Jo Dixon reflects on the progress of her ‘great expectations’, set in September 2004. She can see just how those expectations have made a difference to her teaching and more importantly, to her rapport with those classes.

I quiz my new classes about what they expect of their new teacher. I create a check-list from their contributions, which I revisit regularly throughout the year. It serves as a reminder to me of all the kinds of learning experiences that the pupils enjoy. As the year progresses, I get it out and get them to evaluate my teaching performance. I have to be ready for some knocks as well as their praise. Oddly enough, I actually learn a lot about the students too, from reading their comments about me!

Back in May 2004, I was really sorry to see my Year 11 group leave for their exams, as I felt I had an extra ‘special something’ with them. I had warmed to them and they to me. I am sure that the time I invested in asking them about what they expected from me really paid off; they felt that I really cared about them and their feelings towards my subject and their learning. So often students would remark on how they felt respected and pleased that I was interested enough in them to ask them their opinion on my teaching and our classroom practice.

Take my Year 9s. I had not previously tried this method with a challenging group but, last September, I decided it had to be done. My lower ability set of Year 9s doubled overnight from 17 to 32 as a colleague was on long-term sick leave and I would need to keep the two sets together to keep them all on track.

This Year 9 group came up with the following pretty sensible expectations:

  • Be Positive
  • Give us exciting creative and enjoyable lessons
  • Make it as easy as 1, 2, 3!
  • Listen to our point of view
  • Give us clear and easy homework
  • Help us with homework sometimes
  • Help us prepare for the SATs
  • Give us breaks
  • Show us Videos and DVDs
  • Do fun stuff that helps us learn
  • Go outside sometimes

As the term progressed, I knew that their kinesthetic demands were paramount, so I tried as many active lessons and as much brain gym as I could and also kept lesson plans as structured as possible.

In December, while they were evaluating their own personal learning and progress during the term, I asked them to write a school report on me. They each had a template of our school report (a genuine copy of our standard school report), which I had emailed to them. I asked them in a single lesson to evaluate my performance over the previous term. I supplied them with the list of their expectations of me, which they had agreed in September. This ‘Wish List’ became the success criteria against which they had to judge me and was printed on the report. They gave me a grade for discipline, effort and achievement, and wrote a statement commenting on how far I had succeeded in fulfilling my promises to them.

Their responses were a very mixed bag. Some statements were totally contradictory while others provided me with insight into the individuals who wrote them. On the whole, I found their responses heartening and they helped me under-stand their individual needs. It was interesting for me to read that three students in the class felt that I repeated myself too much (something that other classes have also mentioned), while about five specifically said that sometimes they would like more explanation to help them understand. The mixed ability range in this set (Level 3s to potential Level 6s), was evident from their comments. It was clear that my differentiation was perhaps not spot on.

It was interesting to see that a couple of the more able students felt that it had taken a long time to write an essay that I had set them earlier in the term; I had deliberately ‘scaffolded’ each stage of the essay and done some shared writing and modeling with them to help them practice all the skills that they would be needing later on in the year when responding to their SATs questions. Some felt this was too laborious while others still needed more time on it. I realised that several needed to be stretched and moved on at a faster pace.

It was evident that students felt that they were learning and having fun at the same time, which made me feel I was doing something right. The most important reward from this exercise was the mutual respect and rapport that developed from it, which was encouraging.

Our department underwent an internal review half way through last year, and a sample of our students filled out questionnaires and some were interviewed about their lessons and their teachers. To be honest, I did not find that this bothered me too much. I felt reasonably confident that the students whom I teach would not come up with many surprises, as I had created a climate of communication, and many students already felt comfort-able telling me what they felt about my teaching. It was nothing new.

I feel better prepared for the new suggestions from Ofsted that students are going to be playing a larger role in the evaluation of teachers. If we think of our students as the ‘consumers’ of our teaching expertise, then does it not seem fair that they should be part of the consultation and evaluation of our teaching? I think our students are a hugely important part of the learning equation and we cannot leave their experience of our teaching out of our own evaluation.

Some feedback I’ve had:

  • ‘More active learning – waking our brains up was good.’
  • ‘I would like more visual and kinaesthetic parts to the lesson.’
  • ‘You treat us like adults which does work and then we feel like equals, which builds our confidence.’
  • ‘Do more starter activities as they really get our brains working.’
  • ‘Really appreciate it when you ask us how we feel and if we have lots of other work.’
  • ‘I like it when we are in groups but I’m not sure I learn as much!’
  • ‘You could give us more brain breaks.’
  • ‘Throw the fish more to keep us on our toes.’
  • ‘Give us more fun lessons.’
  • ‘The only problem is the way you always repeat the lesson things and I’m sure this is a good thing but it does get a bit repetitive.’

Jo is part of the Accelerated Learning Working Party at St Augustine’s Catholic College in Trowbridge. Jo has spent most of her career teaching English overseas in Botswana, Jordan and Abu Dhabi in Government and International schools. She has also led an English department and loves being back in the classroom full-time after maternity leave. She is always on the lookout for new and inspiring teaching ideas.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, July 2005.