Reflecting On… Making A Success of Parents’ Evenings by Video

Parents’ Evenings have always been challenging to get right and can cause nerves and frustration for teachers and parents alike.  In the best-case scenario you have 5 minutes with each parent to discuss a whole year’s learning in the subject and offer guidance, reassurance and support.  There are far too many data about far too many students to keep everything clear in your head, but we want the appointment to be far more than reading from a spreadsheet.    And even if everything goes well with your appointments, things outside of your control can throw off the timings leading to significant over-runs, bottle necks and understandably frustrated families.  Research suggests that there is a high level of dissatisfaction with parents’ evenings amongst parents with common issues around organisation, quality of information and unclear outcomes (Power and Clark, 2000).

This year parents’ evenings present a new level of challenge as we try to find a way to talk to parents about their children’s wellbeing, learning and happiness without meeting them in person and risking creating a super-spreading event.  Some schools are offering phone call appointments, but many are exploring conducting appointments by videos.  John Mason is piloting this approach with the New Tutors’ Evening this Thursday, and will then look to scale this up to full parents’ evenings if it is successful.  This requires us to translate our best practice in making parents’ evenings a success into a video format.  Below are some reflections on how this might work well, which we can update after our pilot evening based on our actual experiences.

  1. A professional and enthusiastic face … Research suggests that some teachers consistently get the professional approach to parents’ evenings wrong.   Distractedly flicking through papers, minimal eye contact, no hand-shake or proper greeting.  Our team are encouraged to make the effort to stand, shake hands, dress smartly and to try and give a clear, energetic and professional feel … however exhausted we are!  These little professional touches give a strong positive open message.  But what are the virtual equivalents that can create a poor or negative professional impression?  One issue to be aware of is the multi-screen effect.  It is quite common to sit in video meetings where someone is always looking away from you because their face is pointing at a different screen whilst the camera is located on the laptop.  We’re used to this and know what it means but I wonder how it will look to parents who may be experiencing this for the first time.  Show you are giving your full attention by looking in the camera and making “eye contact”.  Don’t forget that if you are looking at other windows, email, data the effect can be magnified on screen. Working online it is easy to fall into some multi-tasking habits that do not convey full attention to the matter at hand – so be careful to turn off distractors (shut down email and any other unnecessary programmes in advance) so that we can give our parents and children our full, undivided attention for the limited time they have.
  • Sharing information … Power and Clark (2000)’s research indicated that parents often felt dissatisfied with the quality of information at parents’ evenings finding the information given about their children was too generalised, grades given were unclear and discrepancies in reports remained unclear.  Whether meeting parents as a teacher or a tutor, it is really important that the information we are giving is clear and helpful.  Sometimes we have entered data some time earlier and it is easy to lose track of the nuances of our thinking.  Preparation is the key: remember parents are likely to have the latest progress check to hand.  Before the parents’ evening take time to review the data they have been given.  Are there any apparent anomalies that might need to be explained e.g. for a teacher good attitude to learning scores but progress data that is “under target”?  For a tutor, this might be specific subjects whether the student’s attitude to learning data looks significantly off-pattern.  It can be well worth having any whole-school documents to hand such as the attitude to learning criteria or your subject grade boundaries.  In this way you will be ready to provide parents with helpful and clear answers to many of their questions.
  • Under-promise and over-deliver … However well-prepared you are, there are still going to be some questions raised or issues parents want to discuss that you may not have immediate answers to.  This is fine and most parents understand why this will be the case.  However, at this point it is easy to make things worse by promising specific outcomes or timeframes that you cannot realistically commit to.  Perhaps you’ll need to check some information with a subject teacher, head of department or director of key stage.  This could take a little time, especially if other teachers are also asking them for clarity about issues arising from parents’ evening.  Promising a reply the next day which you may not be able to secure can leave them frustrated at the lack of contact on top of the original question.  It is far better to make a realistic commitment that you can be sure to deliver on, even if that means allowing a few days to prepare an informative answer.  There’s nothing stopping you contacting them earlier if you are ready.  Should you find yourself unable to keep a promise; perhaps, say, a member of staff you need to speak to is off work, then it is vital that you follow up with the parents to ensure that the flow of communication remains strong.
  •  Keeping to time… One of parents’ main complaints about parents’ evenings is when appointment times are not kept to.  It can be very tempting to take a few extra minutes or allow someone who was running late to slip in quickly; but if this holds up the flow of appointments it has implications for anyone trying to meet multiple teachers or get home for childcare or to be on time for a shift at work.  Virtual appointments should be a great help in this regard; we can expect a clear timer and an automatic system for ending appointments and starting the next.  However this does leave the risk of being cut-off halfway through a discussion.  It is more vital than ever that conversations are well-planned with space for parents to ask their questions early and to ask more questions towards the end with enough time to answer them.  And, of course, some issues need more than 5 minutes once a year.  When that is the case, the most important thing is to arrange a plan going forward: who is going to speak to the parent to discuss this further with fewer time constraints, when will this happen and what can they expect to happen next.  If all that comes out of the discussion is an awareness of the issue and a plan to pick up the conversation as soon as is realistically possible, this can be a positive outcome, before the computer shifts to the next appointment.
  •  Clear outcomes … when parents’ evening ends without a clear outcome, this can be a source of considerable frustration to parents and students.  Be sure to allow some time to sum up and be clear on what happens next.  I have already mentioned how this may involve further contact.  However it may also be that you are asking the parents’ to support their child’s education in a particular way, the child to commit to a change just agreed with you and their parents or to an action as a teacher to support the child or communicate further.  Especially if change needs to happen, be clear on what is being agreed going forwards and make sure you make a careful note of this yourself so that you can follow up at a later point.

