Exclusive Staff Room Spy teacher blog from Tutors and Futures

Staff Room Spy: To Praise or Not To Praise?

To Praise or Not To Praise?

A story on the BBC website caught my wandering half-term eye this week; the headline read “Lavish praise from teachers ‘does not help pupils’”. Normally, I try to restrict the amount of extra-curricular education-based activity at home, so you won’t catch me watching Waterloo Road or discussing Educating The East End, because quite frankly I get enough teacher/student/textbook/door-slamming interaction whilst at work. I don’t need it when I’m at home.

A bit of educational research however, is sometimes hard to resist. The article was based on a report, produced by the charity the Sutton Trust, entitled “What Makes Great Teaching?”. However, it was not the concept that made me look twice, but the vocabulary (English teacher alert) used in the headline. The use of the adjective “lavish” made me feel more than a little bit uncomfortable. Just to clarify, I’m a teacher, not an actress. In fact, there’s not much in my life that I do lavishly. Can you drink excessive amounts of coffee lavishly? Plan lessons lavishly? Watch The X Factor lavishly? So why would I be heaping praise on my students lavishly? I have a variety of strategies which I use in the classroom to recognise the achievement of my students. It could be a positive comment during a class discussion, a sticker on a homework or even photocopying a good piece of work for others to see. But I wouldn’t class any of these as lavish. Let’s face it, I don’t have time to be gushy. And what would be the point of me heaping praise on a mediocre piece of work? There’s a reason I didn’t get into RADA.

The report also cites research which suggests that praise which is meant to be encouraging to low-attaining students actually conveys a message of low expectations. Ofsted keep telling me that I should have high expectations of what my students can achieve. I’m more than happy to let my students know when I am disappointed by their performance. How am I supposed to convey high expectations to them if they are given no indication of when they have fallen short? I’m not a fan of public humiliation (it’s 2014 after all) but the power of a quick one-to-one chat can be phenomenally effective in getting students to pull their socks up a bit. They like to know that you’re keeping an eye on them and a reminder of this is often no bad thing. And when those socks are pulled up, students can be praised for it.

My heart was warmed at the end of the article by a comment from Christine Blower, leader of the NUT, who stated “The fact is that teachers themselves are the professionals who best know their children and their students.” Thank you! Isn’t that an incredible thought? That I might be in a position to know what my students need? You might come into my classroom and witness a child who is sulky and unresponsive when questioned who is praised for writing a paragraph in their book. But if I have taught this child for 12 weeks and this is the first time they have managed more than a sentence and a half then this is grounds for praise. Or if I know that this child’s parents are getting divorced and the reason for the sulk is sadness and the burden of staying cheerful in front of younger siblings, rather than a genuine dislike for me or my subject, then why isn’t an encouraging word the right thing to offer? The study says that the quality of teaching and strong subject knowledge are the most important components in improving student progress. But I’m not a teaching robot. Maybe adjectives wouldn’t bother me so much if I was.

Oh and by the way, the trip went brilliantly. The students were inspiring, they were exquisite, they were engaged, they were wonderful, they were…

Exclusive Staff Room Spy teacher blog from Tutors and Futures

Staff Room Spy: School Theatre Trip

Miss, we’re not in the classroom anymore…

As a child, I was incredibly lucky. My parents are well-travelled and I was therefore accustomed to all sorts of planes, trains and automobiles, not just in the school holidays but also at weekends. Travelling was a luxury to which I had immediate access. Closer to home, we went to museums, to the theatre and to concerts. The excitement of clutching a pristine ticket (and probably a bag of Wine Gums) came with the knowledge of being able to enter an alternative land. On the flip side, I was also dragged round my fair share of historical buildings, ornate gardens and football matches, usually wondering how long it would be before I could have that ice-cream I’d been promised if I’d just be the dutiful daughter for a bit longer and accept that maybe my parents enjoyed a different calibre of extra-curricular activity to the ones by which I was enamoured. Either way, it never fails to sadden me when I hear of students who live in west London and have never been to the (free) Science Museum, students who live in north London and have never been to Hampstead Heath and students who live anywhere in London and have never been on the tube. So on top of all of my other teacherly duties, I am also organising trips like a madwoman this year.

Last week, I took 30 Year 11 students to see To Kill A Mockingbird at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. It was the second time I’d seen it myself, because it’s brilliant and it filled all of my criteria for an excellent trip:

1. It had educational value:

We’re studying To Kill A Mockingbird. Some clever soul adapted it for the stage. Those who hadn’t already read it (as per their summer holiday homework) were up to speed and those who had were able to consider how the novel worked on stage. I’ll chalk that up as a win.

2. It was inexpensive:

We try as hard as we possibly can to keep costs down for students. This trip came in at £16.50, which I think is a great deal for the theatre, especially one as beautifully constructed and magical as this one.

3. Transport was easy:

Getting the tube with students always gives me heart palpitations, especially at rush hour, on a Thursday, on a balmy late summer evening. But the students on this trip were able to plan the route themselves and giving them autonomy not only eased the pressure on teachers to be constantly counting how many stops left to go, it also upped the number of London teens who are actually able to navigate the tube system.

