The end of November marks the beginning of reports season, the scramble to meet coursework deadlines and preparation for rehearsal exams in January. As we closed off the analysis of last year’s results at Saturday’s Governing Body meeting, our minds are very much in gear for next summer.
As teachers immersed in this repeat cycle it is perhaps easy to forget what it is like for the ones who really are at the sharp end – our pupils. So as I read through Upper Fifth (Year 11) reports, my mind is cast back to my most recent classroom experience. Perhaps I will remember to be more sympathetic to my son as he begins his revision!
Five years ago, I started learning Classical Greek, something I had wanted to do for a few years. I asked first if the class would mind. When I was told the class of Year 10s (Lower Fifth) were happy to have me on board, I expected to walk into a small group of four of five in these voluntary after- school sessions. There were nineteen of us!
With my Headmaster’s hat on, I was genuinely thrilled that so many students had chosen to do Greek as an optional subject for two hours a week after school; as a pupil again, I admit to being quite nervous.
So what did I learn? The short answer is that I loved it and was sad that commitments and, to be honest, my incompetence as a linguist, restricted it to two terms. The longer one is that I found it really challenging and hugely insightful. It was a little strange to stand outside a classroom alongside everybody else, all of us embarked on last-minute revision for the vocab test, sharing with each other how best to remember a particular word. And I could not quite escape the double-hat perspective: my reflections on my progress helped me to think more deeply about what it must be like for the pupils.
For 30 years my learning and teaching was concerned primarily with concepts and ideas; most of the knowledge I use is embedded or easy to look up. Therefore I found learning a new alphabet, vocabulary and grammar like learning to walk again after weeks in a plaster cast. Progress was uneven. One minute, I think I have nailed the cases and declensions with some focused work over the holiday; only to realise three weeks later that I need to re-learn them as one of the regular tests found me wanting.
As for the Greek Mythology, I am a medievalist, I should remember. But I could not – all the names and stories seemed to merge. I really sympathise with the children who cannot make age an excuse but struggle to remember.
As a teacher, and now when I read reports, I have often wondered why a particular pupil appears to do so well in homework exercises and then gains a disastrous mark in a test or exam. As a mature learner, I would usually get quite good marks for my translation or learning, but I did so with an open book. I knew full well that I did not really know it. English to Greek was especially difficult. I could no longer take false refuge in my homework marks as I did when I was 16. I recognised all the more clearly that frequent, quick assessment before progressing is essential, even if it makes the pupil feel uncomfortable.
And I did feel uncomfortable at times. I had forgotten what it felt like to hope that you will not be the next one to be asked a question or to translate because you really are not sure what it means and you do not want to be exposed. And sitting at the same level as the pupils, I could sometimes see the same concern come across a face.
Then you are asked. All of a sudden the words take on a misty appearance…then… calm down… remember what teacher says…look for the nominative, then the verb…not quite sure…a patient wait and a prompt from the teacher or another pupil… and gradually an answer arrives. It is not always right but I learn from the correction.
If you read Doug Lemov’s Teach like a Champion, one of the characteristics of the best teachers is an expectation from learners of ‘No Opt Out’. It can be painful at times but it is very necessary, though it was good for me to empathise once more.
Perhaps one difference was that I sat in awe and deep pride at the level of questioning from pupils who were grappling with the grammar, relating it to their other learning, genuinely striving for understanding. I have to confess, when I was at school my admiration at another’s success was at best grudging. I was therefore really impressed by the way the pupils fed off each other and accepted each other’s ideas almost as a blessing. It is so important for teachers to create a culture where it is safe to answer a question and take a risk with an idea. As an aside, it is so good to have boys and girls in a classroom together – we all learn from the very different insights.
As a pupil, I learned some Greek and regained that buzz of finally cracking something, however small, and looking forward to learning more. Interestingly, I even picked up Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon texts again (long forgotten since university) to look for similarities – learning stimulated learning.
The less expected journey into the past for me was to remember what it is like to be a pupil in a class with all the thrills, anxieties and frequent spills. I learned more about being a teacher in those couple of terms in a Greek class than I had for a long time. I therefore recommend it to my colleagues and ponder whether my interest in nature would be better informed by learning biology, which I did not take for ‘O’ level…