Wednesday, 13 August 2014

A letter to an English teacher on results day

One of my most popular posts on the blog has been my letter to an NOT. It is here, if you haven't read it yet. Given the current state of play with the English exams, I felt it necessary to blog about it as we await the forthcoming results.


Dear English teacher,

At the moment, I can’t predict how the exam results will go for my class, my department, my school, my county or even the rest of the country. I can guess, I know that, but it isn’t a secure guess. Some people have given me the look of doom, usually associated with someone awaiting an execution. Other people have given me a positive ‘thumbs up’. Yet, still I don’t know what the outcome will be. Positive. Negative. In the middle. All I know is that some action will take place based on the results.

Never before in my umpteen years of teaching have I faced such uncertainty or such doubt. Even Twitter is torn. I have seen tweets predicting low grade boundaries, whilst other tweets have highlighted the letter from OFQUAL, suggesting wide variations nationwide. Some people predict a positive outcome because of the General Election next year. Other people predict that Gove’s raising the bar will mean that we are in for another frugal year of high grades.

Whatever will happen, there will be something that always occurs: the personalisation of the results. We, as teachers, will always see that the results are a direct result of our work and our ability to teach. We can’t help but see the results as our own child – our responsibility, our lifeblood. The sad thing is that some teachers will see the results of affirmation that they are the best teacher in the world. For others they will see the results as confirmation that they are the worst teacher in the world. The sad thing is that education isn’t so clear cut. The teacher facilitates the learning, but there are other factors that inhibit success that suddenly are forgotten about when results day arrives and we ponder and procrastinate on what has happened.

Three years ago it was me when there was the furore over the grading boundaries changing. I had a set that was predominately C/D grade students. A slight change in the grade boundaries and a class like that suffers incredibly. For the last two years, I have seen what it has done to a teacher’s confidence and their faith in the system with other colleagues in different schools. Therefore, I think it is handy to remember the following points:

[1] The GCSEs and A-levels represent the teaching over the years and not just the last two years

I have seen people get endlessly stressed before the exams over not fitting everything in to the course. There is a ‘do or die’ fear over teaching. What we have sadly forgotten is that GCSE results reflect teaching over time. The teaching they had in Year 7 is just as vital as the teaching they had in Year 11. In fact, in some cases, I think the teaching in Year 7 is more important than the teaching in Year 11.

From an English point of view, if they were taught something well in Year 7, then I am only revising it in Years 10 and 11, and securing that knowledge. Year 10 and Year 11 is not a blank slate. Students come to us knowing some stuff and having some skills already for they step through the door. Think about the journey they have been on to get to the exam. Has it been a consistent, focused journey? Or, has it been a journey with many odd bits to it? Or, has it been two years of damage control?

The GCSE result reflects on 5 different teachers and the primary teachers too. Not one sole teacher that picked them up after Christmas because a teacher went on maternity leave.

[2]  There are far more things in the world than are dreamt of in your philosophy!

This links in to the previous point, but it is one that needs commenting on. What is the overview for the teaching of the subject? I have witnessed many different models in many different schools of teaching English. Some have been effective. Some sadly have not be as effective as others. The problem is, and I mean this to not be patronising, the overview. There is much more to the teaching of English than a classroom teacher might see. What is the direction that students go on? Is there a clear direction?

Has the teaching prior to the GCSE exams been focused on ticking boxes? Or has the teaching be focused on developing and refining skills? The transition from one year group to another is so important. The differentiation between year groups is vital. Get this wrong and you could be repeating things for the sake of things. Classroom teachers might see bits of this, but is the Head of Department that should have this overview. I recall one HOD stating (correctly in my opinion) that the novel should have a different focus for each year – character / setting / theme.  The overview is important.    


 [3] They are TEENAGERS!

Teachers are expected, at times, to work miracles. Teenagers don’t always do what you tell them to do – FACT! We are expected to help them to secure a high grade, yet they will not include quotes in every answer. I have said that until I am blue in the face this year. The one time the student listened; they did really well. Yet, times that by thirty and you are doing quite a lot of nagging over the simplest of things.

And, a lot of parents struggle to get teenagers to tidy their room, so is it any wonder that we struggle, as teachers, to get them to read the question carefully before answering it. Reading a question carefully is a doodle compared to tidying their bedroom. Still they don’t do it.

[4] They are TEENAGERS who think they know best

The joy of being a teenager – Oh I remember the days – is that you feel invincible and strong. You also feel that you know best. Everything is in the present. The future is something only adults think about   - note: that doesn’t apply to everyone. The number of teenagers that leave revision or preparation for the final exams to the week before an exam is monumental. Why? Because, everything is about the here and now.

One of the funniest things (or saddest things) I heard a student say was:

‘I am not going to revise ‘cos I’ll see what result I get in the mock exam. That will tell me how much work I’ve got to do’.

