Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Letter to my NQT self

So then, Caroline, you didn't do your MA in English Lit despite confirming your place - good decision. Your PGCE will stretch your legs, brain and emotional capacity that have all, you will admit, become somewhat stagnated after three years of bumbling through an undergraduate degree (that seemed to consist of a bizarre mix of the study of British place names and Deconstruction theory).

The next 24 months will be a challenge to say the least. At first just the 6am wake ups will be a source of distress, leading to *that* incident when you fell asleep in the staff room. Then it'll be the workload, as you attempt to balance marking, lesson planning, and the usual excitement of being a 21 year old living in a bedsit in a bustling city centre. But try not to cry so much. The tears don't help: they distress those who care about you and ultimately you will survive, intact and a wiser, better person for it.

Take comfort that when that kid threw the chair it wasn't about you. The one who whispered the Head teacher's name under his breath as a threat to report you for some invented injustice? Still not about you. 
The sensitive one who didn't know how to make sense of her feelings of depression and hid in your room at lunchtimes? Like you, yes, but not about you. 

You'll soon realise that you were one of the lucky ones. You have two supportive, loving, wonderfully eccentric parents who have simultaneously made you feel like anything is possible and that the most important thing in life is being a nice person. That is heartbreakingly rare. Cherish them as well as the children who are not so fortunate. Children can be vulnerable for a host of reasons, and not just the one who have the label of 'Pupil Premium'. Care for them in their most frustrating moments and if you shout and they shout back at you learn from that.

Appreciate how young you are. Older teachers have experience far beyond your years. Respect SLT, even the ones who pass on unhelpful advice about getting up at 3am to work. They've earned their position and you don't yet understand the pressures and tensions they have to respond to on a daily basis. 

Similarly, don't judge other schools. You haven't got a clue about the difficulties of recruitment, complexities of catchment and budget, and healthy dose of luck that can bring about disparities in student outcomes. 

You picked your first school well. Ten years on, your HoF will continue to mentor and inspire you and you'll still be attempting to capture the spirit of mutual support and collaboration, only this time in your own Faculty.

And now, in the style of a certain Mr Springer, my final thoughts. 

It's hard. It's worth it.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Questions V closed DIRT tasks

A lot has changed since the last time I blogged about marking, two years ago. Not least that I was still in my twenties (sob!) when I wrote the somewhat grandiosely-titled post 'the ten commandments of frequent, high-quality marking' and I am now writing as a thirty one year old cynic.
Gone are the "gloriously word-packed A3 APP epics" (although what replaced them is for another blog post entirely), DIRT has now become so ubiquitous that kids up and down the land know the acronym, and - horror of horrors - I'm slowly being won round by SOME use of marking codes.
But my biggest flip-flopping by far has been on the idea of questions as targets.
Here's what my younger self said:

5. Thou shalt word all targets as questions
It's a simple idea that was introduced to me by an outstanding (not the Ofsted version of this word, just simply bloody brilliant) teacher at my first school. The theory goes that asking a question demands a response. Like much good practice in the teaching profession, there's no empirical evidence to support whether this makes even the slightest bit of difference to whether a response occurs, but it's the intention that to me makes this so wonderful.

With zero additional effort, you're establishing that marking is fundamentally a dialogue. If nothing else then it reminds me to respect commandment number 6.

Note: I love the idea of marking work using only a highlighter for this reason. Like an irritating younger sibling it shouts out: "Here! Look over here! What did you forget? You can't leave me here like this!"


This belief stemmed from the use of sheets like these where students 'collected' their targets and I rubber-stamped their progress towards meeting them as I marked:

However, with the introduction of our (very good) whole school marking stamps, these sheets quickly became unnecessary and obsolete. Let's face it, if you can reduce paper in the teaching game then you're going to be on to a winner. And so the focus shifted, quite rightly, to high-quality feedback being given directly on student work.

But, as you can see, even after these changes my belief in the power of the question remained. So what did finally do away with this rhetorical flourish?

Well, as with the best pedagogical shifts, my students did. 

Y'see the problem with GOOD DIRT prompts are that they are HARD to respond to: they've got to be if they're going to lead to actual progress. Learning IS hard.

The problem for the teacher is then managing thirty students at the absolute edge of their ability all responding to a different, personalised prompt. What comes next is that dizzying 'whack a mole' feeling with hands springing upwards at a cumulative rate. Even without heels on, I cannot support every child at once in that kind of situation.

So, kids being kids, they then respond to the simple questions (or, in our case, go for the whole school 'write out the spelling mistake five times' task) and avoid the more challenging ones: the ones that would actually have the greatest impact.

What is needed in this situation is not a philosophical air of grandeur or insipid invitation to marking 'dialogue'. No, what is needed is action with no 'wiggle room'! What is needed is a closed imperative. 

No more 'Can you...?'.

Instead I ask students to




or, answer.

And, you know what? Students now understand so much more clearly what they need to 'do' and more readily complete challenging prompts.

To my younger, more rebellious self it may at least come as no surprise that commandments, like rules, are indeed made to be broken.