The Power of One

At the moment in Ireland, there’s a lot of kerfuffle about teachers, and teaching, and reform of what we call the ‘Junior Cycle’ – which is, in a nutshell, the first three years of secondary school. After a student’s third year of secondary education they face an examination called the Junior Certificate, which is designed to help them choose what subjects to take for their Leaving Certificate (school leaving examinations), either two or three years in the future, and at which level. It’s also a good way of gauging where they are in their education at this mid-way point through their secondary school career. A lot of people (parents and pupils both) think the Junior Certificate is a bit of a waste of time, but I never thought so – not even when I was sitting it. I was a bit of a nerd, of course, but that’s beside the point.

Photo Credit: tsaiid via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: tsaiid via Compfight cc

Traditionally, the marking for the Junior Certificate has been carried out anonymously, by teachers who are not personally known to the pupils whose work they are examining. Now, the government wants teachers to start marking their own pupils’ work. They began by asking teachers to mark all of their own students’ examination papers, but teachers fought back; now, the government say they’ll settle for a certain percentage instead. Teachers, of course, are fighting this, too. They’ve been going on strike (whether you agree with that or not), and they’ve been very clear in their opposition to the idea of marking their own pupils for a State examination, which is far more important than a class test or even an end-of-year exam in a ‘normal’ school year. It’s not about extra work, or about wanting extra money – it’s about fairness to the students. And I couldn’t agree with them more.

At school, English was my favourite subject. However, it wasn’t always my best subject. In primary school, I was encouraged to love English, to read and write, to excel at spelling tests and vocabulary comprehension tests, and I was given positive feedback the whole way along. I loved words, and I loved the subject. Then, I entered secondary school and met with a truly terrible, awful, no-good, very bad English teacher. At the time, of course, I was convinced I was the one at fault; I brought home ‘D’ grade after ‘D’ grade, in tears most of the time, wondering how I could have gone so wrong. I couldn’t understand how I’d gone from being so confident in my ability with words to scraping the bottom of the barrel, in the space of a few short months. I had some hints during the year that the teacher’s problem was with me, personally, for some obscure and deep-seated reason (because I was a good student, who behaved well in class and tried her best at all times), but I still finished that first year with a ‘D’ average. Then, I went into second year and met an eccentric, but wonderful, English teacher who kept me back one day after class, early in the year, to ask me how on earth I’d gone from ‘D’ grades in first year to ‘A’ grades in his class.

And so I told him I wasn’t doing anything differently, and a light went on behind his eyes, and we became fast friends. I did well that year.

But for my third year – the one with the big exam at the end of it – I met another truly awful teacher, and I was back down the grade-chute again. ‘C’ for this essay. ‘D’ for that assignment. ‘Try harder!’ scribbled all over my pristine homework. I was heartbroken. I’m pretty sure I tried to transfer out of this class, but there was no leeway. I was stuck.

Just before the big examination, students take a ‘mock’ version of it, to prepare themselves. Usually, it happens about this time of year – March, or maybe April. Conditions are exactly the same, including the anonymous marking. I trembled my way into my mock examination, and I tried my absolute hardest, and I waited, horror-stricken, for my results.

When the day came, our teacher stood in front of the classroom with a list of names and grades. He read out everyone’s name, and their grade, sometimes with a word of praise and sometimes – more often – with a sneering remark, and when he got to the end I realised I hadn’t heard my grade.

‘Sir,’ I said, putting up my hand. ‘You missed me.’

‘Oh, yes,’ he said, wrinkling his nose. ‘You.‘ He made a show of flicking through the document again and again, all three pages of it, and after about five minutes of making me sweat in embarrassment, he read out my name, followed by my grade.

‘It was an A,’ he said, looking like he’d swallowed a mouthful of lemon juice. ‘And the highest numerical grade in the class, as a matter of fact. But,’ he continued, staring at me coldly, ‘I wouldn’t let it go to your head.’

I felt a mixture of emotions, then. Elation, that I had done well, and vindication – I wasn’t terrible at English, this subject I loved. And I had proof – final, definitive proof – that the problem wasn’t with my work, but with the teacher. But I also felt humiliation, and a deep, crushing heartache that I had been made to feel so bad about myself, even at a moment when I should have been praised for doing well.

All of this is to say one thing: if this teacher had been the one marking my English examination for my Junior Certificate, I would have received a ‘D’ grade instead of the ‘A’ I eventually got. If I hadn’t received that ‘A’, in an exam many people feel is irrelevant, I wouldn’t have been placed in a higher stream for English for the remainder of my secondary school career. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have met one of the most inspirational teachers I ever had the pleasure to be taught by. I may not have gone to university, and if I had, I may not have studied English Literature.

And, I think, it’s not overstating the case to say that it may have detrimentally affected my whole life.

