As GCSE results day approaches, it has brought back some painful memories of results day 2015. I couldn’t go into school that day owing to another commitment. But this results day was important. I had become the head of department of a small history department in a high performing school in 2013, at the age of 28, and results had gone 60 per cent A*-C (2013) and 63 per cent (2014). I’d predicted 69 per cent in 2015.
When I received the statutory “results email” at about 9am on that morning, I was on the train to Liverpool and my heart hit the floor – 60 per cent A*-C. The results had gone backwards.
I had worked out (or thought I had) that the worst-case scenario, based on the students in the cohort and all the incredible effort we, as a department, had put in, was an A*-C no lower than about 64 per cent, so at least that would still represent an upward trend, however marginal. On predicted grades I had inputted for the school and delivered to my bosses, I’d hedged at 69. I was wrong.
To say I was devastated by this at the time would be an understatement. I was inconsolable. My head dropped. My friend I was with at the time became a blur. My world fell apart. What would my headteacher think? What would the other staff think? How would we measure against other schools? More than that, does this mean I’m not a good teacher? Does this mean I’m not cut out to be a head of department?
For the next week or so, I was in a terrible mood. At the time, this mirrored events in my personal life, which I won’t go into here but let’s just say: it was not the best end to any summer.
My emotions were a mixture of sadness, anger and frustration. Most of it came down to how hard I’d worked. The endless late nights, the endless revision sessions and interventions, the 7am crammer sessions on the days of the exams, the meetings with parents and none of that is counting the teaching itself; the planning, the marking. And all these over two long years where I had sacrificed so much. For what? A kick in the teeth?
I looked for someone to blame: the kids? The parents? The school? My colleagues? But in the end, I couldn’t get away from blaming myself – full on. Whatever mitigating factors I could come up with, and I couldn’t come up with many; I had failed. I was not the leader, teacher or person I thought I was. Or at least that’s what I felt then.
Unlike in most jobs, where a bad day can be rectified the day after, these results would stay with me, hung like a noose around my neck for another year at least.
Funnily enough, I knew that the cohort arriving into Year 11 were an amazing group of students who were destined to do exceptionally well. But back then, it was like staring up the mountain and wondering how in the hell I was going to climb out of it. With my performance management targets linked to results, I guessed that regardless of the esteem with which I was held, there was no way I could pass.
Now, when I arrived on inset in September, my line manager said nothing about it. When I approached my head, he brushed it off and told me to relax; this was reassuring. But he could have told me anything and it wouldn’t have mattered. I knew the truth according to the system.
Anyway, fast forward to the summer of 2016, one year later, and how I feel now is markedly different.
For a start, I decided to leave teaching that Christmas for a variety of reasons detailed here. I went through a period of introspection and analysis, as I always do. I realised a number of things. First of all, the results weren’t the “disaster” I had convinced myself they were.
Secondly, how I reacted was a symptom of myself rather than the situation itself. Third, the students sat the exam – not me, something I had forgotten in the whirlwind of the exam season. And finally, there were many success stories within that “60 per cent” to remember. Yes – it was a disappointing set of results, but that’s where it should have ended. I should have been able to compartmentalise.
But when you care that much, I found it simply impossible to do that at the time. I feel more confident that I will be able to do it in the future.
More than all that, I also considered the wider context around me as head of department. I had spent five years previous to my appointment into this role at a school that I loved with some considerable success.
In 2012, the position of head of department came up in that school. I didn’t go for it. Why? Because I had convinced myself I shouldn’t stay in the same school for too long. I had become overly ambitious.
Becoming a head of department was a huge challenge. I excelled in some aspects but struggled in others.
Fundamentally, I still felt like a classroom teacher. Most of my efforts were still going into what happened within my own classroom. The other stuff, I just struggled to “get into” in the same way, especially the data management.
I also found it hard to know how to “manage” and “lead”. I made plenty of mistakes. So, if the results had been awesome in 2015, would I have overlooked all of this and just carried on?
These results punched me in the face and made me reassess myself. It turns out I’m now starting a new head of department role at a British school in Spain. I’m really looking forward to it. I have learnt so much in the last few years about myself, teaching, leadership and management. I want to put these lessons into practise. Above all, I’ve understood the necessity to be true to myself. I took a step up and pushed myself to the limits. It didn’t work out. But I’m stronger for it.
My advice to all teachers this coming results day is: whatever the results are, good or bad, remember it’s the students who sit the exam in the end. When people ask you about your results, respond with “the students did really well” or “the students didn’t do too well”. Avoid personalising things, like I did. Avoid the word “I” wherever possible. That isn’t about negating responsibility, it’s about seeing the bigger picture and understanding your context.
My other advice would be to sit down and write down the names of ten students who achieved something special, for whatever reason. Perhaps look up their photographs on your management information system, remind yourself what the result will mean for them. Don’t forget them in your misery. Did you receive any thank-you cards from students before the summer? Or even ones from before that? Dig them out. Re-read them. Notice the lack of reference to results. Remind yourself of the relationships you have developed with the students – it matters. A lot.
Finally, turn to a senior colleague that you trust for advice, guidance and reassurance. Try to arrange a meet up with them before September or a chat over the phone. Aim to establish a sense of perspective from the conversation and be very clear you are struggling to manage your emotions.
When school restarts, and this is the really difficult one; avoid comparing yourself to others. Their time will come to feel like you do. It’s an inevitable reality of a long career in educational leadership (in this country, at least). Eventually, they will cry in the car like John Tomsett did. Hopefully they will come out the other side, like you will.
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Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets at @RogersHistory