As a student moves from primary through to secondary schooling the number of teachers they will have contact with increases. By the time a student gets into the final few years of school they can have 8 or more different teachers on their schedule. Student learning also becomes more and more compartmentalised, with an increased number of specialist subjects available for study.
While teachers in secondary education have quite a good grasp of the content and skills that students require in their individual subjects in order to progress from one year to the next, few teachers in my experience get to look enough beyond their subject area in terms of the whole educational experience that a student is receiving and their role in it. I remember a former colleague of mine once saying, “when students come to my class, I tell them to focus on Chemistry and only Chemistry.” This short-sighted approach presents huge problems for both the student and all teachers involved in their education.
To put it bluntly, when a teacher only thinks about ‘their’ class, they often fail to see how their actions can effect the student in other classes. For example, if all teachers in the high school have agreed to a deadlines calendar for assessment submission and one teacher decides to extend a deadline for their class because they think it will help both them and their students in getting better marks, they overlook the consequences that can bring to the student in other classes. Colleagues can become frustrated by such actions but can often be reluctant to speak out in how the actions of others impacts upon them.
More importantly, the language of teachers needs to change from ‘my students’ to ‘our students’. We need to take the ‘blinkers’ off and see things through the student’s eyes, not just our own. Only when we teachers make decisions by looking at the whole picture of a child and what the child is seeing each day, will the right decisions be made.
So, what can we do in our high schools to address this problem?
- Time needs to be made for teachers of High School teachers to come together and discuss key student issues that they may be seeing – attendance, the assessment draft process, assessment calendars, literacy and numeracy development (this is not just the domain of Math and English teachers). Meetings should look at general patterns rather than focus on specific students. Individual students concerns should be addressed in separate meetings with the relevant teachers present.
- Develop essential agreements to work in the best interests of the students and devise ways to measure if the teaching staff is successful in providing better support for students that enhances learning and achievement
- Create approaches to supporting students with key high school survival skills. Core survival skills for success in High School need to be addressed by the teaching staff as a whole not in isolation – common approaches work best. Assisting students with time management, prioritisation of tasks, use of personal organisers, maintaining well-being and coping with pressure. On occasion, I have heard some teachers say that they do not have time to teach these skills or they are not qualified to do so – we need to provide the necessary structures and support, so that this cannot be used as an excuse.
- Take time to shadow a student and see how school looks through their eyes. If a student sits in six different classes in a day, what are the similarities and differences between the classes beyond the fact that they may different subjects? Does every class teacher set homework and when is it due? Is what is being asked of students by teachers reasonable?
- Discuss strategies to support students with meeting deadlines and completing assessments in a timely manner. This is often the biggest cause of student stress in High Schools. Can your teachers agree on ‘no Homework weeks’ or ‘no testing weeks’? This may help with pressure and give students breathing space. Can more interim and draft deadlines be put in place to break up long-term assignments that demand a high level of time management?
To begin to take the blinkers off and change habits to better support students require strong and passionate leadership, a willingness to challenge current practices, supported by data if possible. Crucially, from the teacher perspective, there must be a fundamental shift from ‘I’ to ‘we’ with a willingness to share a collective responsibility to each other but most importantly the students that we care about.
photo credit: 2014 Sleigh and Cutter Festival – Horse Head and Bridle via photopin (license)