Beginners’ luck

How fortunate today’s new teachers are. This might seem like an extraordinary thing to say, given the recruitment and retention crisis and all that, but I mean every word of it. New teachers entering the profession today have a wealth of materials available to them that should make their transition from novice to expert far smoother than it was back when I trained and few books illustrate this better than a book called What Do New Teachers Need to Know? by Peter Foster.

I purchased this book as a gift for the newly-trained teacher who has taken over my previous job in my local comprehensive. Not only is it superbly informative, it is beautifully written and easy to read. From the very first line, “I didn’t enjoy teaching to start with,” the humility and frankness of the author shine through. He talks of the Monday morning dread, the reality of teaching That Class and how it all “stemmed from this feeling that teaching was something you just had to figure out, a blisteringly frustrating game of Snakes and Ladders where every triumph was followed by a setback.” This was so achingly familiar that what had started out as a cursory glance over my purchase turned into me settling down to give the whole book my full attention.

One of the most radical things about Foster’s book is it values domain-specific knowledge over skills and argues that teachers themselves require an ever-increasing bank of concrete knowledge to draw upon. This does not mean that the book is fanciful or theoretical, rather that it questions the assumption that teaching is dark art, which only the most experienced wizard can practice, rather than a bank of shared knowledge that can be tapped into. Of course, teaching requires practice and nothing can beat a number of hours at the chalkface in the same way that a pilot’s flying hours are relevant to his or her assumed level of skill; but observation, imitation and repetition of good practice allows processes to become automated and innate, freeing up one’s working memory to cope with a greater number of variables. I will never forget having to write down every word I said and every single thing I had to do the first time I stood in front of a class. As time passed, I no longer had to think deeply about certain basic processes because they had become automated. Foster likens the start of a lesson to the opening of a chess game – not because it requires great strategy, but because it is the knowledge of opening gambits that empower the player to make the right moves.

One of the most frustrating things about teaching as a profession is how little focus is given to knowledge at INSET. For a profession focused on imparting knowledge, we do ourselves no justice by neglecting it in ourselves. Foster explores the different areas of knowledge that an effective teacher should be working on at the beginning of and throughout their career, from curriculum through pedagogy and behaviour. His chapter on behaviour focuses on the need for clarity and gives explicit examples of the language that should be used when issuing instructions, expectations, warnings and sanctions. He even gives examples of the questions that a new or inexperienced teacher could ask of their colleagues, something which I have rarely if ever seen suggested: my recollection of training was being told to ask questions, but nobody had any suggestions or examples of what it was I should be asking. For some teachers new to the profession, the whole process can be so overwhelming that they do not know where to begin, so to encounter books such as this which demystify the process is an absolute wonder.

Foster addresses what it means to “know your students” with a level of specificity I have also not encountered before. He explores the limits of our knowledge and looks into how a knowledge of individuals as well as how children learn in general can be of use in the classroom. He counsels against the assumptions we can make that lead to biases in the classroom, something which has always concerned me as a professional. “By paying lip-service to groups of students and gaps between them, teachers and schools can entrench biases rather than topple them,” he warns. It was not so long ago that I was being explicitly told to do things such as mark Pupil Premium students’ books first and indeed to sit them at the front of the classroom. Foster makes the case for equitable treatment and an avoidance of assumption.

Peter Foster has generously shared much of his knowledge for free on his own website, but I would highly recommend any new teacher or indeed any experienced teacher investing in this book. You can buy it here.

Photo by the author, Peter Foster


This week I resolved to do more snacking. Not of the doughnut kind (tempting as that is) but a thing I have read about called exercise snacking. It’s rather fun. Instead of resolving that anything other than a full-scale workout is a waste of time, the philosophy of snacking advises working small bursts of activity into your daily routine, whatever that is. I decided to experiment with it. So far this week I have done some calf exercises on the bottom stair while my coffee was brewing, some balancing exercises in the kitchen while cooking (there are probably some health and safety issues with this but I’m a grown adult and doing it at my own risk), plus some squats while finishing a drama on Netflix (far less risky, although the cat was pretty weirded out). None of this snacking is replacing my twice-weekly visits to the gymnasium from hell, but they form a picnic hamper of exercise snacks that I can work into my day without making any effortful changes to my everyday lifestyle.

This got me thinking about how the principles of snacking can be applied to studying. As clients will know, I work in half-hour slots and spend a great deal of my time persuading students that short bursts of focused work are far superior to longer periods of dwindling focus. So many students remain convinced that they need huge swathes of time in order to be able to study effectively, when in fact the reverse is true. No matter how much we learn from cognitive science about the limited capacity of our working memory and the shortness of our attention span, most students (and often their parents) remain wedded to the idea that they need a lengthy stretch of time for studying to be worthwhile.