Of course, not everything will change because parents’ evenings have gone virtual.  We will still need to ensure that we have planned what we want to say, have a clear system of noting any actions we have agreed to and have to hand any information we might need such as our own markbook.  Time is still very tight and it is well worth acknowledging this with parents at the start, whilst noting the possibilities for further communication as needed. 

Furthermore, like many things that have come out of Coronavirus, there are likely to be some benefits to virtual parents’ evenings.  For the parents these include:

  • Not having to schedule childcare,
  • Reduced waiting time between appointments because of tight schedule,
  • Not missing appointments as they try to navigate the unfamiliar geography of the school if the student isn’t with them,
  • A chance to ask questions in advance to help ensure the appointment focuses on what they most want to know,
  • A greater level of privacy for conversations than when in large rooms with multiple teachers and other parents close by.

As such, we have an opportunity to ensure that our parents’ evenings are more positive and useful than they have ever been and than, according to research, lots of schools manage to achieve. 

Some questions I like to reflect on before a parents’ evening to help ensure they have as much impact as possible include:

  1. If this student is doing well, what is it about their approach, learning strategies or attitude that is fuelling their success?  What specific feedback can I give them about what to continue doing?
  2. If the student is struggling (if I have given them an attitude to learning score or a predicted grade that indicates problems with progress), what are the specific areas where change might be needed or help can be offered?  What would I like to see happening differently in the future?
  3. Is follow-up needed?  If there are unanswered questions, a message that needs to be reinforced, or a change being requested then it is likely that I am going to need to contact these parents again soon.  Have I planned how and when I will get in touch so that they are clear on what to expect?

If you’re interested in reading further about parents’ evenings you might want to take a look at:

Sally Power & Alison Clark (2000) ‘The right to know: parents, school reports and parents’ evenings’, Research Papers in Education, 15:1, 25-48.

Reflecting on … Why Students Need to Talk and How to Help Them Achieve This.

Over the years I have met students who dislike all sorts of different lesson activities: those who hate writing, or don’t want to appear in photo stories, those who don’t wish to read aloud or act in role plays, those who hate homework or sitting down for 60 full minutes.  Most of us have things that we enjoy, others that  we will try under certain circumstances and other things that push us so far beyond our comfort zone we will resist them at all costs, so it is easy to sympathise with these feelings.

The dilemma we face as teachers is how far to ‘push’ students to develop skills that may, at first, fall outside their comfort zone.  Then, if we decide it is important, how do we scaffold support so that they can achieve the goal and expand their comfort zone along the way.  Talking in class seems to hold a particular place in people’s fears.  However this does not mean that it is good for students to ‘opt out’.

Why is Contributing in the Classroom Important?

Some of the activities  above are not vital for learning.  If a student doesn’t want to appear in front of camera (certainly in my subject) it is not fundamental to the learning and I have other strategies to allow them to access the learning in a different way.  It doesn’t really matter; the aim to is tell the story of an historic event in a narrative framework.  If all group members contribute to the planning and creation of an end product that does this, all will learn and develop as historians.

