The many faces of success

By Yvonne Mason.

Yvonne Mason is an historian and freelance English and History teacher and tutor. Having gained a B.A in English Language and Literature, she later gained an M.A in Medieval Studies from Royal Holloway, University of London. In 2001, she established her own practice as a tutor of English and History which has grown into a successful online teaching business delivering KS3, IGCSE and A level courses to home educated students both in the UK and abroad. In addition, she tutors English and History with Wolsey Hall Home Education College and teaches History with Dreaming Spires Home Learning whilst also home educating her own daughter. Yvonne writes……..

What do you view as success?

As a tutor and teacher, I think that success comes in many different shapes and sizes and I’ve been pondering this over the last week as I look for the successes in my teaching experience. In academic terms, some people would automatically gravitate towards exam results and we in the UK, in recent weeks, have just had the results of the delayed A levels, IGCSE’s and other qualifications taken in the Autumn. But exam results can be misleading in terms of success. It’s obvious that gaining a grade A* (or its current UK equivalent – grade 9) is a success and, to many, a C would be less so. But what if that C, for that particular student, is a miracle? Several times, during my career as an English and History teacher and tutor, I have taught students for whom English was a real struggle and it took a huge amount of time and effort to gain the grade C they were targeting. In that case, the grade C they did indeed gain was a monumental success and one which we celebrated with as much joy and enthusiasm as other students who gained higher grades. When judging the level of success behind an exam grade, we have to take the back story into account and not judge the book by its cover. As a result, I am never ashamed to report the lower grades gained by my students along with the higher ones.

However, there is far more to ‘success’ in my every day experience of teaching and I’m sure that my colleagues would agree. What about the English student who has gone from writing three sentences in his or her homework to writing a whole paragraph, after weeks of building their confidence? Or a student who finally gets how to write a full sentence, or writes a poem and discovers how to play with words? I like to get my students researching around a given topic outside of lessons and then discussing it in our secure forum and it is a joy when they report back that they have watched several documentaries or done, as one reported yesterday, ‘hours of reading’ so they come into class having soaked themselves in our current History topic. I call this success (especially when their family reports back about the long debates raging around the dinner table!).

Furthermore, there are the students who, for whatever reason, join a class feeling broken or anxious, or who have been bullied, and then start to relax and take part as they sense they are in a safe place; the student who has taken no part in class discussions via even just the chatboard for several months and then, one day, up pops a response to a question, followed by another, and another as they decide they CAN! Or the student who struggles with having a reciprocal conversation with others who is now speaking enthusiastically and fluently in lessons.

Then there is the student who finds the confidence to say something on mic in an online lesson (for whom this may be a huge thing!). And there are also the memorable lessons – such as geeking out together with my IGCSE English students as we listened to, and began to study Amanda Gorman’s wonderful performance of ‘The Hill We Climb’. Sometimes, just sharing a favourite text, or poem and seeing the ‘Wow’ and other similar comments on the chatboard is a success, or seeing the comments from students inspired to live a life of wonder in small ways after watching a TED talk from explorer Kari Herbert, making that IGCSE Anthology piece something more than just a collection of writing techniques to learn for an exam.

And what about the group of students from one of my History classes who decided, by themselves, to set up a Discord group in order to further discuss and study the History topics we are doing in class? (History teacher jumps around and celebrates – they’re getting the wonder of History!!)

Some could accuse me of blowing my own trumpet here, but that’s not my intention. On a daily basis, many of these small and large successes are not directly, intentionally provoked or sought by me, but seem to ‘happen’ and I just stand back and watch in awe. I think that, for many of us in the teaching profession and for all those amazing home educating parents out there, it’s about creating the right ‘soil’ for these successes to grow in spontaneously.

And yes, there are the failures and the bad days too, make no mistake – it’s not all plain sailing. There are things that don’t work, or students for whom my style, or syllabus choices don’t fit (and that’s fine, because everyone is different) or for whom other interventions and methods of learning are needed; and the improvements I need to make in what I do. But, overall, what keeps me going is being aware of the successes, especially the tiny ones, that happen in my working life and keep me going.

So whatever you are doing today, especially if you are a teaching colleague, or a home educating parent, or the parent of a child home from school during lockdown, I encourage you to look for the success happening around you, in ALL its forms, as you facilitate learning in your child or students, and let that carry you and strengthen you through this day and, as you get to the end of it, ask yourself, ‘What did success look like for me today?’. You might just be surprised!

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