Boiling kettles, murmuring voices, loaded glances. It’s early. The school, usually abuzz with a thousand voices, is today populated by the few. Their squeaking footsteps echoing down lonely corridors, they are the few who need to know, who want to see, are here to hug, cheer or commiserate. Here to discuss options for those who didn’t make the grade this time, to pore over data, agonise over the question-by-question analysis. Here to create celebratory results displays. Here to reflect, soul-search, brow-beat. Here to plan how to do it all again – but better.
We’ve had the results since 6:00 am. Despite the electronic immediacy of our age, the ritual opening of the envelope still prevails. The desks are out, envelopes ready. Families gather outside the doors.
On results day, the rational teacher’s brain tells you that, from experience, most of your students will do as expected, a few will surprise you positively and a few negatively. So far, so simple. But which ones will surprise you? Ay, there’s the rub.
The tension and anticipation before devouring the results takes a variety of forms. Having recently enjoyed Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ this summer holiday with my own children, I can’t help imagining my teacher brain as veering demonically between the following:
- Abject fear of failure (closely related to despair): the results are a disaster. You have failed every student, yourself, the school, your family… yes, everyone.
- Cold, terrifying fear of error on an unimaginable scale: you have taught the wrong syllabus, exam, question, text
- Self-doubt: did I do everything I could to help my students?
- Euphoric success fantasy: see those happy faces, every one’s a winner! We did it!
- Except the ones who aren’t. See Abject Fear of Failure (and Dr Seuss ‘Oh The Places You’ll Go’)
Awaiting the results, my mind spools through each and every student*, weighing up the likelihood of success and how it will affect them (all right, and me).
There’s Charlie, the class entertainer, more invested in reinterpreting Ali G for a new generation than spending any time working. Would do anything rather than work in class, yet would come to seek out help after school. Told me he didn’t write anything at all in one Literature paper: will his coursework and other literature paper make up for it?
Peter, the young carer, always so tired, crippled with anxiety and lack of confidence, needing reassurance up until the very last moment before every exam. Timing was his issue: will he have pulled it out the bag under pressure?
Naomi, whose overwhelming anger and sadness about her parents splitting up nearly led to her giving up on her GCSEs altogether. Did she get back on track in time to turn it around?
Ahmed, the sensitive, creative and talented student whose ideas can surprise and amaze even the most jaded teacher: will he have played it safe or blown the examiner away with something truly original?
Emma, the tangential thinker, who despite years of practising planning in every possible way, desperately struggles to link ideas together in a logical fashion. Is there any hope the exam will have been the long-awaited moment of clarity?
Viktor, the long-term absentee: hardly there, but when he is, he wants to succeed. Will the hours spent with him after school on Controlled Assessments and extra revision have paid off?
Ciaran, whose dad’s a plumber and he wants to be a plumber and although he could have got a B or even an A, he only wants a C to get to college, so would never put in any extra effort… has he got his C? Or is it a B… or a D?
After all the hours of lessons, of after-school catch up and revision, of holiday sessions, of home contact, of specially developed resources sent home, of revision packs, of mocks, of quizzes, of online resources prepared and shared on the school website, after all the hard work and the waiting and the wondering, the results bring the security of knowledge. This is what they got.
At this point, all the hard work and the caring for each individual student is polarised into one grade. On one hand, this is a highly emotional moment, where we celebrate successes or mourn failures with students and their families. It has a practical aspect, as we discuss options and next steps.
Yet on the other, it is a moment of dehumanisation. It is the moment where students become data.
It’s a very strange feeling to go from wondering how a student did, from thinking about them as a whole person you have taught for (at least) two years, to seeing them as a statistic on your teacher’s ‘Value Added’ table.
And however much you care about the individual, there will be a moment where the one or two who didn’t make the grade will be the blip on the graph, the ones who ruined the table, destroyed your VA, who stopped you getting a pay rise. It feels selfish and wrong, it’s fleeting, but it happens. It’s the land of the spreadsheet, the reduction of the human to the alphabetical or numerical, the place where teacher is compared to teacher, school to school, league table to league table. It’s the place where individual students get forgotten, because teachers are judged on data alone.
The only answer is to use the data quickly and purposefully to help you to analyse what went well and what went wrong, to explore what you could have done differently. The ‘data goggles’ can help you to zoom in on teaching specifics. Could you have taught Question 4 differently? Should you have spent longer teaching Paper 2? But don’t dwell too long in the land of the spreadsheet. Take the ‘data goggles’ off so that you can see the whole student again. They are Jetinder and Jake, not +1.5 or -2.0. And whether or not your performance-related pay slip recognises it, you know those students beyond the spreadsheet. You know whether you could you have done anything more about your students’ home situation, career aspirations or lack of intrinsic motivation.
The school is empty again. You walk into the wide world outside its doors. The successes and failures still feel like they are racing round your bloodstream. Gingerly removing the goggles now, you remind yourself that, although a large part of your life is dedicated to them, there is more to life than exam results, that it’s never too late for students to return to education and try again, and that there are many happy and successful people out there who didn’t get the perfect exam results first time or (whisper it) at all. After all the teaching, revision and advice on options, hopefully we have taught our students above all to have the independence, agency and motivation to carve their own path in the world:
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” Dr Seuss ‘Oh the Places You’ll Go’.
*These students are all composite characters with different names, based on the many students I have taught.