Mocksteds and Passengers: trying to make things better.

We had a County monitoring visit on Tuesday. It went exactly as I expected. Everything in our faculty was deemed to be good, with one or two tiny exceptions that I knew about anyway and I’m already in the process of ironing out.

Let me contextualise this a little bit: in September 2014, I joined a small rural secondary school in a very small town in the East of England. The school was in Special Measures from 2010-2012 due to some very bad results and “interesting” financial management. In June last year, Ofsted came again and deemed that the school was currently RI. However, some very good results in summer 2014 and the tightening up of practice this year puts the school, in our humble estimation, firmly in the “good” category, but due to the Ofsted judgement we are subject to frequent monitoring visits from County.

When we were told on Monday morning that the “Mocksted” would take place the next day, I held a Faculty meeting in which I asked colleagues not to change anything that they’d already planned and not to put on a show. There is an inherent urge in all of us to be seen at our very best and this is fine and natural, but this shouldn’t stretch to being seen doing something that we wouldn’t normally do. I was lucky as I knew that on that day there were only two lessons in which I could be seen: I have a couple of frees periods 1 + 2, year 10 period 3, the year 11 group I’d normally teach period 4 were in a Literature Mock, and I’d finish the day with a year 9 lesson. The year 10 group were at the point in the course where they were planning and preparing for their Literature controlled assessments and the year 9s were also going to be planning a piece of writing, this time a persuasive letter for which they’d spent the last lesson debating the issues and ideas they wanted to include. I told my colleagues that I would not be veering from this plan and that I’d like them to do the same.

The observation came period 3. My year 10s have been studying A Christmas Carol and Romeo and Juliet since December, and are now at the point where I’m not allowed to physically teach them anymore, so they just came in and got on with their drafts and plans. I reiterated the ground rules and expectations at the start: I wanted a very low working level of noise but I expected them to consult one another as well as myself to get feedback on what they were doing, self and peer assessing what they produced against the exam board’s marking criteria and comparing it to the model essay I’d provided them with. I’d also provided some planning scaffolding sheets for those that wanted them, but made it clear these weren’t obligatory. As always, I was perfectly happy for the observers to be in there; the students were well prepared, their books were clearly and effectively marked and they all knew what to do. My only concern was that the noise level might increase too much; 33 mostly male teenagers in a small classroom can get quite noisy, even when the talk is about work, but they were fine.

When I got my feedback at the end of the day it was exactly as I expected; the visitor was impressed by the students’ knowledge of the topic and the seriousness with which they took their work; some of them were a bit vague about their targets and how to achieve them (fair point) and some weren’t responding effectively to the comments I wrote in their books (fair point), both things that we are currently working on as a school.

When I started at the school as HoD in September, my key aim was to establish a department in which good solid practice was consistent. I’m not interested in busy, noisy “outstanding” lessons in which teachers pander to the perceived “kinaesthetic” needs of students who actually just need to practise and improve their reading, writing and verbal skills. I don’t care about seeing sandpits, fancy dress or “whodunit” role plays in lessons. What I want to see is lessons in which students are engaged, interested and working hard to improve the aforementioned skills and their knowledge of our astonishing literary heritage through the deep study and discussion of lots of excellent texts. I want to see them striving to write about these texts in analytical and evaluative ways, and to try and emulate great writers by creating their own poems, stories, diaries, letters etc. Sound traditional? I suppose it is, but in my experience, it works.

The school and town I work in are unusual. There are no large settlements for many miles and not a lot happens there. It’s a traditional little town, quite culturally homogenous, and our students have little knowledge or experience of the outside world. However, teaching here is hard. Whereas I’m used to chasing huge gangs of smokers, confiscating all sorts of interesting paraphernalia and dealing with outright hostility from kids who see education as just another arm of state apparatus that’s out to get them, this school has students who just seem to float through life and school oblivious to anything except themselves, blissfully unaware ofimportant issues and current affairs. They think that nothing affects them and therefore aspiration, for many, is non-existent. Teachers at this school need to be tireless in expecting excellence and aspiration (as they do everywhere) and refuse to accept the “passenger mentality” that pervades so many of our students. By modelling hard work, passion for excellent literature and a thirst for learning, my hope is that eventually this will permeate through the culture of lethargy and passivity that seems to characterise so many of our students. If we strive to do a good job, then the students will too.

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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

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