For other activities, this is not the case.  Writing is vital for success in history.  Students need to take notes, understand how to structure written pieces, present their answers in a written format and much more.  Of course some students may have extreme needs that need alternative provision in either the short-term (the broken arm) or the long-term (transcriber in the exam) but this is rare.

Verbal contributions fall into the same bracket.   The Bullock Report  suggested that language competence grows ‘in the course of using it’ (DES: 1975), and through the interaction of writing, talk, reading and experience.  Whether in small groups or to the whole class, research shows that discussion is a ‘powerful arena for learning’ (Fountain: 1994).  Outside of the specific subject arena students’  ability to communicate verbally to different audiences in varying forums will be a vital tool to most, if not all, of our students.  If we encourage anxiety, promote withdrawal from discussion and allow students to retreat there is a risk.  There is a risk that we will disempower them in life, perpetuating their anxieties that their contributions are less than others, their views less valuable, their voice not worth hearing.

Of course, some people are quieter than others.  Some want more time to think or feel less need to be immediately heard.  But this does not mean that they cannot and do not make incredibly valuable contributions at the time of their choosing.  However, if anyone has ever sat in a meeting or lecture unsure about raising their hand, wanting to ask a question but being too nervous to put themselves forward, worrying about what others will think then they will understand what our students are feeling.  They will understand why they are anxious and wish to retreat from the situation.  They will also surely want to help them break out of that pattern if at all possible.  Wilkinson (1965) argued that  “oracy is not a subject but a condition of learning … it is not a “frill” but a state of being in which the whole school must operate”.  I fully agree.

How Do We Help Them to Achieve This?

Any ‘talk’ is not equally valuable, although if trying to overcome anxiety and encourage participation our goal may need to take that into account.  However the most useful for our lessons is normally what Mercer (2000) called “exploratory talk” where pupils share their ideas, give reasons for these, listen to each other and explore the domain knowledge together.  It is this kind of discourse on which social constructionist theories of learning are predicated and it is, naturally enough, the hardest to achieve.  Some strategies that I have found helpful include:

  • Consider the format of talking tasks – Sutherland (2006) found that students, especially in secondary school, felt a lot more comfortable with small group discussion tasks than whole class. They can feel excluded from and frustrated with the latter.  Throwing students into whole class discussion or debates is often unhelpful, allowing some to hide and some who would participate to be excluded.  I find it better to scaffold towards this with small group discussion which can, sometimes, lead to whole class discussion or, at others, be sufficient in and of itself.
  • Managing groups – for students it matters a lot with whom they are being asked to talk. (As it does for adults.)  In group tasks, the ‘behaviour’ seating plan where students are sat with peers they are uncomfortable with to promote good behaviour is unlikely to work well.  Their discomfort will translate into their discussions.  In most cases I would advocate letting them work with those with whom they are most comfortable and describe my thinking behind that in this blog:  https://jmsreflect.blog/2017/10/29/reflecting-on-better-to-be-lazy-than-incapable-the-motivation-of-boys/
  • Plan discussion tasks carefully – sometimes it is tempting to think that having presenting students with ideas, texts or resources they will then be able to ‘discuss’ effectively. However, this is rarely the case unless students are highly skilled.  As with any task, a clear model helps.  The purpose of the activity needs to be clear and prompts and extensions points planned into the activity.
  • Managing “I don’t know” – ‘I don’t knows’ can be valuable feedback, suggesting that my lesson is going too fast or that I have not given sufficient thinking time. However, it can also be a strategy to avoid contributing.  From early on I try to break away from this as a habit.  I encourage students to problem-solve if they don’t know the answer, as for a written activity.  Seek help from a peer and feed the answer back to me.  Often  ‘chairing’ a sub-discussion and filtering the contributions back can be as valuable a way of contributing as putting forward an answer of their own.
  • Scaffolding to active participation – for some verbal contributions and discussions are beyond their skills at first. Like any other vital skill, I may need to differentiate for individuals or for a whole class to help them learn the strategies that become verbal contributions.  Silent debates, mini-whiteboards or socrative.com (long advocated by @JMS_Computing) all help students to respond to ideas, thinking of their own answers and share them with reduced anxiety.  And, in the case of Socrative, anonymously.  This allows me to model the classroom culture, my enthusiasm at their participation, my tools for developing or giving feedback on their answers in a way that celebrates their strengths and responding to others’ ideas and questions.  Obviously these tools do not yet mean that the students are making verbal contributions, but I have found them to act as invaluable stepping stones towards that goal.

