The glass doors slide open and a middle-aged lady enters the hall. She is dressed as if she has arrived straight from work and appears in a hurry. She scans the hall and refers to the flimsy piece of paper in her hand, trying to find where she should be going. Finally, she makes her way across the crowded room to a table where a young man sits. He is dressed quite smartly, but his shirt is creased from a day’s wear, and it hangs out slightly on one side of his Chinos. He looks up, over his spectacles, then rises and offers his hand.
Teacher: Hello. Are you Mrs Blogs by any chance? Joe’s Mum?
Lady: Yes. Sorry I’m slightly late. I’m in the right place then? Are you Joe’s Science teacher?
Teacher: Yes, I’m Mr Shufflebottom. Please sit down.
Lady: So, how is Joe getting on in Science?
Teacher: Erm… bear with me a minute whilst I get Joe’s data up on the screen.
Mr Shufflebottom takes some time to look for something on his laptop. Mrs Blogs shifts impatiently in her chair, glancing at the multitude of parents and teachers around the room.
Teacher: Ah! Here we are. Right. We have had two check points so far. In both of these, Joe has scored well. In the most recent one he got 5 marks out of 7.
Mr Shufflebottom frowns and appears to be working something out.
Teacher: 5 out of 7 is about 70%, so Joe is currently working towards a grade 7 at GCSE.
Lady: Oh. Well that sounds good. But he is only in Year 8, how can he be studying GCSE?
Teacher: No, he isn’t studying the GCSE course yet, I’m just giving you an idea of what he would be on for if he keeps up on the current trajectory.
Lady: I see. And you can tell that already by the tests he’s done? What were the tests on?
Teacher: The most recent one was a question about…. (checks his computer)… errr… sorry, bear with me. I was actually absent the day they did that check point. Here it is. Yes, it was on weight and mass.
Lady: And what does Joe not yet understand about weight and mass? I actually work in scientific research, so I could probably give him a hand at home if he’s stuck.
Teacher: He got 5 out of 7, as I said, so he will need to work on getting a higher mark on these kind of questions. He needs to develop his answer more. He needs to look at the mark scheme I gave out last week and see what is needed for full marks.
Lady: But what is he actually getting confused about? Could you perhaps show me the question he was stuck on?
Teacher: No, I’ve just got this spreadsheet I’m afraid.
There is an awkward pause.
Lady: Could I ask what Joe is like in class? Does he behave well? Does he appear to be enjoying Science? It is really important to me that he does.
Teacher: (looks back down at his laptop and taps on the keyboard) According to my records, Joe hasn’t had any behaviour points or late marks this term. I gave him a merit for his good mark in the check point assessment. You should have received all this via our online parent portal.
Lady: Yes, I did, but I wasn’t sure what it all meant to be honest. But you seem to think he is doing okay? I was a little worried as Joe tells me he doesn’t really understand some of the lessons, and I know he sits next to Max and the two of them don’t always behave well when they are sat together.
Teacher: Max? No, Joe doesn’t sit next to Max. That’s… (pauses as a look of concern passes over his face)… I’m really sorry Mrs Blogs, I think I may have confused your son with another student. Does Joe have blond hair?
As before, the glass doors slide open and the same lady enters the hall once more. She looks equally harassed, wears the same clothes, but this time she ignores the paper in her hand and scans the room. She makes her way over to the slightly disheveled looking young man in the centre of the room. He rises and offers his hand.
Teacher: Hello Mrs Blogs. It’s good to see you again. Is Joe with you or is it Judo night?
Lady: Hi. Yes, Judo again. How did you know he did that?
Teacher: Funnily enough, I used to be into it myself so we got talking after class a couple of weeks back. Joe’s so mature for his age.
Lady: I don’t know about that. Is he behaving himself?
Teacher: Yes, he’s been great. I let him and Max sit together on the condition that they get on with the work, which they… generally… do. (He smiles) So let me tell you how Joe is doing in his studies. I’ve only been teaching Joe this term, but already I can see that he has a good grasp of the subject. I could see from the end of year test in year 7 that the class hadn’t really secured the basic knowledge they need in a couple of topics, so we’ve veered a little of the scheme of work and gone back over some stuff.
Lady: Great, so does Joe understand what he is doing now?
Teacher: Yes, pretty much. We do a quick quiz at the start of each lesson and Joe has good recall of the content we covered in the previous lesson. He tends to forget things quite quickly though, which is normal, but I would suggest he spends a little more time working through the study exercises I give him. It would be great if you could help him with that.
Lady: Of course. Are there any topics I could help him with. I’m pretty good with Science myself, so I’m happy to help him at home.
Teacher: Brilliant. Yes, he seems to struggle with the concepts of weight and mass, and how they aren’t the same thing. Looking at the information his teacher from last year passed on to me, he could also do with going back over the ‘plant cells’ topic. His study book has a break down of exactly what he needs to know.
Lady: So it sounds like he is making good progress? Is he on target overall?
Teacher: I’m confident that he has a good understanding of the topics taught so far. His ‘target’, if you want to call it that, is to master the content we cover over the year. He needs to retain this knowledge because he will need to build on it in Year 9. Joe has the right attitude and really seems to enjoy the subject, so I’ll keep him on track.
Lady: Thank you so much. I’m so pleased Joe is getting on well. Will you let me know if anything changes? (Mrs Blogs gets up to go)
Teacher: Of course. It’s really good to see you. Have a good evening.
The above are fictional exchanges, but both are very close to conversations I have witnessed, and had myself, as a teacher and as a parent. I offer them not to cast shame; I have been the teacher in both examples at various points in my career and the only shame is my own.
Speaking for myself, I am sure that I would prefer to be the parent in the second conversation, not the first. There are a number of reasons for this. In Scene 2, I feel like the teacher knows my child, not only as a student, or a piece of data, but as a human being. I also feel like they value my child, that they want the best for them no matter their foibles. The teacher in Scene 2 gives me confidence that they know my child academically too, and that they would spot pretty quickly if they were struggling, stuck or confused. As a parent, I feel that this version of Mr Shufflebottom is in control. He inspires me with confidence. He makes me feel I have a role to play in Joe’s education too.
The point of my sliding doors rip-off is to emphasise the fact that this is the same teacher, caught up in two alternative realities. The teacher is as much the victim as the parent (and indeed the child!) in this fiction.
Those of us working in schools can easily imagine what lies behind each scene. In Scene 1, the school in which Mr Shufflebottom works has somehow created a data-driven nightmare in which teachers are so distracted they neglect to know even the basics about the young people they come in to contact with. These young people have become numbers on a spreadsheet and their academic success is known only in relation to rubrics and scores. The students are imagined to be on a track to failure or success. The substance of the subject discipline fades in to the background as much as the students themselves do. Performance has come to mean more than conceptual grasp.
This is a fiction, but if you think that it is an exaggeration I’m afraid you are wrong.
Authenticity. Substance. Relationships. Humanity. Integrity. These are the things we should hold dear. We should be careful which reality we create.