The key to motivation?

What is the secret to self-motivation? As a teacher who specialised for 21 years in secondary education, it would be very easy for me to point at today’s teenagers and remark upon their lack of personal motivation, but was I really any different? Am I really so different now? Many parents bemoan their child’s lack of self-motivation when it comes to study and I feel their pain, I really do. When what seems like a relatively small amount of extra effort on a child’s part would make such a difference to their outcomes, it can be really difficult to comprehend why they simply won’t do it.

Since hitting a rather alarming round number in years, I have found myself becoming more concerned with what longterm life-limiting problems I might be storing up for myself (assuming I am privileged enough to make it into later life, of course). Watching my parents age has been an education and in the last few months I have done what I always do when something is on my mind: I have done some reading about it. To date, I have always told myself that cardiovascular fitness is the only thing that really matters for longterm health and that so long as I’m walking briskly on a regular basis then all will be well; since looking at the facts, I have had to admit to myself that my beliefs on this are simply wrong. All the information we have shows an undeniable correlation between muscle strength and the ability to maintain independent living, so my hitherto scathing attitude towards anything even remotely gym-related requires some serious review. I have read about the importance of building muscle strength in relation to one’s ability to move freely and independently as one ages, as well as how it intertwines with building up one’s balance to prevent the risk of falls.

Right, I thought. Resistance training, here I come. But the gym is way too scary, so I watched a few YouTube videos from the comfort of my chair and tried a few exercises … and it’s just so hard! You’re using muscles you never knew you had, you’ve no idea whether you’re doing it right or not, your thighs start to tremble and you end up retreating to the sofa, while the cat looks at you as if you’ve just humiliated yourself in the worst way possible. As one friend put it, “the trouble with exercise is, you might feel great once it’s over, but I also feel pretty great on the sofa watching Netflix, so feeling great isn’t quite the pull-factor that everyone says it is.” This is perhaps the downside of currently feeling in relatively good health. Believe me, in theory, I’m motivated: I am worried about my longterm health and I want to fix that by taking action. But how does one take that desire and channel it into real action, when those actions are so alien, so difficult and so uncomfortable, and the theoretical longterm benefits feel such a long distance away? For perhaps the first time in years, I’m gaining an insight into how my students may feel about their learning.

Fortunately, I have another friend on hand, who is going to help. This friend is properly into fitness in a way that none of my other friends have ever been. She has hired a personal trainer to guide her through strength training in recent months and (even more scarily) she’s got all the kit – her house is full of alarming equipment. On Monday, I went round to her house wearing some secondhand pumps and my Primark leggings and was introduced to squats, lunges, push-ups and weight training. Suffice to say, while my friend sauntered about, demonstrating seemingly impossible moves without so much as breaking a sweat, I was a quivering wreck within minutes. When attempting the final push-up I collapsed onto the mat, unable to perform the downward pass. “Good,” she said, laughing. “That’s when you know you’ve done about the right number.”

All of this has reminded me just how impossibly hard it is to motivate yourself to do something that you find really difficult. You can give yourself as many pep talks as you like, it’s never likely to be enough. I need my friend to teach me how to do the moves correctly in an environment in which I’m comfortable (she understands that I’m somewhat dubious about a trip to the gym). I need her to tell me whether I’m getting it right, both to prevent injury and to ensure that the exercise is working as it’s meant to. I also need her to push me into doing it another few times when previously I had given up because it was getting so difficult – while we’re not quite talking “no pain, no gain”, it is true that when it comes to strength training, you should be pushing yourself to the point when it feels like you can’t do it any more. All of this is simply too difficult and too frightening to do on your own, when you have no experience with such things.

All of this started on Monday and the state I was in afterwards illustrates just how much work I have yet to do on myself. On Tuesday I was in agony with what I am reliably informed is called “DOMS” – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness; on Wednesday I was basically crippled and had to take the stairs while using the bannisters like a pair crutches. Today is slightly better – I can do the stairs, although not without yelping with every single step. In terms of motivational pep talks I have mentally pointed out to myself that this is in fact a little bit of a taster as to what life will be like in 30 years’ time if I don’t keep this up.

