The teacher who dared to step outside the box

I’m going to tell you a story about a school teacher. A conscientious and passionate middle school maths teacher who cared deeply about his students and dared to break the rules — that is, the agreed and accepted teaching norms and systems of operation — when he felt it was in his students’ best interests to do so.

You’ll discover what happens to creative, innovative individuals within the school system; people who think outside the box of conventionality. You may also see — through this particular teacher’s experience — why the school system cannot be “fixed” and why school reform is a futile endeavour.

Like any “good” teacher, our protagonist spent countless hours each week marking his students’ class work. Every night he would dutifully return home from school with a stack of books and pour through page after page of student workings — correcting mistakes, awarding marks out of twenty and issuing merits and achievement stickers. He was particularly diligent in identifying and recording for each student specific pointers for improvement. However, there was a problem: he observed that the majority of students paid little to no attention to any of his written feedback. They continued repeating the same mistakes, even when he built in time during class for them to read through and digest his comments. He found this situation very frustrating and concluded that marking his students’ class work at home was not the most efficient use of his time.

Even though maths teachers had been marking their students’ class work since time immemorial, this teacher was certain that a more productive use of his evenings would be to focus on creating and preparing more varied and engaging learning experiences for his students. Relinquishing the daily marking chore would also allow him to retire to bed at a more sensible time each night, meaning that he would arrive at school the following day sufficiently well rested to be his relaxed and cheerful self (rather than the cranky, sleep-deprived monster who occasionally greeted students at the classroom door).

He was struck by a radical thought: what if he were to get his students to mark their own class work, to identify their own mistakes and to give themselves suggestions for improvement? He saw this as an ideal opportunity to cultivate independence, responsibility and self-reflection within his students — important life skills in the 21st Century, he felt. For a subject like maths, it also made sense for students to receive instantaneous feedback on their performance, rather than the following day — by which time their answers seemed irrelevant and meaningless.

So this teacher openly expressed his thoughts and feelings about marking with his students, and put forward the motion that they mark their own class work from now on. Wanting to be as democratic about things as possible, he asked each class to vote on the issue. The vast majority of students (85%) voted in favour of marking their own class work. However, it was agreed that any students who felt they benefited from teacher monitoring and evaluation of their class work could continue to submit their books at the end of each week. Otherwise, students would take full responsibility for the marking and evaluation of their own work.

Toward the end of each class, the teacher would call out (or issue printed copies of) the answers to that day’s exercises. This part of the period required careful planning and efficient execution since different students often worked on different exercises. Although students were streamed according to their performance in standardised tests, there was still a wide range of ability within each class and so the teacher offered differentiated exercises or tasks from which students could choose, depending on the extent to which they understood the topic or wished to challenge themselves. Students were trusted to make these choices.

The teacher decided to cease his practice of recording a mark out of twenty for each student. Instead, he would ask students to score their own performance according to how many questions they had answered during the period. A student who had answered fifteen questions would give herself a score out of fifteen, while a student who had answered three questions would give himself a score out of three. Students were also invited to give themselves written feedback on their effort and performance. In addition, they were asked to look back through their work and to identify one or two specific areas for improvement. Finally, if students were satisfied with their effort during class, they were encouraged to give themselves a pat on the back in recognition of their hard work.

It was a beautiful and uplifting sight for this teacher to observe his students gleefully patting themselves on the back, and inspiring to read their self-reflective comments:

“Well done Jessica, great effort today!”

“Need to show more workings”

“Excellent score Matt, less chat tomorrow though”

“Line up the decimal points next time!”

