The Secret Teacher: Grading the Leaving Cert class of 2020 was my toughest ever task

There will be students who will officially learn that they were considered bottom of the class

‘Do you remember the relationship we had in class as it was? Because that is how I remember you. Let’s keep it that way.’ Photograph: iStock

‘Do you remember the relationship we had in class as it was? Because that is how I remember you. Let’s keep it that way.’ Photograph: iStock


The resurrection of the dunce’s corner is just one of the many unanticipated things 2020 has thrown at us, and possibly the worst because it was so easily avoidable.

I’m well into my third decade of teaching, a job I truly love. I get such a buzz out of watching students as they progress, and their personal growth as learning occurs is a privilege to witness. Knowing you’ve played an active role in their development brings phenomenal job satisfaction, but the icing on the cake is when they take the time to tell you.

During lockdown I had a message from a student I taught over a decade ago. He had been using time in isolation to find people on social media and reconnect with them. He updated me on his career path and finished his message by thanking me for my lessons all those years ago.

“You encouraged us to include everyone and treat everyone with respect, dignity and understanding. That class helped me with my soft and social skills and for that I’m grateful.” Most teachers will tell you that when they encounter past pupils years later, it’s more often than not something other than the course content they refer to in their memories.

For well over 20 years I have actively avoided openly communicating to any student that, in my eyes, they are bottom of the class. As a result, the hardest professional task I have ever had to complete was the calculated grading process for Leaving Cert 2020.

All my qualifications and experience tell me how inappropriate it is. Reliability of the grading aside, what is the purpose and validity of ranking the students? And, if there is any, where is the value in the student finding out their ranking?

This was the plan until last week, when the Department of Education took legal advice on releasing class rankings following a backlash from teachers. It is now uncertain whether students will get this data immediately.

Regardless of this, did it not occur to anyone that there would be students who would learn definitively that they were considered bottom of the class in every single subject? They sat in their Leaving Certificate classrooms for nigh on 18 months, so they would know precisely how many students were in each of their groups. There is no hiding from the brutality of the blow this information could bring to some young people.

If they are released, will those who get a string of first-place rankings plaster their achievements all over social media? Will the newspapers, as in previous years, feature the students who achieved the maximum number of H1s nationwide ? And will the coverage extend to those ranked highest across the board too?

Most likely as a counter-reaction to that, every year in August there is a flurry of social media posts reassuring students that the Leaving Cert results they have just received don’t define them. While that is undoubtedly true, part of me has always felt that the results were placing some value on a tangible performance, and that we must not make too little of what it signifies, and what might be learned from it.

Greatest strength

My mantra has always been that everyone in front of me can do something well and I’ll find out what that is before our learning journey is over. So often the greatest strength isn’t study at all but a soft skill, a human quality that many peers will take years longer to fine-tune. Somewhat sheepishly, perhaps, I admit that the opportunity to build and cultivate personal relationships year in year out is what I love most about working in schools.

There is a guaranteed new cohort every year when the first years arrive, and we celebrate the end of a six-year journey when the Leaving Certs graduate. In that final-year cohort there might be students we have taught for six years (although in our school we try to give students the benefit of different teachers’ styles and approaches where possible) and others whom we have never taught but know by reputation (good or bad!).

When mentioned by staff, different names elicit different responses: the wow, the sigh, the eyes to heaven, and we so often laugh over incidents and pranks when we had to suppress our grins and hold our authority in front of the students.

With only the smallest number of exceptions, colleagues I have shared staff rooms with hold their students in the highest esteem and are willing them on to find the best of themselves for the post-secondary school world.

And so to the Leaving Cert students of 2020, and on behalf of all teachers who share my indignation, here are my thoughts on how crucial it is that you do not let the “results” you receive define you:

Do you remember the relationship we had in class as it was? Because that is how I remember you. Let’s keep it that way.

This grading process involved a tiny proportion of your schooling which was never supposed to count for anything anyway. The goalposts were changed for us as teachers too, so we know more about how you feel than you realise. Despite any hurt, anger or disappointment you may feel when you see your results, please remember this:

Teachers didn’t want to do this.

Teachers didn’t think this was a good idea.

Teachers struggled with this task.

Engaging with this task hasn’t tarnished our memories of the time spent together, and we hope the results don’t tarnish yours.

Very many education experts have openly spoken about their concerns about this process.

You really are so much more than whatever the results tell you, and this is more true of Leaving Cert 2020 than it has been for any previous year.