As I embark on my quest to gain muscle strength this has been a sobering reminder that motivating oneself is not at all easy. It has illustrated to me how near impossible it is without the training, guidance and support of somebody else, which forms a significant part of what I do as a tutor. I have always believed that motivation comes from success, not the other way around – motivation is simply too hard without some kind of inkling and insight into what gains it might bring you. In order to motivate someone to do something difficult or painful, whether they’re 15 or 50, it’s simply not enough to tell them that they can do it; we need to show them that they can, and cheer from the sidelines as they do so.

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Is it really too easy?

One of the many joys of tutoring is the time and space it affords you to check out whether a student understands basic concepts. This does not only mean basic academic concepts, such as the differnce between the subject and the object; it also means looking at some of the ostensibly simplest sorts of questions on the exam papers and making sure that they know how to go about them.

Teachers of Latin GCSE are under enormous pressure to get through the syllabus content in the time they have available. Latin classes – certainly in state schools – often start from a position of disadvantage, having already had a limited number of teaching hours at Key Stage 3; some GCSE classes even start ab initio. The exam board then demands that a huge amount of complex material is covered, including a ludicrous amount of real Latin literature. The reality of this means that class minutes are at a premium, and teachers will move rapidly over basic concepts and may even assume that simple questions are understood and do not require practice. Often, as a direct result of this, key marks are lost due to small misconceptions or a lack of clarity in a student’s mind when it comes to how to approach such questions.

This week I finally got around to reading the Examiners’ Report from 2023 and their comment on the derivatives question really leapt out at me. It said, “this question is designed to be accessible to candidates of all abilities, and most scored at least 2 marks.” Personally, I find this utterly delusional on the part of the examiners. How, pray tell, is a question accessible to all candidates when it relies on a breadth of literacy and general knowledge not covered in the syllabus itself? And how is a score by many of 50% on this question indicative that it was indeed accessible? The comment is simply astonishing and I’m afraid it betrays yet again how out of touch the world of Classics is with reality. I have worked with a variety of students who have been scuppered by the derivatives question and their struggle is due to one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Students do not know their Latin vocabulary well enough to be able to access the question. You can’t come up with a viable derivative if you don’t know what the Latin word means. This is more complex than it perhaps sounds, as the word is often presented in a form that is different from the one they have learnt e.g. dabat from the verb do), meaning that candidates who find the subject challenging will probably struggle to recognise it.
  2. Students are EAL (English as an Acquired Language) and lack the breadth of English necessary to succeed in this question. They may be performing outstandingly well in the subject, but they have not yet come across the word regal or sedentary.
  3. Students do have English as their first language but are not widely read, meaning that they struggle to come up with derivatives; they might recognise one when it’s pointed out to them, but they find it difficult to reach for one. This means that students for whom reading is modelled and encouraged at home are at a huge advantage, which is one of the main reasons why the examiners’ assertion that this question is “accessible” really grinds my gears.
  4. Students have simply not been taught how to approach this question, or if they have been shown how they have not practised it at length. Teachers rarely spend a significant amount of time doing so because they assume (like the examiners do) that the question is easy. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, it may be time they do not have. In my experience to date, the best schools practise deivations from the very beginning of Key Stage 3, and this is certainly the best way to embed the knowledge for GCSE.

Some students really do have no problem with the derivatives question, and when that’s the case I leave them to it. These students are always highly literate and usually well-read. Unlike them, many students need to be shown multiple examples of derivatives and time needs to be invested in guiding them through the vocabulary list looking for such derivatives – the examiners even recommend this in their notes, yet still cling to the delusion that this question is highly accessible. Believe me, any question that cannot be done without detailed, explicit, one-to-one guidance from an expert is not accessible; teachers do not have time on the curriculum to prep for this question adequately.

Another question that many teachers lack the time to focus on and tend to assume the students will cope with just fine is the 10-marker in the literature papers. Because the question is open-ended and requires no knowledge of the Latin, this question really is accessible in the sense that even students who have struggled with the material should be able to do it; I say “should” because once again there is some guidance required. Students tend to apply what they have been taught about answering other types of questions (even in other subjects) to the 10-marker and this can lead them down the wrong path; answers need to be full of quotations/references but not to the Latin, to the text in translation. There is also no requirement for detailed analysis. I have written about this in more detail here. The 10-mark question makes up 20% of each literature exam: that means it makes up 10% of a student’s entire result – way more than the difference between two grades. It’s definitely worth spending some time on!

