My 'bottom set' year 7s


Instilling a sense of belief in your students can sometimes be a challenge. Our NQT diarist explains some recent successes she has achieved with one of her classes.

Do you have a vision? Or, more specifically, do you have a vision for your class? Yes, it may sound cheesy, but as a Teach First NQT I was encouraged early in the year to develop a “vision”, a set of goals, a picture in my mind’s eye, for what I wanted to achieve with my class throughout the academic year.

Given that we have passed our half-way juncture, now seems like a perfect time to reflect on my progress in turning my vision into reality. Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you my “bottom set” year 7s.

My bottom set year 7s are a mixed bunch; mixed in ability, attitude, and confidence. They are a group of fantastically bright, lovely girls who, for one reason or another, have ended up in the dire situation of feeling that they are the bottom of the rung, that they are not good at mathematics, that mathematics is something they “can’t do”.

This is where I come in. How can I turn things around for these girls? I decided early on that my vision needed to be multi-faceted. On an academic level I want my pupils to make their expected levels of progress, but there was so much more that needed to be achieved.

Emotionally, I needed to increase the girls’ confidence in their own abilities. Confidence is at the heart of being able to push yourself to try things when the going gets tough.

Socially, I needed to develop the girls’ collaborative skills and equip them with the tools to support each other in their learning; too often pupils who are insecure about a subject will critique another pupil as soon as they get something wrong as a mask for their own worries and fears. I needed to develop a sense of community within our maths classroom; pupils needed to feel that they could share their answers without the fear of mistakes being judged by their peers.

I needed to increase the girls’ personal aspirations and goals; these needed to be clear and set high. The girls needed to believe for themselves that they were on the route to success. In sharing my belief that there is no such thing as a “bottom set”, that it is willingness to push yourself and work hard that will define what you achieve, I hoped the girls would see that if they strived to go the extra mile there was no reason we should not cover the same topics as the “top set”.

So, how best to judge our success in achieving my vision? There have definitely been ups and downs in our journey. Today, a group work lesson built around a series of short, problem-solving and functional maths tasks, helped shed some light for me on how far my girls had come.

After some initial disgruntlement from a couple of them at finding out their groups, the pupils really began to shine. The class was buzzing, pupils were on board and the result seemed to be that not only did they work well together, but they were getting the answers correct too. What have I learned from this? First, it supports my feelings that an emphasis on soft skills is definitely a key element in enabling our pupils to fulfil their potential. 

Second, I strongly believe that all pupils want to achieve. The ones who say they don’t either don’t believe they have the capacity to, or aren’t willing to let you know they believe it, in case they are proved wrong. 

I guess it is our job to create classroom environment where the pupils tell each other themselves that they can achieve, and, once that is in place, we just have to try and equip them with the academic knowledge and understanding to get there.

  • Our NQT diarist this year writes anonymously and is a teacher of maths from a south London secondary.


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