The Notebook- A Journey of High Expectations
There’s no greater lesson on the importance of having high expectations than moving to a new school. I’m reminded of this when I recently visited two inspirational schools (at very different stages of a journey) where high expectations are evident in all that they do- Goole Academy and Wakefield City Academy. It prompted thoughts of my first year in a new school and a year 10 class in particular where high expectations were key to their success. I clearly remember the first lesson with them; someone had kindly timetabled me into a room with round tables (which the students thought was permission to sit and chat to each other, with their backs to me and ignore me) AND shock, horror chairs on castor wheels! Needless to say it was chaos and not in a good way! Here’s a few things that I have learnt on the way that were helpful in dealing with these kinds of situations…
Seek support when you need it and remember to listen to and act upon great advice no matter how adverse the situation seems!
I vividly remember having many conversations with my other half which went along the lines of ‘ I’ve duped them; I’ve led them to believe I can lead teaching and learning across the school and I can’t even lead my own class’. Full of dread and horror at the thought of my next lesson with them (I had been in my previous school 13 years and had no such trouble in ‘controlling’ my classes) I realised quite quickly that I needed to really reflect and hone my classroom practice. Here was a new situation and a new environment and I had to reinvent myself. In the first place the castor wheel chairs were ditched (luckily the head agreed to replace them immediately, probably recognising by my frantic appearance at his door begging for money that not all had gone well in my first lesson and the fact that they were in a worn state anyway) and I set about getting to know my class. I learned their names quickly, learned their EMGs (estimated minimum grades) off by heart and most importantly held onto the best piece of advice given by the deputy head. What was it he said? Jane, you’ve come from a school with very high standards and this is a challenging class but don’t lower your standards for these students. This piece of advice stuck with me and I believe that amongst many other things, high expectations were integral for the success of this class. As I got to know other teachers in the school, lo and behold, I soon discovered that guess what, I wasn’t the only one in this boat! Whilst it can feel like a lonely place sometime, there’s always someone else facing the same struggles. A brilliant teacher called Lisa was faced with similar issues and it was really helpful to work with her on these.
Always remember that there’ll be others in a similar situation- you are not alone.
Lisa and I spent many a night after school discussing what we’d done with our classes, how they behaved that day and what progress they were making and I firmly believe that the successes that we eventually achieved were down to our continued high expectations and belief that all our students could achieve. Our conversations developed from initial panic- we’re never going to get ‘C ‘grades out of them, to ok how are we going to ensure we do? Many of the blogs I read reiterate that optimism is a habit of a highly effective teacher and I couldn’t agree more. I was optimistic that this class could achieve so much more and with this in mind I began to use a lot of model responses to encourage them to write at a higher level and to show students how to structure an essay so they could see exactly what is expected of them. I remember finishing such a response for this class in particular and sitting back reading it and thinking ‘mmmmm is this too difficult? This is perhaps an A grade response and my class are working way below this. Will they get it? Will it turn them off or worry them or confuse them?’ Hell no- the vast majority rose to the challenge and had a go. This was a long way from ‘ Miss I’m stuck.’ or ‘Miss I can’t do it’ or ‘ Miss I’m not doing it’ .
Don’t beat yourself up if it’s not perfect all of the time- life just isn’t like that and teaching definitely isn’t!
Not everything in the garden was rosy; they still had days when they doubted themselves; there were individuals who were still capable of poor behaviour; A handful of students openly insisted on telling me every now and again that they hated poetry, but I never gave up, I remained optimistic, kept my expectations high and believed in them. The result- every single one of them achieved their ‘C’ grade or above in English (even though a third were predicted ‘D’ grades) But for me, most importantly, they’ve ran with challenges, developed as individuals and began to believe in themselves. The key to this, for me anyway, was holding on to the advice of the deputy, not lowering my standards but instead every time setting the bar that little bit higher. A number of them went on study A level English (which they told me they would never have considered in a million years earlier in the school) and every so often one of them would say- ‘Miss I really enjoyed that lesson today’ or ‘eeeeee miss we were horrible to you last year- weren’t we awful!!!!’