Questions I have reflected on regarding students’ verbal contributions:

  1. How important is it that students contribute verbally in the classroom? How and why would the learning be different if they did not?
  2. What in this class / activity / topic is making it hard for students to contribute effectively? How can I help them to overcome that?  What obstacles can I remove to build their confidence?

Most of the quotes and references in this blog come from Valerie Coultas whose article below I found particularly helpful and thought-provoking:

Coultas, Valerie. (2015). Revisiting Debates on Oracy: Classroom Talk–Moving towards a Democratic Pedagogy? Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education,22(1), 72-86.

Reflecting on … Equitable Questioning

By doing some simple tracking of how my questioning was distributed in class, I have noticed that  my pupil premium students are at times getting more closed and less challenging questions to answer.  They are involved in the lessons; but not necessarily getting a fair deal.

The importance of good questioning in the classroom is well established and most teachers have clear routines for planning and delivering effective questioning sessions.  Whilst questioning plays a key role in checking what the students have taken from the last activity or presentation it also givesthem a chance to connect ideas and develop their thinking.  In my most recent post I explored how I have been using increased ‘wait time’ after initial student responses to draw more out of them and the positive impact this was having  https://jmsreflect.blog/2018/01/15/reflecting-on-powerful-pauses/

As a teacher, questioning is an area in which I’ve always felt confident.  This is not an entirely unfounded belief, as my questioning has frequently been tagged as an area of strength in lesson observations.  I balance closed ‘checking’ questions with  open questions that  do encourage students to think.  I have always been very conscious of circulating the classroom and ensuring that all students have the opportunity to participate and try to give thinking and discussion time for those who need it.   All students participate in my lessons, regardless of prior attainment, gender or other factors.

However, in reading Harris and Williams’ (2012) research into classroom interactions I was recently inspired to take a closer look at the patterns of my questioning and recognise that my questioning may not always have been equitable and that I need to think more carefully about how it is distributed within my classroom.  Harris and Williams found that in affluent schools questions tended to be more open, with longer wait times for students to think than in poorer schools.  Here the questions tend to be more closed, and of a lower order of thinking.  Essentially, children from more affluent background were getting higher quality interactions within the classroom.

Although their research was conducted in a primary setting, it made me reflect on my own practice.  At JMS we have a “FIRST” pledge for pupil premium students which includes going to them first to offer help, marking their books first and targeting them first in questioning and discussion sequences.  But I am also aware that the ‘first’ questions in a sequence tend to be less challenging and of a lower-order than the ideas we build towards.  How far was my targeted questioning perpetuating the pattern that Harris and Williams found and trapping certain students  in low quality interactions?

When thinking about questioning I often use a laminated seating plan to track what I am doing in class.  I’ve used this many times to focus on specific goals e.g. checking whether everyone is contributing, measuring hands-down versus hands-up questions, looking for areas in the classroom that I might be overlooking.  If a peer can come in and complete it for me that is great, but I can complete it whilst teaching.  Each time I asked a question I jotted on the laminated plan the ‘seat’ the question had gone to – a black dot for a relatively low-level (probably closed) question and a blue dot for a more challenging, thought-provoking question.  The outcome was  certainly revealing:  I believed that as I build my questioning to greater levels of challenge I was targeting students to ensure that their thinking was challenged for their current level of confidence in that subject.  Whilst that is certainly the plan, my one week review  of questioning in my mixed ability classes did also reveal that, overwhelmingly, my pupil premium students were getting easier questions to answers, earlier in the sequence and with less ‘meat’ for thought and discussion.    The questioning was carefully planned, but not equitable.

To help I have turned to some random answer generators with which I know many teachers are familiar.  We use MintClass which has this function but a free one can also be found at https://www.classtools.net/random-name-picker/.  I don’t think I’ve made enough use of these tools recently, perhaps seeing them as slightly ‘gimmicky’.  In fact, though, the potential for positive impact in equitable questioning should not be overlooked.

I have used these to supplement, rather than replace planned questioning sequences.  Harris and Williams also note that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds may lack some of the social and communication skills to engage in questioning with the fluidity of those from more affluent backgrounds.  A sudden ‘randomising’ spotlight that starts targeting them with questions they are not prepared to answer would not help their confidence or engagement.  However there are well-established techniques to support students in accessing higher-level thinking including thinking time and paired discussion.  My priority at the moment  is consciously ensuring that as I move into more challenging areas with my questioning, I am circling back to some students who have already participated, or whom I might have targeted for lower-order questions to include them in the most challenging thinking in the classroom.

