Superteacher Syndrome

When you entered the teaching profession did you imagine you would be Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society? Perhaps you thought you would be that so amazingly inspirational that children would pray open mouthed at the alter of you. Did you think you’d be one of those characters who walked into the class and immediately gained the adoration of all?

Did you believe you were a bit magic?

You did, didn’t you.

The thing is teaching can seem a bit magical to the untrained eye. I remember, when I was an NQT, my first Head walking into a communal area full of unruly teenagers and silencing all by looking over the top of his spectacles (Darth Vader wishes he had the gravitas of TEL Jones). Then he just uttered, “Stack up your bags and sit down quietly.” And all of them did just that. As an NQT I was in awe, in the same way that you might be in awe of a magician who’d just managed to catch a bullet between his teeth or levitated a sea lion in front of you.

What we must remember is that, in fact, this is an illusion. Mr Jones was not magic. To perform this seemingly miraculous feat he had spent years and years building a system- a system built on rules and a stubborn resilient determination – a system built and maintained and improved with other people. Because one man cannot perform this magic. Not even if you do have Sith Lord levels of authority.

Now I can silence classes with a look. I do not yet have the gravitas of a Sith Lord, but I can get there I think. I have built up an impressive record. Pupils beat their target grades in my classes and my literacy team gets pupils, who have felt like failures or given up or have been given up on,  to read and succeed – we transform the lives of some pupils in this way.

I know this feeling. I’ve taught pupils, who have been totally given up on, to be real successes. My ego expands.

Because of this a reputation builds. An ex pupil told someone recently, “If you don’t learn in Mr Williams’ class you just aren’t listening.” Other pupils seem to behave as if I am magic. “I would never have passed if I had not been in your class Mr Williams.”

My ego expands. At this point I may start believing in my own mythology. – “I save illiterate kids. I get pupils GCSEs. I am chocolate. I am Superteacher!”

My ego can barely fit through the door.

But.

In my heart of hearts I know, like all magic tricks, this is an illusion. There is no such thing as a Superteacher. The quality of my instruction depends on the quality of the pupils’ behaviour and the quality of the pupils’ effort. These things are built by not only me, but also parents, other teachers, heads of year, SLT, peers, sometimes youth workers, sometimes social workers, sometimes counsellors, sometimes LSAs  and  of course the choices of pupils themselves.

Believing I am Superteacher would be good for my ego. It would make me feel extra special, but it is also a dangerous mythology: it encourages the erroneous idea that teaching is not about the collective but the individual; that we don’t need to challenge or change systematic failure- just hire better teachers – more Superteachers; that schools don’t need more resources or time just to sack bad lazy teachers and hire good hardworking Superteachers instead.

I also know I am only as good if I continue to build and improve upon all of these things. Perhaps that’s the underlying cause of the joy and anxiety and stress in teaching – that knowledge that yes I did it last year, but this class provides a new context, this pupil a different challenge, these colleagues managers or parents a different outlook on what my job should be – of what it means to be Superteacher.

The truth is I’m not Superteacher and neither are you. It’s just a trick. We are not really magic. Those hard yards you put in with pupils patiently repeating, practising, explaining, disciplining can seem like walking through treacle. Those are the things people forget you did when they look back on you as their own saviour of the school, their very own educational superhero.

We shouldn’t forget that stuff though.

That’s the stuff the “magic” is made from.

Welsh Lessons

On a bright spring morning, Mr Matthews, my GCSE Business Studies teacher, explained, “You can’t have a bonus system in every job. Imagine, for example, if a judge were paid on the basis of the amount of years he sentenced prisoners to. Ridiculous. Imagine the amount of unfair fines that could be issued if traffic wardens were on commission? This is because a key aspect of these jobs is fairness.”

Which, in a nutshell, is why teacher assessment is a terrible idea.

You don’t even need to guess at what might happen, because in Wales it already has.

