The Myth of the Super Teacher

In the first two decades of the Twenty First Century, a myth arose. Later, it came to be known as The Myth of the Super Teacher. The first seeds of the myth were sown when everyone started comparing everyone and everything against everyone and everything. Everyone had to be best. There were no excuses for not-bestness. Some people stood on the sidelines shouting, “Hang on a sec, everyone can’t be above average!” but no one really listened to them. The idea of The True Way of Teaching began to take hold, with people claiming that their piece of research meant they knew what The True Way was. Other people just kept turning up to do the job, and wondered whether the people who knew about The True Way were addressing them, or whether they were shouting into a void.

Unfortunately, The Myth of the Super Teacher took hold to such an extent that all those who saw themselves as Ordinary Teachers, Reasonably Good Teachers or I Just Keep Turning Up Teachers, started to wonder why they should bother. If someone else kept saying that they could do your job better than you could, eventually you were going to say, “go on then, do it”. A couple of decades later, the only people left were a handful of Super Teachers, who could deliver finely honed lessons to classes of 60 or more pupils and who used only the approved methods. Unfortunately, the exit of the I Just Keep Turning Up Teachers left a black hole of experience in the middle of the education system. Everyone was so busy honing their skills in order to move up to leadership and tell everyone else what to do, that no one was left to actually do the job any more. The edges of the system finally began to fall in on each other. The parents started demanding to know why That Lovely Mrs Jones wasn’t working at the school anymore. And at that point they finally realised. It is not about Super Teachers, and it never has been. It is about you, in a room, with some kids.

Thank you to all the I Just Keep Turning Up Teachers, for your hard work in keeping on turning up. I hope you all have a very lovely summer break!

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*Flower Show*

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I’m not the world’s biggest fan of competitions. Mostly because I can’t be bothered to enter something if I’m not going to win it (which ruled out pretty much all of Sports Day for me as a child) but also because I don’t really care where I come in the grand scheme of things. Having said this, I adore the annual flower show in our village. If you were after a definition of ‘Englishness’, you could do a lot worse than a flower show run by volunteers, raising money for charity, full of local families, with a flower and veg marquee, the WI serving teas in the Hall, children’s work in the church and all the villagers digging up their best veg. Every year, I spend the Friday night before the show wandering around my garden, cutting stuff to go in vases. Every year, on Saturday morning, there are lots of my fellow villagers at the allotments harvesting stuff. On the day I run a stall selling plants to raise money for preschool. Everyone gets together, and we enjoy looking at gorgeous flowers, vegetables, crafts, paintings, photos, children’s writing, preserves and cakes.

The funny thing about a competition is that, when it’s not *A COMPETITION* it feels a lot easier to join in. When it doesn’t matter who gets first place, or who wins a cup, because that wasn’t the point of it anyway, then it doesn’t really matter if you fail. I spent Friday night elbow deep in flowers, not because I wanted to win, but because I wanted to help fill the big white marquee that had appeared in our village with beautiful sights and scents, and thankfully so did everyone else. I sat on the patio with the kid, and I helped her build her impression of a forest vegetable garden, all overgrown and full of moss and brambles. It didn’t matter that she didn’t win a prize, she just shrugged it off; she enjoyed the time we spent together on the Friday night, and to her way of thinking, hers was ‘best’ anyway. And me? Well, I didn’t win the film theme category, despite trying really hard, and there only being two entries. But thankfully serendipity stepped in. As I was about to leave the allotment this morning, with my trug full of peas and broad beans, I thought, “why don’t I dig up a few potatoes?” I pushed the fork into the soil, turned it over, and there – gleaming like jewels – were some perfect early potatoes. I put them on a plate, labelled them “Charlotte” and hey presto! 1st place.

Posted in Allotment, Competition, Gardening | 1 Comment

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Assessment?

“What have you got for me?” She sat down on the leather chair and put her hands on the desk. She leaned forwards slightly, but she didn’t meet their eyes.

They looked nervously at each other. Who would be first to jump?

“Explain it to me sector by sector. Keep it simple,” she said, relaxing back into the chair.

“Should I go first?” Early Years half raised a hand. It only felt right that they should start at the beginning.

“Go ahead.” She smiled.

“Okay. Well, we’re not giving enough funding to settings for free childcare places, we flunked the baseline thing, and people are complaining about the phonics check. Parents don’t like so many tests.”

