A year ago, I stood at the front of a Maths GCSE exam room as their invigilator and announced with a smirk that they could now turn over their papers, and begin. I should have known that smirking comes before a fall: I now teach this level of maths, and as such, I am not even allowed into the exam room. Things that amazed me last year – the candidate without a pen, the terribly big fake nails and their collision with the terribly small calculator buttons, the sleeping student at the back of the exam room – these are now just par for the joy of my everyday life.
This time last year, I wrote a post here trying to work out: how did it come to this? Why are all these students here, and why do they not care, just a little more? Have we failed them, have they failed us, or have they failed themselves? It’s a little of all three.
This post is motivated in part by training I have been doing through the Education and Training Foundation, who, as part of the process, have requested that we reflect on something we have learned that has changed our perspective or improved our teaching practice.* As it happens, in the week the training started, I had taken over a new maths group, so I tried out an exercise mentioned in the training to help me get to know my students better. I gave them two post it notes. On the first they were to write why they were here; on the second, to say how they would feel if they opened the little brown envelope (or more likely, the email that got lost in the spam folder and was only found the next day) and discovered the magical number 4 inside. The course tutor waxed lyrical about the exercise, about the perspectives it could change and the ambitions it could unlock. I can see why it might have that effect; that is, after all, why I wanted to try it myself. I am afraid to say, though, that is not what happened in my classroom. Here’s what happened instead.
Post-it 1: why are you here?
I encouraged an open attitude. No holds barred. Be honest with me – what went wrong last year? Why are you back in a maths classroom that is clearly only one step higher on your to do list that being entombed forever in a pit full of snakes? The answer I got back, from every person in the room? Because. I. Failed. Why did you fail? I asked. Was it because of bad teaching, or absence, or because you couldn’t understand the core concepts? Oh, none of those, they said. I just failed.
This doesn’t just concern me; it horrifies me. Why? Two reasons. One is that they have written themselves off. They did not say it was too hard, or that the Covid pandemic threw up roadblocks other generations might not have had to surmount, or that somewhere in their futures, bright and glorious things might still await, despite their lack of a maths GCSE. This failure was a result of something lacking within themselves; no agency, no poor decision making; it just happened, as inexplicable as the fact that the sky is blue, and equally not to be questioned. This leads to my other concern: that there was no engagement, even then, with the idea that this might be subject to change. A self-fulfilling prophecy, there’s no question that they have failed, are failing now, and will always fail, and the suggestion that this might be within their own power to change barely even warrants a hair toss or glancing up from the screen in front of them.
Post it 2: what if…?
What if you did get that 4? How would you feel then? “Happy.” (Lyrical, aren’t they!) But it’s not going to happen. How do you know? I tried really hard last year and still got a 2; I’d rather fail because I didn’t try, than fail after putting the effort in; I don’t need it and never will, so what’s the point in being here anyway?
My style of teaching is all about authenticity, about relationships, about trust. I take the time when I first meet my students to build up that trust, to work on relationships and overcome those roadblocks, before I get anywhere close to trying to teach some maths. So yes, I can spot those responses as defensiveness and despair and delusion as easily as the next teacher. But this is where us failing them comes in. Education is not in a state at the moment to take the gentle approach. Teachers are leaving left right and centre, over-criticised, under-supported, overwhelmed. Learning Support Assistants are leaving to work in warehouses and earn three times as much per month. Classes are cancelled because groups get too small or the funding just doesn’t add up, with students moved like pawns on a chessboard, easy to sacrifice, the opening gambit of the game, never the focal point or the end result. How can authenticity, relationships, trust, stand up to any of this? And without those things, what hope do I have of my students listening to me when I make the links to why they’ll need this, or have a discussion about relevance, about ambition, about building on last year and aiming for progress, not perfection?
So what has this course, and this year, taught me? I have made connections between the functional skills I’ve been teaching for years and the GCSEs I’m new to. I have learned that students are students and maths is maths and barriers to learning will always be there, and it’s a wonderful thing to now have 5 different approaches rather than sticking to one and hoping it will always work. And I’ve learned that without both sides of the room being willing to be present, honest, and able to not just see our failures but also learn from them, no amount of breakfast maths or alternatives to worksheets will ever genuinely engage this particular group of kids.
*This post is, I’m afraid, going to get a touch negative. I feel I should stress, before going any further, that this is not as a result of the training itself. This has been invaluable, particularly for someone like me, new to this level and amazed by the amount of material out there to use, adapt, and throw out as appropriate. However, without something more, the materials themselves will never get out of the trolley that took them to the classroom and get to thrive in their intended habitat. This post is entirely about that something more.