There are some students who storm into your teaching life, and you know immediately: they’re going to be fine. They will have issues and problems and troubles, of course; they will have tantrums and bad days and choice words used at the wrong time, of course; they will miss detentions and not read enough and worry about you calling home, of course. But they will be fine.
By “fine”, of course, I mean, they won’t have any problems reaching the C-grade we teach them to dream of. They’ll almost certainly achieve B grades. You’ll spend your teaching time trying to stretch them towards the A grades; reminding them that you can’t give them the answers, trying to make them become independent thinkers. I’m not saying those students are easy. But they will be fine, in the sense that there is no scenario in which they won’t be picking up a string of B to A grades at GCSE with the odd C (bad day?), and dancing on to sixth form, followed by university.
And then there are these kids. I’m not sure why they’re so behind, because we’ve had them in our year 7, 8 and 9 classes and done a bit of huffing and sighing because they don’t seem to be anywhere near a level 5 for three years of trying; in fact, for three years of trying they seem to be stuck on the same level they came to us on. And while we know that’s not good enough, what did we do? With the best of intentions, we “tried our best”, which means we did more when we could, and when we couldn’t, we felt guilty, because we teach six classes English four times a week, and there are only so many hours in the day, and we’re teachers so we work all of them. No-one was filing their nails when they could have been helping these kids.
So, we’re not sure what happened, but here they are: in some crucial year group, languishing at the very bottom of the scale. Except they’re often not here; so often are they excluded or kept out of lessons or bunking in the toilets or bunking at home or genuinely sick but sick so much of the time you’re not sure they even have an immune system.
What can we do?
I once sat at a parents evening waiting for these kids. It seemed as if every “fine” child in the year group had turned up, while “these kids” hadn’t. Where were they? Would I ever know? And I would call the next day, and not get any answer, or leave a message that wouldn’t be returned, or hear an incorrect number tone.
And you know, there aren’t many of these kids. In fact, they’re an incredibly tiny number, and an infinitesimally small proportion of what will be our A-C achievement that will judge us as a school.
So what can we do? And if we do nothing, will anyone notice?
After that parents evening, I came home devastated. I couldn’t get through to “these kids”, I couldn’t get through to their parents, I couldn’t get anyone else to care as caring too much with “these kids” will only end in hopelessness. These kids are doomed. They turn up in year 7 with nothing; they leave in year 11 with nothing.
The next day, I went to visit the new teacher. It was Friday, period 6, and I’d just spent the previous lesson with some of these kids. Not too many; two were sick, one was AWOL, one excluded, and another suspiciously in school for all the other lessons that day. During the lesson, we’d practised listening to others without speaking, we’d learned that board markers shouldn’t be used on school property, and we’d been reminded that we definitely don’t throw our property across the room, and definitely definitely not at another student.
And then, in the new teacher’s classroom, there was calm, focused endeavour. Those children were all on the right path, hurtling ahead, doing the right thing without question. Because the new teacher had set up her classroom to ensure that all would achieve, and she was reinforcing those expectations, and she was firmly challenging them to do better, and they were internalizing her messages, her belief, her expertise.
So I have to do better by these kids. I have to transform my classroom. They have to want to be there, and their parents have to want to take my call, because what I will say will be meaningful. I have to learn from the new teacher, who gives me great hope that what happens in the classroom can make all the difference for these kids. I have to hope my classroom can start to be enough.