Anonymous marking is an important part of the secondary school experience in this country. It saves students from being brought down by poor teachers, who may have personal or other reasons to dole out low grades, and it gives students comfort to know their work is being marked on merit, and not on the fact that they threw a tantrum in class the month before and had to do a week’s detention, or whatever the case may be. I think it’s a vital aspect of our education system, and I can’t understand why the government is seeking to dismantle it. Assessing students during the school year, away from the pressure of an examination situation, is a good idea, and something which could be carried out in a ‘class project’ setting, but I definitely feel that an anonymous and fair means of assessment is not something which should be discarded.

I’ll be watching developments in the hope that common sense will prevail.

What sort of school assessment procedures are in place where you live? Do you agree or disagree with the way things are done? Care to share any stories – good or bad! – about the teachers you met on your way through school?

8 thoughts on “The Power of One

  1. Gretta

    Well said Sinead. I have been tring to articulate this for some time. Your personal experience says it all and I’m sure you were not or are not an isolated case. Your blog should be compulsory read in for Minister Jan O’Sullivan.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks, Gretta. The first thing I thought of when the controversy started was this memory I had of my Junior Cert year! It will always remain with me. Thanks for reading the post and I’m glad you think I’m making a reasonable point.

  2. Gretta

    Oops, “read in” should have read “reading”, the joys of having auto text enabled… Don’ know what happened to “trying” …

  3. Kate Wally

    Even with the very best and fairest intentions, it’s difficult to be objective when it’s the responsibility of the teacher to monitor themselves. English can be more complicated too, (well, certainly less black and white than mathematics), because there’s that subjective element to the written word. The part of writing that is ‘art’, the part where writing may contradict your tastes. Here in Australia, internal work (assignments given throughout the year) are generally marked by the teacher while significant grade exams are usually marked externally and anonymously (under student number, not name).

    I believe in anonymous marking. I loved English Studies and as a dedicated and enthusiastic pupil I was well liked by my English teachers – but I think they gave me the grades they wanted me to have rather than the ones I deserved. It took a teacher who didn’t share this affection to tell me my writing’s flaws. Under this new teacher, I lost the opportunity to learn this truth respectfully. I can be more philosophical about it now, but at the time, his harsh, patronising manner and my sudden drop in grades really affected me. A friend in my class excelled on a particular assignment but was told outright he’d only get full marks if he changed his *opinion* to match the teacher’s. At least, with this teacher, I didn’t feel singled out (we were all suffering) and my grades weren’t read out in class!

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      I should have said in my post that this teacher (the one who read out our names and grades) was the only teacher I ever had who did that. Some teachers read out grades, but gave only student numbers so that the person concerned was the only one who knew the grade they’d received; others simply pinned them to a noticeboard, again matching grades with student numbers. Reading out our names was designed, I now know, to upset all of us – but some of the students were better liked by him than others! I’m sorry to hear you had similar-ish experiences, and I think you’re on the money with your suggestion that it’s something specific to English studies, or ‘artsy’ subjects more generally, which are far more subjective and ‘grey’ than things like Maths.

      It’s incredible how much one teacher can affect a person’s life. This teacher, the one I had for my Junior Certificate English, was in many ways the most ‘important’ teacher I ever had; I don’t remember a single thing he taught me in terms of his English classes, but I will never forget the lesson I learned the day he read out my result. He didn’t mean to teach me that I was good at English – but he did, and now, as an adult, I can really appreciate how much it irked him to do so. 🙂

      In my parents’ day, at school, the children of the ‘wealthy’ – i.e. the sons and daughters of the doctor, or the solicitor, or the bank manager, were treated very differently to the children of the farm labourer, or the factory worker. It had nothing to do with intelligence or ability and everything to do with class-ism. Perhaps something of that remains in modern-day Ireland – or, at least, it might have been there twenty years ago, when I was going through secondary school. It’s interesting that you perceived a bias going the other way – i.e. that your teachers liked you, and therefore marked you more easily. I’m sure you were just an excellent student who got the marks she earned (until she met that horrible patronising teacher!), but still. It’s a good point. As well trained and capable as a teacher is, I do believe there’s always a chance for bias – in whatever direction – to creep in if they’re solely responsible for their own assessments and marking. And here endeth the lesson!

      1. susanlanigan

        Yes, I am very conscious of growing up in a privileged class in a small town and how some of the good vibes I experienced might have been unjustly given and unearned. I was the beneficiary of all that. Looking back, I feel guilty, though I know my ability in school was not connected to social class.

      2. SJ O'Hart Post author

        I have a feeling you were an extremely accomplished student, social class or no social class! 🙂 I’m sure there’s no need for you to feel guilt over anything that happened back then, though I know how hard it can be to let go of feelings like that. Strange as it sounds, I’m glad I had the experience with my JC teacher, painful as it was at the time, and as it is to recount it now. It really opened my eyes to a lot of things, not least the realities of the world. I’ve learned a lot more about that in the years since! 🙂

        Thanks for commenting, Susan, and for your thoughtful response.

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