Much of this attitude, of course, stems from good old-fashioned work avoidance. We’ve all done it: pretended to ourselves that we simply don’t have time for something when in fact what we’re doing is manufacturing an excuse to procrastinate whatever it is that we don’t want to do until the mythical day when we will have plenty of time to dedicate to it. You wouldn’t believe how much time I can convince myself is required to clean the bathroom. Part of overcoming this tendency is to call it out: point out to students when they are using their lack of time available simply as an excuse. But there is, I think, also a genuine anxiety amongst many students that they need long stretches of time in order to be able to achieve something. It often surprises them greatly when I inform them not only that much can be achieved in 10, 15 or 20 minutes but that in fact this kind of approach is optimal. It is not a necessary compromise in a busy lifestyle to fit your work into short, focused bursts: it is actually the ideal. The same is true for exercise snacks, for which there is a growing body of evidence that suggests the benefits of these short bursts of exercise can actually outweigh those of longer stretches.

One of the most counter-intuitive findings from cognitive science in recent years has been that regularly switching focus from one area of study to another is actually more effective for learning than spending extended periods of time on one thing. At first, I really struggled with this in the classroom, as all my training had taught me to pick one learning objective and hammer this home throughout the lesson. But up-to-date research-informed teaching advocates for mixing it up, especially in a setting like the school I used to work in where lessons were an hour long. A whole hour on one learning focus is not effective; far better to have one main learning focus plus another completely separate one one to reinvigorate the students’ focus and challenge them to recall prior learning on a completely different topic. I frequently do this whenever possible in my half-hour tutoring sessions, which may have one core learning purpose but with a secondary curve-ball which I throw in to challenge students to recall something we covered the previous week or even some time ago. This kind of switching keeps the mind alert and allows for regular retrieval and recall.

Retrieval snacking is also something that friends and family can help with and that students can and should be encouraged to do habitually. If you’re supporting your child with learning their noun endings, why not ask them randomly during the day to reel off the endings of the 1st declension? This kind of random questioning will pay dividends in the long-run, as it forces a child’s brain to recall their learning on a regular basis and out of context. Nothing could be more effective at cementing something into their longterm memory, which is the greatest gift any student can give themselves in order to succeed. My grandfather (a trained teacher himself) used to do this with me when I was small and was struggling to learn my times tables. “What are nine sevens?” he would yell out at random points during the day and I had to answer. It worked.

So, let’s hear it for study snacks. Short, random moments when a student challenges themselves to remember something. Adults can help and support them in this process as well as encourage them to develop it as a habit for themselves. Share with them the fact that this works and will help them with longterm recall. Apart from anything, it sends the message that study – like exercise – should be a part of daily life and woven into the fabric of your routine and habits. You don’t even need a desk to do it.

Photo by Eiliv Aceron on Unsplash

Why isn’t this taught in schools?

This was the cry of Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain yesterday. In a discussion on the worthy quest by Martin Lewis to improve the teaching of financial literacy in schools (a move for which I am broadly in support), the well-paid presenter explained that one of her own children was surprised, shocked and no doubt disappointed by the news that they would have to pay tax on their own earnings. Reid was incredulous. Yet instead of reflecting on her own parenting and wondering how she had managed to raise someone with such a poor grasp of how the world works, she wailed “why isn’t this taught in schools?!” The entire panel agreed with her, with nobody raising the fact that basic financial literacy is, in fact, currently taught in schools.

To quote a nauseating political turn of phrase, let me be clear: I support the teaching of financial literacy in schools and I agree with Martin Lewis that it could do with some improvement. I support it because there are a small handful of vulnerable children who will not experience any discussion at home when it comes to financial matters. They may have parents who struggle to understand such things for themselves, who lack the skills and the vocabulary to enlighten their own children in complex matters. All of that said, I cling to the fact that all parents have a responsibility to teach their children about the world and how they fit into it and to the fact that the overwhelming majority of parents are perfectly capable of doing so. It is parents who have a duty to give children a sense that money doesn’t grow on trees and has to be earned, as well as the basic principle that most of the things they see around them have to be paid for and that this money comes from all of us. These are the kinds of things that must be discussed constantly in order for a child to grasp them, not ticked off on a curriculum list.

