There are times when it feels like my students are battling against an education system that’s designed to catch them out. It is particularly frustrating when you see talented students ace every lesson but fall apart in exams – their wise words and arguments reduced to misreading of questions and over-simplistic answers as panic engulfs them.
My faith in the system was restored recently when an ex-student, Molly*, popped in to see me. She was not only incredibly hard-working, she was also one of those students who lit up a teacher’s day – always smiling, always enthusiastic, full of interesting questions. I didn't teach her until sixth form, but she always said hello and shone during geography field trips. Her hard work for her GCSEs paid off and she did particularly well in her controlled assessments, leading to a raft of high grades.
During her first year in sixth form, Molly chose to study the three sciences for A-level. She was encouraged to do this as her GCSE grades were strong, but I was concerned they wouldn't allow Molly to achieve the heights she could reach in other areas. Despite her hard work, Molly struggled in her end-of-unit exams. Following disappointing AS results she restarted her A-level studies, continuing with one science and picking up two new level 3 courses in geography and ICT.
Some students would be down-hearted at starting again and joining younger students, others would be resentful, but Molly was determined to maintain her good humour and to succeed in her studies. She was an excellent role model for the younger sixth formers, particularly in terms of organisation and work ethic. It was my pleasure to teach her.
As the ICT course was assessed through coursework, her ability, organisation and dedication led to a distinction. But I was disappointed with her grade in geography. A closer look at the mark breakdown showed that she had misread an essay question and only scored 2/40 for it, leading to a U for that paper. I was terribly worried that she might have missed gaining a place at university.
This wasn’t the case though and, several years ago, I wished her well, hoping she would thrive at university. A couple of months ago she visited me in school to let me know what she had been up to. Having done her research into universities carefully she had chosen one where assessment was weighted towards research and essays rather than exams, meaning that she did really well and secured herself a 2:1.
She then progressed to a Master’s degree, self-funding this by returning home each holiday to work long hours at a local pool. Her ability to bring together complex concepts and analyse their potential impact – along with her high level of organisation – helped her to produce hazard analysis documents for organisations, such as councils. And now she is about to embark upon a PhD which will take her to New Zealand and Greece to study the impact of tectonic hazards.
When Molly dropped into school I asked her to have a word with a year 7 class about her experiences and research. Her eyes lit up and she addressed the students with passion. I was overwhelmed with pride to see the teenager who had struggled, now as a confident young woman making a difference in the world – it isn't an exaggeration to say that her work will save lives.
When I heard Prof Iain Stewart speak about tectonic hazards at the Geological Society in 2015 he stressed the need for scientists who not only understand tectonic processes, but are able to communicate the risks involved to people living in hazardous areas; she fits this description precisely.
When Molly visits my classes to speak about her research I am sure she will inspire the students, and I truly hope that their individual talents and abilities will be recognised and valued and that they will be also be able to navigate through the system to achieve their goals, returning later to share their stories and make me smile.
* All names have been changed.
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