The frustration that comes with the wrong assessment method

I’ve mentioned before that I train with a dog group.  The class is divided into classes from one to four, with dogs moving up a class when they are proficient and pass a test.

My dog has special needs and is extremely nervous around strangers, to the point she runs away from people she doesn’t know.  She’s reached the point where she is comfortable training with the people in my class but there are still a lot of strangers at training in the other classes.

Jasmine has demonstrated mastery of all the skills required to move to the next class and this has been observed by several of the trainers. Unfortunately, the club rules state she has to take a practical test which is observed by a trainer from the club.  Jasmine has what can only be described as a phobia of the lead trainer and so has panic attacks and runs away from him.

I’ve complained about the assessment method but the compromise put in place was only a minor change with the instructor stood a few feet further away.  Consequently, Jasmine is destined to fail each and every test that she takes.

So why am I writing about it here?  The feelings of frustration at being forced into an assessment method that doesn’t suit.  The feelings of failure when you can jump through what seem like impossible hoops. The feeling of experiencing an examination system that sets you up to fail. These are the feelings that my students have every day and after my experiences today I have a little more empathy with them.

Fortunately, I’m in a position where I can walk away from the training club (that’s my intention), but my students aren’t so lucky.  Spare a thought to your students with special needs and consider their needs and feelings at this time of year as they enter into a process from which they will come out emotionally battered and bruised, feeling like a failure.

The latest from Ofqual on 1-9

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Whilst a bulletin was sent out to interested parties this week, there were no answers for teachers struggling to get to grips with what to tell their year 11 students (anecdotally I’ve seen less emphasis on predicted grades and more emphasis on what to do to improve their answers in schools).

The information did serve a purpose, and that was to remind me how my special school students have been let down by the system.  In the email we are reminded “New GCSE content will be more challenging” which is depressing for students who were struggling, because of their learning difficulties, to cope with the content of the old GCSE exams.

We are also reminded that the boundaries have changed, supposedly “The new grades are being brought in to signal that GCSEs have been reformed and to better differentiate between students of different abilities.”  What that means on the ground is that most of my students will fall within a two grade range rather than three. That’s hardly better differentiating between students of different abilities.

When you add these factors to the press (and government) talking about a grade 5 being a good GCSE pass and you can see why my students don’t want to take the exams.  They are made to feel that their achievements are worthless and that anything below a 5 doesn’t matter.

A government talking about expanding grammar schools has little interest in those students at the bottom of the ability spectrum, but for my students, the GCSEs are becoming less and less accessible with more exams for less recognition and lower grades.

(If you want to receive the 1-9 bulletins too you can sign up here)

Should I be feeling guilty about the amount of work I’ve done over the holidays?

I read a blog post earlier today by Debra Kidd about teacher workload and the impact it is having on teacher retention.  For those of you that haven’t read the blog post you can find it here.  I’ve found that as a teacher of 20+ years I’ve weathered the turbulent changes that have blighted education, but even my mindset has changed to one of “if I leave education” to “when I leave education”.  I tend to put in ten hour days at work (on top of my 50 minute commute) and have to work on evenings and weekends to keep up.  This isn’t unusual for teachers and it isn’t a moan – just a statement of fact.

guiltWhen I left school for half-term I packed up work to bring home (fortunately as my books were marked up to date this consisted mostly of exam coursework that needed marking).  I finished the marking by bed time yesterday which just left the mountain of tasks (policy reviews, emails to reply to, exam board risk assessments etc) and the minor job of planning my lessons for the next week (or even better the next two weeks).  At that point I started to feel guilty because I felt that I should have spent more of my holiday catching up so I didn’t have to spend the last day of my time off working (and I might even have returned to work with an empty inbox!)

I tweeted to my followers asking if there were other similar professions where you feel guilty for not working in the holidays.

I have to admit to being pretty surprised at the response I received.  The replies ranged from teachers in the same boat feeling the same, to those saying that holidays should be for resting rather than working.  At the time of writing this blog post over 100 people have retweeted the post and well over 200 have liked it.

I like to think that I’m an organised person (ruthlessly organised in fact) and that being a school leader I have more flexibility over how I organise my time.  I’ve never stopped before to question the culture of teacher workload as I’ve just regarded it as part of the job.  Unfortunately nothing will change until the day that we agree that long hours and excessive workload shouldn’t be just part of the job and that is going to take more than teachers retweeting my feelings of guilt to bring about a change.