When we’re talking about a parent as privileged as Reid (you can look up the latest best guess on her salary), I am pretty unimpressed by the apparent fact that she does not consider it her responsibility to discuss such matters with her own children. To give her the benefit of the doubt, some people find talking about money with their own children difficult. Some want to cushion their children against the harsh reality that things have to be bought and paid for. I’ll be honest and say that I have never understood this. I consider myself hugely fortunate to have had parents who laid their cards on the table. Who told me what we could and could not afford. Who pointed to schoolmates with more luxurious lifestyles and punctured the image by deliberating where that money might have come from, what sacrifices may have been made in order to get hold of it. I was told that I was lucky to have a father who came home in the evenings and at weekends, who turned down more lucrative opportunities because he had different values and preferred to be at home with his family. By the same turn, my parents got lucky that I happened to observe one or two things that supported their rhetoric. Perhaps the most poignant moment was during a pool party at the house of a particularly wealthy classmate. They had an amazing house and an incredible lifestyle, one which could easily have impressed a child of my age. But the birthday girl’s mother spent the entire proceedings lying on a sun-lounger while we were supervised by the au pair, which I found really weird. (I was too young to work out that the mother was drunk, but realised this in later years). What I did understand at the time was that the child’s father made a brief appearance at around 4.00pm and she burst into tears: he was wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase and was leaving his daughter on her birthday to go to work. I remember thinking there and then, “if this is what buys you a private pool, you can keep it.”

Of course, the debate about where the responsibility lies for financial literacy forms part of a wider discussion on what schools are and should be used for and to what extent we are now asking them to take on things which really should not be their responsibility. I have written before on Labour’s mind-boggling suggestion that schools should take on teaching children how to brush their teeth, and barely a day goes by when there isn’t a story of a child sent in to primary school incapable of buttoning up their own coat, doing up their own shoelaces or even the basics of toilet training. Schools are now the receptacle for every failure in social care and – let us not be afraid to say it – every failure in parenting. It simply is not sustainable.

When I mentioned Reid’s comment on Twitter I received a lot of replies, with plenty of people telling me whether they did or did not recall receiving any teaching about financial literacy when they were in school. As always, everyone thinks their own recollections of school reflect the reality then and now, and everyone labours under the illusion that their own recollections are 100% accurate. If I believed every tutee who claimed they’d “never been taught” something I’d be declaring a state of emergency in Latin teaching across some of the most prestigious schools in the country. The reality? Well, they have been taught it, they just didn’t take it in at the time and it’s my job to fix that. The teaching of financial literacy in schools does take place and Reid’s children will in all likelihood have been given some basic teaching on taxes. Could the teaching of financial literacy improved? Certainly. As Lewis pointed out in the discussion on GMB, it is a topic currently divided between Maths and Citizenship in state secondary schools, so it might be a good idea to have someone with overall responsibility for coordinating the curriculum on finances across the whole school. Great idea. I’m all in favour. However, there will still be kids who simply don’t take it on board and I come back again and again to the reality that nothing is so powerful as the messaging a child receives at home.

So, Susanna: if you truly wanted your children to understand about paying taxes, then maybe you should have talked to them about such things on a regular basis to prepare them for the world they will be inhabiting. Your children have grown up in a household with a fair bit more money than the average person, so I hope very much that this was discussed. I hope you told them when times were tight, or explained to them how lucky they were that this was never the case, since mummy does a job that is considered worthy of a salary that most people in equally worthy professions could only dream about. I hope you talked to them about how much prices have gone up in the last couple of years. Do they know why most supermarkets now have a donation point for local food banks? Do they know the answer to the classic question that MPs are so frequently challenged with: do they know the price of a pint of milk these days? Do you? You see, your children’s teachers were not responsible for explaining the basics of how the world works. That job, I’m afraid, was yours.

Photo by micheile henderson on Unsplash

How did it go?

With the first Latin GCSE done and dusted, “how did it go?” is probably a question that every candidate has been asked and answered multiple times. This week, I have found myself wondering to what extent their self-evaluations are accurate.

Curious to discover an answer, I turned to the internet without much hope of finding one, yet came across a psychology study reported by The Learning Scientists, a group of cognitive scientists who focus on research in education. What’s particularly interesting about the study is that it attempts to evaluate students’ success at making what they call “predictions”, which the psychologists define as a student’s projection of their likely performance prior to a test, as well as their “postdictions”, by which they mean a student’s evaluation of their performance afterwards. The study attempted to make an intervention in that process, in other words they tried to improve students’ ability to make both “predictions” and “postdictions” about their own performance. The results are interesting.

The study was performed with a group of undergraduates, and the psychologists made several interventions in an attempt to improve their students’ ability to self-evaluate. They taught them specific techniques for making the most of feedback and they ensured that they took a practice test one week before each of the three exams that they sat, inviting students to self-score the practice test and reflect on any errors. The undergraduates were then encouraged to examine reasons why their “predictions” and their “postdictions” may have been inaccurate on the first two exams, and make adjustments. All of this was with the aim of improving their ability to self-evaluate.

