It’s so easy to get caught up in targets and where children ‘need’ to be by the end of the term, year, key stage. This has been compounded by performance-related pay; which now puts even greater pressure on teachers to treat children as numbers rather than individuals. Add to that the focus on school leaders to achieve ever higher results, and you’ve got a pressure cooker of stress and negativity.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not saying that having targets (in terms of where children need to be) is defunct. We have targets for our children. We use the Fischer Family Trust data to set targets based on the top 5% of schools in the country. We are rightly proud of our academic achievements and the progress our children make. This is undoubtedly, in part, due to the use of targets and the tracking of children’s progress towards these. Where they start to become a force for evil rather than good is when they become the focus of teachers in their classrooms.
Let’s take a step back to consider why this is the case. In my experience, what gets in the way of good teaching and learning is often mindset. Whether you subscribe to ‘The Pygmalion Effect’ or believe Henry Ford’s, ‘Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, either way you’re probably right’, the fact is that mindset plays a huge part in the impact we have as teachers (and leaders). As teachers, when we start to think too far into the future it can often cause panic and stress. This is particularly the case when the school has high expectations and sets challenging targets for children. It is this that can lead to comments and conversations such as:
‘Last year’s assessments were wrong. There’s no way this child could do…at the end of YX.’
‘This child has some sort of need. I’ve spoken to the SENDCo but nothing’s been done.’
‘This child can’t.’
‘This child will never.’
‘I need some extra adults. I can’t teach these children on my own.’
These are all borne out of stress. Teachers, who desperately want the best for their children, but feel they are failing because they just don’t see how their children will reach age-expected or greater depth or whatever your new assessment system labels them as by the end of the year. In Primary, this is particularly true in Y2 and Y6, where the stakes are even higher.
So what happens as a result of this? Teachers get stressed. As we all do – fight or flight – they start to look for excuses and people to blame. This leads to negativity and, more often than not, a rapid drop in challenge for children:
‘Right! Clearly none of you understand this! Let’s go back to basics shall we! What’s 1+1?!’
This drop in challenge leads to a cessation of progress and increased issues with behaviour as those children who can rapidly get frustrated. It means people stop enjoying their jobs. They worry about whether they are going to get in trouble. Are they failing? Are they no good? Will they get that pay rise they so desperately need to keep their heads above water? This builds further stress, which leads to further negativity. They fall out with colleagues. They’re snappy. They get ill so go off sick. And so on and so on and so on.
Ok. I know that I’m painting a bleak, one-size fits all picture here. Clearly not all people react like this to challenging targets. But more and more I see people who are truly stressed because of just this. The irony is that the thing they are stressed about – whether or not the children will get to where they need to – is precisely what is hindering the children from getting there. It’s a vicious cycle and one that needs to be broken.
Ultimately, these targets should be the concern of school leaders and we should not pass our anxieties onto our teachers (unless we believe that in so doing we will get a positive reaction). Teachers need to teach what is in front of them. As soon as a teacher starts to worry about where this child needs to be in six months, they disengage their brain. They stop doing what is right for their children. They stop using their AfL effectively and adapting learning based on children’s responses and what they see unfolding in the classroom and start second guessing. Teaching becomes rigid and formulaic. Challenge starts to dissipate. Behaviour management becomes terse and negative.
The fact is, the best way for children to reach their targets is for you to teach what’s in front of you. If you are adapting the learning based on your assessment: week-to-week; day-to-day; minute-by-minute – you will move children on rapidly. If in the face of adversity – children forgetting what you told them yesterday; the blank stare – you keep challenge high, you will move children on rapidly. If you work on the here and now rather than what may or may not be, you will keep calm, be positive, and be a better teacher as a result.
The fact is, none of us know where any given child is going to be six months from now. Learning is not linear. It is messy. (This is one of the many reasons working in schools is so amazing!) I’ve lost count of the children I’ve met who ‘can’t’ or ‘who will never’ who have and can. Sometimes it can take a few days to unlock the learning potential in a child. Other times it can take a few years. All that matters is to constantly reflect and ask why. Why is this child finding it hard? Why do they present as disinterested/demotivated/disruptive? And, what can I do about it? What can I do now to help them understand? What can I do tomorrow? What am I going to do the next day?
We’ll discuss this in further detail in a later post. For now, I implore you to block out the noise. Ignore the targets. Believe me, if a child is struggling, you’re leadership team will let you know about it soon enough. (Hopefully in a constructive and supportive way but that also is a subject for another post.) All you can do is teach what’s in front of you. If you do that, you will help those children make the most progress they can possibly make. And, at the end of the year, whether they’ve met their targets or not, you can go home full of pride that you’ve done everything in your power to improve their lives and their education.