Wales abolished SATs because they were seen as not only inaccurate but also expensive when you can just use teacher assessment. I remember at the time thinking it was great. Our year nine scheme of work basically consisted of practising past papers which, to be frank, was a miserable thing to do. From now on we could base levels on the far more interesting work we did all year round. Y9 would become the “nice” year we’d heard about from older teachers,before the stressful GCSE years. I remember my head at the time assured us all that this was in fact a terrible idea, but did we listen? 

To be honest, at first it was quite good. We still did old SATs as an end of year exam, but we were better than the exam board at pinpointing where within a level a pupil was (“Well yes Johnny did get a level 5 in the exam, but I know he doesn’t really understand speech marks.”) With no exam lots of teachers just gave their honest opinion about what level a pupil had achieved based on their year’s work and initially I’d argue this judgement was more accurate than the increasingly inflated test scores.

The problem came when this judgement was lower than what was achieved in the previous exams.

It turns out that whilst politicians like saving money, they don’t like results going down AT ALL. So pressure filtered down on teachers to improve levels. In fact some quite ridiculous pressure was applied to some y9 and y6 teachers. Results had to go up. Targets were issued. The big accountability stick was raised. Teachers found ways of producing evidence of level 4 and level 5 so they could meet the next target.

Like water leaking from a broken pipe levels therefore rose.

Then a little more pressure and competition driving up the numbers. If a pupil got level 4 in y6 they must get at least level 5 in y9 if not level 6. If that school in your family were getting 80% you had to get 83% or face being in quartile 4.

Levels therefore rose.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Now there are secondary schools who have achieved 90% Level 5 in Year 9 and, with the same pupils, only 60% at GCSE. In fact if your levels are within ten per cent of your GCSE results you are probably in the bottom quartile of the schools in your “family”. 

Now I know pupils given level 4 at the end of KS2 with reading ages of 8. (Of course these pupils MUST then get Level 5 in year 9 because otherwise they will have made “no progress”).

Schools and teachers who are rigorous and scrupulous with levels are in the bottom quartiles of their families. Schools and teachers who have buckled to the pressure must feel like frauds. Some parents are gobsmacked when they hear their children are going to have intensive intervention because they can’t decode fluently: “But they got a level 4 in y6!”

Having teacher assessment with the current systems of accountability is, I think, like giving a pupil their GCSE exam unsupervised, telling them to mark it themselves, reminding them that a poor result could drastically affect their future and telling them, “Now don’t cheat! We’ll be checking.”

It might surprise the more cynical but lots of pupils would mark their own exams fairly…at least at first. But then every time a compatriot gave themselves an extra mark or two the pressure for them to do the same would grow. And each year the pressure to do better would increase a little more and more would begin to crack.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Teacher assessment in Wales: bad for teachers, bad for parents and bad for pupils.

On standardised reading tests and why pupils should take GCSEs in September

So in troops the Y7 – you think you’ve grouped them well – I mean you liaised with all the primary schools and you did induction day and you looked at the levels so now what do you do? Tests. Yes CATS tests yes hmm? Perhaps a little standardised reading test? And where? In the Gym? You give them sheets with little lottery slip type lozenges so they can be sent off and marked by a computer- and then you’ll have reading ages and standardised scores and graphs, yes graphs I tell you, and it will all look mightily scientific and impressive. 200 perhaps slightly nervous year sevens doing unfamiliar tests, in an unfamiliar way, in unfamiliar surroundings- what could go wrong? Yes doing a test after the summer holidays when some won’t have picked up a book or a pen for six weeks may show they are not as good as the levels suggest, but then it will be their real ability won’t it? In fact that will be a really true reflection of how they’ve sustained their progress won’t it. In fact we should suggest all exams happen after the summer holidays. No one would question the validity of the next new GCSEs then eh?
Gosh the reading ages are low aren’t they?! Look at all those below their chronological age? Look at all those below ten? The levels don’t look quite so reliable now do they? Should we adjust the staff targets in line? No of course not. WE MUST MAINTAIN OUR HIGH EXPECTATIONS.
You will retest their reading using the same test same time same place next year right? To measure impact over a year? That’s a year – September to September. Although the new year Y8s won’t be as nervous as they were in year 7 you’ll want to keep the test conditions as similar as possible. You learned that in GCSE Science – fair testing and all that. I mean you wouldn’t ever, say, test in May or July?..
Oh you do? In June…to “show the impact of your teaching and allow you to prepare for those who need continued support next year”. I see. Well, of course, I mean, you want the pupils to show themselves at their best. I mean nobody would ever do their GCSEs after the summer holidays after some of them haven’t picked up a book or a pen for six weeks. Ha! Ha! Ridiculous idea.