The study found that while the undergraduates’ “postdictions” (i.e. their report on their own performance after the test) remained slightly more accurate than their own “predictions” (their projection of their likely performance), the above interventions resulted in no improvement in the accuracy of students’ “postdictions” over time. While the accuracy of some students’ “predictions” did improve somewhat, none of the undergraduates showed any significant improvement in their ability to make “postdictions”. The students’ ability to evaluate their own performance after each test remained as varied as they had been prior to the interventions.

As the authors conclude, “this study demonstrates … that improving the accuracy of students’ self-evaluations is very difficult.” This is genuinely interesting and certainly fits with my own anecdotal experience of my own ability to assess how I have performed after an examination, as well as the huge number of students that I have worked with over the years. A student’s own feelings after a test may be affected by a myriad of compounding factors and if I had a £1 for every student who felt that an examination had gone dismally who then turned out a perfectly respectable grade, I’d be a wealthy woman. In my experience, some students may over-estimate their “predictions” but most students underestimate their “postdictions”. It is interesting that those “postdictions” appear to be elusive when it comes to intervention and that the cognitive scientists have not – as yet – found a method of helping students to assess their own performance more accurately. I suspect that is because it is too emotive.

It is not obvious from the study how high-stakes the tests were – the psychologists do not make clear, for example, whether the test results contributed significantly (or indeed at all) to the assessment of the undergraduates’ own degree. This to me is something of an oversight, as an obvious compounding factor in any student’s ability to assess their own performance has to be their emotional response to it. Low-stakes testing as part of an experiment is a very different ball-game to the high-stakes testing of an examination that counts towards a GCSE, an A level or a degree class.

My conclusion for now, especially for my highest-achieving students, is to remain unconvinced that they know how well they have done. I could name countless students who have been deeply distressed after an examination, only to discover that they achieved a mark well above 90%. Even in the most seemingly disastrous of circumstances this can be the case. I know of students who missed out a whole question or indeed even a whole page of questions and still achieved an excellent grade overall, so solid was their performance on the rest of the paper and the other papers which counted towards their grade.

Much as it remains an important emotional connection to engage with every student about how they feel their exam went, they’re not a good barometer for what will be on the slip of paper when they open their envelope in August.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Thoughtless examiners

While I am the last person who would advocate for whitewashing the ancient world, I do sometimes wonder at the sheer lack of sensitivity shown by examiners when it comes to the selection of the material that Latin GCSE candidates are faced with on the day.

The ancient world abounds with a plethora of stories fit for adaptation. The possibilities are endless. Given this fact, I fail to see the necessity of including stories that even prior to the #metoo era would unquestioningly be classified by all but Andrew Tate’s very worst acolytes as a story of sexual assault. The ancient world abounds with these stories too, and I am not suggesting that we should remove them from the corpus, nor that we should hide the truth of them from students who elect to study this material; it is profoundly important not only that we address these accounts but that we examine what they have to tell us about attitudes towards women and towards consent in the ancient world. But this is an examination I am talking about. Let us remember that there will be a range of students sitting each and every paper, some of whom may (or – according to the statistical reality – will) have experienced sexual assault for themselves. For some of them, the abuse will be ongoing. I’m sorry if this is upsetting news to anyone reading this, but if you work with young people and have undertaken any kind of safeguarding training then it should emphatically not be news to you that this is the case. So, to write an examination that includes a story of sexual assault is either to feign ignorance of the fact that some of our students will have suffered in this way, or is to declare that one simply does not care about the impact that the examination’s contents may have on some of our most vulnerable children, on what amounts to a very important day for them: a day on which their knowledge and hard work is being put to the test.

In an examination, a student who is already in a potentially stressful situation is forced to sit with the material in front of them and process it alone. If they are translating a passage, that means sitting with the material for some considerable period of time. It is clear that the examiners gave no thought to this and I refuse to accept that one has to be some kind of super-woke convert to the concept of trauma-informed education to raise an eyebrow at their monumentally insensitive decision to include this material. Personally, I have some concerns about the spread of trauma-informed practice into education, often pushed by advocates who know nothing about the realities of classroom teaching; I consider some of its most lethal mutations potentially harmful when it interferes with a school’s basic need to provide a robust disciplinary framework for all students to thrive within. Yet humanity and frankly common sense surely teaches us that one should think carefully about the impact that the content of our lessons may have on students, and even more so about the content of an examination that will be sat by thousands of them, on their own, without support.

During my teaching career I worked with the OCR specification, so have come to the WJEC specification in recent years as demand from tutees has increased. I am now at the point where I am looking closely at individual past papers and last week I worked through the contents of the 2020 WJEC GCSE language paper. I was frankly appalled. I have spoken to a couple of contacts who have far more influential voices in the field than I possess and they confirmed to me that they have already raised concerns in the past, to no avail.

