Carly Vanden Heuvel
EAST Student Teaching Seminar
11 May 2015
Blog Post 2
I am now beginning my fifth week here at Hymers College, and I have found plenty of differences between the expectations of students and teachers here and in the United States, along with some surprising similarities. The main similarity that I noticed is that there is a lot of emphasis placed on the use of standards, especially in assessment. There is a system of national standards which Hymers follows, and the English standards are quite similar to those of the Common Core. There are writing standards, literature standards, reading standards, and speaking & listening standards. The way that the standards are written is similar to a rubric. There is a common guide which every teacher in the UK uses to score in accordance with these standards. Next week, my students are taking their internal exams, which I will have to score using this system. I am grateful to be looking for the same things as I did in my US placement, but I am a bit nervous as these exam scores are a huge deal to the students, the students’ families, and the school.
I have always had personal issues with the increasing presence of standardized testing in the US, and I have found that standardized tests are even more central to the education system here. Students in Year 7 through Year 9 take internal exams. These are structured in the same way as the national exams, which the Years 10, 11, and 12 take. When I first arrived, exam revision (as they call studying), was just beginning, and it has been the main focus of all of my classes ever since. This has provided me with a unique challenge. Having to plan my lessons so that I am helping the students to prepare and revise for exams, I have had to really think outside the box because it can get incredibly boring to annotate the same passage over and over. If I am feeling this way, I can only imagine what my students feel like. I have gotten to see copies of the exams that my students will be taking. These are what I am currently preparing them for and what I will be assessing next week. A colleague jokingly told me that I should be careful with my copies of the exam as I will mysteriously disappear if I let them fall into the hands of any students. We went on to discuss some of the ethical issues that high-stakes exams cause, such as instructors teaching to the test. I find it interesting that this is a universal problem and is not unique to the US education system.
One of the expectations placed on teachers by my school is that they only assign homework on specific nights depending on their content area. Every six academic days, there is a night on which I can give my students English homework. I appreciate this policy, and I feel like there should be more like it. These students have a rather rigorous academic schedule, and sometimes I find it a bit disheartening to see 11 and 12-year old kids put so much pressure on themselves. I feel that the school is being respectful toward students’ families by limiting the workload that they have outside of school. We have even been encouraged, of late, to give students resources for revision rather than assigning homework. Of course, this policy adds an extra element to planning. If there is something that I need students to work on outside of class, I have to schedule my lessons so that it falls on the correct day. This leads to needing to do a lot of in-class work. I am finding that my students all work at such a different pace that, even more than usual, I must be a couple of steps ahead of my students so that they are not just sitting there distracting their peers because they have run out of work to do.
The accountability placed on students feels higher here, and the accountability placed on teachers is a bit lower. These are very high-performing teachers, and I have witnessed excellent lessons, but they are rarely observed and do not correspond with administration as much as what I have seen in the US. Aside from exam preparation, they have a lot of freedom over the curriculum that is taught in their classrooms. They have nicknamed June “risky June,” for instance, because it is a time when they like to take some big risks with content and instructional strategies as it follows the exam season and provides an opportunity for something different for themselves and for students. As a teacher, I am extremely excited for this autonomy over the content that I am teaching. Still, I wonder how they are able to get away with that. Moreover, I struggle with the idea that one month of the year is “risky” as it implies that teachers should play it safe for the rest of the year, which is not always best for student learning.
I have found that students are held to a high standard of accountability here in many regards. For example, there is no such thing as tardies. On our schedule, the time when a class ends is the same as the time when the following class starts. When a group is dismissed by the teacher, they get up and go to their next class. They are simply expected to. As a teacher, this is sometimes difficult as students take a while to filter in and a 40-minute class period feels more like a half hour. At the same time, it is liberating. Students do not pack up at the end of the hour. They stay in their seats working until I say they can leave, at which time they gather their things and politely file out the door with a “thank you, miss” because they are not rushing anywhere. There is very little supervision of students during break period and lunch period. Still, I have not seen many issues. It’s refreshing. Of course, I doubt this is possible even in English state schools, but these students have more of a desire to be here than any student population I have ever known. It often feels like being on a college campus, except the students are kids. The only problem with this is that differentiation does not seem to be a priority. There is certainly a range of ability levels, even though all of these students passed the entrance exam. I have found that these teachers do their best to help struggling students, but that they do not individualize instruction or assessment. Rather, students are expected to put in extra effort if they need to. Expulsion for consistently low exam scores is not unheard of here.
