Vision is important. Research our team conducted recently found that teachers who were particularly successful in highly challenging schools were those who had a clear vision. So yes, it is important… but it’s also tricky.
Breaking it down, is it simply a long-term aim for a class, encompassing good grades and academic achievement, or is it something broader? Something holistic… Something realistic?
Lawrence is a second year English teacher in East London. At first he was a little sceptical about the idea of a vision, but with encouragement from his Leadership Development Officer he thought about what that vision might be for him. “It seemed obvious that these girls [top set Y11] were going to achieve incredibly well in their GCSEs,” he explained. “But they didn’t really know what they were going to do after that,”
He then implemented a ‘raising aspirations’ angle with them, predicated on all of them indicating an ambition to apply to Russell Group universities by the end of Year 11. In doing so, Lawrence translated his vision from lofty aspiration into concrete, practical strategies that informed everything he did; from classwork to extra-curricular activities to homework.
The Vision – first stage: Russell Group University aspirations
“The students have three articles to analyse in their AQA exam, which they have to interpret and retrieve information from. Every article we practised in class was about Russell Group Universities; the benefits of studying at one and individuals’ experiences of doing so. Some of them are blog entries, humorous diary entries and anecdotes. Others were more informative pieces that looked at statistical interpretation or analysis of what going to a Russell Group University might mean for your later life.” These are two of the articles Lawrence used:
Lawrence arranged three separate masterclass workshops in English. The first was run by a lecturer in romanticism at Queen Mary. She talked to the students about the benefits of studying humanities at A-level and beyond… “It got them thinking about what they might want to do after their A levels and possibly after studying a degree in humanities. Then we had two masterclasses on poetry,” said Lawrence.
The students had lots of different exposures to university-style seminars and lectures. It gave them a taste of what it might be like to study one of those subjects at degree level. “More specifically, it gave them an idea of what it might be like to study at a Russell Group institution.”
The Vision – second stage: a ‘catching of happiness’
Lawrence’s LDO came into the classroom and held a pupil-led focus group. He found that the girls were now articulating what they wanted to do after getting good exam results, especially when it came to applying to Russell Group universities. But something was still amiss… the pupils were talking primarily about academically and financially driven aspirations. Lawrence considered this alongside findings from iKnowMyClass surveys: “Very few of them thought I knew what their hopes and dreams were. Luckily they all agreed that I knew their names! I never wanted them to think of me as a teacher who just regarded them as an exam grade”. He took action and developed a second stage to his vision, designed to get students thinking about what their lives might look like outside the academic arena.
“We did a homework task related to a poem called Born Yesterday
, by Philip Larkin, in which he talks about a ‘catching of happiness’. He says that an ordinary life is the best way to catch happiness, otherwise you set yourself up to fail.” Lawrence then sent his students out with their cameras to catch a moment of happiness. Some took pictures of people in the street (with permission), others brought in snapshots from home. Some just found pictures on the internet. The students then articulated why their images represented happiness to them. “Some really beautiful responses came out of it. Kobe, for instance, talked a lot about travelling and how, for her, happiness is slow internet and 14 hour layovers”.
“My vision ended up being very different from how it started,” said Lawrence. “It quickly became apparent that the girls knew what they wanted to do, but they weren’t necessarily sure what their wider goals were. So, that was the vision.”
What can we aspiring Lawrences learn? Perhaps that ‘vision’ isn’t so intangible after all and that it can fit into all practical aspects of teaching: classwork, extra-curricular activities and homework.