsaid and often unconsidered half to this sentence.
I know what I do works… But at what cost?
I mark every student’s book every week, unless they are ill when I take them in. In addition to this, I mark any essays or assessments students have done, whether for a pre-decided mock exam or assessment point, or simply exam practice. When I made the change from fortnightly marking to weekly marking, I saw a dramatic improvement in my students’ progress.
But at what cost?
I have marked, for the last five years, constantly. I have marked in free periods, before and after school, at home, during the weekend and even on flights. Some might say this is the inescapable fate of the English teacher. Yet now I am on a very light timetable, with very small classes, and my marking load appears undiminished. Although what I do works, would I want it to be replicated by every teacher in my team on a full timetable? Absolutely not. If I were to continue in this way, would I remain in the profession? Absolutely not.
If the cost of student progress is teacher burnout, it cannot be worth it.
Last year, as Head of English, I checked student data weekly for exam classes. That is because it was constantly changing, what with redrafted coursework, completed Speaking and Listening exams and constant teacher-assessed mock essays and exams. Using this data, I picked out students and created personalised intervention plans. I would confidently estimate that there is practically no year 11 student who was not in some way “intervened” with.
I have given up before school time, after school time, lunchtime, Saturdays, half-terms and Easters over the years. I have altered entire holidays to fit in with a schedule of revision, to the point of cancelling and re-booking flights.
Our students achieved phenomenal results; only King Solomon Academy achieved better in English the year before last for schools in London with comparable amounts of students receiving free school meals.
But at what cost? If I knew I would have to run intervention in this way until retirement, would I stay in this profession? Absolutely not. Do I want to stop running intervention and instead delegate it to my team, asking them to similarly give up weekends and holidays? Absolutely not.
And what of the students? Tired, stressed, but well-prepared; what happens to these students at sixth form? At university? Learning there will always be “extra” put on for them can’t incentivise them to make the most of lesson time.
If the cost of student progress is complacent students and teacher exhaustion, it cannot be worth it.
All the activities
I used to spend hours lesson planning. I would research existing plans and resources, cross-referencing with other teachers’ and TES resources, and trying to make every lesson an individual snowflake, never repeating the same series of activities. I would ensure there was something for everyone, and plenty of opportunities for students to talk together, research independently, collaborate and postulate together. I would review their “learning” and value the “ideas” they came up with, however ill-founded; however misunderstood.
I have had students carouselling, moving, making, standing, dancing, clapping, acting, advocating, laughing, enjoying and even learning while they did this.
And those students did achieve good results.
But at what cost? How many Cs could have been Bs, Bs As, if I had stopped cramming in activities for the sake of engagement and fun, and started simply telling students what they needed to know, and then testing to make sure they had learned it?
Would I have still been addressing classic misconceptions after 3 years of teaching the same class – no, Shakespeare was not a Victorian; no, that’s not where you put a comma…
With my year 10 intervention class last year I tried something different. Shocked by their lack of knowledge and understanding, their lack of retention, I relentlessly talked to them, got them to write independently and then quizzed them. It was a massive uphill struggle, but that struggle was as much against pre-conceived expectations of what their lessons should look like and the expectations I should have of what they were able to access as it was about changing what they remember. And while I struggled on, students knew more, could explain articulately, and could remember and apply challenging concepts. It was far from perfect, but I haven’t seen better progress previous to employing these methods.
If the cost of student engagement is student learning, it cannot be worth it.
We have a responsibility to students, and a responsibility to ourselves. We must be open to new ideas, to new approaches. The proof is in the results: certain methods lead to increased student achievement, happier teachers and a more workable system of education. Whether what I do works is irrelevant – it must work, be sustainable, and lead to the best possible student results.
So the next time someone dismisses your ideas by telling you “I know that what I do works”, you can bite your tongue and keep doing what you do, reaping the benefits for yourself and your own students, or you can ask: at what cost?