Reflecting on Departmental Practice: being brave enough to do what works

I’ve been reflecting this week on how we achieved our summer 2016 English results. This is because we’re going to have to work very smartly to get similar results this year. In a small school with year groups numbering anything from 75 to 110 (and where there are significantly more boys than girls), the profile and potential of each year group differs dramatically. Last year, in core English, 79% of our students made expected (3 levels) progress and 42.1% exceeded this level (significantly less than we’d hoped for, unfortunately). There were 105 students: 57 boys and 48 girls. Of the girls, 86% made expected progress, whereas only about 74% of the boys managed to do this. In our current Year 11 there are 77 students, with 55 boys and only 22 girls. Clearly, for a Head of English, this poses challenges.

When I think about how we achieved our summer results though, I am positive that we can do well again. Our department doesn’t consist of whizzy, flashy teachers who use lots of dubious technology to entertain students by simulating “real-world” scenarios in the classroom. We hardly do any drama, and group work is a rarity. We don’t take into account “kinaesthetic learners” when planning our lessons or create dumbed down resources for “The Less Able”.

In fact, if you were to come into our lessons I’d wager that you’d see one of the following five things: teachers telling students about a topic; lively whole class discussions; students thinking or writing in silence while the teacher circulates to support and give one to one feedback; students peer assessing one another’s work; students responding to peer or teacher feedback.

I really don’t think there’s much else that we do. And yet, when I conduct our annual student survey, it always comes out that our students really enjoy English and feel that they make good progress and are well supported. I think this is probably for two main reasons: firstly, because we’re passionate about our subject and studying it gets us excited. This must somehow be transmitted to the students. We’re always talking about what came out of a discussion or what a student wrote in their book, and we’re always relaying this to students (who aren’t in our own classes) in the corridor or the canteen or in the playground. Secondly, we don’t accept excuses. If a student hasn’t made an effort, they get told off and are made to redo the work. When homework isn’t handed in, we put them in detention until it’s handed in.

It’s interesting to reflect on this because I don’t think that we’ve systematically set out to work this way, but it is tempting to enshrine these practices in some kind of departmental policy. I’m not sure how it would be worded. Probably something like:

In this department, teachers:

  • Love the subject
  • Love teaching it
  • Don’t accept excuses

I think that would about sum it up. A few years ago I wouldn’t have dared espouse these ideas for fear of being hounded out of my job as some kind of old-fashioned despot and being observed to within an inch of my life until I brought in some props, but I now have the confidence to stand by my belief that these unfashionable approaches do work the best in when teaching my subject.

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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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