Dialogue in the classroom will always be tricky to manage with 30 individuals participating under any sort of structure.  However, I have recently been reminded of the value of checking, objectively, what I am doing and reviewing and reflecting on my practice even in areas I would consider to be strengths.  Sometimes little changes can make a big difference.

Reflecting on equitable questioning…

  • How do I know that my questioning is ‘fair’ and balanced between different genders, abilities, backgrounds of pupils?
  • How do I look beyond ‘number’ of or ‘distribution’ of questions to think about the quality of question and the level of challenge I offer to different groups of students?
  • What can I try differently this week to shake up established practice? Are there any overlooked tools that might help me reflect on what is happening in my classroom?

Research into inequality in questioning:

Harris, D. and Williams, J. (2012) The association of classroom interactions, year group and social class, British Educational Research Journal, 38, 3, 373-397

Reflecting on … critical use of student data.

Our inspired guest blog by former student @Lissyh1997 reminded me of the importance of handling student data with caution.

“Data is like garbage.  You’d better know what you’re going to do with it before you collect it.”  Mark Twain

As I prepared for the new term, I was struck by how much information about the pupils I had available.  This is before I’ve even met many of them in person.  Increasingly, the expectation is that students come to us much as food from the supermarket; pre-packaged with catch-all information progressively simplified into little coloured boxes.

As with many things, one broadly assumes the benefits outweigh the costs, although I’m unsure whether any rigorous research has been conducted to test this.  However, I do wonder whether the data we are given come with enough health warnings to help teachers avoid some of the dangers they present.  I have been reflecting on a few of these as I prepare to meet my new classes:

  • The Pygmalion and Golem Effects: In 1965 Rosenthal and Jacobson experimented with the impacts of labelling by convincing teachers that a (non-existent) test they had run on their students had identified certain students who were on the verge of going through the intellectual equivalent of a ‘growth spurt’ and whose progress would accelerate dramatically over the course of the next year.  They found that children profited from their teacher’s high expectations and made greater progress than those not so labelled.  There are various provisos to this “Pygmalion Effect”; including that the impact was limited to younger children and their paper explores a range of possible explanations.  However one implication is the possibility that low expectations can lead to poor outcomes for the student – the Golem Effect.  As a teacher, seeing my students for the first time through the filter of data, it is sobering to remind myself of the potential for my expectations to shape their outcomes.
  • Confirmation Bias: Along with the risks of self-fulfilling prophecy acting on the students, confirmation bias is a well-documented psychological tendency that it is worth teachers familiarising themselves with.  Essentially this is where we interpret new evidence in light of our existing theories.  This can be done in a variety of ways; we can look for evidence that supports our beliefs, disregard contradictory evidence as anomalous and give greater weight to information that fits comfortably with our current world-view.  It is not always a conscious process and can be hard to avoid, even when aware of the phenomenon.   The risk in education is that it can be easy to find confirmation of low expectations, even without realising we are looking for it.  All teenagers tend to miss the point sometimes, rush a bit of homework and submit an essay that is far below their best standard, not revise for the odd test or just have bad days.  If each instance of underperformance adds up in the mind of the teacher as an accumulated wealth of ‘objective’ evidence that they “can’t” or “won’t” do it, that their targets are too high, their ‘ability’ too low, or their skill-set mismatched to the subject it is hard to think how they might avoid low expectations.
  • Reliability and validity issues: As a general rule the data we use are worked out with large sets carefully tested to be as reliable as possible.  Mass testing and standardised methodologies help to ensure that reliability is as possible.  Self-fulfilling prophecy and confirmation bias may also help our systems to achieve this!  However we all have students who perform exceptionally well on exam day, confounding our expectations and careful, reliable testing over the previous years of teaching.  Unfortunately we have probably all experienced the reverse where underperformance strikes.  The same can be true of any of the testing which generates our data going into the relationship; perhaps that student doesn’t test well, or had an off-day, or was distracted during those tests.  Additional data can help (CAT scores and reading levels and KS2 SATs) but only so far.

