Monday, 5 May 2008

Teachers need more training

This morning's news is that the sun is shining on a Bank Holiday Monday. It's also, according to the BBC website, that Teachers need better training. When I saw the headline I bristled as is the way of the teacher, that the suggestion is that I'm not doing my job properly. But when I read further, I saw that it's not talking about me, but about teachers who don't do their jobs very well.

The study found a pupil taking eight GCSEs and taught by eight "good" teachers would score four to five more GCSE points than the same pupil in the same school taught by eight "poor" teachers. An "excellent" teacher had an even greater impact.

This much I have seen to be true. Last Inset day we had the usual figures waggled at us, then we all had to go back and check our last sets of GCSE pupils from a big list. Whose had exceeded their targets, thus having "value added", and which pupils had minus figures next to them? While I don't understand the maths behind the figures, the pluses and minuses formed patterns and it was obvious which teachers hadn't added as much (or any) value than others. There were several comments thrown my way, disguised in a veil of congratulations, but only thinly disguised because I could detect the snideness and disappointment. It was probably a horrible thing to do, to make us go through these figures together. Far better for quiet reflection as individuals than to sit there and squirm.

But my successes are down to one thing that I can think of. For about two weeks before each of the mock exams in Years 10 and 11 I teach the exam. I then consolidate this by using the month before study leave to do the same. It sounds obvious, but I know not every teacher does this. One top set a few years ago had never seen a real copy of the exam paper beforehand. They had seen photocopies of past sections, but nothing prepared them for the thickness of the exam booklet or the fact that there were about 12 sections and they only had to answer on three of them. I heard of at least two of those candidates who started answering questions on topics they hadn't even studied, just because they were unfamiliar with the layout of the paper and began to panic.

I know some people think that you shouldn't be teaching pupils to pass exams. Why not? They need the qualification, I want the good results, and isn't that what eleven years of schooling is working towards? It's not all I do, of course. In fact, for the rest for the time I spoonfeed my pupils the least out of most teachers I know. I want them to become independent thinkers who will go on to work or higher education being able to think and do things for themselves without being told what to do or handed step-by-step guides.

But if I was able to make suggestions to the other teachers in my department, it would be to teach the exam. Give them past papers, make notes on the types of questions that come up, get them to figure out what the examiners are testing you on when they use particular words or phrases. Give them example answers and get the pupils to grade them, then tell them what the examiners thought. Let them figure out why one answer scored much less than another. Even in the past couple of weeks my Year 11 class has been shocked in this way: one answer was full of waffle which they mistook for genius, generally awarding it 8 out of 10 when in reality it had scored 2. Unless they see what makes a good answer, how are they going to know what the examiners are looking for? We look at as many past papers as we can. They prepare notes on how to answer on particular themes and subjects. They practise writing the first paragraphs, the opening sentences, and essay plans.

It's too late now for this year's GCSE groups. I know I've done as much as I can to make the exam process clear and less intimidating for my groups. But for the rest, it's just the luck of the draw. My form group is Year 11. Last week I was tidying away some resources and asked the few who weren't chasing round the school handing in coursework who wanted my spare copies of past papers. None of them, apart from those in my teaching group, had seen any others before apart from those we did in the mocks.

Now I'm not saying that my way is the best way to prepare the pupils, but those plus and minus signs on our "value added" sheets would certainly look like I'm doing something that the others aren't. And I just wish I had the opportunity to show all of them that it really is that simple. There's no trickery or witchcraft and I'm not trying to show everyone up. It just works for me and seemed an obvious thing to do.

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