The events in this article are based on actual occurrences. The names and, in some instances, the genders of individuals have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy.
He walked into my room not really knowing what to expect. It was half-way through lunchtime and I had asked him to meet with me to discuss his grades in Chemistry.
David was an infamous Year 10 (15-year-old) student at our school. He had somewhat of an undisputed reputation for being ‘lazy’: not really caring about his studies, being untidy in his classwork and generally under-performing in tests and assessments.
I wanted to talk with David because I’d noticed a decrease in his grades on two end-of-unit assessments. He’d taken a cognitive test at the beginning of the academic year to determine his predicted grade: a C. However, on his first assessment he achieved a grade D, and on his second he dropped down to a grade E.
At this stage most teachers would have simply recorded the grades, reported to parents (e.g. in the school’s scheduled reporting cycle or at a parent-consultation afternoon), and just left it at that. After all, David was under-performing across the board; so there wasn’t really any pressure for me to ‘fix’ things, right? Almost all of his other teachers were reporting the same kinds of problems. If they were having trouble with him, then it was normal for me to experience those same problems.
I had an issue with seeing the situation this way, however. It bugged me that my default mindset was to ‘give up’ on David because this was ‘who he is’. I just didn’t like it. I tried to fix things:
“Hi David. Thank you for coming. This is just going to be a quick chat because I don’t want to take up too much of your time. Tell me: why do you think I’ve asked to see you today?”
“Err, because I’m doing badly in Chemistry.”
“I wouldn’t quite put it that way, but I do want to talk with you about your grades, yes.”
“Do you remember what grade you got on your first test this year?”
“Yeah, a grade D I think.”
“That’s right, and a grade E on your latest test. Now, tell me: do you think these grades really reflect the best you can can get?”
“That’s correct, David. The answer is ‘no’. I know that you can do much, much better than this. I have seen your strengths in Chemistry, especially during that titration experiment we did. Do you remember that?”
“You got some great results in that didn’t you?”
“So. I’ve seen how good you can be. I also know about your cool project in D.T. – Mr Reynolds told me about it.”
“Yes, and I went to see it too. It’s a fine piece of work, David.”
“So, how can we solve this, David. What do we need to do to get you a better grade in Chemistry?”
“I need to study harder.”
“Yes, David. Study more frequently for these tests. What resources can you use to help you?”
“My book, the notes on Google Classroom. my textbook.”
“Yes, David, and you know that you can always come and see me for help, don’t you?”
“Good man. You must get a grade C on your next test in 4 weeks time. That’s your target, okay?”
“I believe in you, David. I know you can do this!”
I shake David’s hand as though we’d concluded a business negotiation. Wheels have been set in motion.
This conversation empowers David in a number of ways:
I draw upon his genuine success in D.T. and his good work in the Chemistry experiment. This kind of knowledge is called ‘Professional Intelligence‘ and is crucial for engaging our students on a deep, emotional level (which is where the real change needs to take place).
I give David a specific target to achieve. This focuses his mind on where to go next. I’ll have to reinforce this target over the next four weeks, as his next test approaches.
I tell David that I believe in him and, because I do actually believe in him, my tone of voice conveys that I’m telling the truth and not just making it up.
David is prompted to state the resources he can use to help his revision. This makes our conversation more memorable for him, and I assure him that he can always come and see me for help – this final part portrays me as an approachable, helpful person who’s not angry with David – just concerned about him.
Of course, this conversation is not where my influence ends. We have a whole four weeks until David’s next test, so it’s important for me to reinforce my message and my belief in him as the four weeks proceed:
Almost every time we have a Chemistry class together, I walk over to David’s desk and utter a few quiet words to him: “How’s the revision for the next test going?”, “Don’t forget to come and see me if you need help with your revision”, “I’ve uploaded some great resources onto Google Classroom that you can use for your revision”, etc.
When I see him around school (e.g. if I’m on duty or walking around the corridors, or at the canteen), I take the time to have quick chats with him. I ask him how he’s doing. I pass on any good news I’ve heard from other teachers (one of the Four Rules of Praise).
I constantly remind David that he’s going to get a good score in this next test. I remind him of his grade C target. I remind him that I believe in him.
I look especially hard for positives to praise in our lessons. The smallest piece of progress in homework or classwork; anything that’s good. I want him to feel empowered.
This process: of paying close attention to a student and reinforcing our belief in them and their targets for the future, is aptly named ‘Subtle Reinforcement‘: we subtly reinforce the student’s sense of self-worth and purpose.
The test day comes and David scores 68% – a grade C (and two marks away from a B).
This is not a fairly-tale. It’s a real story, and I’ve had many experiences like this during my teaching career. These experiences have led me to come to a significant conclusion: that teachers can effectively engineer the progress they want to see in their students.
This means that we actually have tremendous power over how our students fare at school. It’s a shame that few realise this power.
T.I.P.S. : A four-step method to engineer progress
Step 1: Track progress. Look for patterns in grades. Keep a spreadsheet of scores.
Step 2: Intervene when grades slip. Have a short conversation with the student in which you use……..
Step 3: Professional Intelligence: Gather and use knowledge about the students’ past achievements, achievements in other subject areas and skills used outside of school to praise the student and remind him/her of the ability that he/she naturally possesses. Talk with other teachers to gather this intelligence if needs be. Couple this with…..
Step 4: Subtle Reinforcement: Be on-the-ball and remind your student regularly what his/her target is. Introduce new resources and offer your time to help. Remind him/her about a test that’s coming up and how you believe in their ability to get a good score. Praise small steps of progress along the way, or any positive work in your subject area.