So let’s see what everyone else thinks of the content, shall we? The first passage on the 2020 paper consists of Jupiter disguising himself in order to have his wicked way with an innocent young nymph named Callisto. So far, so typical Jupiter and perhaps euphemistic enough for most of us to be broadly okay with the story’s use. However, things do not remain euphemistic. In this particular retelling, Jupiter disguises himself as the virgin goddess Diana, a close companion of Callisto, so that he can enter Callisto’s bed, and the story continues as follows – below is my version of what the students were asked to translate; I have not quoted the Latin extensively, in case they come at me with copyright complaints, but you can view the paper freely here on their own website:

Callisto, when she saw the goddess, was happy; but as soon as Jupiter lay down next to her and gave her a kiss, Callisto realised that she was not a woman but the god. She was terrified. For she had avoided men her whole life, just like Diana. Although she tried to escape, Jupiter held her down easily.

The passing mention that she had “avoided men her whole life, just like Diana” may (one hopes) have gone over the head of most students, but the truth is that it is spelling it out for readers that Callisto is still a virgin. This, plus the clear implication that Jupiter forced himself upon Callisto and physically held her down, is bad enough, but the disturbing content continues:

Having entered the woods with her other companions, Diana greeted Callisto, who was again so terrified that she wanted to run away: she thought that the god was coming back for her. But after she saw the companions, she hurried towards them, crying. “Why are you crying?” they asked. “What happened?” “Nothing,” the unhappy girl replied. After a few days, however, they persuaded Callisto to tell them what had happened.

She thought that the god was coming back for her?! Who thought that line was a great one to include? The Latin is deum ad se redire putavit, a marvellous opportunity to test candidates on the indirect statement with a past tense main verb and a present tense infinitive, well done chaps! Didn’t think about what the statement actually meant, though, did you? I really do despair. (I know I shouldn’t assume that they’re all men but really … what else can one assume? That a woman thought this was okay? I do hope not).

Perhaps worst of all, in a final turn of events, Callisto’s friend and protector Diana turns on her and blames her for her own assault, as does the ever-jealous wife of Jupiter:

Callisto’s companions, shocked by such serious news, hurried to Diana to report the matter to her. Diana, who was very angry, ordered Callisto to leave at once. “You are not blameless” she said. “Do not ever return to us.” Callisto left, very unhappy. She was forced to live in the woods for many months. Meanwhile Juno was watching her. Juno was the wife of Jupiter. Although Jupiter was always trying to deceive her, Juno had found out what he had done. “That very bad nympth will pay for this” she said.

The word (glossed on the exam paper and translated as per the examiner’s instructions as) “blameless” is casta. The phrase could be translated “you are not innocent”, “you are not pure”, “you are not chaste” (our closest equivalent as a direct derivative) or indeed “you are not a virgin”.

The messaging here is clear. A girl is sexually assaulted, is deeply distressed by the assault, is terrified that it will be repeated and finally is told by others that the assault is her fault and that she is sullied goods. How on earth is it possible that this material made it past the huge number of eyes that one presumes (hopes?) get to look at it before it makes it onto the final draft of an examination paper? Did not one of them think to ask whether the content was appropriate or frankly even necessary? Was there no other single story that would have sufficed, from all of the other thousands of ancient stories that are in our possesion? One can only imagine that every single examiner involved was so blissfully ignorant as to the realities of life for some of our young people that they simply did not consider the fact that the material might be unfit for purpose. All I can say is lucky for those who live their own lives knowing so little about other peeople’s pain and distress.

In the past I have written about the content of the text book Suburani and consider some of it inappropriate for younger students, but at least in a text book the material can (and indeed should) be managed by the classroom teacher, who can skip out that section altogether should they decide – as I would – that it is simply not appropriate for their class. If they do decide to tackle the material, they can manage how this is done and provide guidance and a supportive atmosphere for students to respond to it. In an examination, students are left completely exposed, with no gatekeepers to protect them and no safety net to catch them if they end up in freefall. For me, that is simply and emphatically not acceptable and a clear betrayal of our duty of care.

Photo by Zhivko Minkov on Unsplash

Going viral

This week, the second of two manically busy weeks, I have been struck down with the nastiest cold I can remember having for years. Since I now work from home and am largely cushioned against the slings and arrows of outrageous viruses, the whole thing has been an unpleasant reminder of just how horrible it is to feel unwell. The last virus to enter our home was just after Christmas, an equally nasty bug which my husband succumbed to while I remained blissfully immune. “This is it,” I thought. “I have reached peak immunity. I am untouchable.” Oh, what a fool.