I know that teachers here are encouraged to take certain interventions for students with learning differences, but I have not seen this at all in the classes that I teach. I feel like some of my students would have an IEP in the US, but they do not receive interventions here because they do not have a diagnosed disability. On my first day here at Hymers, which was similar to an inservice day, the head of special education gave a presentation. He had us teachers do a simulation that was meant to help us understand what testing might feel like for students with various learning needs. The school schedule allows him to have time to work with students with special needs privately. The school operates under a six day schedule, but students only have school Monday through Friday. Therefore, if Monday is a Day 1, the following Monday will be a Day 6. While it took me some getting used to, this schedule makes it so that students can be involved with a wider variety of content areas at the same time. They have all of the traditional academic subjects, but every student also attends sports, engineering, graphic design, and music lessons, to name a few. Students are also required to study two foreign languages. In Year 7, they choose one language and are assigned a second language, which they stick with throughout the remainder of their education at Hymers. This schedule allows some built-in time for extracurricular activities and the arts while it also allows students with special needs to meet with their form tutor, a teacher, or one of the special education teachers. If a student meets with a special education teacher at the same time on the same day every week, then, they will never miss the same class more than once in a week.
Additional tutoring is also widely used. Many of the students’ families, I have learned, hire private tutors to help prepare students for exams and offer supplemental instruction. Several of my students have gone to different workshops and camps to receive even more supplemental instruction, such as one that takes place at Cambridge that a number of my students attended over Easter holiday. I have even been asked by the English department to start meeting with a student that was described to me as “weak” after our term break. There is not a formal gifted and talented program, but I have found that the school tends to operate under the assumption that all students are what we in my US placement would have labeled as gifted and talented. Students who struggle with coursework tend to regarded as the exception, which is very different than what I encountered in my former field experiences. I am still trying to figure out if this is the actual case, if the majority of students are gifted and talented, or just the guiding principle in instruction. In sixth form, which includes students in Years 12 and 13 (equivalent to Junior and Senior year in US high schools), students complete an independent project that correlates with what they plan on studying at University. This feels like a gifted and talented program because all of these students are particularly strong in at least one area, and the project gives them the opportunity to cultivate these skills. For example, a student that is planning to work in journalism wrote a satirical novel about the recent election. Other students have conducted scientific research, written and directed a play, and hosted a fashion show.
I am finding that the priorities of the education system here are similar to those in the US in that we want students to succeed. I would be interested to gain experience in a private school in the United States after being at Hymers. The reputation of the school is highly prioritized, and this filters into the emphasis that is placed on high performance of students. I wonder, when I observe these similarities and differences, how much of what I am seeing is the result of England and the UK education system and how much is the result of being at a distinguished independent school with extremely high tuition fees. The expectations placed on teachers are likely influenced by the route that they have taken to becoming a teacher, as they have a few different options. Teachers who want to teach in a primary or junior school setting can earn a Bachelor of Education degree. I believe this is also an option for some secondary or senior school content areas. This is not the most popular choice. I heard one teacher advise a student not to take this route as he would be “putting all his eggs in one basket.” The majority of teachers that I have spoken to here got a Bachelor’s degree in a field of study, their content area, while earning Qualified Teacher Status, which requires them to take a year-long course that includes field experience. Some teachers, including one of my cooperating teachers, have earned a PGCE (Post Graduate Certification in Education), which takes one to two years. In my cooperating teacher’s case, he decided to begin his career path as an English teacher after years of being a chef. A Bachelor’s degree is the only requirement to begin a PGCE program, and the program includes an education in a specific content area for those that wish to teach in secondary school or senior school.
Having two cooperating teachers, I am able to get a fairly well-rounded view of what mentorship might look like for teachers-in-training in the UK. One of my cooperating teachers gives all positive feedback. This, of course, is always appreciated, but deciding which modifications have to be made in my planning and instruction for his classes come mostly from my own reflection. My other cooperating teacher gives plenty of constructive criticism. In the beginning, while I was still observing, he would often ask me to explain why he did certain things. If I couldn’t, he would tell me. I have grown as a teacher by working with him; I have become much better at giving students clear expectations and a clear agenda in class. Both of my cooperating teachers have helped me to become better with timing. Not having a bell schedule or clocks in their classrooms, it is important for my cooperating teachers to plan out their timing and try to stick to it. I have gotten a lot of practice thinking about how long activities will take and planning modifications for times that activities take more or less time than expected. EAST has provided me with multiple documents that include useful advice, but I have not gotten a ton of individualized mentorship. Fortunately, I have excellent cooperating teachers. My supervisor from EAST has visited once and will be returning to observe next month. He has made it clear that he is available if I need further mentorship or have any questions, which I believe to be true. Due to the fact that I am receiving more than enough mentorship in my placement, however, I have not had to use his services a lot. EAST puts a lot of trust in the school to be monitoring and mentoring my teaching. They have had a longstanding relationship with Hymers College, and the staff members that I have met have all worked with an EAST students at least once before. This makes me trust the process and understand the amount of trust that EAST puts into Hymers. Something that I also appreciate about the relationship between Hymers and EAST is that I was put into contact with another EAST student who was here the term before me. She helped me find housing, gave helpful advice about the city and the school, and has continued to be in contact with me when I began teaching here. To continue this, EAST got me into contact with a Wisconsin student who will be in the English department here next term. I have been able to pass on my resources, offer plenty of advice, and I’m planning on putting a package together for her with the UK-adapted electronics I have purchased here, leftover school supplies, and the myriad of train timetables and travel brochures I have collected through my travels.