Of course, there is some logic in there. Whereas, most of us are cautious and try to do our best and prepare and play the ‘long-game’, the average teenager will prioritise in terms of time. The number of students I have seen dramatically improve their effort because the exam is a month away! By then, it is often too late.


[5] We are teaching human beings

Predicted grades are hilarious. They are based on probability a student achieved a level in KS2 is likely to produce this grade. One school I worked in decided to go for aspirational grades, which basically meant everyone was down for getting an A. Interestingly, they didn’t all get A grades.

A prediction for a student is generally based on a student working consistently well or consistently improving over the years. There’s something big and fat that gets in the way of this: Life! What predicted grades do not consider is that life changes things for people. The things in an average teenager's life can affect how they work. Something bad happens at home and this has a direct impact on learning. This doesn’t really equate to predicted grades. Maybe we need to have predicted grades based on different scenarios: predicted grades based on a divorce in the family; predicted grades based on parents being made redundant; predicted grades based on everything in their lives being hunky dory.

The majority might get their target grades, but there is a hefty number that will not get their predicted grades and that is through no fault of our own as teachers. Unless it is your own child. We never know what is going on in a child’s life and it does have serious repercussions for teaching and learning.


[6] Life can be pants

Thanks to the death of the modular system this thing will occur more often. A student could work really hard and do really well all year and then when it gets to the final exam they fail – and they fail badly. It happens. They might have misread the question. They may have missed a question.

Life does that. You prepare for everything and then something goes wrong. Sadly, this doesn’t always factor in with discussions in schools, but students can have a bad day.


[7] English is more than the subject you teach in the lessons

The growing concern I have is that English has been made, thanks to APP and other aspects, to be a clear, neat subject. In fact, it is a messy and complex blob of great stuff. The things we teach in lessons only touch the surface of what students need to succeed or become great in the subject.

I always say to students that they need to read and write at home on a regular basis to become better writers. Yet, how many do that? The A* students generally will do that and… ummm that is usually what makes them an A* student.

Students often see the subject as the cramming of knowledge. The mad panic to remember silly acronyms or names of key themes in a text are always the things student panic about close to the exam. What they rarely do is think, and ponder things. Instead, it is cram, cram and cram knowledge. That knowledge is good, but it is what you do with that makes it so important. Did the student think outside your lesson?

I teach English, but I get students to think.

[8] The demands of other subjects

I love all the subjects that are taught in schools – yes, I am buttering things up. But, students prioritise subjects. Their revision timetable can be governed by their future options, but it is often governed instead by the subjects they favour, or they perceive as an easy win. English, sadly, for some lads can be neglected, because they see it as a done deal. They can read. They can write. So, what have they got to learn or revise?  

[9] The position of English in the school

Let’s be honest about things. English can and does get a rough deal in schools. I was sat at a meeting and we all agreed that usually Year 11 or Year 10 English lessons often occur last thing in day. It was unanimous that this happened in several schools. The thing I would raise is what is the school doing to raise the importance of Maths, English and Science. The Core subjects are the ones that reflect most in a school’s performance. So, what is the school doing to support this? Too many times things are directed to lessons and to teachers, but there needs to be a whole school culture towards these subject areas.

Do well in English and you are more likely to do well in other subject areas.

[10] The drive of the students

English matters to schools as it could affect Ofsted’s decision to come in and harass a school, but what does English matter to a particular student?

What does it matter to the student that has been offered a place in college without a grade C in English?

What does it matter to the student that will work for his uncle’s firm when he leaves school?

What does it matter to the student that know he will redo GCSE English in college next year as it is offered as part of the incentive to join the course?  

What does it matter to the student whose parents will be happy with whatever they get as long as they behave?


In our hearts, we want the student to fulfil their potential, but that can fall on deaf ears if the student isn’t driven. Consequences and action form part of this drive. No drive and we are struggling.

[11] The Exam System

I have more faith in the existence aliens on other planets than the current, and future, exam systems. I have had to tell students half-way through the course the weighting of an exam had increased by 20%. Every school that teaches AQA will be in the same boat. Just when we are getting our head around the new regime, we are dealt this blow. As with most things in the exam system, you look at the past and try to build on what has happened before. This year we don’t have a Scooby Doo what the grading criteria will look like, as there never has been a weighting like this. Yes, we can predict and we can guess.

This year we can’t securely say what students might achieve, because we don’t know because things were changed half-way through the GCSE course.



If students did everything you asked them to, then I’d be happy about performance related pay. But, they don’t. They are individuals with their own minds, dreams, issues and anxieties. Like spaghetti, you can’t separate things, you can only be the sauce on top that hopeful infuses everything together.


This blog could be seen as a teacher’s way of getting out of a bad set of results; it isn’t. It is an exploration of how one set of results doesn’t show the true picture of what is really going. Students are just numbers to some people and this blog, hopefully, shows you that there is much more to that number. Before anybody judges you or you teaching based on results, give them the full picture.