As I write this, I am coming out the other side and today is the first day I have started to feel like I’m turning the corner. The relief is enormous and having not been ill for quite some time I am reminded how utterly glorious a feeling it is to make it to the other side of a nasty bug and feel well again. Years ago, I listened rather obsessively to one of the first ever podcasts (before podcasts really became A Thing), which was created by Ricky Gervais, Steven Merchant and their erstwhile producer and general punchbag Karl Pilkington. I recall an episode when Karl remarked that it was good to feel ill sometimes, because it made you appreciate your usual condition of feeling well. Gervais immediately launched into a diatribe telling him that this made “no sense whatsoever” and (as was standard for the podcast set-up) berated him for his stupidity. I recall finding this deeply irksome, given that Gervais studied Philosophy at UCL (he switched away from Biology when – by his own admission – he found it “too hard”). Yet Gervais must have missed or slept through the lectures he no doubt received on Plato’s Socrates, whom I quote verbatim below. The scene is from Socrates’ final hours with his friends before he is executed by the Athenian state. Socrates has been held prisoner and was wearing leg irons, which his guards agreed to remove for his final hours:

Socrates sat up on the bed and drew up his leg and massaged it, saying as he did so, “what a strange thing it is, friends, this sensation which is popularly called pleasure. It is remarkable how closely it is connected with its conventional opposite, pain. They will never come to a man both at once, but if you pursue one of them and catch it, you are nearly always compelled to have the other as well … I had a pain in my leg from the chains, and now I feel the pleasure coming that follows it.”

Plato, “Phaedo

Socrates is observing the fact that a release from discomfort is uniquely pleasurable. Think back to the last time when you were desperately hungry and how good it felt to eat, or when you were dreadfully thirsty and finally got hold of a drink. Pleasure and pain are the two sides of the same coin and – as Socrates points out in this scene – the pursuit of one inevitably needs to the other. (Remember that the next time you’re tempted to have one drink too many). So a positive spin on the distress of feeling unwell is to celebrate the rush of relief and appreciation that comes when you turn the corner into wellness.

This week has also been a salutary reminder of the different pressures we find ourselves under to continue to work when feeling unwell. At the moment, I feel this somewhat acutely for more than one reason. First and most obviously of all, I am now self-employed: sick pay is not an option. If I had cancelled all of the clients that I had booked in for a record-breaking number of sessions this fortnight, that would have lost me a lot of income – income which I will not get the chance to earn in the same way during July and August, when bookings tail off with the end of the academic year. Specialising in the GCSE means that I lose most of my clients overnight when their exams are complete, and even those in the lower years tend to take a break for the traditional summer holiday, so wedded are we to the Victorian model of schooling.

Beyond the obvious need for an income there is also the inescapable fact that my clients need me. Lots of Year 11s had booked in for booster sessions over the holiday, many of whom I cannot fit onto my books on a regular basis as often as they would like. They are frantic for help and the thought of letting them down was simply too awful. This is a mere fraction of the pressure I felt in the classroom, which I remember only too well. In particular I felt the unbearable weight of being the only subject expert in the school. On the one and only occasion in my entire 21-year career when I was simply too ill to set cover work, my HoD rang me up to ask me what he should do; I’m honestly not sure that would happen in any other job that is paid what classroom teachers are paid. But the reality of being a one-man subject specialist was that without me there in school, literally nothing could happen – no one had any idea what I did or how I did it. The pressure was genuinely immense and my school had a rude awakening as to just how much they had relied upon my goodwill after I left my job. My successor had a nasty accident which left him physically injured for several weeks. Being far more inclined towards self-preservation and resistant to external pressures than I was, he was not the sort of chap to be working on his laptop from a hospital bed nor indeed from his sick bed at home. As a result, no cover work was set for any of his classes. I’ll give you three guesses who ended up doing it.

Last year I wrote about the toxic culture of presenteeism, which affects both staff and students in schools. This is something I most certainly do not miss about being in the workplace. I may be at the mercy of the reality of being self-employed, but frankly I think I’d rather that than the guilt trip that taking a sick day sometimes carried with it. Teaching is very much a job where your presence is required and “working from home” is not an option, a fact which I suspect is one of the reasons behind the mass exodus of classroom teachers out of the profession; the pandemic was a tipping point, during which tens of thousands of teachers not only got their first ever taste of working from home, they also got to watch other professions adapt and adopt long-term changes to accommodate this convenience for its workforce. As teachers returned to the chalkface during the two years that finally drove me out of the job, I can’t have been the only member of the workforce who found themselves wondering exactly why I was dragging myself into school when my skills and qualifications meant that I could do pretty much anything else I wanted to from the comfort of my own home. The statistics on how many of us left in the same year that I did are frankly alarming and are an ongoing issue that the government needs to address; until they take a long, serious look at why so many teachers do not want to teach any more, I cannot see the situation improving.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Last-minute help?