Celebrate and be proud of your achievements
Another proud moment was when I invited them to participate in the interviews for the appointment of a learning coach. Here’s what they said ‘Miss she just told us about that poem; she didn’t ask us for our ideas and opinions- that’s not right is it? We had lots of ideas that we wanted to share.’ Believe me that’s a long way from the very first lesson on those chairs with the castor wheels! I’m not the best teacher in the world (by a long shot) but I’m proud of the success of this group (and others) and I honestly believe that it was the optimism and never giving up that got us there in the end.
Look at the difficult times optimistically- you’re always going to learn something from these situations aren’t you?
And then there was a lesson of a different kind in high expectations. I also vividly remember almost skipping to another year 11 class, a year later, thinking great, they are a set 2 class, they’re going to love English (how naïve, for a teacher of 15 years!) One of the first questions I asked them was ‘Who loves English?’ and guess what… not a single person put their hand up. The second question I asked was ‘well who likes English?’- two students raised their hands. I remember being gutted and in full on panic mode arrogantly told them- ‘Well I can guarantee that by the end of year 11, all of you will like it, some of you will love it and a few of you may even want to become English teachers’ After the lesson, with clarity of thought, I may have sworn a little and thought, how am I going to pull that one off and why did I say it??? But I did and I knew I couldn’t let them down. The optimism and high expectations remained (sometimes through difficult times) but I can honestly hand on heart say that I learned so much from this class- they made me a better teacher without a shadow of a doubt. They had equally high expectations of me. They were open and honest with me; they told me when something was not working or whether (sometimes brutally) that it was rubbish or they’d rather do it a different way. They kept me on my toes and became one of my favourite classes ever because of how much their attitudes changed in two years and how they constantly raised the bar.
Share your experiences with others- you never know who they might help!
Note to self- and what should I do with these experiences? I believe that I should share them as much as possible with others. Be open and honest that just because I’m a senior leader doesn’t mean I don’t have difficulties like every other teacher in the classroom. I think that too many senior leaders think that it isn’t right to share that they too can have difficulties with challenging students, but why not? We are all human aren’t we? Unless you’re Derren Brown and can hypnotise your students into behaving, then I think it’s perfectly normal and actually healthy to admit that you too can be challenged but can overcome this. I personally think it makes you more approachable as a senior leader. I also think this is particularly useful for the NQTs and ITTs that I work with. Hearing that it’s hard for even the most experienced members of staff shows them there’s light at the end of the tunnel. So even though it might be blindingly obvious that optimism and high expectations are important habits in achieving success, sometimes it’s easy to forget this or lose your way. Next time I hear a teacher say about their class, ‘they can’t do this they’re bottom set,’ I’m going to challenge them to think otherwise!
Hold onto your beliefs and keep your standards high
It was clear from my visit to both Goole and Wakefield, that high expectations and standards are evident in abundance. It was an inspiring experience to spend time with such wonderful educators and acted as a reminder that this is what teaching and leadership is all about. It really was a pleasure to spend time there and my only wish is that I lived closer…Jackie Beere (another wonderful educator) says the following about high expectations-
‘There is a four-letter word that is more important for learning than ‘exam’ and that is ‘hope’. Teachers must believe that their pupils can succeed in something… I once delivered an INSET at a school where everyone seemed to have a deeply held belief that any pupil can achieve an A grade- no matter how long it takes them- if we find the right way to teach them. That school had the best value added results in the country’ (The Perfect Ofsted Inspection 2012- Jackie Beere)
I also remember reading about some experiment in a school that told a group of maths teachers that a class who were lower ability were really a high ability set; apparently the results went through the roof! Getting teachers into the mindset of thinking big is probably the first and most important step in believing that we can all achieve.
Have a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful new year everyone. I know that I’m really looking forward to the challenges that 2016 brings!