“Would you like to go next?” She glanced at primary.

“Take your pick.” Primary shrugged. “Key Stage 2 SATs disaster, times tables tests, SPaG, all above average. Parents not understanding a word of it.”

“Can I just mention SATs resits, at this point?” Secondary said.

“Hey, you’ve got new GCSEs coming your way,” Primary said, “I feel for you.”

“So, things have got a bit out of control here, then,” she said. There was the faintest note of perspiration on her forehead. “Goodness me. What a pickle! Whoever could have left me such a mess to clean up? Whatever shall I do?”

They all stood in silence for a moment. They weren’t sure if she was making an ironic SPaG reference, or if she always spoke like that from time to time.

“I know what I’ll do,” she said, finally meeting their eyes and smiling broadly. “It’s all clear to me now. I think I’ll start by saying sorry.”

Posted in Accountability, Assessment, Parents, SATs | Leave a comment

What Does Good Writing Look Like?

The question “what does good writing look like?” is a really important one, especially if you make your living as a writer, like I do. If you wanted to, you could phrase this question differently, and ask “what makes one piece of writing better than another?” The problem with these questions, though, is that what feels like good writing to me might not feel like good writing to you. Writing is an incredibly subjective thing. This is one of the reasons why I’m uneasy about the idea of using comparative judgement to assess writing (and especially to assess creative writing) as I alluded to in last night’s blog. The idea that there might be ‘no more marking’, as the company selling comparative judgement is called, sounds wonderfully attractive if you are up to your elbows in marking every night. But the suggestion that we can glance at a piece of writing for a few seconds and decide whether it is ‘better’ than another one baffles me. It feels like an affront against the act of writing.

There are a lot of ways to decide whether a piece of writing is “good” or not. If you work at the DfE you will want to see at least one semi-colon in it, plus a colon and a dash as well. You will be hoping for lots of fronted adverbials, and plenty of adjectives (preferably in a series of three). You will want to find lots of ‘big words’ in it as well. There should be an exclamation mark too, although only on sentences that start with What or How. And the handwriting – don’t forget the handwriting – that really must be neat and joined up, or the writer is simply not doing things properly. It would take me a matter of moments to write a piece that satisfied all those criteria, but I would rather cut off my own arm than approach the process of writing in such a way.

For some of the people reading this, a “good” piece of writing might be one that is full of technical detail and that includes references to lots of other people’s ideas, with lots of bits of ‘proof’ in it. Probably one that is lacking in emotion (damn you, emotion), full of clear headed content with absolutely no sign of bias. Anyone who likes this kind of writing will probably hate the fact that I put “cut off my own arm” in that last paragraph. (Will you please stop showing emotion.) For other people reading this, the sign of “good” writing might be the amount of vocabulary that the writer has included in it. The number of words that are complicated, or tricky, or hard to understand. But you see, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these kinds of writing, they just don’t cut it for me as a reader. These kinds of writing leave me cold. For me the sign of “good” writing is that it moves me, it makes me see the world differently, it makes me shiver (or even shudder) inside. I’m not a fan of big words, used for their own sake. I’m not a massive fan of semi-colons either. And exclamation marks? Don’t even get me started on those.

About twenty years ago I was teaching a top set Year 11 English class. They were doing some short pieces of creative writing, as part of their coursework. I was going through a pile of their scripts and I came across one by a kid called William. I glanced down at it and sighed. It was scruffy, bent at the edges, the handwriting was awful and it was only a single page. If I had been doing a seven second comparative judgement task, it would have gone straight into the “not good” pile. But when I actually read it, it made me shiver. There was something about the clarity of the prose, and the tight, straight-up style of the writing that made me wish I had written it myself. One of my favourite writers of all time is the now sadly departed Elmore Leonard. If you want to write for a living, and especially if you want to write fiction, then you could do an awful lot worse than to start with his 10 rules. The rules start with the advice: “Using adverbs is a mortal sin” and finish with the suggestion that “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” And that is what good writing looks like to me.

Posted in Testing, Writing | 1 Comment

Rank

Today I walked back up the lane with my daughter and her friend after meeting them at the school bus. Her friend had the Year 6 SATs results in hand. Her friend is bright, so there will be celebration and happiness in that home tonight. Because when all is said and done, the SATs results tell you where your child stands in the grand scheme of things. Do they pass or fail? Are they above or below a randomly selected “expected level”? Are they up to scratch or not? I’d imagine there are homes where there is not all that much happiness tonight, because no parents wants to be told that their child is “below average”. To be compared unfavourably to the children of everyone else.