This month’s #BlogSyncEnglish : Beginnings. Join in and write a blog using the hashtag.

Factory Teaching: Stack ‘em High, Teach ‘em Cheap.

2nd time lucky

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Where I grew up in Rhyl in North Wales, local youngsters would buy quite clapped out Ford Escorts and do them up. The Ford would cost as little as £300 at the time but they would spend thousands and thousands over the years on exhausts the size of dustbins and huge wing like spoilers, subwoofers, and new paintjobs. I never really understood it, because at the end of the day they still had a Ford Escort. No matter what colour they painted it or how much they added, it was never going to be as good as just saving for a bit and buying a better car to begin with. I sometimes think politicians have a lot in common with the young people I grew up with in Rhyl…
I am sure we are all used to being asked to jump through the next government hoop without extra time or…

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Factory Teaching: Stack ‘em High, Teach ‘em Cheap.

Where I grew up in Rhyl in North Wales, local youngsters would buy quite clapped out Ford Escorts and do them up. The Ford would cost as little as £300 at the time but they would spend thousands and thousands over the years on exhausts the size of dustbins and huge wing like spoilers, subwoofers, and new paintjobs. I never really understood it, because at the end of the day they still had a Ford Escort. No matter what colour they painted it or how much they added, it was never going to be as good as just saving for a bit and buying a better car to begin with. I sometimes think politicians have a lot in common with the young people I grew up with in Rhyl…
I am sure we are all used to being asked to jump through the next government hoop without extra time or resources, but you may not know there is an actual rationale behind this. You see they found that when government provided schools with the means and ends, whatever they were trying to introduce became a huge bureaucratic nonsense. If government provided means without ends (Yes they have done this) it led to perceived waste, because people spent the funding on stuff the government didn’t like/understand/value. So they decided that the best thing to do would be to provide ends without means. Essentially they left it up to schools to figure out how to jump through the next hoop. And if they didn’t?- well there was always special measures. When I heard ends without means extolled as an example of good government at the launch of a government initiative a few years ago I actually laughed out loud, to the quizzical looks of some government officials. In the ends without means scenario what happens is that schools try to make up for the lack of government resources, knowledge and competence by working harder, and at the expense of other things – like sanity for example.
A certain type of politician thinks the ends without means idea is wonderful, because it means they can cut resources whilst demanding higher standards with a clear conscience. There’s just one problem with it really: it is entirely unsustainable.
Let me give you just one example of this. A head teacher is asked to make quite substantial cuts, whilst at the same time the expectation for results goes up. Choices are limited in this scenario, choices which to be fair, the head makes clear:
• Cut departmental budgets
• Increase pupil numbers
• Cut teacher non-contact time to the bare minimum
• Make redundancies
In terms of redundancies he is pretty lucky; a number of older staff are due to retire and one by one these colleagues are replaced by cheaper, younger staff. This isn’t some insane mass culling of vital experience and expertise either so the values that make the school successful are, largely, sustained.
For practical subjects like Art and DT whose budgets are spent on the actual materials needed to do the subject (like inks and paints and wood) teaching more pupils with less money is.. er..interesting. For the rest largely it means cutting photocopying, buying fewer books, buying cheaper books, even cheaper paper and pens. You can manage with stuff like this as a teacher. It only really gets tough when you have to start sharing classrooms. Believe it or not teaching Science in a History classroom can be challenging, not just because you have to hoik all your stuff all over the school and make sure the pupils remember which class they’re in this week, but also because you are in someone else’s teaching environment – suited for their pedagogy, for their subject.
So, less time, less space and less experience, but… Results. Still. Go. Up.
How?
Well, the staff reduce courses down to what pupils need to get at least a grade C, produce model answers for pupils to learn off by heart, and spend more time after school with more pupils, more time in the holidays with more target groups (this is where those younger childless colleagues come in quite handy).
In short they sacrifice quality: quality of home life; quality of classrooms; quality of materials; quality of content; and in the worst cases quality of mental health.
But that’s OK right?- because it’s “cheaper”. Well do you know what? – it really, really isn’t. In the long term it costs A LOT more. It’s like reducing your shopping bill by eating cheap frozen ready meals every day. OK so the food doesn’t look exactly like the picture on the front, but appearances can be deceptive right? Your belly feels full and you even feel satisfied by the additives used to make up for actual real ingredients. In the long term does anybody really think their body won’t pay a far bigger price by doing this?
Tristram Hunt claims he wants to put an end to “exam factories”. I hope (probably naively) he means to end the financial push towards a “stack em high teach em cheap” education. I’m not naïve enough to believe schools could or even should be given a blank cheque – public servants have a moral responsibility to provide value for money- but the ends without means myth must be exposed for the nonsense it is.
You can add as many spoilers and exhausts as you like to that Ford Escort, you can repaint it and give it the loudest sound system in the world, but it’s never going to be as good as a Ferrari no matter how many ends you ask for.
If you want a Ferrari you have you pay for it.

