The Secret Teacher: Labelling students is an appalling lack of professionalism

The Secret Teacher: Upon seeing the name, not the work, I’ve heard colleagues exclaim ‘oh, he’s a D’

Grades may inflict longer-lasting damage, as students can slip in and out of a uniform far more easily than a grade they have been labelled with. Photograph: iStock

Grades may inflict longer-lasting damage, as students can slip in and out of a uniform far more easily than a grade they have been labelled with. Photograph: iStock

 

A riddle: children find me effortlessly when they are small and lose me with age. What am I?

Anything feels possible when we are young. Make-believe is more than good enough, and when children are lost in play or in another world, grateful adults leave them to it. When we are very young we aren’t expected to keep our colouring inside the lines – and my question is why are we ever?

The world of education isn’t one renowned for its celebrities, and yet from education Ken Robinson propelled himself to wider, even cult status. It really does mean something when your Ted talk frequently features on lists of the most popular and most watched.

Robinson argued that we needed to “transform” rather than “reform” schools. Covid-19 has made it necessary to adapt schooling to such an extent that at times we were not even going to school! Now, here was a real opportunity to transform. I find myself wondering what Robinson would make of what we have chosen to prioritise and preserve.

The expression “turning in his grave” comes to mind. Robinson actively campaigned for the importance of finding “the element”. It is what we are referring to when we say “ah would you look at them, they are in their element”. Robinson defined the element as “the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together”.

Unique element

Is our school system doing all that it can to help children find their own unique element? They give off clues when they are very young, and find their own way into favourite toys and activities. Do we take proper note of these ways and nurture them in schools while introducing youngsters to the realities of the world?

I have genuinely seen work not even being glanced at, such was the certainty of knowing the grade just from the name

Visualise a classroom. If I were to ask every reader to sketch what they have visualised, the result would reveal a core feature of the problem: rows of desks, whiteboard at the front, pupils facing the teacher. While there are obviously examples of more progressive settings, there is a uniformity which threatens to deny the uniqueness of each child that crosses the threshold.

Sticking with the visuals, how clearly do we teachers really see our students? Uniforms provide a veneer of uniformity and can make it easy not to see the individuality beneath. But those of us who truly wish to know the individuals always do.

Grades may inflict longer-lasting damage as students can slip in and out of a uniform far more easily than a grade they have been labelled with. As teachers, we actively contribute to “grade labelling”. In every school I have ever worked in, I have witnessed the same example of an appalling lack of professionalism.

While moderating marks across classes teachers may sometimes seek a second opinion on a piece of work. Upon seeing the name, not the work, I’ve heard colleagues exclaim, “Oh, she’s an A” or “he’s a D”, and declare it unnecessary to even read the work!

Or perhaps they are dismissive because of a painful memory of that student’s work in the past and are keen to spare themselves the trauma now. I have genuinely seen work not even being glanced at, such was the certainty of knowing the grade just from the name.

It is not as though the “A” student never has an off day. Perhaps the student who has been taking it easy has suddenly decided to cram. It may even be that the student is suspected of cheating on this piece, and the teacher is keen to have a neutral opinion on the grade. What is crucial here is that the work completed has an approximate academic value. It stands to reason that all qualified teachers would arrive somewhere in the vicinity of that figure. First and foremost, we need to be open to looking at the work. Many just won’t see anything but the profiling data they already have of the student.

Desired result

In order to distance myself entirely from any association with forever labelling a student with the same grade, I often invite my classes to submit the work as anonymously or as incognito as they can. I grade the pieces without knowing which one belongs to which student. This simple exercise invariably leads to an increase in grades across the whole cohort. I’m not expert enough to interpret precisely what the psychology behind this is, but I know it achieves the desired result.

In schools we can actively work to limit the degree to which young people’s individuality gets smothered by sameness as they grow older

I reckon Robinson would approve. His Ted talk is entitled “DoSchools Kill Creativity?”. While they might in many ways, all of us who populate the school halls would do well to exercise our own creativity in whatever ways we can. A teacher casts a long shadow, and this is something we must use in our favour while we have the privilege of spending so many hours with young, enthusiastic individuals.

In “The Element – How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”, Robinson declares that he has lost track of the number of people he has met who have no real sense of what their individual talents and passions are. While as humans we may be subject to systems and structures, we must not allow them to quash our unique selves and the capacity and potential that lie within us.

Robinson may be right that children’s creativity is stifled by schools, but schools are merely systems. In schools we can actively work to limit the degree to which young people’s individuality gets smothered by sameness as they grow older. What we are is infinitely more powerful, and heightening our awareness of who we are and all that we are capable of is crucial to having any chance of ever being “in our element”.

Elementary, really.