At what cost?

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?

Marking

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.

Intervention

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?

Being the teacher Year 10 deserve

I have what has been termed as an “intervention” group in year 10. Last year, when making the set lists, I decided to make a top set and then mix the rest of the year; it was then decided that certain students would take one less GCSE and have three extra lessons a week: one in English, two in Maths. So the two intervention groups came about, and I took one.

Why do these students need extra English? It’s not because they’re stupid – but then, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a stupid child. It’s not because they’re illiterate, although I do wish they would read more. They seem to be behind their peers, in terms of their raw data, and for that I can think of many reasons, which I would imagine are the same reasons any “intervention” child is behind. What it boils down to is time and effort. At some point, for some reason, these students have lost time in English. They have missed lessons, or they have been in lessons in body only. Many of them aren’t the well behaved angel children I am accustomed to dealing with (joking – though my year 11 class does seem fairly rammed with angels).

The bottom line is that these children deserve the best teacher. They have to cover more ground in less time; they have less than two full years, and time is ticking.

But I’m filled with doubt. Am I the teacher they deserve? Can I dedicate enough time, energy and effort myself? With all my other classes exam classes, with running a department, and with the additional responsibilities of being a member of the SLT, can I be that teacher?

These children need to be inspired. They need to feel awe and wonder in their English lessons. They need to be thirsty for knowledge, keen to read and learn and close the gap. Can I muster the energy to inspire them six times a week?

These children need to be nurtured. They need to be comforted when things go wrong, they need to feel safe in my classroom, they need to know that they have the space to get things wrong because that is what learning is. They need to be cared for, and their parents need to be told when they are wonderful, every time they are wonderful. Can I care for each and every child individually?

These children need to be in the room. They might behave in ways which eventually lead to being sent out, but when they do that in every lesson every week, it is clear that they are desperate to avoid the learning. They need to be sanctioned in multiple ways, outside classroom time, and those sanctions need to be both horrible and long. Can I improve my planning and pedagogy to the extent that I can ensure no-one needs to be sent out of my classroom? Can I follow up every sanction relentlessly?

These children need to receive excellent feedback. They need to fill their books with work they are proud of, with paragraphs that improve every week, where they understand the next steps towards achieving in English. Can I mark every book every week, let alone every lesson, with comprehensible guidance to lead them in the right direction?

I don’t think there is a teacher in the world who hasn’t had a class like my year 10. In fact, there probably isn’t a teacher anywhere in the world who doesn’t have this class right now: the class where every moment is vital, every interaction make or break, every comment taken to heart. This week, I have invited teachers into my lessons and taken their feedback, tracked down students in between lessons to smooth over issues, phoned parents and re-read parts of my go-to teacher manual Teach Like a Champion before and after every class. Next week there will be more visitors to the class, and more phone calls, more emails, more marking, more reading, more encouraging, more consoling, more understanding.

Things are improving, but I’m not the teacher they deserve.

Yet.

The hardest term

I remember keenly the late March, early April of my first year of teaching. My colleagues, buffeted and disheartened, seemed to be clawing their way through Spring 2 as I blithely looked on, just getting into my teacher stride, wondering why everyone else was having such a hard time of it.

That was the only year of my teaching career I haven’t had an exam class. Now I know. I firmly believe that the Spring term, although it begins calmly enough, is the hardest term, crescendoing into Spring 2 with a the strength of many tornadoes.

Here are some reasons why:

1. Deadlines

All of a sudden, these become very real. I started a countdown in my diary (40 days until language coursework call-up, 30 days until Speaking and Listening exams need to be completed, 20 days to sort out the Literature Controlled Assessment) to try to keep all of these straight. Throw in a bit of self-evaluation and it’s suddenly deadline city. I quickly cancelled as many learning walks/book looks/student surveys as I could get away with. In fact, what was I thinking? In the future, Spring 2 should contain no superfluous deadlines.

2. Coursework/controlled assessment

The above deserves double, if not triple, mention here. It’s all about your students having the strongest portfolio to show the exam board what they can do. A folder which was looking fine to me in November suddenly appears to be full of gaping errors and misplaced apostrophes. Re-drafting (or re-writing) happens in all the snatched time you can find. Other subjects begin to grumble. Year 11 students become gold-dust.

3. Revision becomes crucial

Those gold-dust year 11s who are borderline in your subject also seem to be borderline in everyone else’s, and the bidding war begins. What was previously “only English on a Tuesday” turns into fierce bartering, as actually we’d like the students Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week for Controlled Assessment; so I need to give up some year 11s to you next week. Who’s keeping the revision attendance to inform parents of who was there, not there, and excused on this occasion? Oh that’s me. My spreadsheet begins to look labyrinthine. I have to translate this into something digestible for SLT. They look at me with quizzical faces in the relevant meeting. Even I can’t make it out anymore. I also feel like I spend my life on the phone to parents, chasing children and barring the door at 3.20pm so they can’t leave until I have imparted precious wisdom.

4. Crunch time

The pressure piles onto the poor, crucial year group and you see some children absolutely fly. In our final assembly, I was hard pressed to make a list of 33 amazing students turn into a feasible number to meaningfully reward with lovely stationary treats for being so fantastic. And then there are the others, who crushingly give up. I was reminded by someone far wiser than I on Friday that it is “always our job to believe in them, especially when they don’t believe in themselves.”

5. They’re tired, you’re tired; behaviour happens

Which means exclusions, reports, internal referral and more phone calls home, leaving teachers doubly tired for the next lesson and primed for more behaviour to happen.

6. The fun stuff is over

Well, maybe not over, but definitely paused. No switching rooms with the person in the drama studio to have a real go at some practical work with year 7 – the tiny classroom will have to do as I don’t have the time to organize anything beyond turning up with my wares and ideas. Trips also feel like a far-off memory – I’ve taken only two this term, and each (while marvelous and enriching) nearly killed me.

Do I sound pessimistic? I don’t mean to; I’m just tired, like every other teacher in the country, particularly those with exam classes.

I share this in the knowledge that we are not alone; we are all part of a shared effort to get young people to the best possible position, so we leave as little up to the chance of the exam day as possible. Our students lead hectic lives, and by this point in the year, with some, it becomes apparent that so little of what really matters is within our control as teachers.

Yet I feel a renewed sense of purpose: after all this work, from students and teachers, parents and leadership, how can all the lovely children not reach their target grades? I’m hoping it is enough, and I’m hoping they can keep going for just two more months.