4. It was fun and the students loved it:

Guess what? Teenagers hate stuff that’s boring. There’s no point whatsoever in taking them to the theatre just for the sake of it. They whinge and rustle crisp packets and want to go to the toilet constantly. None of these make teenagers, let alone their teachers, very popular with theatre-going types. Trips have to be chosen carefully and this was captivating from start to finish. Even the students who hadn’t read it enjoyed it!

Of course there were some downsides too. Trekking back to south London at the end of an evening made for not just tired students but also tired teachers the next day. Don’t get in the way of a tired teacher: you’ll end up cleaning the whiteboard until it sparkles or making enough coffee to re-launch Noah’s Ark. And then finding us some biscuits. Any biscuit, even those Nice ones that no-one really likes and just spark an onslaught of dad jokes. More significantly, what about those students who can’t go? I know my utopian school isn’t quite ready to open its gates yet. When it does, there’ll be none of that money stuff to worry about because some Willy Wonka-esque philanthropist will leave a kindly donation in a sparkly purple envelope and then everyone will be able to go to Morocco or Stratford-upon-Avon or central London or wherever else the good stuff is happening. It’s going to be great.

Despite the barriers, learning can’t just be confined to the classroom. Students must have knowledge of the world around them if they are to truly succeed. There was outcry a few years ago during a GCSE English Language paper which featured an article about supermarket packaging and included an image of a swede. An alarming number of students didn’t know what a swede was. Despite the image which AQA had helpfully included, they’d never seen one before. So they panicked. When was I supposed to teach them about root vegetables? It’s definitely not the lesson in between the impact of poetic devices and Shakespeare’s representation of Shylock. Is it my responsibility at all? Where would I even start?

The next trip on the calendar is a weekend on the battlefields of France and Belgium. Anything which involves passport numbers and mothers who repeatedly email about their daughter’s propensity to “a bit of travel sickness” is always going to be tricky. I was lucky enough to go on the same trip when at school myself and I can still recall shedding tears during the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate. I imagine it will be even more powerful during the centenary year and I hope the memories stay with my students in the same way they have with me. As soon as I’ve finished handing out the sick bags, I’ll let you know.

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Staff Room Spy: Targets

One out of three isn’t bad…

New pencil case? Check. Shoes polished? Check? Excessive amounts of positivity? Check check check. Yes, it’s back to school time all over again and I’m ready for it. I love the start of the new school year; there’s so much promise, so much expectation and so much new stationery. Nothing can go wrong when you have new mechanical pencils.

At the start of each school year, I like to establish a few goals to keep me on the straight and narrow. I expect my students to set their own targets and know how to achieve them so I like to work on the same principle. Without fail, the first target is always to work less during the evening and at weekends. And what happened this week? I drove home each night eye-balling anyone who was within a 6 metre radius of a pub, bar, restaurant, even the cinema. I wondered what jobs they did, how early they got up in the morning and how on earth they had the energy to be out socialising and enjoying their youths when I was in the process of frying my own brain trying to prioritise the first 47 tasks on my ‘to do’ list. I felt a bit jealous. The first weekend was no different. Hello sunshine pouring through my window. I can’t come out to play today because I have to analyse my exam results from last year, plan a couple of schemes of work and respond to the emails that have piled up in my inbox over the course of the past 5 days. But maybe I’ll be able to enjoy you soon, perhaps in May when you come back out again (please come back out again). On reflection, target one is going abysmally. But it’s only the first week.

Target two is “just say no.” Sadly I haven’t recently been offered a starring role in Grange Hill’s anti-drug campaign (nor is it still 1986) and I’m well aware that this might seem a strange word for a teacher to advocate. I don’t mean saying no to a student asking for help in a lesson or my head of department requesting I take minutes in a meeting. I’m not completely unreasonable. But when it’s checking science homework (I’m an English teacher) or running errands to the post office (I’m an English teacher), I think I’m well within my rights to say no. So how did I fare this week? Terribly. A student from another class asked for some extra reading material; I was straight to it. A colleague needed help sorting groupings for a new A-Level class; that’s an hour of my life I’m never getting back. It turns out saying no is far harder than I imagined and it’s definitely something I need to work on, mainly because I have enough on my own plate without doing other people’s work as well. But it’s only the first week.

My final target is one that I have been a bit scared to admit to myself. This year I have taken on a new Year 10 class full of “naughties.” These are students whose reputation precedes them. Yet on paper this is a class capable of achieving C, if not B, grades at GCSE so the pressure is on. The target then was to establish a positive relationship with these 23 figures of my nightmares. I was expecting carnage so I went in with the “clean slate” chat where all preconceptions become irrelevant and we start afresh. They were silent, but not in a comatose way, in a manner which suggested they appreciated this opportunity and were ready to embrace their flourishing maturity and perhaps even a bit of learning. I took the bold move of beginning with Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” Not only was it written in the early 1650s (they’d already told me that they hated “old stuff”) but it also contains such charged metaphors as “let us sport while we may.” It was a risky strategy but it broke down barriers effectively. They made insightful comments about the characters in the poem, they analysed the language and they nearly fell off their chairs when I allowed one girl to go to the toilet (turns out my reputation precedes me as well). As first encounters go, this felt pretty positive and I’m now filled with a new found optimism about enabling these students to work hard and achieve great results. And it’s only the first week.

Thank you for reading the second episode of this exclusive blog from our genuine Staff Room Spy. Sign up on our home page for free advice on careers and education and we’ll keep you posted about future episodes, or scroll down to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.