Since arriving a little more than two months ago I have had the opportunity to visit four different London schools, specifically to observe history lessons but also to take in the U.K. secondary education system as a whole. With more visits lined up at different schools the next couple of months, I figured now would be a good time to blog about what I have learned up to this point. Far from perfect, like their U.S. equivalents, London schools do have a few things I think would be beneficial for us to discuss and even consider adopting.
- Head Teachers (Principals) Who Still Teach
In every school I have been in thus far the equivalent of American principals and their assistants are active classroom practitioners, teaching at least one class in addition to their administrative duties. In fact, in one school that was being reviewed by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education), which is a really big deal here, the head teacher was one of those selected to be observed. In another, the head taught a class with half of the entire student body for one semester and the rest for the other making sure they would know every student in the building they lead. I find this fascinating in light of how firm we are in the States concerning administrators not teaching.
- Release Time for Department Heads/Lead Teachers
Although in a few schools I visited teacher leadership positions were connected to monetary compensation similar to what I am familiar with in the States, in the others they were compensated with release time from teaching. In one school, a teacher I met with taught for one-third of the workday and spent the rest serving in a staff development and student welfare capacity. In another, the head of department taught one less class than everyone else to allow time for the administrative work connected to the position. Although some schools back home might do this, it is far more common for money rather than time to be given in these circumstances. One teacher expressed to me they liked extra time rather than a monetary stipend because it allowed them to both jobs better which in turn benefited the students rather than themselves.
- Marking Rather Than Grading
Although I am not too keen on the incredible importance placed on the exit exams that U.K. students take in their courses at the end of each year, I very much appreciate the emphasis on marking student work as opposed to grading. In terms of the former, one teacher described the process as feedback designed to predict how a student will do on their exams rather than giving them grade for work completed. Another I spoke with talked about how ridiculous they considered the notion that those students not quite up to par in their class would be considered “failing” or similar to this as we label them in the States. Although these marks and predictions specifically concern how the students will potentially perform on a standardized exam, I perceive there to be something more sincere in them than what we do in terms of giving a letter grade.
- Staff Collegial (Tea) Time
In every school I have been at there is a twenty-minute break in the day, usually around 10:40 am, where all staff members retired to a communal room for coffee, tea, and an assortment of pastries or small snacks. Lasting only twenty minutes, this brief moment in the day – beyond a nice, momentary pause mid-morning – affords staff members a chance to talk with one another that we really don’t have in the States. In those attended, I have conversed with teachers about anything from classroom pedagogy to personal preferences for music. Whatever the case, the discussions were cordial moments of collegiality in the course of the school day that I have never really witnessed back home.
- Staggered Schedule
One of the hardest things for me to get use to since being here but something I have grown to appreciate is the staggered schedule teachers have. Whereas in the States we all most likely teach the same class at the same time everyday of the week, in U.K. schools this apparently is not the case. Rather than referring to these as classes, students attend lessons that are at different times on different days. A U.K. teacher might have a double-lesson on Monday with one class and not see them again until Wednesday for a single lesson. Looking at this entirely from a teacher’s perspective, this is a refreshing system that can eliminate some of the monotony of the week. For students, not having the same schedule everyday can be refreshing in a similar sense. As a side note, this also allows U.K. students to take more classes than U.S. students during a school year which might introduce them to wider array of subjects. For teachers, repeating a lesson more than once in a day or even in a week appears to be rare. Although this means there is more preparation for more classes, this doesn’t seem to bother U.K. teachers much.
To sum up this initial reflection (Part 2 will come shortly), U.K. secondary schools are doing some things I think we should discuss and possibly consider implementing. Marking that focuses on how students are progressing with their work rather than a letter grade, time for teachers to interact socially during the school day (and have a nice cup of tea), administrators who are still teachers, refreshing lesson schedules, release time for professional purposes – to be absolutely honest, I don’t see much bad in any of these.
Until next time, Cheers.