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I would like to start posting the occasional blog about education as a means of self reflection and possibly canvassing opinions. As you may be aware I am currently studying for my PGCE in Further Education (teaching students from 16 to adult) and volunteering as a history teacher in a secondary school. I earn a little pocket money doing cover supervisor work around the north east.

My first topic is a bit of a taboo and revolves around this central question: When do you give up on a student? By the hushed silence and/or deafening protest (depending on your disposition) I’m assuming your response is to say “Never.”

Is that not premature? Is there a case to be made that sacrifices must be made for the benefit of the majority? I will use an example. A colleague took over a bottom set GCSE class. They were not expected to even take the exams and the teacher was told that they would be successful just to get anything out of them. All students were listed with moderate learning difficulties which translated for a good half of the class as serious behaviour problems. Violence, obscene language, bullying (of staff and students) and outright hostility towards staff charecterise the daily lessons.

Yet, the teacher had success. The students are now all being entered for the exams and coursework and the teacher believes they can get E or above grade – which is better than nothing. Several students have even earned merits in recognition of improved behaviour and understanding. A real sense of positivity is taking hold where previously the students all knew they were the idiot class (the word scribbled on an excercise book is a lot stronger).

Only two students remain a major problem. Very disruptive, they rarely stay in class – getting removed by senior management for isolation. Now it is revision time and these two have shown no interest at all in passing and have hurled abuse at female members of staff. With two weeks to the exam would it be too unthinkable to cut losses on those two students – transfer them elsewhere during the revision lessons so the teacher can have productive vital help sessions with those who want to try their best and prove everyone who said they would get nothing wrong?

The same revision material is provided to the bad apples, just their disruptive influence is withdrawn for the last crucial fortnight.

What do you think? Is it an abandonment? An act of realism? Should the teacher feel they have failed in someway?

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Low confidence holds students back

I am currently training on a two-year PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) for Further Education. I would be able to teach everybody who was over 16yrs old. Generally this tends to be teaching GCSEs and A Levels to adults who for one reason or another failed to get them the first time round or those who didn’t want to stay on at school for 6th Form. “Get out now whilst you still can!” was probably their thinking process. As part of this training I have a placement at a local secondary school teaching a challenging GCSE class and a highly
motivated high ability A level class.

The process of qualifying as a teacher involves doing theory and essays on the one hand and demonstrating good practice on the other. I’ve been observed by my mentor and tutors now six times with the first two being graded Satisfactory and the last four being Good. I was frustratingly close to an outstanding grading recently and remain convinced that it is a mythical target and nobody ever gets one (Have you? Tell us about it in the Comments).

It is very much sink or swim with teaching. There are skills you learn for classroom management and teaching but I feel you must have a certain disposition to be able to survive the pressure cooker. When I was getting my first taste of teaching (a 3 week placement 2 years ago) I turned up like the rabbit in the headlights, a nervous wreck. A woman also on the course was the complete opposite. Fully prepared and confident. Then she entered the classroom and the reality knocked her. She had left by the end of that first week, and I’m still here. You never know how you are going to fare till you try it. From my perspective it’s helped to see other respected teachers struggling with some students and having hugely productive sessions with others. In other words it wasn’t just me having problems!

When it comes to students one unifying theme has become apparent since I started teaching. Regardless of ability confidence is key. A terribly behaved student can have total confidence in himself and rattle off the answers to your questions (when you finally get his attention). Likewise an excellent A grade student can suddenly see their marks and attention slipping because their confidence has been knocked. They haven’t been lobotomized, they are still the same bright pupil, they just don’t trust themselves any more.

One of my often repeated mantras in class is TRUST YOURSELF. Lower set students often stay quiet or cause problems because they are embarrased about not knowing for sure what the answer is/work means. Often they’ll start giving you the right answer and clam up suddenly scared because the teachers staring at you with a proud smile on his face. Confidence is such a delicate business.

It also takes time to build up. That’s why we do some activities repeatedly disguised with a different question or title. I have one student who for the entire autumn term barely spoke and never volunteered answers. This student has very poor literacy and was scared of reading in class. Now because I have not let her hide and have praised her for small things, she is forever shouting answers out and not complaining when I ask her to try to read something aloud. She is still the same person who came into class last september, she hasn’t had a ‘gestalt’ moment – she just trusts herself more. Confidence has grown.

As educators we have subjects to teach. A discipline to expound which is MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANYTHING ELSE! This is all true, but at the end of the day we are supposed to be helping to build good, productive, motivated people. Learning never stops and our students must be given the basics of interpersonal skills (a huge problem in some schools) and self-esteem for when they enter the so-called real world.

Have you had an experience that hurt your confidence and maybe derailed your education? Or was a particular teacher so inspirational that you excelled in a subject you previously struggled in? Share your stories in the comments below.

Themes of Interest