Teaching reading

literacyteaching

Teaching Reading

This is my first ever blog. It stems from a tirade on Twitter against an SEN specialist who had the temerity to announce he was going to teach English GCSE without actually having an English degree and then he asked for help. How dare he? Didn’t he know he wasn’t qualified? Well do you know what?- he may be far more qualified than the majority of secondary English teachers at least when they begin.

The reality( in my opinion and only based on my experience) is that secondary English teachers are not trained to teach reading from the level many SEN pupils begin with and indeed there is real confusion about reading in general. Take the tests that are carried out quite routinely by secondary schools to assess reading ages on entry. Even if the school is sensible enough to explain that a reading age of ten is…

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Teaching reading

Teaching Reading

This is my first ever blog. It stems from a tirade on Twitter against an SEN specialist who had the temerity to announce he was going to teach English GCSE without actually having an English degree and then he asked for help. How dare he? Didn’t he know he wasn’t qualified? Well do you know what?- he may be far more qualified than the majority of secondary English teachers at least when they begin.

The reality( in my opinion and only based on my experience) is that secondary English teachers are not trained to teach reading from the level many SEN pupils begin with and indeed there is real confusion about reading in general. Take the tests that are carried out quite routinely by secondary schools to assess reading ages on entry. Even if the school is sensible enough to explain that a reading age of ten is pretty average and nine and a half means pupils are basically functionally literate, how many teachers know what the average six or seven or eight year old can read? Do they realise that the majority of reading tests administered by schools provide a reading comprehension age and some pupils may very well be able to decode fluently without understanding what they have read?

Teachers may have understood the importance of phonics but do they know how to teach it? Have they even heard of a schwa sound? I seriously doubt it.

SEN specialists, on the other hand, are taught how to teach phonics and what the tests mean and what level of text is appropriate for what age. They have to be well versed in these topics, whilst managing the behaviour of and motivating some of the most challenging learners in the school, many of whom have experienced failure throughout their school life on a scale few can really understand.

Do I think an outstanding SEN specialist is qualified to teach an SEN class at GCSE? You’re damned right I do.

I also raised a question which aroused a lot of interest: “Do teachers know what to do if phonics teaching doesn’t work?” To explain what I mean I am going to use an anecdote, but I am also going to be quite careful to clarify first.