I don’t have any answers but I can’t help but worry that the 30% of teachers leaving the profession within five years will rise as budgets (financial and time) become even more stretched…

Why I always say no thanks to Sainsburys’s Active Kids Schools vouchers

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Whenever I fill up my car or interact with a human at Sainsbury’s I’m asked if I’m collecting the schools vouchers.  In years gone by I used to religiously collect them and vouchers from other supermarkets as well.

Now I see the scheme for what it is – a shameless ploy by a supermarket to drive traffic into stores and get positive publicity for doing so.  Schools all over my area have their banners out proudly declaring that they are collecting the vouchers and students are reminded to bring in their vouchers.  Some even have leaderboards to encourage parents to spend more.

The sad truth is that parents and carers have to spend an absolute fortune in store to qualify for anything worth having.  Of course small schools are automatically at a disadvantage, as are schools where much of the catchment can’t afford to shop in Sainsbury’s and prefer to shop at a cheaper alternative.

If Sainsbury’s were serious about getting the nation fit they would target the money they spend at schools in problem areas, with high levels of inactivity or that have poor diets.  I bet Sainsbury’s could even identify these areas from their Nectar card data.

Of course we all know that the vouchers aren’t really about getting children engaged in sport but are a shameless loyalty grab with some free publicity.  For that reason I always refuse the school vouchers when offered (and for the same reason my school are NOT collecting the vouchers).

Only by refusing them when you pay for your shopping will Sainsbury’s ever change their approach.  How do you feel about the vouchers?  Are you prepared to join me in refusing them?

Why teaching children isn’t that much different to training a dog #NQTadvice

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I’ve got a German Shepherd (that’s us the picture above) and we’ve started obedience lessons.  She’s 20 months old now and has some basic commands including sit, down, roll over and so on.  However just like teaching children, the real magic comes when you start to put the commands together.

The similarities

Consistency is key.  When training a dog you need to be consistent.  If the command is down then get down, sit down and similar, these commands will only serve to confuse the dog.  It’s the same with children, if you confiscate a mobile time the first time you see one but turn a blind eye the second or third you authority will be lessened.

Clear expectations and body language.  If I laugh at my dog while I give her a command (as I try to do when she is biting my ears) then it doesn’t work.  Although she hears the command, my body language says play. Children can read body language pretty well and you need to practice giving the message you want with your whole body – remember only a small proportion of communication is verbal.

Rewards work better than sanctions.  When I’m at training class I keep a packet of dog training rewards in my pocket.  When she does something really well she gets a sweet – shouting at her for not doing the right thing doesn’t help her to learn.   Whilst there needs to be a place for sanctions, it is easier to build a culture in your classroom based on positive behaviour.  Your consistent expectations will be the foundation that underpins this culture, but praise students, give out rewards and even phone the odd parent with a positive message.

Reinforcement works wonders. even the brightest and motivated of learners forgets.  We start obedience training with a recap and come back to skills within a session.  When I’m teaching I finish with a summary/plenary and start the next lesson with a recap.

Chunking and breaks.  When I’m dog training we take short rests or breaks and then do a different activity.  For example we might be doing heel walking, then we have a rest and do stay & wait.  The same approach can be applied to teaching where you include a range of different activities into your lesson.  This is especially useful for SEN students who can have an even shorter attention span than my German Shepherd.

Accept that most people won’t be a master dog trainer! I’m not training my dog because I want her to appear in the next BBC hit series or to be a viral Facebook sensation.  I’m doing it because it enriches her life and we enjoy it.  The more training you do with your dog, the stronger the bond becomes and the better the training.  When you start teaching don’t expect to be a master dog trainer.  Watch what the other teachers do and steal their secrets and methods.  Find your own style and don’t try to be something or someone you are not.  Learning to be the best teacher you can be will take time.

Learn from your mistakes.  My first dog training session was like something off the generation game with me walking the wrong way and bumping into the other dog owners.  I didn’t give in and you need the same resilience as a teacher.  Don’t give up when something doesn’t go the way you expect it to, dust yourself off and keep going.

Finally have fun with your students and enjoy the experience.  Don’t worry and enjoy the time you spend with your learners.