It’s a real joy as a tutor to be able to dive into the basics and make sure that students are well-prepared for what they face when it comes to exam time. Questions that the examiners and teachers assume are easy usually are so once you know how to approach them, but it’s that assumed knowledge that I’m interested in. Once a student has been gifted with said knowledge, that’s when they can start to fly.

Photo by Pablo Arroyo on Unsplash

Back to School

It’s been impossible to ignore the start of the school year this September, even for those people with no children and with no connection to the education system. With the scandal of RAAC concrete rocking the country and all of us reeling once again at what can only be described as years of incompetence and underinvestment by government, whatever your political stripe, the start of the new school term and the new school year has been on everyone’s mind.

This academic year feels like a milestone for me. This time last year felt truly surreal, as for the first time I did not return to school as I had done for the previous 21 years. The start of last September was very strange and somehow I didn’t quite believe it was happening; I still had the familiar anxiety dreams, so convinced was my subconscious I would be returning to the chalkface as usual. This year, with some distance in place between myself and the school grounds, I forgot altogether which day my old school was returning (although old colleagues did keep me posted on the usual hilarities of INSET day).

I have enjoyed the summer holiday immensely, working to a different schedule (I only saw clients in the morning) and doing significantly fewer hours compared to my usual schedule. But it also feels great now to be settling back into the routine again and I am loving seeing the return of regular clients as they come back for their old slots and restart the academic year. There is also the excitement of starting to work with new students, especially the ones that I really feel I can help make a difference to; nothing in life is as rewarding as helping a student to turn their performance around.

This year I decided to reflect on what happens in schools at the start of the new academic year and to apply the best and most important aspects of this to my tutoring business. I have refreshed my safeguarding training, a legal requirement for teachers in schools but not something which is (yet) regulated for tutors. I have looked at my results and done some reflection, although one of the joys of one-to-one work is you do not face the surprises and disappointments that inevitably occur across a year group in a school. I have reflected on my own practice, decided what worked best last year and resolved to apply the most effective techniques to all clients. Over the last couple of weeks I have reshaped my daily timetable and applied some lessons learnt from last year about when I work most effectively as well as where demand is highest. FInally, I have reflected on how I can reduce unncessary administration and time-wasting, most especially the time spent on social media, which I have reduced to an absolute minimum; I have put systems in place to mean that I don’t have to engage at all with the platforms which do not bring me joy, namely Facebook and Instagram. That final decision has been rather well-assisted by me smashing up my iPhone (not deliberately, but there is a psychological school of thought that there are no real accidents …); this sparked some further reflection on just how much screen time is truly necessary for running a business like mine and how much of it was mindless, fruitless scrolling in the name of “visibility”, which so many business coaches seem to preach is essential to the success of my business. With a website that performs as well as mine does, I do not find this to be so.

Thus, as I settle in to my second year as a full time, independent, one-to-one tutor, I could not be happier with my role and with the balance I have managed to strike between meaningful employment and a better quality of life. I cannot wait to get on with helping my clients, old and new, and to see what the new academic year will bring.

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Why all teachers should tutor

Many trained teachers try their hand at tutoring: demand is high and the money is useful. I tutored consistently throughout my first few years in teaching, then returned to it when my husband gave up work to re-train. As time went on, however, I found myself bound to it by more than just financial necessity; I came to realise that private tutoring has was having a profoundly positive impact on my work as a classroom teacher.

It may sound absurd, but it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re paid to do in the frenetic world of mainstream education; marking and administrative tasks – not to mention the ever-shifting sands of expectations – can overwhelm you to the point where you lose perspective on what’s actually important. Tutoring reignited my passion for teaching on a fundamental level; not only did it take me back to some essential skills, it made me question the value of some other things that were taking up too much of my time. It made me better at saying “no” to things that impacted upon my ability to perform my teaching role to the best of my ability and – as a direct result – I stepped aside from roles and responsibilities that were in danger of doing so.

