Could Do Better…?

School reports: two words that resonate in the hearts and minds of adults and children alike. Many of us look back ruefully on those seasonal pithy phrases, bland expressions or, occasionally, those perceptive dissections of who we were when we were young.

As a father and as a school head I find myself on every imaginable side of this topic. The professional educator in me sees the need for regular written feedback to parents about how effectively their child has learnt and what they need to do to improve. The father in me is eager to read such feedback written about my son so that I can understand his challenges and celebrate his successes at the end of the school year.

But the ‘seasoned school leader’ side of me looks to the reports season with very mixed feelings.

Literally hundreds of hours of drafting, writing, checking, redrafting and rechecking go into preparing end of year reports. A complex logistical operation worthy of the Normandy Landings seems to be needed so that grammatically accurate reports that say something meaningful eventually find their way into parents’ hands. Why is it so difficult? In my 12 years as a school head I have lost count of the number of bizarre comments, nonsensical expressions and downright blandness that have come across my desk purporting to be reports written by educational professionals. Seriously. And it is does not seem to be getting any better, no matter how much time or effort we put into the process of writing school reports.

There are plenty of teachers who do not fall into this characterisation I know. Yet they are unfortunately dragged down by the processes needed to remediate the poor standard of reporting of a great many of their colleagues.

So, here is the advice I would like to give to those teachers around the world who each year find themselves as authors of reports that – let’s admit it – you would never accept if they were written about your child:

Dear colleague,

First of all thank you for your reports which I have just finished reading. There are a few observations I would like to make before you go back to them to make a few necessary amendments.

  1. You are viewed by the community as an educational professional. That brings with it the not unreasonable expectation that you are able to write in English with accuracy and fluency.
  2. You went to university. Presumably whilst there you had to write with some measure of intelligence and persuasive ability.
  3. You trained as a teacher. I would therefore imagine that you developed the skills necessary to make insightful observations about student learning.
  4. The students are not strangers to you. They have each been with you for over 30 weeks this year. They have each turned in work, you have seen it, assessed it and given them feedback.
  5. Finally, you are receiving a salary. Not enough to retire on I admit, but nonetheless it is a salary paid to a professional for a professional service.

These five points considered, how am I supposed to react when I read reports like the ones you submitted, that are littered with basic errors? How do I reconcile those five points with the copy and paste, bland, unsupported statements that I have just spent two hours reading? After a year spent with these children have you so little to say about each of them that you have to resort to meaningless platitudes and empty phrases?

On the other end of each report you have written is a child. They each have names, hopes, and dreams. They have invested so much in the year that has passed and most of them have tried incredibly hard to do all that has been asked of them. Those that haven’t are no less deserving of a well written, individual report that speaks to them as individuals who are known, cared for and who have value in the world.

I appreciate that what I have written may come across as passionate and perhaps a little harsh. Yet behind each word, each criticism, lies a litany of annual examples that collectively underscore the need for things to change.

I am looking to you to be that change, for you to be that teacher whose reports children remember when they are adults – but for the right reasons. Be the teacher who speaks to the heart, who conveys that intimate knowledge of each child, whose reports say, “Yes, I know you”.

Can you please be that teacher?”

To all those teachers out there who do spend hours making sure that your reports are a highlight of each child’s year, thank you. Thank you for your dedication, your diligence and your commitment to the importance of what and how you write about the children in your care. It is hard work I know, and behind every perceptive, detailed, individualised and inspirational report lies a year of personalised commitment to the relationships that you have worked so hard to build.

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