Reduce teacher stress: Don’t look at your students’ results

Stress 39/365

Stress by Mike Hoff. CC BY-NC 2.0

Teacher stress is not something that many outside the profession think about. When it does strike we often feel that we can’t show it – certainly not to our students (which can be tough given that we need to ‘perform’ in front of them all day). But  we are also reluctant to acknowledge it to our colleagues – we are afraid of how it may be perceived. But stress is part of every single teacher’s life. My mantra for new teachers has always been to be very aware of stress creeping into your teaching and do all that you can to control and minimise it.

Eliminating stress is not an option. It is always there, lurking in the background, waiting for an opportunity to grow and fester. Some stress we may be able to do little about, but that which we can control we should.

And exam results fall into the latter category. Most teachers feel nervous coming up to exam-results day. Probably not as nervous as the students, but at least for the students it only happens once (or at most twice) whereas for teachers it is an annual event.

If it turns out that the results are not great then the specter of this hovers over the teacher all year.

Now comes the crucial question; does knowing the results increase the probability that you will become a better teacher?
How will you become that better teacher?
Now assuming (and it’s a big assumption) that you have identified what needs to be done to improve, why not just do this anyway?
By the way, I hope you don’t think that ‘working harder’ is a legitimate action. I was once in a school where we were told that we all need to work harder to improve results, without any follow-up or advice beyond that. Obviously instructions this vague only serve to increase stress and not efficiency. Maybe if our job was to dig a hole in the ground then ‘work harder’ would be self-explanatory, but teaching is a tad more complex. We need to work smarter, not harder. And usually it’s not at all obvious how to go about this.

The fact that you’re reading this blog suggests that you are interested (at least in principle) in being a better teacher.
There are many ways in which you can go about this:

  • One of the simplest and most effective is to encourage feedback from students throughout your lesson.
  • Another is to use assessment to enhance on-going learning of a concept (‘Assessment for Learning’) rather than what we usually do which is to use assessment as a dubious means of establishing whether or not a student has ‘learned’ something – whatever that means.
  • Read up on the psychology of how students learn (a relatively newand incorporate this into your teaching.

To see what else you could do, check out betterteaching.ie which was created as part of my own learning curve on this journey.

So repeat after me: “You don’t need to know your students’ results to make the decision to become a better teacher.”

Of course one other reason to look at students’ results is good old-fashioned curiosity.
You just need to offset the benefit of this against the possibility/ probability that knowing the results will introduce stress which could otherwise have been avoided and which will now most likely remain with you (albeit at a low level) throughout the year.

If you think I exaggerate then look at this extract from a recent post from Tom Sherrington – one of the most respected teachers in the UK today.

I woke up last Tuesday night at 2am with the worst headache of all time; piercing intense pain.  I had to run downstairs for the pain killers.  This was stress, pure and simple; subconscious anxiety in anticipation of GCSE results download day.   I’ve only been there a year but Results Matter – and in this age of hyper-accountability, they assume meaning far beyond the limits of their validity and reliability as measures of our students’ experience.
http://headguruteacher.com/2015/08/24/walking-the-tightrope/

Now here in Ireland we don’t have the pressure of accountability that hovers over Tom and his colleagues. We should take advantage of this and not go looking for stress when it can be avoided.

Don’t get me wrong – I do need to know that my teaching is going well. I need to know that my students understand what I am teaching them. I need to know that they are revising (throughout the year, not just in the final term ‘when we have the course covered’). I need to know that they like being in my class. I need to know that they are well prepared for the final exam. But I can establish all the above without ever knowing their final mark.

And of course knowing their final mark won’t provide the answers to all the questions above anyway.

I will continue to try and improve as a teacher. I do not need to know my students’ results to do this.
And I will not judge myself on the basis of their results in state exams.

 

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