By “phonics teaching” I mean teaching the sounds (or phonemes) words are made up of. I find the fact there is a debate over phonics is just weird. I particularly like the “ReadWriteInc” scheme and I can’t believe anyone would argue against excellent phonic schemes like this. Almost everyone can learn to read through effective phonics teaching. (Are there really any primary schools who do not teach phonics?)

However SEN teaching provokes even more questions and I am going to use an anecdote to illustrate my point. I first started teaching a pupil who I shall call John in Year Seven. He had already done “Jolly Phonics” and “Toe by Toe” in primary school, he had already been assessed by an educational psychologist and awarded a statement, and he had already failed to learn to read and spell accurately again, and again, and again, year, after year, after year. He was still quite a pleasant young man with a positive outlook.

I began poorly, using a variation of what he had already tried before, with SATPIN and the standard, “say the sound, read the sound, write the sound,” method. I did manage to teach him his alphabet along the way but when it came to vowel sounds particularly “i” it just wouldn’t stick. At this point you do need to understand how phonic teaching works: you start with the alphabet and the initial sounds and you are not meant to move on until they have mastered these sounds, so I adapted and repeated with songs with posters (even with a rap). Still it wouldn’t stick. What was I meant to do now-teach him the “i” sound for the rest of the year? No. Of course not. Someone commented to me on Twitter that very few people can’t learn to read through good phonics teaching and she was right- but John was one of that few.

So what I did was move on and adapt. I assessed his reading in a different test for a new reading scheme we were lucky enough to pilot. I would find a way to come back to this sound in a different way. In the mean time what I found was that John could read more than I thought. He began at the lowest level of the rapid -reading plus scheme and worked his way up. When it came to bigger words he did better- he seemed to assimilate whole word recognition far more quickly than sounds.

The rapid-plus books work by encouraging discussion of the subject of the book (activating prior knowledge so that learners can use context) highlighting “tricky words” at the start which the teacher reads and then the pupil repeats, then the teacher models by reading the tricky words in an introduction, then the pupil reads the finally leveled text and the teacher helps with the tricky words if necessary. There is an added level, because each student has ebook versions of the text they can practise on. If they get stuck on a word they can click on the word and the computer will help them. They can also get the computer to read the whole text to them. Rapid-plus also keeps a record of all the words that the pupil clicks on and how many times.

The books have a fiction and related non fiction texts and really bad jokes at the end which are unfunny enough to be hilarious, and the tricky words are gradually elaborated on.

If that was all I used I still don’t think John would have progressed but I also used a range of spelling strategies for his target spelling patterns in a carousel. He made his words out of plasticine, he made mnemonics, he played competitive speed spelling games, he tried to spell them with a blindfold, he tried to spell them backwards, in shaving foam, in salt, with scrabble tiles. All of these strategies were designed to improve his visual memory and were taken from the practice of an excellent dyslexia specialist.

John still finds the “i” sound difficult, but he is now functionally literate – he can read. All I did was look at what I was doing and judged it not to be significantly different to what had been tried before, so I tried something else.

If only all SEN teaching was this simple. It’s not. Sometimes what you work on is emotional or behavioural, because you could spend all year teaching some pupils reading and spelling in the most engaging ways, but if you don’t deal with these primary needs their scores can actually decrease.

I’m sorry if I have offended anyone by daring to try something other than a phonics scheme when it clearly wasn’t working for this rare young man, but I think that is what I’m paid to do as a teacher; react to the needs of the learners in front of me.

Finally, let me be clear:

1.Good phonics teaching is essential and the most effective way to teach everyone, bar the exceptions like John, to read.

2.Secondary English teachers are, on the whole, not trained to do most if not all of the above (in my opinion).

3. Just because an experienced and clearly excellent practitioner does not have an English degree does not mean he won’t do a better job than someone with an English degree.

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Mr WordPress on October 24, 2011 at 7:56 pm

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