The Elusive Grade One

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while now and like many of my posts, it was published and then unpublished and then published again until we get to the point I’m at now: finally choosing to publish for good.

I am now well and truly into my fifth year of teaching. Over this time, I have grown as a teacher and until I stop growing, I’ll continue teaching.
Since about day 67, after the fear of being thrown, unqualified, into a classroom had subsided slightly, I’ve aimed towards achieving a grade one in an observation. Of course, I became a teacher in order to work with young people; t wasn’t always my dream to be a teacher but it emerged as something I’d enjoy and do well at. But it wasn’t the idea of a ‘grade one’ gleaming on my lapel that got me into the job. I wouldn’t have lasted more than five minutes if this were the case and I’d certainly be wondering what the last five years had been all about.
A taste for a grade one began to emerge after a PGCE observation graded me at a two- with no areas for improvement. None. Not a single one. I’d been robbed and I was out to get a grade one next time around. My search for the elusive grade one wasn’t in an over-zealous way. I have never been about ticking boxes. I’ve always taught in the only way I know how- my way (all informed by colleagues, blogs, articles and books of course). I didn’t want to copy someone else or do it the way I thought someone else wanted it to be done; I just felt awkward when I even remotely tried that and the lessons would fall flat on their faces.
For a misinformed while in the early stages of my teaching career, I felt that I was working hard and I thought I was doing all the ‘right’ things, so I could just get a grade one as a result. In fact what I was doing was surviving and hitting some of the basics, some of the time.
I then spent time with a particularly cynical teacher. Fantastic but cynical. He had been a grade one once upon a time but he assured me that all observers were now evil and seeking to catch you out. To a large extent, that was misinformed too.
I then went through a stage of working with a teacher who was truly one of those rare ‘great ones.’ If you’ve ever met one, then you’ll know exactly what I mean. He was passionate, intelligent, warm, funny, stern when necessary, a true subject expert, and just an awe-inspiring person. He never knew that I held him in such high esteem but he didn’t need that to know he was a ‘great one.’ Not in a footballer arrogance kind of way but in a cool rock star kind of way.
Whilst working with the ‘great one’, I came to believe that it was only teachers like him who could get a grade one and I resigned myself to the fact that I would only ever amount to a two. There was still a niggling want for a grade one but I maintained for a long while that I was satisfied with a two.
Then it happened in my new job. I had honed my teaching. My confidence had grown. I was observed. I got a grade one.
During my feedback, I kept smiling to myself when my observer wasn’t looking, whilst also putting my sensible, ‘this doesn’t phase me’ face on.
I then told everyone. I phoned my mum, my friends and my partner. They were all very pleased and made all the right noises. I went to sleep exhausted (this had been far more exceptional than the ‘usual’ teaching week) but happy.
So, for about a total of 14 hours, I was pretty pleased with myself. And then I woke up. I felt weird. Really weird.
For a while, I thought it was because I was tired and I’d had to get on a ridiculously early train to go house hunting. I thought the exciting changes about to happen in my life had dampened my happiness at a grade one.
For a number of days, I felt that it was because I’d achieved a goal that I’d worked towards for five years. Where was I supposed to go now? What would be my goal? How would I have any direction?
I then considered that it might be because I didn’t deserve a grade one and then I realised that wasn’t it either. My observer rarely gives grade ones and I’m certain it wasn’t out of pity for how hard I work. No, it was a cracking lesson. One of the best.
And then it dawned on me.
Over the last few years, I’ve really got into Formula One. It’s the only ‘sport’ I can handle watching for any length of time. I wish that getting a grade one could be the equivalent of winning the formula one championship. I had thought it was the same and I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
A lesson is one race. A single moment. Sebastian Vettell wins and wins and wins some more. He is the sporting equivalent of ‘The Great One’. He performs at a consistently high level. But he doesn’t achieve this alone. Undoubtedly, he possesses a sufficient amount of god-given talent but he has also developed his skills over time. This, I’m certain, will have been with the support of his peers and a set of role models and advisors eagerly lurking in the wings. He has a throng of fans to champion him through thick and thin. On race days, he has the full support of a talented and well-equipped team who have all the training and resources necessary to succeed. This is why he is the best at what he does.
I want a grade one to feel like that must feel. I want it to be based on great performance over time. I want it to be influenced heavily by the working of an entire team over a whole term and not a snapshot of a single moment. Maybe to a certain extent it is. I’m not the teacher I am now without all of that in my past and indeed present but my grade one judgement was still based on that single lesson.
This week, I’d be a three in some lessons and a one in others. To be seriously generous, I’d call myself a two.
Teachers’ practice, if it’s to be examined, should be based on development and performance over time and shouldn’t be judged in terms of ones, twos, threes and fours, not least because I’ve never been a huge fan of numbers
No, it should be a judgement of ‘great ones.’
I’m more interested in being a ‘great one’ rather than a ‘grade one.’ I always have been interested in that, I just used to be under the illusion that the two were the same thing. They’re not.
A ‘great one’ is a teacher who can inspire even the most disengaged learner, no matter what the time of day. A ‘great one’ can get every single one of their learners to be engaged all of the time, no matter what the subject. A ‘great one’ leaves every single lesson safe in the knowledge that all that could be done for the learning of their students has been done.
I’m not a ‘great one’ yet and might not be for a long time, if ever. But that’s what I’m ultimately striving for: great learning, great teaching, great team collaboration and great lessons- all of the time. It might not be possible without superpowers but that won’t stop me from pursuing it.
So ta very much for the grade one but I can thankfully say that I’m done with the chase now and I’m relieved by that.
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Australian South Sea Islander women crossing the finish line in a race in Innisfail, Queensland, ca. 1902
Photo sourced from Flickr- Commons
My writing commitment: I’m learning to honour my thoughts. I’m learning that my words can be shared before I’ve connected all the dots or learned everything there is to know. My writing can be a snapshot of a single moment in continually-evolving time.

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