This same idea of ranking is taking hold in the field of assessment. Everyone is talking about comparative assessment as the Next Big Thing (now where have I heard that before?) Rank the children and decide whether they meet your expectations, either in effort or in attainment. Put them all metaphorically up on the wall. Pure data as the ultimate arbiter of whether a child succeeds or not. If you like the sound of comparative judgement, just imagine for a second what it would feel like if we assessed teachers in this way. “I’m going to compare you to you. You are better than you. You are definitely not making the required progress.” I can’t get my head around only looking at a child’s work for a matter of seconds, and making a judgement on it, no matter how accurate we think we all are if we aggregate ourselves. (Clue: not very.)

I mourn the demise of levels, if this is the alternative we are left with. I know people love the idea of moving beyond levels, so I’m saying this from a parental viewpoint and not a teacher one, but at least with levels, you saw what your child could do and not where they were in relation to a midpoint meaning ‘average’. The idea that your child has passed or failed was a lot more fuzzy with a letter and some descriptors, than it is with a scale of numbers or a rubbish/average/superb message. Above or below a number feels like your children are being compared in relation to other people’s, rather than being seen as individual people. Year 6 children will whisper “What number did you get?” in the playground this week, as might their parents outside the school gates. And comparing yourself or your children to other people is not an attractive habit to encourage. (Unless it’s Sports Day or you really like competitions.)

Data is seductive. It draws you in and it shows you the big picture, so you can make accurate judgements (hmm), but people can lose sight of the individual trees if they get too focused on studying the big forest of children. I reckon that most parents don’t really want to know where their children sit on a scale of low to high, mainly because they already know. (Although if the answer is “better than average” they’ll probably take the accolade.) I certainly don’t want my children reduced to a number in a National Test or data mined to find progress; their learning measured as an abstract thing. I want to know about how they are doing in relation to themselves. Yes, SATs and GCSEs act as a kind of mythical end point, but your life isn’t over and decided at eleven or sixteen.

The oldest kid got a praise postcard in the post today. It is, according to him, “the second best reward you can get in school”. It was from his Science teacher, saying that he’d tried very hard this year. He has fallen deeply in love with the subject (hurrah!) just like his sister has done with maths (double hurrah!). This is the feedback that I want as a parent. Not a ranking on a government scale, or an expected level, or a measure against their classmates, but the message that the teachers know my kids and like working with them. When I go into school, I always try to remember to say thanks, for the hard work and dedication they put in. I want them to know that I appreciate them. And I respect them. And that I’m definitely not planning to rank them.

Posted in Children, Parenting, SATs, Testing | 2 Comments

Everybody’s Free

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One of the things that the whole Referendum Debacle has brought home to me is how much I value the European side of my life (and how maybe other people don’t share quite the same enthusiasm). When I was a kid, our family did do one holiday in Spain, but it wasn’t easy. Flights were expensive and you didn’t have the Internet to make bookings. The Euro didn’t exist and there was no free movement of people either. You couldn’t just go and live or work somewhere else in those days like you can now, or at least like you can until someone hits the Brexit Nuclear Button (if they ever do). To their credit, my parents managed to take us on a road tour of Europe, in a VW Campervan, but goodness only knows how they managed it. There weren’t many motorways in Europe in those days, either. By the time I was in my twenties, a lot of our friends lived and worked in Europe. So did me and my partner, twice. We spent a few great years driving between Belgium, Luxembourg and France to party with people. We’ve got family in Portugal, so every summer is an epic journey across the continent. The kids are on their third passport and they barely shrug at the idea of fifteen hours in a car.

In our village in Somerset, there are some kids who’ve never really left the local area. Obviously it depends partly on whether or not you can afford to travel and whether your lifestyle allows it. But if you can afford a holiday, it’s probably as cheap these days to go to Europe as it is to holiday at home, once you take the cost of living into account. So I’m puzzled about why people don’t, unless they like being cold and wet in August. A lot of older voters have enjoyed the benefits of European travel during their lives. One of the reasons why I’m finding Brexit so stressful is because I don’t understand an attitude that closes off access to free movement, in return for sovereignty. Why in heaven’s name would you make that trade? My advice would be that if you have ever thought about travelling or working overseas, now is the time to seriously consider doing it. Stage a mini Brexit of your own (especially if you are young and you feel like all the old people just sold you up the river). In the strangest political circumstances of my life, I’ve actually been having fun over the last week, writing Road School and reliving the journey that we made. Everybody’s free; at least they are at the moment. Get out there and enjoy it while you can.

