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.
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?