Just a Teacher and Her Students

This has been one of the most insane weeks I have known in the last 17 years of working in education. A level results have been a huge topic across the country, they are constant announcements, constant backtracking and in all of it teachers are angry.

For every person who is angry, there is a comment that teachers shouldn’t have got it wrong in the first place, an opinion fuelled by media headlines scapegoating teachers for all the chaos inflicted over the last few months. I, like many, am tired of being told that I am lazy. I am tired of being told that I am trying to hold back students coming back to school. I am tired of being told that I am not providing enough when I am battling in a society where millions of children still have no access to devices of internet access. Basically, I am tired of being blamed.

It’s GCSE results this week and teachers across the country are dreading it. There will be some more teacher-blaming I’m sure, but that isn’t why we are dreading it; that’ll happen anyway, we are worried for completely different reasons.

I have just left my previous school. Ironically, I didn’t leave until the June half term so that I would have been there for year 11 right until the end. I organised a move across the country around what would be the fairest and easiest thing for the students I taught – something that in the end ended up not mattering. Like teachers in the core subjects across the country, I had spent up to 4 hours a week with each year 11 class. In fact, with 3 classes, the majority of my timetable was year 11, many of whom I had taught for 3 years, others at various point in their secondary school career. As every year, I had spent a lot of my life with these students, I had spent hours marking their work, I had seen them through their ups and downs, I knew them.

Despite what seems sometimes like overwhelming public opinion, teachers don’t teach for the long holidays. We teach because we enjoy spending time with our young people, we want the next generation to have opportunities, to be educated, to know things, to have choices. We spend hours with these students, we know them individually, we know what makes them tick, we see them through their ups and downs, through personal issues, we know what they are capable of and we constantly push them. We build relationships. My own children used to joke that I had them and my other children, who became as much a family as my own and to a large extent that was true.

This year we were faced with a pandemic. One minute we were preparing students for an exam, the next minute we faced not seeing year 11 again, with no idea what would happen with the exams. I told students to just make sure that I had proof of anything that I had assessed for them, just in case, and students turned up with bags of essays, books and mock papers that they piled up at the back of my classroom. And then the exams were cancelled. What should have been a period of revision, refining and practising wouldn’t be happening. It is something I have really missed this year – this intense period that always creates a sense of camaraderie, our class against the world.

By the time they go into the exams I know pretty much exactly what grade they are going to get. Teachers do. If you asked teachers to predict at that point what each student would get, they would pretty much predict the exact grade. In fact they do…many schools ask for predictions at around that point, because it gives an idea what to expect with results and barring major grade boundary changes, mistakes made in exams etc they are pretty much what schools come out with. Because we know them, we have seen what they are capable of, we know how students working at the same level previously have done, we have seen how they performed in mock papers. We used those mocks to help students to improve, we know exactly where they are at.

So it was teacher assessed grades that would matter. Well, good because we knew where they were at, we knew what they would have achieved. And believe it or not, teachers didn’t just put in random grades. They used everything they knew about those individuals that they knew so very well to provide a fair and realistic grade. We had hours worth of TEAMS meetings checking them over and over again. These were then checked within schools, at a department level and at a whole school level. There would be happiness and disappointment, as always, but they were honest, realistic grades. No school thought they could just put in high grades and no one would notice – alarm bells would ring at exam boards immediately, it just wouldn’t happen.

This week we had A level results and we all know what happened. Like many, I was angry, though I had taught year 12 this year. I will leave it to others and those who know how to to unpick the statistics and algorithm and there are some great Twitter threads and blogs doing exactly that, but as a teacher and someone who has watched individual students through 7 years of schooling my anger is focused on those individuals and how they might feel. I will also be especially angry that any algorithm seems to have been unfair to those in disadvantaged areas because we all should be. I have chosen to work in schools with considerable disadvantage, just as others teach in different types of schools, because that is where I feel I can make a difference and it matters. I will retweet individual’s stories because ultimately it is the individuals it affects that matter and because it just might help. A colleague at my previous school was so incensed that an unfair result had cost a student to lose their place at university that she took to Twitter to gain enough momentum that they reconsidered and changed their mind. They did so it was worth it.

So, unless something changes between now and GCSE results, I have a feeling that I am going to continue being angry. If students are treated in the same way at GCSE then this will be one of the horrific years ever in education. I will take in the statistics, but ultimately I care about these students as individuals. They are the students I have stood in front of for hours a week, who I know so very well. I don’t expect perfect results for them all, every results day there is disappointment amongst the happy tears, but more often than not I have known exactly where that will be and I thought I knew this year. This year shouldn’t be any different, and yet A levels this year has proved not to be the case.

Teachers across the country will tell you that the few days before results are always horrible, because despite opinion, we want the best for every student we teach. I really do love my job and I am honestly really looking forward to the next set of students that I will teach on my journey. But I want them to be treated fairly and not in a shambolic way.

One of the saddest things for me was that I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to the students I taught. I hope to be there this week to see those picking up their GCSE results. The day before I officially left and therefore lost my email access, I replied to all the student emails wishing me luck. I had always told my students that hard work and self-belief got them where they needed to be. It should never matter what background they come from, how disadvantaged they are, their ethnicity or religious beliefs or how well someone in a previous year has done. My last email was from a 6th form student I had taught lower down the school, wishing me luck and repeating back to me something I had said to her. I really hope that in all of this students can still believe what she sent to me….

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