By Andy McHugh

 

As we begin a new year, it’s useful to reflect on the previous one and try to learn something from it. In many cases, the lesson to be learned is to slow down, cut out what doesn’t matter and do what is best for our students. Now, you might think this is obvious, or even condescending. After all, what teacher sets out to do their second-best? Who enjoys giving themselves more to do than is necessary?

But the problem is, as a profession, we often do. There’s a pandemic alright, but I’m not talking about Covid-19. It’s the tragedy of toxic school policies that inevitably lead to burnout. And it affects us all.

Policies to deal with excessive workloads have begun to creep into schools over the past year or two and rightly so. Workload is an enormous factor in the decision-making of teachers who choose to leave the profession every year. But policies alone don’t seem to have solved the problem. This is partly because they are sometimes used to make a “challenging” workload appear more palatable, at least to the casual observer.

But in the main, I believe that they simply aren’t ambitious enough. Tinkering around the edges by cutting the odd meeting, putting fruit in the staffroom, or adding a “wellbeing day” is genuinely nice, welcome even. But, like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, it doesn’t really make a difference. We’re still left with that sinking feeling.

It comes down to the “big stuff”, the things that many school leaders, often led by Ofsted (apologies for mentioning them this early in the term) are often wedded to, either out of habit, or perhaps even out of fear. And the biggest of them all is feedback.

Let me say this, for those of you at the back with worse hearing than mine: FEEDBACK IS NOT MARKING.

But we often treat them as if they are synonymous. They aren’t. Marking is one form of feedback. But its effectiveness is highly dubious. Add in the fact that it can consume a ridiculous amount of time and energy, with so little return on that investment and you can see why so many teachers hate it.

Fortunately, the tide is turning. More and more schools are relying *exclusively* on other methods to ensure students make continuous progress. Whole class feedback, for example, is a complete game-changer. When planned and implemented thoughtfully in the classroom, it has far-reaching consequences for the students. Even more so, when you give your students time, then and there, to respond to that feedback.

It can address whole-class issues, or errors and misconceptions made by individuals. But it only takes a few minutes to plan and execute, not hours and hours of writing the same comments over and over, only for the students to glance at those comments and do little about them next time they complete their work.

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand why some teachers love to write individualised comments on every student’s work. We like to think that every student will take on board those carefully crafted messages and that they matter as much to the students as they do to the person who wrote them.

However, apart from the odd outlier, I don’t see much evidence of that. Most comments aren’t unique to a single student, many comments are largely irrelevant by the time they’re read. Some of them make no sense at all to the student, without the teacher also talking about them at length. They might as well not have been written and I think, deep down, many of us resent how true that is. We’ve just gone along with it. It’s policy.

So, if your students aren’t benefitting from it, who are we doing it for? If your answer is “for SLT” or “for Ofsted”, then you might want to reconsider what you’re here for too, because you’re not solving anyone’s problem.

Here’s a New Year resolution for you to consider then: Let’s get rid of marking.

Nobody can say we didn’t give it a good go and that our motives weren’t pure. It just wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

Author

Editor of HWRK Magazine, Andy is a teacher, Head of RE and Senior Examiner who loves nothing more than a good debate.

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