This teacher’s bold experiment resulted in some unexpected yet beneficial side-effects. He noticed that students who had formerly complained of headaches or looked for excuses to visit the toilet during class, stopped complaining and ceased requesting permission to leave class. The slower workers in each group were visibly growing in confidence and described how they felt less pressured and less inclined to compare themselves unfavourably with others, especially now that their performance each day was no longer judged according to an arbitrary, across-the-board teacher score out of twenty. The teacher overheard his students on the playground talking about how much they enjoyed their maths lessons. He observed the way his students arrived at lessons focused and ready to learn; the calm and orderly manner in which they entered his classroom and, without any coercion, began working on the daily starter activity. And, perhaps most interesting of all, he realised that he was no longer relying on the school’s Reward Policy to motivate his students. Rather than depending on their teacher’s supply of merits and achievement stickers, these students were internally driven to work hard and to succeed in the subject. This teacher had succeeded in imparting to his students one of life’s most important lessons: the truest reward in life is the internal satisfaction at having done a job well.

Unfortunately, this teacher’s success was never recognised by his colleagues or line managers — far from it! Although his approach worked like a dream — and could have been shared with the rest of the school as an example of outstanding practice — he was, instead, subjected to months of intense pressure to conform to the school’s marking, assessment and reward policies. You see, his actions led to consequences beyond his maths classroom, affecting the “efficient” running of the school. For a start, there was a weekly competition within each year group to see which tutor group (registration class) could accumulate the most achievement stickers. It wasn’t a fair competition because one teacher was failing to distribute his quota of achievement stickers. Clearly, this individual was neglecting his duty to motivate and encourage. He was “letting his students down”. His refusal to conform needed to be quashed as quickly as possible.

The net around this “irresponsible” teacher tightened. His head of department insisted on collecting in his students’ books on a fortnightly basis for monitoring purposes. Where were the teacher’s red ticks on the students’ class work? Where was the evidence that he was doing his job properly? What would parents think about a teacher who never looked at his students’ books? How could he prove to OfSTED inspectors that he was teaching to a satisfactory standard? What if the students were being dishonest with their self-evaluated scores and written feedback?

Senior management figures began observing this teacher’s lessons more frequently as every aspect of his teaching approach became subject to intense scrutiny. On two occasions he was summoned to the head teacher’s office and told in no uncertain terms to “play the game”. The naughty maths teacher was eventually taken off timetable for two days, replaced by a cover teacher (for whom he was still expected to plan lessons) and ordered to sit in the staff room marking his students’ books. He begrudgingly fell in line with these commands. Although he knew the red ticks that he put on the corner of each page benefited neither him nor his students, and even though his students were perfectly happy without the conformity bribes that he was now obliged to dish out, at least his line managers were able to tick the boxes they needed to tick in order to jump through the hoops they needed to jump through in order to justify their positions within the hierarchy. At least parents would now have visible proof that their child’s maths teacher cared about the progress of his students. At least OfSTED would be satisfied.

Marking of class work was just one of innumerable issues over which this particular teacher fell out of favour with his colleagues and line managers. His extensive research into the benefits of collaborative learning — together with his observation that children learn so much through talking — resulted in him introducing weekly collaborative learning sessions. During these sessions students would work together in teams to solve mathematical problems, each team member playing a particular role (e.g. Reader, Scribe, Encourager, Motivator). The students loved these sessions, but there was a problem: maths classrooms are supposed to operate in silence, you see. Senior managers — who were, by now, making increasingly frequent visits to this teacher’s classroom — were horrified at the noise levels during these sessions and the apparent chaos in the room. They did not share the teacher’s opinion that in a silent classroom there is only one person doing any learning (i.e. the teacher). Didn’t he know that talking interferes with learning?

As you may have guessed, the protagonist of the above story was, in fact, the author of this post. It is my hope that in sharing some of my experiences within the system, the reader may have a clearer understanding of why I chose to abandon ship and why I cannot and will not waste any further energy attempting to “fix” or “reform” a change-resistant school system. A system that precludes creativity and innovation. A system that suppresses the expression of individuality. A system that judges and condemns those who do not “fit” the narrowly defined parameters of normality. You may also appreciate why I am so passionate about the creation and propagation of alternatives to the school system. If you are someone who believes that passionate teachers can “change the system from within”, think again. They don’t come any more passionate than me. The system doesn’t care about individuals. It doesn’t care about what is right or true. It exists for its own sake. Its priority is to secure its own survival. Anyone standing in its way is either put back in their place, destroyed or forced to leave.