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The coursework season panic

the coursework panic season - teacher and musician

It happens.  You’ve been putting your heart and soul into your teaching all year and then you look at the calendar, see that it’s May and all you can think about is coursework that still isn’t up to scratch.  Worse still, some kids haven’t even handed in any of these controlled assessments.  It’s easy to get stressed in this situation, so I’ve listed my top five tips for dealing with the stress of coursework panic season.

1. Know the facts on the ground

No doubt, you are quite aware of the problems needing to be resolved but, with all the pressure that now surrounds you, it’s very easy for something to get missed.  This will only result in a second panic when you realise what that is.  Take some time (an admittedly rare commodity) to list everything that needs to get done and rate its importance.  A pupil targeted an A* but currently achieving an A is less of a priority than a child you know is capable of a B but is currently on an F.

Create a simple document, spreadsheet, list, collection of post-its, anything.  Just have a clear list of what needs doing and its importance.

2. Call in help

The feeling of guilt during a coursework panic can result in hermit-syndrome.  You feel that it’s your mess and you’ll get out of it yourself.  The reality, however, is that our modern accountability structure will ensure that the results impact on the whole music department regardless of who was teaching the exam classes.  Call in help, you’ll be glad you did.

If you have other music teachers in your department, ask them for help.  If you’re the HoD, this is easy enough and you can reward staff in the days/weeks after the deadline.  If you’re not the HoD, offer to pay back the favour by covering another music teacher’s break duty or doing some marking for them (when it’s all over, that is!).

If you’re one of the many music teachers in a single-person department, do you have peris who could help?  Could you bring in a volunteer?  It’s even worth going to your line manager and explaining the situation – results carry big currency in schools.  Could SLT arrange for some of your lessons to be covered?  Are there meetings you could be excused from?  ‘Blame-the-teacher cultures’ can make it nerve-racking to reveal the problem you’re facing but a difficult conversation with SLT now is much better than the consequences of poor results in August.

3. Delegate the biggest problem

This one probably feels counter-intuitive since your biggest problem involves the most work.  You may feel guilty delegating it, you may be embarrassed by the size of the problem or you may just want to take ownership of it.  There’s a very long list of reasons to keep this problem as your own.  Stop for a second and see it from the perspective of the person you’re delegating to.

Your biggest problem is easy for someone else to understand.  If a child has to work through the majority of his/her coursework, then it’s actually quite a simple matter – batten down the hatches and get it done.  You can explain this problem to someone quickly, they’ll understand it and will be able to draw upon their own skills and experience to steer the child to success.

The rest of your problems are probably quite small but require more detailed knowledge of each child’s work.  You’ve gained that knowledge over the duration of the course but it would require both time and effort to communicate this to someone else.  If you focus on these comparatively ‘quick-win’ situations, then you can achieve a lot in a relatively short space of time.  You’re also not distracted from these small but important tasks by the magnitude of the biggest problem because you can be secure in the knowledge that it’s been delegated.

In short, delegating a large problem will mean that the ‘delegatee’ can take more ownership of it.  They’ll come to you with fewer questions and it allows you to utilise your knowledge of the class.

4. Divide lessons into three ‘zones’

During the run-up to the coursework deadline, you’re likely to have pupils at three different stages:

  1. All coursework and paperwork complete
  2. All coursework complete but paperwork pending
  3. Some coursework and paperwork pending

In your Year 11 lessons, divide your class into three zones to suit these different stages:

Zone 1: Independent revision zone
Zone 2: Paperwork zone
Zone 3: Intervention zone

Resource these areas well.  In Zone 1, have revision guides, past papers and worksheets.  Make the most of resources in your cupboards but also grab resources from TES and other online sources.  Take solace in John Hattie’s claim that ‘everything works’ when it comes to teaching and give your pupils access to everything.  Don’t panic about curating the best materials out there – give them what they need.

Zone 2 should have piles of blank Candidate Record Forms, logbooks and any other paperwork that pupils need to complete.  Have step-by-step guides telling pupils how to fill them in.  The time you spend creating this guide will be more than paid back by the reduced questions you get from pupils, allowing you to focus on more pressing matters.

You will spend most of the lesson in Zone 3, keeping pupils on task and providing the appropriate amount of guidance.  When a Zone 3 pupil finishes their work, move them to Zone 2 and you’ll feel a huge sense of relief when they finally move into Zone 1.  The moment all pupils are in Zone 1, you know that the only thing left to do is your paperwork (and the marking/grading that this involves).

5. Know when to stop

Knowing when to stop is vital.  First of all, you need to have a cut-off time for each day.  Don’t work into the early hours of the morning or you’ll be so tired that you start to miss things.  Keep to a good routine for sleep, work and ‘you time’.  You still need to relax to function at your best and, when the pressure is on, you really do need to be at your best.

Also have a clear idea in your mind for when it’s time to stop pushing for better work.  You have to mark and grade the work, complete the necessary paperwork and then get it to your exams officer.  You need time to do this, so take it.

Finally: Celebrate

When the coursework is all packaged up and in the hands of your exams officer (yes, it will happen!), take the time to celebrate.  You need to pay back favours and prepare your class for the exam but you’ve completed a monumental task.  Take the time to smile about your success and send me a tweet (@johnskelleher) for a virtual pat on the back!  Maybe we could start a hashtag?  #musicCAdone?

You can reflect on what got you to this stage later but now is the time to reward yourself for the sheer hard work that went into the last few days/weeks/months/years.  Enjoy it.