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‘Teachers should trust their gut more’

Data is all very well but gut instinct is also a crucial quality in an educator, argues this secondary teacher

‘Teachers should trust their gut more’

It’s right to be accountable. It’s right for a parent to see the scores their child achieved in your subject. But we are so bogged down in these figures and these processes that we sometimes forget about that other vital ingredient in teaching: gut feeling.

“Professional judgement” may be its Sunday name, but this technical term boils down to those decisions we make based on our experience and our knowledge of a child’s circumstances, and a whole host of other factors.

We do expect an audit trail of evidence to show why a child is moving up a level. Evidence is needed, especially with many schools experiencing full-to-the-brim classes across the levels as a result of fewer teachers and more pupils in their schools. A move up a level for one pupil often means a move down for another pupil, in set or streamed subjects at least.

For this reason, we do tend to rely on some sort of evidence-based approach for a pupil being moved – but there are also times when we think beyond the data.

By chance, this week, I had one parent of a former pupil and one former pupil come up to me and thank me for their maths experience. Both students had something in common – I had recommended their increase in level despite the data saying they were no more advanced than their peers. Hard work, parental support, a drive to do better, turning up for study support – these were all factors, but there was also something else, less easy to quantify, that just made them seem ready to move up a level. A few years later, those two pupils are now adults and that gut feeling, that professional judgement, has had a lasting impact on their lives.

While we know there are debates around setting and top sets, streaming and other educational models, we live in the world where we must produce testing. Pupils who are capable of achieving National 5 (broadly equivalent to a good GCSE in England) need more content knowledge than those sitting National 4. I come from a mathematician viewpoint, and acknowledge that some other subjects may differ in this respect. For that reason, getting pupils in the right level, at the right time, is vital.

What impact does that have on my teaching? Did I finish this week with a warm and fuzzy glow? No, I spent a fair bit of time pondering how many pupils I have failed by not trusting my gut. That is a scary thought: that an unquantifiable quality, divined – or not – by instinct, can change the lives of our pupils.

Eddie White is a maths teacher in East Lothian

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