Posted in Europe | 3 Comments

This Septic Isle

Writing is great for many things. It is great for communication, for sharing, for expression. But it is particularly great for catharsis. And that’s what I’m planning to use it for in this blog post, because I can’t get on and do the things that I need to do until I’ve released some very strongly felt emotions. Like all the people I know, I am completely gutted at the result of the EU referendum. In fact, more than that, I am furious. I am not furious at the people for expressing their opinion; I am furious at the politicians for trashing our country for their own short term political gain. The idea that I would simply accept what has happened, see it as the democratic will, roll up my sleeves and get on with things, like I did after the General Election result, is anathema to me. Not because I think that all leave voters are racists (although the ones on Twitter who told me to “sod off to Europe” for expressing an opinion probably are). I am furious because it is my opinion that we have been sold a lie, and that things are going to get very nasty and chaotic from here on in.

My fury is particularly keen for David Cameron, who is smiling his way through the whole ridiculous situation. He should be ashamed of himself for promising a referendum to secure himself a second term, and then simply walking away from the mess he has made, with barely a backwards glance. I am furious at Nigel Farage, with his ever present smile and his casual appeal to racist attitudes, and for the fact that he opened a Pandora’s Box of hatred for the ‘other’. I am furious at the Labour Party, because although it is not their fault that Cameron was stupid enough to make this promise, they have singularly failed to reach out to their supporters and explain the truth about what leaving the EU really means. I am furious at Michael Gove and at Boris Johnson, for the claims that they made during the campaign, claims that fell like a house of cards as soon as the result was in. And I am furious at both the Leave campaign and the Conservative Government, for the complete absence of a plan for what would happen after their referendum, and for leaving the country in a state of complete indecision and chaos while they decide what to do next.

But my fury is nothing compared to what is going to happen now, because it will not be long before people realise that they have been sold a pup. Like waking up after a great party with an almighty hangover, people are starting to understand the real implications of the decision that has been made (or rather, of the decision that we are now faffing around about for months and months to come). Already, the markets have tanked and Sterling has crashed. The Union is on the brink of collapse. A recession is not only likely but, I would say, inevitable. Companies are starting to pull out of the UK; the banks are in melt down. EU funding will no longer be available to the poorest areas of our country. EU funding for cutting edge science that was happening in our country will go. The people of Calais are already saying that the border controls will have to relocate to Dover. The millions that we were told would go to the NHS, will have to be used to prop up our failing economy. And now there is talk of us staying in the single market, which means that we will have to retain freedom of movement, one of the main tenets of the Leave campaign that many people voted on. (And yes, I know that some people voted Leave to claw back sovereignty rather than to stop free movement, but you are fooling yourself if you think that most people did.)

I’m not really sure what happens next. Another General Election? A hung Parliament (if Labour can get themselves sorted in time)? A second referendum on the terms of any deal that the Tories can secure? A second referendum on Scottish Independence? But whatever happens now, we are in for a long period of bitter recriminations, divisive politics and openly expressed hatred. A vote in which almost half the people of our country completely disagreed with the other half is never going to end well. And that is the main reason why David Cameron was a fool to call it – because he should have thought of the future of his country, over the future of himself. I’m not sure what happens next for me and my family, because I’m finding it hard to think clearly through my fury. But we’re already thinking about the possibility of dual nationality for our children, so that they have the same access to Europe that we have enjoyed all our lives. Do I sit on the sidelines and nod sagely as our country falls apart, muttering bitterly “I told you so” and “see, we told you what would happen”? Should I accept the “democratic will” of the people, whatever the damage to our country? Or should I just pack up my family and get us the hell out of here, while we still can, like the trolls of Twitter advised? For now I’m going to hunker down, avoid the Internet and (oh the irony) concentrate on finishing Road School. And all the while I will be mourning for the lost opportunities that our people voted to throw away, as they drew up the drawbridge and decided to retreat into the past, here on this Septic Isle.

Posted in Europe | 5 Comments