Seek and Ye Shall Find (or, Why I’m Not As Great As I Thought I Was)

I’ve been worrying about my Year 10 class. As they are a top set, I know that I put some pressure on them to rise above their comfort zones, refusing to teach to the lowest TG (it’s a C) and relentlessly presenting each student with my vision of a classroom utopia of achievement and success. I praise, use growth mindset language, use specific EBIs, and have a good relationship with them. To some (girls) I am like ‘an aunty’, to others (one other actually), ‘a nun’. (No, I have no idea either – it wasn’t World Book Day.) They listen and work hard. And yet.

Recently, there have been some alarm bells. Three students have come to see me asking to be moved down next year. My PP student has been looking really miserable, and doesn’t respond to cajoling, preferring to believe that she is not as good as anyone else (at all, in the school). My top top top gifted A* with-bells-on student is bored. Things clearly aren’t going so well for everyone in the class, and I don’t like it.

Our current high-priority focus on behaviour has caused many of us to re-evaluate how we interact with students, both in and out of the classroom. The tone of voice we use, the language we choose, our body language, the consequences we set and how we follow these up. These are behaviours that each one of us can model. But – there are still some classes that don’t gel, and some individuals who don’t care. How do we know what works and what doesn’t – and if we hit on something that does work, do we always know what that is? I thought what I was doing with my Year 10s was working. But did THEY think it was?

So on Friday I issued a ‘learning questionnaire’. The preamble was simple: I want you to evaluate my teaching and your learning. The rules were equally simple: be honest, take it seriously, give your name, don’t worry about my feelings, think about how you learn, think about how you’re being taught. I asked them to answer the following questions: Screenshot 2015-06-14 12.05.22 Reading through the feedback started off well, perhaps even predictably. Students feel supported. They like the buzz in the class (referred to as ‘banter’ – not sure I want to encourage that term, prefer ‘gentle teasing’ or if you’re my age, ‘ribbing’). They like/hate creative writing. They don’t feel they get enough ‘rewards’ (note to self: explain other ways of being rewarded to students – step away from the Haribo). They think the marking is thorough. Instructions are clear. I talk enough. They’d like to listen to music (second note to self: explain difference between ‘engagement’ and ‘enjoyment’).

Then came the responses that I had been (kind of) expecting, collated below. There were several like these – perhaps just under half the class responded along similar lines. Screenshot 2015-06-14 12.20.12 I have to say I was shocked. Like, really shocked. I’d been observed and learning-walked with these students and – on the surface at least (hmmmm) – all had been well. What on earth were they seeing or hearing that was negative? How were they feeling so demoralised about the ability of one of their peers – and more importantly, was I doing anything that encouraged negative comparisons between them? How could the most talented student I’ve taught ‘hate literature’? Are my lessons repetitive? And… now what??

Time for some bike-thinking. This is the result – some thoughts about how they think, and a few strategies I might try out. I’ll be sharing this with them on Tuesday. Screenshot 2015-06-14 14.38.03 The latest report on highly-pressured teenagers (article here – spoiler alert: it’s depressing) gave me further food for thought. Students at SBL don’t quite fit the profile of those in the article, but some do, and others feel pressure in so many other ways. How do we know what they are feeling when they walk through the school gates? How are our attempts to push them further and higher being perceived, if we don’t start with sharing why we are pushing them, beyond the D, or C, or A*, so that attempts to do so aren’t seen as negative, or picky? Perhaps we could develop versions of the learning questionnaire to use with some classes; it would be really useful to focus next year on what we can do to personalise our feedback to students, involving them in our teaching as much as we can. After all, how often do we share our teaching methods alongside the learning objectives? How do we know if we’re reaching them all? The best way to start – ask them.