Tutoring exposed me to a wider range of specifications and teaching methodologies that were outside of my range of experience. Habits inevitably become entrenched when you teach the same subject in the same system to the same age-group for a number of years: tutoring forced me to think again. When I started tutoring face-to-face in my area, local demand was highest for Common Entrance coaching, so – despite the fact that I was a secondary school teacher – this became a specialism. Finding out what some 10-year-olds were being exposed to and could cope with made me question where I was setting the bar in secondary school; it also made me ask myself some fundamental questions about what, when and why I was teaching the core principles to older students. All of this came at would could not have been a more useful time: a few years prior to OfSted’s new framework and the huge shift towards a focus on curriculum coherence. When all other departments were running around in a panic, asking themselves why they were teaching what they were teaching and in what order they were teaching it, I had already been through that process and had totally refreshed my curriculum from bottom to top.

Perhaps the biggest impact that tutoring had on me while I was still teaching was a powerful shift in mind-set that is hard to quantify. When I started working with some local prep school students, I took several of them from the bottom of their class to the top. What this felt like is hard to convey, but suffice to say it was emphatically empowering. This positivity then filtered into my classroom practice and somehow made me feel as if anything were possible. This is not to say that I was naïve about the fundamental differences between what can be achieved through one-to-one tutoring and what can be realised in the mainstream classroom; but experiencing the irreplaceable value of one-to-one attention forced me to think of ways in which I could provide more of that magic in the classroom, particularly for the school’s Pupil Premium students (those who are defined by the government as coming from disadvantaged backgrounds). Blessed with an excellent trainee teacher most years, I began to take every opportunity to act as an expert Teaching Assistant to our Pupil Premium students in the trainee’s classes, coaching and guiding them to make more progress than they otherwise could.

Tutoring also opened my eyes to the phenomenal value of spaced learning and retrieval practice, as well as to the stark truth about just how much information children will forget once they have been taught it – a topic I have written on many times. That harsh reality fed through into my classroom teaching and fundamentally changed my approach to the basics of whole-class tuition. I introduced some of the exercises that I had created for the one-to-one setting and incorporated them into my classroom practice; I never took for granted that the students would have remembered what I had taught them the day, the week or the month before – I tested them repeatedly on basic knowledge. Once again, this all happened shortly before there was an explosion of this kind of practice in schools. I feel hugely grateful that tutoring gave me a bit of a heads-up.

As a full-time tutor now, with my own business, it seems obvious to say that tutoring has been a major influence in my life. But I would recommend it to any classroom teacher, not necessarily as a potential career shift but as a way of gaining access to new ideas, new experiences and new ways of informing your current classroom practice. If my experience is anything to go by, your performance in the classroom will benefit enormously.

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Back to Basics

One of the best things about tutoring is the time and space to go back to basics. Many students come to me with a list of tricky constructions that they are struggling with, and without question I will address those things in the time I spend with them. More often than not, however, while the student may be requesting help with the ablative absolute or the indirect statement, what I discover is that they don’t even know their basic noun endings.

Over the years I have given a great deal of thought as to why this is so. The discovery – through tutoring – of just how many students this was true for certainly informed my own practice as a classroom teacher. I came to realise that the basics must revisited time and time again before students can claim full confidence and that this was true for all students, not just those that appeared to be struggling. So tutoring completely changed my approach in the classroom, for it gave the the realisation of just how much students naturally forget over time.

Given that Latin is a subject with which most people are unversed, I like to make analogies with subjects that are familiar to all of us. Imagine a child sitting their maths GCSE and trying to cope with the complexities of algebra and trigonometry. Then imagine that same child trying to sit their maths GCSE before they have fully grasped the meaning and process of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Maybe indeed you were that child. Maybe you were pushed through your GCSE or your O level with a shaky grasp of those basics. If you were that child, you will have been frankly terrified of maths as a subject and probably still believe that you’re “rubbish at maths”, all because nobody took the time to ensure that you understood the rudimentary basics. Remember how that felt? That’s what I’m talking about.

One of the first things I always check out when I meet a new student is whether they are confident with the order and meaning of the cases. You wouldn’t believe how many Year 10 or Year 11 students I have worked with who, when asked about this, have absolutely no idea. But what is the point of them learning their noun endings if they don’t know what those endings mean? So I start with a blank table and ask students whether they can tell me which case comes first and what the meaning of that case is. (Answer: nominative, and it’s the subject of the sentence). Most students who are taking GCSE are able to tell me this (although not all). Beyond that, many – not all, but the majority – start to fall apart from there. For example, they cannot remember whether the genitive comes before or after the dative and/or they cannot remember which one means “of” and which one means “to” or “for”. Immediately, therefore, we have a fundamental clue to what the underlying problem is with their approach to any Latin sentence: basically, in reality, they are guessing.