I didn’t spend the last year with my feet up showing video after video. I taught my students the best I could. But, do you know what? Whatever the results next week, there will be one thing I will be thinking of, and it is something every good teacher will be thinking of: what do I need to do to make things better next year?  


Thanks for reading,

Xris

14 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post, Chris - you say some really important things here and, whatever the results yesterday, I'm sure there are plenty of English teachers out there who will find this reassuring.

    Just one observation from my experience. At the end of the first year of my time as Head of English, our GCSE English results were really disappointing - though the Lit results were OK. It was my first year and I felt terrible. I felt responsible, and as a young HoD thought everyone would blame me. I thought the results were unreliable (the discrepancy between English and English Lit was revealing, for a start) and talked to the head about challenging them, but she said no - she was of the 'We mustn't make a fuss' mentality.

    I was HoD for four years and, without false modesty, I know I did a good job in that role. We SHOULD have challenged the marking that year. I went on after that to be Head of Sixth Form, then Deputy Head, and Head. And as head I vowed that if ever a HoD said we needed to challenge a set of results, we would (and we did!)

    It's easy looking back to be philosophical about the experience, but I remember that results day/that summer, how demoralised I felt, and how it shook my confidence.

    You're absolutely right that we have to hold our nerve, keep our head up and just ask, "what do we need to do to make things better next year?" WHATEVER the results overall. We also need to personalise, as you say, and think about what each result means for each individual and how we can support them. That's what it's all about!

    Thanks again for the post.

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  2. Thanks so much for putting into words what so many of us think. From some of your choice or words, I don't think you are in the US, and that makes me sad because it shows that teachers in multiple countries are experiencing the same stresses and frustrations as we are here. I want to share your letter and hope you don't mind.

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  3. Jill Berry, were you Head of Sixth at QEHS in Gainsborough in the 90s? If you were, you taught me! Caroline Earl (was Rogers).

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  4. I WAS, Anonymous - and I remember you! Do you use Twitter? Follow me to reconnect, if so! @jillberry102.

    I hope life is treating you well!

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    1. I thought it must be you, your pic shows you haven't changed a bit in the past 20 years! Amazed if you do remember me though, it was a very long time ago. Life treating me pretty well thank you, have been teaching English for 15 years at a school in Chesterfield where I am Second in Department. Only saw this blog by chance as a friend posted the link on Facebook, then spotted your comment underneath. Agree with the points in the blog and was very interested in your response too. Will always remember your amazing lessons and your help when I was applying for university. My memory of being at secondary school is all pretty blurred now, but I do remember those things! I have a Twitter account so will attempt to reconnect with you, though I'm something of a novice with it. Caroline

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    2. Hi again, am now 'following' you though can't seem to find a way of actually sending you a message, or even work out if it's possble! Will persevere. Caroline

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    3. Stick with Twitter, Caroline - it's a great resource for teachers and school leaders at all levels!

      Just send a tweet which includes @jillberry102 and I will know it's you and then I can follow you back. I'm in Newark so if you're only in Chesterfield let's arrange to meet for a coffee and a catch up.

      Chris - so sorry to hijack your blog for #teachersandpupilsreunited!

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  6. Haha! Good points to remember! Such complex things involved in teaching, right? Thanks for sharing!

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  9. Dear Xris,

    You make many valid and pertinent points, and yes you all had our sympathies three years ago when the whole thing went up in the air, however I feel that many who read your piece will be left feeling that this is another example of a teacher hiding behind rhetoric rather than stepping up to the plate.
    Why would one want to avoid a fair system where at least a part of the whole view of a teachers performance comes from the exam results achieved by those in their charge. An we return now to a very valid point and that being the fact that a GCSE result can have input from as many as five teachers. At this point we need to consider that we should be measured / assessed by the throughput achieved and the 'Value Added' from our teaching and not by the summative data. This would be useful because colleagues would become interested in prior performance but perhaps more interestingly in prior learning and the gaps in that learning this would provide an admirable platform for the competent teacher to move their pupils forward and inspire them to achieve past their SMART targets.

    Hope this helps ease your pain

    John E

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  10. John, thank you for the comment. In response to your comment, people will interpret things how they want and I don't have control of that.

    There should be a level of accountability and the GSCE results and others are a measure of that. The issue is how that accountability is used. Rightly so we should be pushing students and improving education. As you allude to here, accountability is about asking questions and looking for solutions. It is how that accountability is used in schools that I want to address. There is so much behind one grade result. Questions should be asked and should have been apparent on the journey. The questions should be regularly asked. The problem is that isn't the case. We have a lot of schools who will react and blame as a result of tomorrow's results, rather than constantly review and question.

    Cheers

    Chris



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