This is the first of two remarkably busy weeks working with a very large number of Year 11s during their school holidays, preparing for the forthcoming GCSE examinations. Many of these students have approached me in just the last few weeks seeking help, and it is remarkable how much can be achieved in a short time prior to the final exams.

Many clients are surprised by the assurance that help can be worthwhile at this late stage. Many contact me in a state of panic or near despair, convinced that the situation is unsalvageable and unsure why they’re even asking for my advice. Yet within a few weeks it is possible to have an impact on a student’s confidence and their attainment, so long as you know what to focus on.

First and foremost, it is essential to assess the particular areas with which a student is struggling. This in itself can be a challenge, since many students (and certainly their parents) can struggle to identify where the problems lie. Students often present with nothing more than the fact that they need help with “the grammar”, so I rely largely on my own detective work to get to the bottom of what can be done to improve the situation. At a late stage of intervention this may well not mean delving into complex material, nor indeed trying to ask them to learn basic fundamentals. At this stage, it’s about identifying and selecting some concrete things to address that will gain them a win.

One thing that can be tackled head-on is their performance in the grammar questions, which make up 10% of their language mark. The examiner is remarkably repetitive and we are now in possession of enough past papers to prove this concept. Showing students every single past paper in quick succession, focusing entirely on the grammar questions and demystifying what it is that the examiner is looking for in their answer can be a real game-changer. In just one session it is usually possible to help get most students to the point where they can achieve 8 or 9 out of 10 in that section. To achieve full marks, students require a whistlestop tour of the uses of the subjunctive, which is a question the examiner has asked every single year, and that can take up another session or two. The uses of the subjunctive are another relatively easy win because most exam papers contain at least 5-10 sentences containing one of these constructions, so an understanding of how to translate those clauses gains them a significant margin.

There are further gains to be had if we have time to look at several practice papers as they can be coached on the types of phrasing that come up on a regular basis. I have identified a collection of common phrases that appear on exam papers with striking regularity, and a student who is perhaps overwhelmed with vocabulary learning can benefit from focusing their revision on these phrases. In addition, I have a list of high-frequency words that come up time and again on exam papers. Focusing on the high-frequency words will not gain a student a top grade in the exam (you need all the vocabulary for that!) but it can be a real game-changer for students who are struggling at the pass-mark.

Some students come to me for help with the literature and the majority of the time it is because they are completely overwhelmed by how to go about committing the texts to memory. I have written before on the fact that too many teachers tend to assume that students have the knowledge, experience and skills to rote-learn vast quantities of material without support, but in my experience, this really is not the case. My grades went up significantly when I started to assume that students did not have this knowledge and I taught them explicitly how to go about the process. Likewise, my grades went up when I took the risk of allowing them short bursts of class time to make a start on the process – this afforded me the opportunity to model the process and then monitor them using it. Many students are resistant to advice when it comes to study skills, so it’s important to ensure that they do give effective methodologies a chance so that they can be converted to the process. If left to their own devices, many students will ignore the suggestions made by their teachers, attempt to do it their own way and fail.

I am finding the work that I am doing immensely rewarding. Just this week I had a particularly heartening message from a client saying that her son is really seeing a difference. “He’s just said to me “ a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have had a clue and now I am getting them all right”. So grateful.” This particular student has been through exactly the process I have outlined above – I took him on a whistlestop tour of the uses of the subjunctive, we reviewed all the grammar questions on past papers and now we’re onto as many practice papers as we have time for, tackling some further easy wins such as time phrases along the way. Once the student is on board with the notion that it is never too late to turn their performance around, it’s quite remarkable what can be achieved.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

They didn’t (always) behave for me

A conversation with one of my younger tutees this week reminded me just how toxic classroom disruption can be. While rueing his poor performance in a recent test, the boy expressed real frustration about the situation in his Latin class. “Some kids just see it as their job to mess around” he said. He even reported that the situation had brought his teacher to tears in the past.

At even its most minor level, any form of classroom disruption is an issue for all learners. Children who may be struggling with the material go unsupported because their teacher’s attention is taken by the disruptors in the class (who may, of course, be struggling themselves). Schools which have not yet faced up to the inescapable fact that impeccable behaviour is the central, non-negotiable foundation on which all teaching and learning is built, those schools will continue to let young learners down.

One of the things I find most puzzling about the teaching profession is that we cannot seem to agree on how to manage behaviour. Debates continue to rage about schools which set the bar high, with cries from numerous educators claiming that vulnerable students and/or SEND students cannot handle such a high bar and that clear boundaries such as the use of SLANT in classrooms and the insistence on silent corridors are oppressive and stifling. I find this baffling, not to mention an insult to the children with those needs. As someone who has worked in schools rated Good or Outstanding for behaviour, I can tell you that there were times when I was frightened in the corridors. There were times when I felt pushed around and intimidated by some students. There were times when I felt humiliated. What this all translates to in schools with behaviour that ends up being classified below Good I cannot even begin to imagine. Moreover, if I as a middle-aged adult felt like this in the school corridor, how did our most vulnerable students feel?