Delving into the gaps in a student’s knowledge like this is an enormous privilege and helping them start to plug those gaps is one of the best things about my job. All of these students have been taught these concepts before but all of them have forgotten that material. This is how memory works and this is why retrieval practice and revisiting past concepts in the classroom again and again is so crucial. Most classroom teachers, it seems to me, are still underestimating the importance of this and the extent to which even the highest of achievers need regular checks on their two times table interwoven with their introduction to the finer points of matrices. But the reality is that no matter how good the classroom teacher, no matter how solid and consistent their use of retrieval practice, there will still be some students who fall by the wayside; this may be due to illness causing absences or it may just be that they find it harder than the rest of the class. And that’s where tutoring comes in.

Sometimes people assume that repetition is boring and that working with lots of students on the same set of fundamentals would also be so. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every child is different and every child that is struggling in the classroom has their own personal and private worries; often a child has an instinct for the fact that they are missing some fundamental pieces of the puzzle but their situation has become so stressful that they feel unable to ask for help. Breaking down those barriers and helping them to grasp the core concepts and knowledge that they need in order to start succeeding is without a doubt the most rewarding thing that I could spend my time doing. Parents often tell me that their increased confidence and improving performance feels like a miracle.

So if your child is struggling with complex material, that is without doubt something which needs addressing. However, it may not be the case that the complex material is where we need to start. After many years of radio silence, I have recently taken up the piano again and am trying to re-learn some complex pieces that I could rattle off without hesitation at the age of 18. What I realised when I started at the music was that I have forgotten some of the most rudimentary bits of knowledge – when there are four sharps in the treble clef, what does that mean? I honestly can’t remember. So, before I can play with confidence, I will have to revisit some of those basics. I know that they will come flooding back, but the reality is that they need to be revised. So, back to basics I go. It will be worth it in the long-run.

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Let us be clear: what teachers could learn from the aviation industry

We in education could learn a great deal from the aviation industry. In fact, most professions could learn a lot from the aviation industry. While so many other professions have a tendency towards a blame-culture and criticism, aviation is built on the principle of learning from its mistakes and implementing procedures to mitigate against them. It is also relentlessly focused on clarity of communcation: for lives literally depend on getting this right.

Last night, my husband and I watched one of a string of documentaries aired on the National Geographic channel, which follow accident investigations in aviation. The accident explored in this particular episode occured all the way back in 1989 and involved a Boeing 707 on an American charter flight from Italy to the Dominican Republic. The flight was making a scheduled stop on the Portugese island of Santa Maria, where it was due to be refuelled. As a result of a series of minor but significant oversights in procedure made both by the flight crew and by the Air Traffic Controller, Flight 1851 came in too low and struck a mountain range, killing everyone on board.

One of the most important things about the way in which investigations are conducted in aviation is that the culture focuses not on finger-pointing but on identifying the factors which led to an accident, so that the findings can be shared within the industry and lessons truly learned. The investigators may make recommendations which lead to a tightening of regulations around pilots’ working hours, a change in how pilots are trained, an adjustment to the design of an aircraft and/or its instruments, a tweak in recommended flight procedures, or all of the above. The approach is a model in how to react under extreme pressure: it does not seek to apportion blame, it aims rather to improve safety for the future, for the benefit of everyone. The pilots who do make errors (and who pay the ultimate price for them) are treated with infinite respect and the investigators do not simply stop at putting things down to “pilot error” and then washing their hands of the incident – they go on to explore why the pilots may have made a particular error, with the ultimate aim of reducing the risk of similar errors occuring again in the future. Were they overtired? Was the information they were receiving unclear or counter-intuitive? Was their training insufficient in this area? Above all, how could we have prevented them from making this mistake? I find this approach genuinely inspiring and I wish other fields would learn from it.

One of the key findings of this particular investigation was that there was a crucial miscommunication between the Air Traffic Controller and the flight crew. The ATC instructed the crew that they were “cleared to three thousand feet” (in other words, that their initial approach should not go below three thousand feet). For several reasons, the First Officer ended up mishearing the instruction as “cleared two thousand feet” and the aircraft was set to the incorrect height. My husband (a trained pilot, as it happens) informs me that this would be less likely to occur now because the advised vocalisations for this particular information have been revised, in an attempt to prevent such misunderstandings; the instruction would now be “you are cleared to altitude three thousand feet” – the word “altitude” must be used immediately before the given height in order to avoid any confusion between words and numbers, an error which in the case of Flight 1851 led to devastating consequences.

