What keeps me awake at night - When sense loses out to sensitivity

Tes Editorial

What's wrong with being honest? Writing comments on pupils' work is now an advanced test of one's ability to mask the truth. In the past, comments were robust. "Pathetic" written in large red letters in the margin was deemed constructive criticism and "rubbish" was not considered an attack on pupils' right to express themselves.

These days, it is expected that pupils should be protected from honest appraisal. Their sensitivity is fostered from an early age. A Year 6 teacher tells me that she now marks using a pink pen and a green pen. The pink pen refers to "in the pink" and is for praise. The green pen has nothing to do with the colour of her face as she reads the work; it is a reference to nature and "growth". Thus, presumably, each piece is helpfully marked with suitable horticultural references, such as "weed out spelling mistakes" or "long sentences need pruning", but not with remarks relating to manure, however apt they may be.

As an English teacher, I worry more than some of my colleagues about what I write. My pupils frequently express quite private ideas, and realistic comment on style is easily perceived as personal criticism by the more sensitive. Writing on an essay "I've no idea what you're saying" would incur the wrath of the pupil, his parents, my head of department, the headteacher and anyone else who happened to be passing at the time. (It would, of course, be quite permissible for the head to make that comment about my work, and I would have to nurse my wounded soul on my own.)

Class discussion is also difficult. I was once analysing a text with a class. All went well until one girl's comment showed complete misunderstanding. The strain of devising a tactful response must have shown on my face, as a boy at the back yelled helpfully, "Go on, Miss, just say that's crap!"

Sometimes this approach could surely work. A colleague tells how, in her first university essay, she made the stylistic error of saying "I think ... ". When her essay was returned, scribbled in the margin were the words "And who the hell are you?" She never repeated that mistake and neither did she have an existential crisis and need counselling.

Of course we should not be unkind to pupils. We should consider our comments carefully. After all, teachers are also a sensitive lot and do not respond well to pointed remarks by those in whose hands our future lies. But just as pupils know that "unusual idea - give evidence" really means "ridiculous point - you could never prove it", so we too know the code. "Satisfactory" on our work means "not good enough", and "good" means "must work harder if you want to get anywhere".

The writer is an English teacher who until recently worked in an FE college in Essex. To tell us what keeps you awake at night, email david.marley@tes.co.uk.

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