A recent survey on Teacher Tapp, a daily survey app for classroom teachers, highlighted the ever-increasing use of ear defenders by some students in our schools. As I pointed out in response to the discussion, I find their necessity deeply depressing. How did we get to the point where we simply accept that some school environments are too noisy and overwhelming for some of our students? Like that’s ok? And like noisy, boisterous environments aren’t actually a negative for all learners? How on earth did we end up in a situation in which the kind of equipment required by men on building sites using machines to break up concrete becomes a necessity to protect our students from the environment in our schools?

Let me tell you about my one of my own experiences in the classroom. I was sent to an expensive girls’ boarding school (although I didn’t board, I was one of a small percentage of day pupils). In Year 9 (or the Upper Fourth, as it was called would you believe) I was part of a Classical Civilisation class run by a young female teacher whom I shall call Miss Jones. Poor Miss Jones was a sweet, kind and well-meaning woman, who no doubt went into teaching because she cared about her subject and wanted to share it with the world. I suspect she had no training, because in a private school in the 1980s teacher training was considered very much optional and barely even desirable. The school was tiny, consisting of 400 girls in total and had a pretty strict regime – for example, silent corridors. The Head was terrifying – genuinely so. But poor Miss Jones, with her reticent nature, her lack of training and her lack of experience, had no control over our class. One girl was particularly disruptive. I shall call her Millie. Millie was taller and looked older than most of us. She terrified many of us and was a merciless bully to some. That included Miss Jones. Millie refused to cooperate with the class, to the extent that she would not sit where she was told, she would not participate in the class in any way, she would not even unpack her bag. She would lay her head on the desk in a flagrant show of disdain. Miss Jones’s methodology was to ignore her and try to teach around her, but behaviour in general was so poor that we all learnt very little. She never received any support or help with the situation and did not last long in the job.

I share this to illustrate the fact that issues with poor behaviour occur in all schools. Another recent survey from Teacher Tapp, carried out just this week, indicates that student behaviour, alongside workload, is now the overwhelming reason why teachers are leaving the profession in their thousands. There is much talk about “challenging” schools and understandably so, because getting behaviour right in such places has very real safeguarding issues, as explained in this brilliant blog post which I have cited many times before. Yet I would like to highlight the fact that behaviour that is disruptive enough to impact on teaching and learning goes on everywhere – in schools rated Good or Outstanding, in grammar schools and in private schools. Some of what I hear from my tutees would not be out of place in a chapter of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – and these are the sorts of schools with Latin on their timetable.

While I do not wish to promote panic or cause any pearl-clutching, I do believe that disruptive behaviour in our schools is an issue that nobody wants to face up to. Nobody – whether they are a parent or a teacher – wants to believe that our children’s education is being hampered by disruption in the classroom. It is hard for all of us to accept. While writing this blog post, a memory from close to a decade ago came back to me with a jolt. It is a comment made by a boy in one of my past Forms, a boy who was one of the most disruptive members of the class (and indeed the school). “Your PSHE lessons are like watching a YouTube video with crap internet, Miss: you keep buffering.” I recall being somewhat non-plussed by this rude remark, one which was called out across the class and interrupted the flow of the lesson in exactly the way he was describing. Out of the mouths of our not-so-innocent babes can come the real truth: my ability to share information was being constantly put on pause, meaning that the flow of explanation was consistently and endlessly interrupted. This was painfully obvious, even to the members of the class who were causing most of the interruptions, a fact we should perhaps give some thought. I remember being further stunned when an out-of-control student expressed his desire to join the army; as I picked my jaw up off the floor and used it to point out to him that he would have to behave in the army, he said “yeah. That’s the point.” I’ve never forgotten the fact that he knew he needed more discipline than we were providing for him. We let him down. Badly.

So, back to my tutee, who was complaining about the behaviour in his Latin class. He described exactly the kind of intermittment “buffering” that the lovely Liam pointed out to me a decade ago, so it sounded all-too familiar, but this week it really hit me just how truly appalling the situation is for so many young learners and just how many of them have come to accept it as part of their school experience. “Just as I think I’m starting to get something,” he said, “the teacher has to stop and then I’ve lost it all over again.” That’s when my heart broke a little.

It’s hard to know who needs to hear this but I suspect it’s all of us: classroom teachers, parents and senior leaders all need to face up to the problem for what it is and reassert our right and our responsibility to be the adults in the room. Disruption – low-level or otherwise – is kryptonite to every child’s understanding and progress. To ignore this is to let all of our children down.

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