While the documentary explored numerous other reasons why the crash ultimately occured and indeed made it clear that the Captain of the flight crew undeniably missed several opportunities to prevent the disaster from happening, the underlying cause of the crash was quite simple – the aircraft came in too low. The miscommunication between the ATC and the flight crew, which was not corrected when it could and should have been, set the aircraft on a collision course with the mountainous terrain towards which it was headed.

Now I for one am jolly glad to be working in a field in which my mistakes are unlikely to cause multiple fatalities and even less likely to be the subject of a documentary on National Geographic some 35 years later. Yet this minor slip which led to such devastating consequences for the flight and its passengers did remind me of a misapprehension which I discovered in a tutee this year. On Flight 1851, the First Officer mistook a word for a number – quite simply, he heard “cleared to” as “cleared two”. Similarly, I realised this year that one of my tutees was convinced that the dative case had something to do with numbers. After a couple of minutes of discussing this with him and trying to explore what was going on, I suddenly realised what had happened: his teacher had (quite rightly) taught his class that the dative case was to be translated as “to” or “for”. My tutee, however, had heard “two” or “four”. He heard numbers instead of words. And he had been royally confused ever since.

Whilst teachers are not making minute-by-minute decisions on which hundreds of lives depend, instead they are laying the foundations for a child’s understanding in their subject. Whilst this is not life-threatening (happily, I can’t think of a single occasion on which a misunderstanding of the dative case has led to multiple fatalities), it is nevertheless important in our line of work, assuming we care about what we do. This particular child’s misunderstanding underlined for me the importance of dual coding, which means using a visual representation of what you are saying as well as a verbalisation: quite simply, if the teacher in question had merely written the words “to” and “for” on the board as they spoke, they would have avoided the misconception that was absorbed and internalised by this particular child.

On one sunny day, during which I took the photograph below, I was very privileged to join my husband on a flight during his training and listen to the impeccably high standard of teaching that he received from his instructor. My advice to all teachers if they want to observe a model in verbal clarity is to take every opportunity that they can to go and listen to people who teach a practical skill. Go and watch a PE teacher setting up a game; watch a science teacher preparing students for an experiment; take a refresher course from a driving instructor; tune in to your coach at the gym. Above all, in your own teaching, remember that every word you use must be carefully thought through and – in an ideal world – that you should take a note of every misconception which does occur and seek to mitigate against it next time by improving your verbal explanation. While I am happy and relieved to say that a child’s life will not depend on your words, their success in your subject absolutely does.

I took this photograph from inside the aircraft in which my husband did much of his training.

What’s wrong with GCSE Latin?

Sometimes you have to step off the treadmill to reflect on what is wrong with the system. After 21 years of preparing cohorts of students for Latin at GCSE level, it has taken me a year or so off the hamster wheel to reflect upon what is wrong with it and how the examination at GCSE level is fundamentally flawed.

To understand how the Latin GCSE fails our students, we first of all need to reflect upon what the purpose is of studying Latin – without this, the decisions made by the exam boards will seem even more incomprehensible than they actually are. First and foremost, forgetting any wild claims to promote excellence, increase vocabulary or whatever else we tell ourselves about our subject, the purpose of studying Latin is to train students to be able to read real Roman texts. This is the end goal and everything else is broadly irrelevant. This inescapable reality is – I believe – why both exam boards and QCA are so irrevocably wedded to the notion that students must study a substantial proportion of “real” Latin texts in order to gain a basic qualification in the subject.

Let us reflect for a moment on what this actually means. Unless a child has attended prep school and studied Latin from Year 5 or 6 onwards, students will have started Latin as a beginners’ subject in Year 7 and will be unlikely to have had more than one hour’s tuition per week in the subject. This may increase margially in Years 8-9, but not by much. Within that space of time, the exam boards are expecting a student entering Year 10 to be prepared to study real Latin texts, a frankly laughable notion. Imagine expecting a student of French to read and understand Voltaire or Maupassant during their GCSE course, when they are still wrestling with the fundamentals of the language.

