Sometimes I need to remind myself that I am a good teacher. I think of the discussions I have had with my head-teacher where she has sung my praises and spoke of my potential, the cards I have received from thankful pupils and parents for my hard work and dedication to their children, overhearing colleagues speaking positively of me in school, the feedback Ofsted gave me, the steady progress that I am making in my career, and the progression that is evident in the books. I go through this list in my mind regularly as, all too often, the nature of accountability in school makes me seriously question my ability to teach.
I don’t wish to speak ill of my SLT. I can genuinely say that I am working under one of the most professional and competent heads in my region of the country. She is fantastic at her job and has proven time and again that she knows how to improve outcomes for pupils and help schools work to their maximum potential. The deputies and other members of the SLT are approachable, supportive and hard-working. However, the process of accountability repeatedly makes me question my ability as a practitioner.
At the beginning of this year we knew that Performance Related Pay (PRP) was going to be introduced. We were all new to the process, and so when the time came I read my targets and signed the document. One of my targets was to ensure that 96% of my pupils make at least two sub-levels progress in reading, writing and maths. I now know that to set a percentage target is against the rules and I suppose I can bring this up at the end of the year, but the fact will remain that I need the vast majority of my pupils to make this progress. In fact, it means that I can only afford to have one pupil from each set fail to make two sub-levels progress this year if I wish to meet my PRP targets.
The worrying thing is that this model is unsustainable. If every pupil made two sub-levels of progress each year, I fear we would run out of levels. Pupils do not learn in this linear fashion. The fact is that during their time in school there will be times of progressional stagnation and other times when they will flourish in the most remarkable of ways. The national expectation is that a pupil should make two full levels of progress between KS1 and KS2. As such, that is 3 sub-levels every two years. As a Year 4 teacher I am going to be working in a system where pupils are on track to meet their expectations, and yet I will be held to account in a way that suggests I am failing.
At the beginning of each half term, we hold our pupil progress meetings. We go through the same usual routine. I sit down with a member of the SLT with a list of names, numbers and letters. We skip through those numbers and letters to highlight those who haven’t made ‘sufficient’ progress. We discuss what I have done to support these pupils. We discuss what I could do to further support these pupils. We agree that these pupils are my target group. Each session I become increasingly frustrated. The pupils, an overwhelming majority of whom have already made at least ‘good’ progress in Year 3, often need a lot of consolidation when they reach me in Year 4. Sometimes I wonder where the scores for the pupils coming to me have come from, as they have such potential to create a rod for my back. What really annoys me though is the thought that I am not already doing everything I possibly can to support these pupils. I have put in place every intervention and strategy at my disposal to try to ensure they are making progress, and they ARE making progress. Maybe it isn’t enough to change a C to a B, a B to an A, or an A into the next level, but they are working incredibly hard and making progress.
This week we sat down again and the data wasn’t great. By that I mean I am struggling to get two sub-levels from my kids this year, not that they are failing to meet national expectations. However national expectations are no longer good enough, we need to be exceeding that. I found myself deeply concerned prior to the progress meeting. I knew my data wasn’t going to be seen in the most positive light. I had a restless night or two and found myself worried and agitated. My work life suffered for this, as did my relationships with those at home. Following the meeting, I felt pretty crap mentally and physically. I have been ill, though this may merely be coincidence. The fact remains, however, that I am doing all I can. The pupils are not moving and I don’t know what more I can do. I can’t invest more time or effort than I currently do, I already work a ten hour day and then take more home with me. The simple fact is that 96% of my pupils are not going to make at least two sub-levels progress this academic year. This may mean I won’t progress on the pay scale, but I am more worried about how the SLT will view this in regards to my ability as a practitioner.
I try to remind myself that the SLT have the school’s best interests at heart, but I wonder if they realise just how demoralising and detrimental the process is. Each half term I am served a reminder that my best efforts are not good enough, and that my pupils are not making sufficient progress despite the fact that they are on track to meet their individual targets. I have recently seriously questioned my ability as a practitioner. Luckily for me, I have had the right people around me who can point me towards evidence that I am a good teacher. I go back through the list in my head: head-teacher, pupils, parents, colleagues, Ofsted, books.
Maybe I am just a little too quick to beat myself up, but I wonder how many others there are out there who feel the same. I wonder if there are teachers far better than I am who question whether the classroom is the right place for them. I wonder if I opened up in the staffroom, would I be on my own in how I feel or would this be the elephant in the room. If I am to work until 68 I have over 40 years left, and though I have no plans to leave the profession, I’m not sure I can stick this for another four decades. The system has to change. I don’t really know what the answer is, but I do know we don’t get the best out of our pupils by demoralising or devaluing their teachers.