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Writing between the lines

When it comes to writing reports and profiles, sometimes it's hard to phrase what you feel in a positive way, says Linda Thomas. Reports and profiles can be the bane of any teacher's life, especially if they have the privilege of teaching one of those subjects where you see almost all of the school for about 10 minutes a week each.

Different schools have different formats for writing reports. In some you have to write the whole comment from scratch; some have a mixture of tick-boxes and comments; and some have gone the whole way down the IT motorway (with a brief stop at the "Technical Hitch" services) and produce computer-generated reports which require the teacher to choose a comment from a selection available.

Approaches depend on which type of report you are writing, but the general rules are to stick to deadlines and to check reports carefully, otherwise you will find yourself fighting off barrages of heads-of-year and form tutors every time you set foot in the staffroom.

Handwritten reports have the advantage that you can give full vent to your creativity and flair with the English language. You should comment on achievement, strengths and weaknesses, behaviour, attitudes and ways to improve work. As a form tutor, you will also want to mention attendance, punctuality and uniform. Generally speaking, you shouldn't comment on your tutees' performance as a whole as this leaves nothing for the head of year to write and will not facilitate your progression up the pastoral hierarchy.

Try to phrase your report positively (some schools insist on this) although there are some children of whom the only thing about which you can be positive is the fact that they are a pain in the neck. To save you hours of Biro-chewing, here are some examples to get you going: * Johnny is a lively member of the group (never stops talking) * Jeanette is full of energy (has trouble bringing her bum into contact with a chair) * Simon needs to work on his organisational skills (has no idea what day of the week it is) * Sally is enthusiastic about oral work (chews constantly) * James has an individual approach to the subject (is completely loopy) * Claire has a wide range of outside interests (boys, the whole of Year 11) * Michael has attended lessons. He now needs to concentrate on . . . (hasn't lifted a pen since September) * Jody has a tightly knit group of friends (part of a street gang) * Steven is a bit of a loner (has a serious BO problem) * Mary has made a valiant effort to come to terms with the demands of the course (is thicker than two short planks).

Get the general idea?

I would strongly recommend that you decide exactly what you want to write about each child and check spellings of favourite words (commitment, diligent, responsible) before you start to write anything, especially if there is more than one comment on each sheet. Having to tell another member of staff they have to redo half their reports because you missed an "l" out of "syllabus" is not a comfortable experience! Check each report when finished as well.

If you are an English teacher this is imperative to the nth degree, as there is bound to be one teacher in the year team who considers it hisher main aim in life (sad as it may seem) to prove that their standards of grammar and punctuation are better even than the professionals'. If there is a PE teacher whose goal-keeping you beat in the last staff social sports, bear in mind that there is a score waiting to be settled.

Comments banks may seem at first to be a much easier way of doing things. Advantages are that all the comments are there and to link together so that you need never worry about writer's block or dodgy grammar.

All you have to do is match the comment to the student. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done and you may have to rely on the blandest comment and hope that seeing Mum and Dad on Parents evening will help you be more specific. (Be careful, as comments can also read "I don't know who - or even what - your child is" and, while this may be true, it's definitely not what parents want to hear.)

Depending on how you organise your comment selections, the sheets themselves may be quicker to fill in than the handwritten reports.

Often you will be completing "optical mark read" sheets (OMRs). For these, you need to equip yourself with an HB pencil, a ruler to make sure you get the right column and a spare pair of eyes: the boxes you need to fill in are very, very tiny.

I think it's a good idea to make a grid of your chosen comments in your mark book and then copy them onto the OMR. This may seem time-consuming but it will make checking the printouts immensely quicker, especially if you are given a printout of the grid.

Read through the printed reports again, There are two reasons for this: you may discover an error that sticks out a mile in prose but which was imperceptible on the grids; and you may find that although a mistake has been made, it doesn't detract from the report and may even add to it (I know of an English teacher who found that for some bizarre reason the machine had churned out her reports with textiles comments. They worked as well as the English ones so she left them!). Check very carefully as reprints may be needed.

You may have to sign reports, as apparently this makes them more personal. Sign them quickly.

By the time all the reports have been checked and corrections made, the whole process is invariably behind schedule (OMR machines are the prima donnas of the computer world) and the issue date, closely tied to a parents evening looming.

Finally they're over and done leaving you with newly liberated evenings. Now's the time to open a large bottle of wine and wait for the next lot to drop onto your lap.

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