The argument is often trotted out that modern language students have more to contend with, because they have to work on a wider variety of skills: Latin – being a dead language – does not require students to be tested on speaking or listening. Agreed, these skills take up a huge amount of teaching time for modern linguists that we do not have to dedicate when it comes to an ancient language. Believe me, however, this is more than made up for by the linguistic content required. My first Head of Department once quipped, when I mentioned to him that one of my Year 10 students had suddenly asked when we would learn to tell the time in Latin, that I should have replied “when you have learnt the pluperfect passive subjunctive.” He had a point. (He was right, by the way: the pluperfect passive subjunctive is required at GCSE). Rod, who had only ever taught French and German, had seen the list of grammatical constructions required for GCSE Latin and it never failed to astonish him.

Now that I am on the outside of the school system, working with a large number of GCSE candidates from a variety of schools, I am being exposed to a broad range of approaches from each school. Most of them do what I did and plough through as much of the GCSE language content as they can during the first two terms of Year 10, then start tackling the literature texts in the final term of Year 10 and throughout Year 11. This is the best we can do. I have come across one school that takes longer over the language then expects students to have gained enough linguistic knowledge to tackle the set texts very quickly due to their broader knowledge-base; this is frankly nonsense, given that the language required for the texts goes way, way beyond that required at GCSE for the language paper. Some schools start the texts immediately and encourage students to work on them from the very beginning, but this is rare.

For the unintiated, let us be clear: GCSE candidates do not have anything like the linguistic knowledge required to study the real Latin texts that are prescribed for the GCSE. The only way they can cope with and even borderline understand the texts is to learn the English translation off by heart, a simply mammoth rote-learning task. This is what I spend much of my time supporting students with as many are not given the tools and the skill-set to do this on their own.

This year I had something of an epiphany when working with a handful of independent students. Why do we do it? The requirements for Latin GCSE are so unrealistic that I would go so far as to say that the qualification is wildly inappropriate. My belief that this is the case means that I no longer encourage students to take the qualification as a supplementary subject: it simply is way too much to cope with on top of their regular studies. I do not say this lightly, not least because it will mean I miss out on a significant amount of potential tutoring work. But the truth must be told, and parents of students who have a desire to study Latin independently need to think very long and hard about the reality of what that means and whether they are prepared for the sheer slog that it will entail.

So long as the texts required for GCSE go far beyond the students’ linguistic skills, the only way to prepare for the examination will continue to be to learn the texts off by heart. I shudder to think the number of wasted hours that has been spent on this. One of my skills as a tutor is in helping students with this process, because there are indeed ways in which it can be made less arduous and more manageable. I shall continue to do this, to assist students in their quest to attain top marks in the qualification for which they have been entered. But really – what are we doing it for? Is it really the best way to prepare students for a future in the subject? I do wish QCA and the examination boards would take a long, hard and realisitc look at what they are demanding from 16-year-olds and face up to the reality that their examination in its current form is not really fit for purpose.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Beyond the chalkface

Why I left teaching after 21 years

Yesterday I listened to several panelists explain their journey into tutoring at the Love Tutoring Festival run by Qualified Tutor. Some of them had been a teacher for many years and some of them seem to have disliked it from the start. This got me thinking about my own experiences, for I was someone who loved my job, indeed I felt it had helped to keep me sane in times when I might otherwise have struggled to stay afloat.

No other job takes you out of yourself in quite the way that teaching does. No other job brings you so many laughs per hour, with so much variety woven into it, despite the fact that outstanding teaching can only thrive (in my humble opinion) within watertight perameters and established routines.

Teaching is a wonderful job and it genuinely pains me to see it talked down by the media. It pains me even more to see how the profession is haemorrhaging its own staff – often its best and its brightest – as we helter-skelter into a recruitment and retention crisis of epic proportions. When I left teaching in 2022 I was part of a very depressing set of statistics, as retention reached its worst level in history. There is something very terrible going on.

