Feeling low? Remember the student success stories

Feeling low? Remember the student success stories
Date9th May 2021AuthorGuest AuthorCategoriesTeaching

In tough times, we must remember we don't just teach lessons and manage students through the maze of exam success, we change lives, writes David Murray in this piece, originally published in Tes in March. You can read the original, and other articles from Tes writers, here.

Teacher morale is low. So I want to tell you about a student, who I shall call Sally.

I teach GCSE English resit classes at a sixth-form college and Sally is in one of those classes. Sally has always hated school and rules.

When she first slumped into a seat in my classroom at the start of this academic year, Sally somehow sat down with defiance. It's not easy to sit defiantly, but she managed it.

"Come on, then," her body language seemed to say. "Let's see what you can do. I've brought down better than you."

Great, I thought. 

Before she started college, Sally was a school refuser. As a result, she had no GCSE result. She came to us a blank slate and sat there with an unspoken challenge cast to the floor before her: "Don't you dare push me. I bite."

I stepped lightly. At first, Sally didn't so much partake in the lessons as take them apart. Why this? Why that? Huffs and puffs abounded. Like a vegan or someone from Yorkshire, I didn't have to ask whether she was hating the lessons because she made sure I knew. 

Our first weeks were tricky but things soon changed for Sally. The first had nothing at all to do with me: she made a friend in the class, a conscientious student who was determined to pass and escape.

Something intangible rubbed off on Sally. Here was someone she liked who really wanted to work, and so Sally started to try too. Not to have done so might have made her look foolish. Positive peer pressure can be a wonderful thing sometimes.  

Sally's friend passed the November GCSE resit and so, when the results came out in January, she no longer had to come to my lessons. This seemed to present an escape route for Sally. It was as if a window had opened just a crack over her head and the oubliette of education was starting to leak with light, a rope ladder dropping down that could lead her heavenward to freedom.

There was a way out of the purgatorial pains of GCSE English other than the refusal and resistance she had persisted in for so long. Her negative approach had clearly not worked so far, since here she still was, back in a GCSE lesson. So Sally clicked that it was clearly time for a new approach: if her friend could pass and leave the class, then so could she. 

The gift of lockdown

This all happened during the autumn of 2020 and continued into the 2021 lockdown. For an ex-school refuser, lockdown was a gift. At last she was actually being told to stay away.

And for someone with new-found motivation, it was also an opportunity. Sally would complete her work quickly in our online lessons in order to get it done. It wasn't always perfect, but it got done. And from the faceless murk of a class Google Meet, I grew used to the sudden chirping of her voice: "Dave, can you check my work?"

So I did. And she made her corrections accordingly. She was progressing, and she knew she was. Sally was hungry for affirmation.

"I'm doing better than I was, aren't I, Dave?"

Yes, I would say, you really are. I'm impressed. You've got this. You can do it. 

Then the class had the chance to participate in one of those programmes with a local university, where student stories are published in a book that becomes available to buy online. A great gift for grandma. We might see this as a gimmick but it turned a key somewhere deep in Sally and out poured a story.

I have long admired and been inspired by the work of Kate Clanchy, who can wring poetry from the pens of the most unlikely of students. And now, here before me was Sally, producing a story that was good. Good enough to be published (with a little editorial polish provided here and there, of course).

Sally loved the process of writing. We all carry stories within us and we all have stories to tell, every English teacher knows that much.

Sally raced through the story and then went back and improved it, changing bits here, adding details there. It was a matter of pride since this was being written for the world's eyes. When she was finished, because she was ahead of the crowd, she even went back and wrote a second story.

'Paradise beckons'

Sally is now about to be published. No budding novelist could be more proud and neither could I. In the summer, I am confident that she will receive a pass mark. A GCSE English paradise beckons for her away from my gloomy classroom.

I don't tell you the story of Sally to trumpet my own techniques or display some teaching that should be a model for anyone else. The fact is that I did very little of note. That's not the point of my story at all. I tell you the story of Sally for a far more straightforward reason. 

We all have a Sally in one of our classes every now and then. She is far from unique. Her story, then, is told as a reminder, and I tell it for me as much as for anyone else.

During the various lockdowns of the past year, at times I have wondered what on earth I am doing. I have questioned everything from my existence to the nature of education, from how to do this impossible job online to my need to clean my finger-smudged PC screen.

Sally's story is a parable for me. She is a reminder that this is what we do.

We don't just teach lessons and manage students through the maze of exam success; we change lives. Everyone can remember a great teacher from when they were at school. Maybe now that is you for someone else. 

Students like Sally are why I do this job. I need to be reminded of that sometimes, especially when times are so tumultuous and depressing. Maybe you do too. That's why I wanted to tell you about Sally: she is my morale booster.

Now we are back in the building and lockdown is done, the slouchy defiant body language is gone and Sally tumbles into class masked, a ball of post-lockdown joy and excitement. And with that she brings waves of new-found confidence. She is more certain of herself than I have ever seen her.

Because she's proven something to herself and to the world. She's shown that she's got what it takes. She's done something. She is someone. After all, she's being published. And it won't just be her grandma who buys a copy of the book.

David Murray is an English teacher at City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College.

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