Then there is the question of whether the data actually measure what they are supposed to – and the related question of whether I am using them for that purpose.  Many teachers can talk for hours about how the data we’re given are of questionable validity so I won’t explore this too much here.   However, coupled with the Golem Effect, confirmation bias and reliability issues for the individual student it is worth at least noting.  Sometimes we’re very sensitive to targets or information that we consider ‘too high’ or ‘inflated’.  This can certainly happen and the drive in all parts of the system to high expectations may well mean it is more likely than low expectations.  But I’m not sure I’ve always spent enough time looking for data flaws that go the other way where for some reason, or combination of reasons, my students have been given scores and targets that are too low and which I need to challenge and raise, rather than finding confirmation for, however inadvertently.

This is not to suggest that the data is pointless and can never be relied upon; big-picture and over time it can certainly be valuable.  If it sounds like my reflections suggest the data aren’t useful or should be ignored that is not the case.  Without some very convincing research to show otherwise, I’m operating on the assumption that for most students and most teachers the availability of data is a positive thing that can be well-used to support learning.  If I think back to the start of my teaching when I had very little information about most student I feel much better equipped going into a new class now.    Having seen that I have a GCSE student with a reading age of 9 I have been able to do some careful thinking about the range of Anglo-Saxon source material I am making available in my first lesson.

But I would make a case for caution and critical evaluation of the data from the very beginning.  Too often, if we allow our aspirations to be limited by the data in front of us and confirmation bias kicks in we are at risk of contributing to students’ challenges.    Of course, there are a lot of other factors that come into play.  However my goal as a teacher is to be a positive factor and not one of the hurdles my students have to overcome, and this is enough to give me pause.  The principle of falsifiability is a useful one here – to ask myself how would I know if these data are flawed, if they hide strengths either in the area they measure, such as literacy levels, or in other useful assets that aren’t directly measured such as motivation, emotional maturity or resilience and I find myself asking the following questions as I reflect on the data I’m looking at:

  • Am I reading too much into these data, and forming judgements that may limit my expectations too far?
  • If any initial expectations based on the data are misguided, how will I identify that this is the case and not fall into the trap of confirmation bias? What should I be looking for in this student’s contributions, work, ethos and attitude to learning that challenges the previous data and suggests the student may be capable of more?
  • Were these data to be fundamentally misleading for this student, understating their full potential, how would I know?
  • Is the AfL, teaching and questioning in my classroom giving all students opportunities to excel – to overcome the low expectations they may have of themselves or others may have of them?

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. The Urban Review, 3(1), 16-20.

Reflecting on… the experiences of one student from a ‘disadvantaged background’.

This is a guest blog written by a former student (@Lissyh1997). I have found it a powerful read as she recalled her experiences in education, positive and negative. @Lissyh1997 is now a trainee teacher and I know she is going to be an amazing addition to the profession.

Following the inequality that certain groups of pupils faced in the first set of A-Level results this year, it seems the perfect moment to confront the ‘injustices’ that pupils from certain backgrounds may face; not only on a national scale but also on an individual school level. Often students from disadvantaged backgrounds are pigeonholed, and assumptions are made as to how they learn, what they learn, and about their overall ability to learn in the first place. Therefore, do teachers themselves unconsciously contribute to bias? Are disadvantaged students set back by labelling from day one? How can this positively or negatively affect these students during their time throughout school and beyond?

Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1968) investigated the Pygmalion effect which demonstrated the potential of teachers in influencing performance of students based on teachers’ perceptions. They found labelling students creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, revealing a direct correlation between teacher expectation and student performance. Often, stereotyping or labelling students at the beginning of a course causes consequences as the class moves forward, adding to the belief that these students will continue to under-perform (Chambers, 1999). Coming from a disadvantaged background and qualifying for FSM my predictions were low entering secondary school. From year 7 I struggled thinking that it would be hard to succeed and wondered why I couldn’t be smart like some of my friends, often feeling inadequate when they were offered extension work to do or sat on the ‘smart’ table together.

But I suppose what really made me feel disheartened was heading to my bottom set English class. As (Gillborn & Youdell, 2000) state, disadvantaged pupils are over-represented in lower teaching sets and are at greater risk to reduced teacher expectations, pupil disruption and loss of self-esteem. I assume they made the decision to put me in bottom set English based purely on data, rather than my attitude and personality traits, unique like every student. At the time I was oblivious that perhaps I should not be in that set, but rather thought that I was bad at English and had no hope of ever improving. It was as though my potential was capped by being surrounded by students who struggled and misbehaved, and it unfortunately made me believe that I came under this umbrella too.  