Some members of the tutoring profession, of which I am now a part, seem to me to have some rather fanciful ideas when it comes to mainstream schooling. Their belief seems to be that there is no “one size fits all” and that provision must be broadened to suit the whim of every child and every parent, to bend its nature to every individual need. The reality – of course – is that this is simply not possible. If the state is to provide a basic education for all children and if that provision is to be free to access – and I cling to the belief that these principles are not up for debate – then we have to provide that education in a setting where it can be delivered to large numbers of students at a time. There really isn’t any other option that works. Sure, you can tweak things around the edges and many schools do outstanding work accessing a variety of provision for individuals that goes beyond that model, but I haven’t yet met a sensible Headteacher that would throw out the model altogther.

One of the main problems in the profession, as I see it now from the outside, is that teachers are our own worst enemy. Whenever we are provided with models that take the pressure off us, we complain. Schools which centralise behavioural systems and provide staff with explicit guidance on how to teach and provide materials to use face complaints that teachers’ autonomy and professionalism is being questioned. It’s all pretty exhausting. I felt that morale was low amongst the teachers that I knew when we returned after Covid, but nobody seemed able to agree on why they felt this way. All of us seemed to have a different opinion on what the problems were and even where we could agree that something was an issue, SLT faced wildly differing takes on the solutions to that problem. I am very aware that whenever I beat a path to the door of my go-to Deputy Head, what I was saying to him probably contrasted irreconcilably with something that somebody else will have pitched to him just half an hour earlier.

So what I have to say is entirely personal and my pathway out of teaching – although not uncommon – is peculiar to my own experiences and my own responses to them. It is true that my attitude towards my job changed and that my feelings shifted quite dramatically over a reasonably short period of time. I am not sure that much could have been done to prevent this, although I have a few thoughts that I will choose not to share about how my departure could have been prevented, or at least postponed.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Covid pandemic played a part in my shift out of teaching. First of all, it exposed me to a different way of working. Tough as that period of isolation was, it did expose me to the experience of working from home and I didn’t hate it in the way I expected to – in fact, I rather enjoyed it. I liked the freedom of not having to be up, dressed, out and battle-face on by 7.30am. It made me think about the benefits of flexible working in a way that I had never done so before. Combined with this, the pandemic changed the world irrevocably, and this created other pull factors. I work in a very niche subject and I knew that finding enough work would rely on parents embracing the concept of online tutoring. I had pencilled this in as likely to happen within the next five to ten years, but the pandemic fast-forwarded the process overnight. Likewise, whenever I had previously considered the idea of quitting the chalkface in favour of full-time tutoring, I had dismissed it on the grounds that I would be free all day while my friends and husband were at work, and starting work at the point when they all became free; this seemd like a bad idea in terms of my personal life. However, once again, the pandemic changed all that. All of my friends – with the exception of those that are teachers – now work from home either some of the time or all of the time, meaning that their time is also flexible and that it is possible to schedule an early-morning walk, a coffee or a lunch into their day.

The year we returned to school after the switch to online learning during the pandemic was – let’s face it – hell on earth. Bubbles were a dismal failure in secondary schools, a frankly appalling and ill-thought-through brainchild of government that to this day I fail to see the point of. We were forced to teach in unsuitable environments, we were forced to be peripatetic, we were freezing cold, some of the time we were forced to wear masks and all of the time it was miserable. I hated every last second of it. So when we returned to normality the year after and I found myself back in my own classroom, mask-free, I expected my love of the job to return. It didn’t. Perhaps the experience of the year before had fast-forwarded a process that was already happening? I’m not sure. For whatever reason, the love had largely gone.

In the end, the decision to leave was quite sudden and precipitated by a couple of incidents that happened in that final year. A couple of incidents while on duty in the grounds of the school tipped me over the edge and made me feel – quite simply – that I did not want to do this job any more. Both involved groups of older boys and both found me as a lone adult, feeling threatened and being pushed around by a bunch of teenagers – either physically or emotionally. It was not pleasant. I handled it at the time and indeed was able to get back into my own classroom and get on with my job. But I was overwhelmed by a sense of fear and rage – fear that as I got older this would get less and less easy to deal with, and rage that I was expected to do so. Truly, there is no other job in which you can feel threatened – either emotionally or physically – by a gang, then be asked to reflect upon what you could have done better in that situation. Do I think that behaviour in schools has got worse since the pandemic? Yes, I do. Was it perfect beforehand? Far from it. But my tolerance has gone and I am simply not prepared to put up with it any more. Ultimately, this was what drove me out of mainstream teaching.

Photo by 2y.kang on Unsplash