Marking teacher MAs: hours well-spent

Marking has never been my thing. Shame to admit, but there it is. All those hours spent, discovering that my students have in fact not learned what I had so brilliantly taught them… that’s not good for the soul.

I have just come off a marathon marking session: 9 hours of it yesterday (Sunday.) By the end, I had assessed a sum total of 3 assignments. For this was no normal set of essays. Each was an average of 20,000 words, and they were written by my colleagues. For these teachers, this was the culmination of 2 or 3 years work on their Masters in Education. I have blogged elsewhere on these pages on how I lead this MA programme in my school. Here, I want to celebrate the work they have achieved.

Ama is a Maths teacher in her third year of teaching. Last year and this she has arranged parent Maths workshops, where the year 7 (or 9, or 11) student would attend with their parent after-school sessions over 6 weeks. Ama and her colleagues planned the sessions carefully so they would not threaten or embarrass the parents, some of who were nervous about their own ability in the subject. Ama wanted to measure the degree to which attendance at the workshops boosted the students’ confidence. She carried out telephone interviews with the parents. All agreed that they were now more likely to assist their child with their homework. They all said also that their child had enjoyed the sessions. ‘My son didn’t look forward to the sessions but once we were there he really enjoyed it.’ And 100% said that their child’s confidence in Maths had grown. ‘My daughter will now tackle problems and ask for help. Before she would just say I can’t do it!’

Ama also conducted questionnaires with the participants. Every child confirmed that their confidence had grown as a result of the workshops; and 80% agreed (or strongly agreed) that they were likely now to attempt any Maths problem. Ama did not measure the impact, if any, on the students’ performance, but there was clear impact on their self-concept.

‘Self-concept’ was the theme taken up by Ama’s colleague, Sahar. Sahar, four years into her career, has recently been promoted to Head of Year. How she found the time to balance that stupidly demanding role with a part-time Masters, I’ll never know. Just before Christmas – 3 weeks before hand-in day – she nearly deferred. I applied the ‘you’ll never have a time in your career when you think you have enough time’ line, and she bought it. I’m glad she did, because her work was marvelous.

She wanted to know whether disaffection among middle attainers in Maths would be reduced, and their self-concept enhanced, if they were taught using ‘complex instruction’. Being a bear of very little brain, it took me time to work out that this meant structured group work. The genius of Sahar’s piece was in her research design. Maths is taught in two half-year groups, meaning there are two parallel top sets, two parallel bottom sets, etc. Consequently, in the middle there are comparable middle-attaining groups. Sahar taught one of these, deliberately deploying frequent group work. The parallel group was taught by a colleague, who followed the agreed programme of study more closely. This avoided the common ethical dilemma in educati0nal research, whereby to create a control group we somehow have to deny them what we believe to be best practice. Sahar’s control group was getting exactly what the PoS said they should get. All sets in one year group also sat the same tests (and, being Maths, this occurs frequently.) This gave Sahar rich comparative data. By the end of the trial, Sahar deployed the Marsh self-description questionnaire. This showed a significant growth in self-confidence regarding Maths. Test scores also showed that the mean results of the test group were better than that of the control group by the end. However, the range of their results was considerable, meaning that although some scored very highly, others disappointed.

What Sahar’s study showed – and she had the confidence to say so – was that, even after we invest considerable creative energy on a particular pedagogical approach, the results are unlikely to be uniform. Some students will excel in the new environment, others will flounder.

Hugh Halford found the same. Also recently promoted to Head of Year, Hugh has been teaching so long that he was not able to count his M-level PGCE points towards his MA, so had to do it over three years. His work was astonishing. As his focus has been consistent over his three years. he wanted to know the extent to which barriers to successful independent learning had shifted over that time. The beauty of his study was that he was able to implement the same independent learning unit to an AS level Politics class as he did 3 years ago, and measure the differences in outcomes – both in their written work, and in their self-perceptions. As he still had access to his original study group, before they left last summer, he was also able to quantify any changes in their responses to independent learning.

What Hugh found may be dispiriting to some. The longer the students remained in the sixth-form, and the closer they got to final exams, the more they depended on their teacher fronting the lesson. They understood that, working independently, they were honing worthwhile skills. But they were anxious that, unless the teacher told them everything, they would miss out. Key stage 3 pupils, for whom exams appear more distant, were the most enthusiastic about independent learning. The school had a CPD push on independent learning three years ago, and staff believe that they provide many opportunities for students to develop those skills. But, as a school, we have become yet more determined to drive up attainment at GCSE. We have seen our results improve steadily, and this has been attributed to exhaustive interventions. These might be seen as short-term quick fixes; but, whatever they are, they have worked. With independent learning, however ardently one might believe in it, it takes much longer to see the results. For the teachers, and students, at my school one priority has squeezed out the other.

It took me 9 hours to read all that, and mark it. But, unlike the other hours I have spent, similarly hunched over with red pen in hand, these hours were food for the soul.

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Why we are in the PGCE game.

Student Teachers: they come and go. Actually, very many come and then never leave, having shown enough promise to be recruited as NQTs. It is one of the main attractions for any school taking on PGCE students: the hope that they might stumble across one or two they want to give a job to.

I am being too cynical. No, the real reason we devote so many of our energies to training is the money. The £400 or so per trainee can go a long way in a cash-strapped school.

No, not that. It must be the mission then: we are into teacher education because we are simply into education. We are excited at the prospect of introducing the next generation of teachers to the current generation of young people. It is a great privilege, blah, blah.

Well, of course it is. But let’s not get too dewy-eyed about it. Learning how to teach is very hard for almost everyone who tries to do it. It’s hard because their university tutor talks to them about ‘learning intentions’, while their placement school has a firm policy on ‘learning objectives’. It is hard because they really want to inspire young people with a love for their subject, but those same young people just refuse to be courted. It is hard because they have to plan the next lesson, reflect on the past one, and upload an assignment for their course. It is hard because, just when they were getting used to the kids in their first school, they are forced to up sticks and start all over again somewhere else. It is hard.

How do they manage? There are few things worth bearing in mind.

  1. Don’t pretend this is anything other than hard. Don’t suggest to your mentor that all is well, when palpably it is not. By the same token, don’t just moan about it: do the thing we all have to do when faced with something hard – work hard at it. It might well take hours to plan a single lesson right now. Well, spend the hours on it if needs be. It won’t always take that long, but if that is what it takes now then you have no option.
  2. Don’t take the easy way out. There are so many more resources available online than in my day. (Who am I kidding: there was no ‘online’ in my day. I remember buying History Today merely for the pictures I could cut out for my handmade worksheets. Hours they took…) By all means look for what is available, but don’t assume you can find a ready-made lesson. You have got to plan your own, if you ever want to learn how.
  3. Be humble in the face of this hard thing called teaching. Realise you have a lot to learn. Appreciate those teachers around you who have learned how to do it. Ask for their advice. Avoid saying too loudly in the staffroom things like, ‘I don’t know why Miss Simpson finds Charlie so hard to handle. He’s great with me.’
  4. Teacher Standard 8. I never used to think it, but it’s the main one for me. Being a professional means doing all those things above. Standards 1-7 don’t inevitably follow, but they won’t come at all without taking a thoroughly serious approach to your own learning.

Second placement for PGCE students starts soon, thus the timing of this blog. I hope one or two find their way here. I hope also that one or two mentors take a look too: it’s worth all of us remembering how lucky we are to be involved with trainees  at the very start of this great profession. That’s why we are in this game after all. Isn’t it?