Also, data is often offset by listening to parents, which means students whose parents understand, or know enough about education not to “trust the teachers” but argue their case have a good chance of moving their children up a set. In my case, neither of my parents had been to university or even knew what a set was. Luckily, I had a very supportive and invested form tutor who argued my case and made me aware that this was the wrong set for me. Sometimes students need teachers who are willing to challenge others’ decisions and question things.  As you can see, certain students are left without hope of achieving, or having chances to exceed potential solely because of labelling and that is not the purpose of education. I think it is unfair that a student could feel like they can achieve less based on a teacher’s use of data, and even today, I sometimes feel limited by the labels and doubt the quality of my essays.

As (Gillborn and Mirza, 2000) argue we cannot ignore that all pupils have a class, gender and ethnic identity, but we need to consider the difference they might make to pupil’s experience of schooling rather than putting students into certain boxes. Once again from personal experience, my ‘student profile’ had an impact on the way teachers viewed me. They concentrated more on statistics or previous students, rather than my individual story. The village I come from has a bad reputation with many students misbehaving, underachieving and showing little interest in learning. Therefore, teachers would often expect me to be the same, misbehave and not achieve much. Comments were often made ‘you are not like a typical [insert village] kid’ or ‘Are you sure you are from there?’. Looking back, I now realise that they had decided what I could achieve and what my attitude would be like based on background information, rather than who I was as an individual. The comments might seem harmless and light -hearted, but it shows that they had preconceptions about what I would be like in their classroom. Also, should I have been a ‘typical’ student from this village, would the fact I came from there really better explain my behaviour and attitude, than that I needed extra help with subjects or needing some pastoral support because of a home situation. It felt as if any student from this village, or other similar situations was written off and teachers had given up before even starting to teach or build a rapport.   It is important to remember that students are not just a number, but human beings with faces, names, dreams, and heartbreaks.   I wanted to feel not just like a student from this village who happened to exceed expectations and not fit the stereotype, but a successful student in my own right.

I believe that if we are going to have preconceived ideas about students, we should at least begin to use labelling as a positive concept and value data in order to help those students because as (Chambers, 1999) states, high expectations lead to high performance. I think we should use them to broaden horizons and challenge expectations rather than diminish potential, and this is what some amazing teachers did for me. The head of languages listened to me, truly listened, and reassured me everything would be ok. By not judging me and not grouping me into the category of a disadvantage pupil with a low prediction in languages, they allowed me to keep learning despite home situations. Moreover, they went above and beyond to help me see what I could achieve and spoke to me about university options, something I had never considered. Also, from the first week my form tutor had made his high expectations for me clear and throughout the 5 years, they continued to push me to be the best I could be. He gave me confidence to participate in lessons by giving me counters that I had to use up by the end of lessons, I could only use them up by participating. He recognised I was shy and made it his mission to include me. He taught me I had ideas worth sharing, should take risks and others could learn from me. He even gave me whole form responsibility. My Spanish teacher opened up new interests in the form of linguistics, or showing me a Latin book, and this made me realise I could enjoy other academic aspects of the subject and that he had faith in me to challenge myself. The head of maths was convinced I could get better than a D and offered extra help on a Wednesday afterschool until 6pm.

I personally believe it is about building students up and above are a few examples of how teachers decided not to label me and instead believe in me. Teachers should do, shift attitudes about students and evaluate data in front of them. Students who are ‘difficult’ or ‘disadvantaged’ could be team leaders, peer mentors, on sports teams and school councils. Instead of feeding negative stigma, we could encourage them to flourish, set goals and remind them they are not just the ‘bad behaviour’ they show.  After all, labels may stay with an individual throughout their entire life (Lauchlan & Boyle, 2007) and teachers have responsibility to reverse student’s views of themselves and allow equal opportunity. I think decisions made should be based on robust evidence alongside professional judgement and school context. Teachers ultimately have the ability to be a champion for these often- labelled students and prevent the widening of the opportunity and achievement gaps.

ALT Reflect.  Since reading this piece from @Lissyh1997 I have been reflecting on the following questions about my teaching:

  1.  What unconscious biases do I bring to the classroom as I make decisions about seating plans, groupings and differentiation?
  2. How carefully am I using data to raise my expectations for students, rather than lower them?
  3. Where will this student receive the push to excel in my subject and in their school career as a whole?

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus your own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus your own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus your own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.