Why we shouldn’t treat our students equally.

Although we tend to use the words interchangeably, fair and equal are not the same.

Image result for fair vs equal

Take this as an example: Three children of varying heights are trying to reach for the sweets that are on the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard. Treating them equally would mean giving all three children a box to stand on; but the smallest child still can’t reach, whilst the tallest child may be able to reach the shelf without the need for a box. Treating them fairly, then, would mean giving two boxes to the shortest, one to the middle and none to the tallest.

How does this relate to teaching? Well, let’s take a look at a more classroom-like scenario…

You have a classroom of twenty pupils, three of whom have misbehaved enormously over the course of the week and consequently have been told they are getting 10 minutes less ‘Golden Time’ on Friday afternoon. The remaining seventeen, will get the full amount.  Although the kids who have been punished may claim this is ‘unfair’ or ‘unjust’, it is the complete antipodal.

If we were to tackle this situation with an ‘equal’ approach, all children would get the same amount of Golden Time, regardless of their behavior OR all children would lose 10 minutes of their Golden Time due to the actions of the minority. You and I both know that neither of the above options are fair.

It’s important to remember that fair doesn’t mean giving everyone the same, fair means giving students what they need in order to succeed; this could be time, resources or words of encouragement. If you go to a doctor and the patient before you had a cough, and then you went in with a sore head; he wouldn’t provide you both with cough medicine? So why as a teacher would you provide copious amounts of resources for all of your pupils but spend little or no time explaining it? Whilst some children would be happy to sit and independently work through worksheet after worksheet, this just isn’t possible, and simply would not work for every student, just like cough medicine wouldn’t work for every patient.

As teachers, it can often be easy to think you’re doing good by treating your classroom of young people equally; giving each pupil exactly the same work, providing them with exactly the same resources and explaining things in exactly the same way to everyone. Many may believe that by doing this you are treating your class fairly, which isn’t the case, and whilst equality promotes fairness and justice by giving everyone the same thing, it only works if everyone starts off from the same place; which definitely won’t be the case in your classroom.

Treating the young people in your class fairly requires you to look at each and every one of them as an individual with unique needs and circumstances which are personal to them. This will aid you in determining how much time and help they each need in order to flourish, and help you set specific rules to suit them.  It’s important to let everyone in your class know that what works for a classmate, may not work for them.

It may seem time consuming and challenging to treat every pupil fairly. And truthfully, in the short run, it is. Be that as it may, in the long run it is much, much more effective and surprisingly easier.

Structural Inequalities : A Reflection

Last week, I took part my first Values seminar which was extremely eye opening. The seminar was based on Structural Inequalities, and the problems that come with and surround this issue.

The task we were given was to design and later make a product which could be used by a first year student in order to help them settle into University. To do this, we were split into four groups of equal size and were given an envelope of resources to use. There were five of us in the group and we had numerous resources to choose from therefore it was easy for us to get straight to work. Lots ideas were passed back and forward, using a variety of resources which were made available to us. Meanwhile, a few of the other groups, unbeknownst to us, were really struggling with the two pieces of paper, a paperclip and pencil that they were given. Throughout the creation of our product, we were constantly given positive feedback about our product and so when it came to presenting the product to the other three groups, we felt very confident and were pleased with our creation. During our presentation, Paul engaged with us; asking questions, smiling and nodding.  After giving our presentation, Paul gave us even more positive feedback. As the rest of the groups presented their ideas, the feedback got increasingly more negative. It was then brought to our attention that the other groups didn’t have nearly as many resources as we did. Not only did they have much less to work with, but the feedback they were getting was far from positive- this gave them a negative mindset and most likely caused a product of lesser quality to be produced.  It was at this point that we began to realise that Paul was acting, and we started to understand what this seminar was all about.

Due to the fact our group had all the resources we needed (and more!) we were extremely engaged with the task and we failed to notice that the other groups were struggling with the task. The groups that had this disadvantage had to work much harder to try to produce a quality product. This made me think about things from a teachers perspective. It made me think about the correlation between young people who are at a disadvantage for whatever reason, whether it be lack of support at home, insufficient funds to purchase essential resources e.g. pencils, pens, rulers, or not being fed proper meals at home which can lead to loss of concentration in class, and the quality of work produced. Sadly, the things I have just mentioned above are factors which will affect the pupils’ learning. Completing this task really put things into perspective and allowed me to have a better understanding of how quality of life correlates to quality of learning. I also realised that it is important to treat every young person in a way which best suits their needs; some children may need lots of support, others may work better more independently.

The most important things I took from this seminar were to always present a positive image towards your class. This can have such an impact on the learning of young people. A shown in this task, if your teacher is constantly giving negative feedback or no feedback at all, it is likely the children will lose motivation and stop engaging with the task. And that not everyone will have the same opportunities in life; some families have next to nothing to live off of, others have too much.  It is important that within our profession we treat everyone equally despite their circumstances. The way we treat them will make or break their school days.

Modern Languages; A Decline in Study

Modern Languages is one of the eight curriculum areas in the CfE (Curriculum for Excellence), along with Expressive Arts, Health and Well-being, Mathematics, Religious and Moral Education, Sciences, Social Studies and Technologies and therefore should be  taught to every young person in education throughout the BGE (Broad General Education) stage of the CfE.

Languages have never been the choice of the majority when it comes to SQA exams. Ever since the early 2000s, the number of young people in Scotland choosing a language as part of their Senior Phase studies has been decreasing. Recently, the rate of decline has sped up. Taking French as an example, in 2016, 4581 Scottish Students sat their Higher exam. The following year, the same level was sat by 3918 pupils across the country; this is a 19% decrease. The number of pupils who chose to sit Higher German has also decreased by 13% over the past year. (1020 pupils in 2016 compared to 890 in 2017).

