Results day: Should you take ‘bad’ results to heart?

Posted on 20th August 2016 by Joe
An F grade result on lined paper

You nervously open the envelope (or, more likely, download the spreadsheet). You finally bring yourself to look at your results. Your heart falls. You don’t want to tell anybody, but you know that they will ask and they will scrutinise. And no, you’re not a student. You’re a teacher…

Although you’re a fully-grown adult, you still feel like one of your students who hasn’t gotten into their preferred uni. You don’t have to face clearing but you may have to face an awkward meeting with your line manager. You’re a teacher who hasn’t got the results you (or somebody else) expected. So what now?

Getting some perspective

What cannot be stressed enough here is that those results you see are not really your results. They are the results of your students. Primarily, the responsibility and ownership of these results lies with each of them, individually.

Consider a rosier results day. If a colleague says to you, “Your results were really good!” you are entitled to respond, “Well, I’m proud of my work and of my students, but they are really the ones who should be congratulated on their results.” You have supported them and they have achieved. Allow them full credit for their success, but don’t punish yourself by taking any perceived ‘failure’ as your own.

Saying that the results are theirs is not just some facile way of dodging the problem. It’s a reminder of the messy mix of causal factors that lead to any result. Teachers have a tendency to massively over-estimate their own causal role in the learning process (and arguably we are encouraged to do so).

But there’s so much to a student’s progress that is simply out of your control: their home life, their level of parental and peer support, the time they allocate to your subject for revision, their order of priorities for achieving their goals, the school’s vision and budgeting decisions – the list is endless.

It also seems taboo for teachers to acknowledge that children differ genetically, and accept what is the consensus view in behavioural genetics: that a large proportion of the differences in students’ achievement can be explained by genetic differences.

Setting expectations

So do all of these points constitute a big fat excuse that you can slap down in front of your line manager? “Not my fault!” No. For a class or year group, it is still statistically sound to have certain expectations for the grade distribution of that group (note: not for each individual).

If these expectations aren’t met, of course time must be put into reflecting on whether the support given was appropriate, and to plan how things can be changed up for the next cohort. But context is key. You have the right to expect your line manager to take into account whatever contextual factors – outside of your control – may have had a bearing on these results.

As an example, take a student of mine who achieved 7/100 UMS on a module I taught them, even though their official estimate was at least 10 times this. I don’t count this as a failure, and nor does my line manager, because this student had explained that this module wasn’t a priority for them to meet their university entry grades.

Another example: we teach maths in sets at our school. The students in the top set almost always exceed their estimated grades, while the students in the bottom set almost always fall short. The line managers at my school take this trend into account, instead of foolishly and futilely punishing the teacher of the bottom set each year.

Make a plan

You also have the right to expect that your line manager will be supportive in helping you plan and try out changes for next year. You are a creative human and not everything you do is guaranteed to succeed. Perhaps that textbook you decided on wasn’t right for your class. Or maybe that last-minute immersion session only served to induce panic.

The action plan you decide on shouldn’t be too onerous, come with too much paperwork, or cause you unnecessary stress. If it does, they are simply not managing you well. Compare it to what you’d say to a student who was upset with a result in their mocks. Would you be harsh, dismissive, and try to make their life harder? Or would you try to offer the support that they actually need?

Remember your role

One more thing needs to be mentioned. Nowhere in your contract will it say that you’re employed to simply pump out good results. You weren’t hired to be the foreman of an exam factory. You’re a teacher and your responsibilities are many and varied: to develop the whole child, to protect their welfare, to open their eyes to different career opportunities, to provide extra-curricular activities, to support or lead other teachers in your department. Again, the list is long.

You may be frustrated reading this, thinking “Fine, but at the whiff of a bad result my school will be ruthlessly inconsiderate and make my life hell!” In this case, pursue the relevant union channels, and seriously consider changing your school. It is simply not acceptable that people are treated this way.

We as teachers owe it to ourselves and our students to expect something more mature.

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