According to the 2016-2017 Languages Trend Report, as many as two thirds of teachers (66% from the state sector and 68% in the independent sector) find persuading young people to study a language beyond S3 challenging. That makes this issue the single biggest professional challenge that language teachers across Scotland currently face.

Why is this the case?

The need for good grades

As pupils come to the end of the BGE stage in the curriculum and embark on further years of intensive work towards SQA exams, they are aware of the fact that the choices they make about subjects, and the quality of the grades they get in the exams, will have a huge impact on their success at getting a place at their chosen university or college.

With tough competition for university places, and universities able to select the most able students, it is important that pupils select the subjects in which they believe they can achieve the highest grades in, and also those which relate directly to the course they wish to study in further education. SQA exams in Modern Languages have earned a reputation not only for being more difficult than other subjects, but also for being inconsistently and harshly marked. Both students and teachers have also long complained about the huge leap in performance expectations between National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher Modern Languages. The unpredictability of grades is a serious deterrent to students who are focused on doing everything they can to increase their chances of achieving high grades to secure university or college places.

“Languages are not as important as STEM subjects”

Whilst it is fantastic that the campaign to promote and raise the profile of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects has been and is continuing to be successful, it is in-turn contributing to the decline in interest of studying a Modern Language at exam level. The most ‘able’ students are often encouraged to study all three Science subjects as well as Maths and English at Higher, to secure them a place at Uni and later, a successful career.

Despite all the reasons you’ve most likely heard about the benefits of language learning – boosts chances of employability, allows you to travel with ease and helps you meet people from other countries  – some people seem to think that being bi or multilingual isn’t all that important anymore. And it is due to the stereotypes it’s given, and the fact their importance isn’t widely shared that Scottish school pupils are now leaning towards other areas of the curriculum and moving away from studying these very important subjects.

Stereotypes that are associated with teaching

Being a teacher comes with a stigma.

The majority of everyone’s childhood is spent confined between the four walls of a classroom; this paints an image in our heads of what a teacher should be like. Whether you have been out of education for over 40 years or have just finished Primary Four, people seem to think they are experts in defining the role of a teacher. What we see them do in the classroom everyday is all that they do? Right? Wrong. 

There is so, so much more to being a teacher than those outwith the profession realise.

It is circulated that teachers ‘only work 9-4’ or they ‘only work when the kids are in class’. This couldn’t be any further from the truth. While it may be completely true that teachers are only directly teaching their pupils for five or six hours a day, there is much more to the job. Classrooms to organise, extra-curricular activities to run, marking to do, and lessons to plan.

Another stereotype which is often thrown around is that the only reason people teach is because they haven’t had any significant success in the subject themselves. I strongly dislike the phrase “Those who can’t do, teach” because it is extremely inaccurate. The majority of people teach because they truly love to do so; they get a sense of joy out of imparting their wisdom and knowledge on others. Never claim your teacher is a failure at something just because they have chosen to teach it to you; think yourself lucky that they’ve chosen to share their knowledge with you.

Finally we come to the stereotype which I believe we will never be able to dispel –

“Teachers are only in it for the long holidays”

How many of you are envious of the lengthy summer holiday that teachers receive? My only advice to you is – don’t be. It has been proven that teachers spend almost as much time working when the young people are off than they do during term-time. In order to succeed in this profession, you must, as most teachers do, dedicate a chunk of your holiday to lesson planning, classroom tidying, swatting up on the curriculum and getting to know your pupils for the upcoming year.

Teaching is not a job where you can leave everything at the door and pick up again the next morning. It’s almost as if it’s a continuous mindset, which never switches off.

Teachers are educators, mentors, role-models, and a shoulder to cry on. Never underestimate them.

Teaching is a reward.

Teaching isn’t just a job; teaching is a reward.

Whilst the ‘weekends off’ and the 6-week-long Summer holidays  may be perks that come with teaching, it is the desire to impact young peoples’ lives and my love for working with children that swayed me towards this career.

I want to make an impact. I want to make an impact like my Primary Five teacher did on me. The knowledge she imparted, the wisdom she shared and the self-confidence she inspired has had an everlasting effect on me. I am so appreciative of all I learned from her.

I want to make a difference in students’ lives like she did in so many.

She went out of her way for every single student who walked through her door, even the ones who didn’t necessarily deserve her kindness or words of wisdom. Her job was to teach according to the curriculum and mark our work, but in my opinion, that isn’t what makes a good teacher. The dedication to seeing their students succeed in all aspects of their lives is what makes a good teacher, and she was the best one I’ve ever had.

I looked and still do look  up to her.

Our school days shape who we become. When we’re in school, we’re at the most malleable stage of our lives and we are extremely influenceable and so it’s hugely important that we are guided through this time by teachers who encourage our need to gather information. As well as this post being about why I have decided to become a teacher, this is also an indirect ‘thank you’ to my Primary Five teacher for inspiring my demand for knowledge.

Aside from this, I never want to stop learning. I love to learn and I don’t want a day to go by where I don’t learn something new, whether it be from colleagues, or my students.

Education isn’t just one way; often you can learn just as much from your students as they can from you.

“You do realise you won’t make that much money?”

This is something I have heard a lot after talking about my career choice. I know. I am aware that teachers are extremely underpaid for what they have to put up with; they are expected to try and teach students who want to learn whilst attempting to deal with the others who refuse to let others learn- as well as the snotty noses, lost socks from PE kits, their inability to listen for five minutes and the mobile-phone-addicted children.

Above all, I cannot picture a job more rewarding. The happiness you see on a child’s face when they get 10/10 on their spelling test, complete a level on MyMaths or master their times tables gives me a sense of joy, a sense of achievement. This is what you have taught these kids.

Teaching is by no means easy; but teaching is a reward.