I am struck by, over my ten years of teaching, how people struggle to treat the day to day with as much due significance as they do terminal exams and tests.

I read an excellent article (uncited here, as so I often I do) that spoke of how our brains struggle to function with small, unexpected annoyances. Indeed, the larger, more significant events that challenge us are easier to ‘deal’ with mentally: that is, we are able to ‘raise’ ourselves to these challenges (finding a new job; moving house) easier than we do the seemingly less pertinent events that are deemed annoyances (losing a pen; fixing a boiler). This struggle between the significant and the trivial is a spiritual and emotional one, too, and one that our students should encounter on a daily basis.

This struggle resonates with Ron Berger’s assertion that we need to ‘raise the bar of what is acceptable’. Too often for teachers, students and parents (and, of course, all people), what we count as ‘acceptable’ work and effort falls short of what we would be proud. This is not through laziness or incompetence (always). It is through not being able to ‘raise’ ourselves to the standards expected – to not be able to focus and express ourselves to the extent required for a task . Quite simply, the person does not grant the task due diligence or reverence, and completes what might be termed a bare-minimum effort.

Now, a big point must be made here – people need to be able to prioritise and depriortise according to their judgement. If someone places a minimum effort into a seemingly insignificant task (such as replying to a memo, or triple-backing displays) so that they can place more effort, attention and time into a significant task (marking exam work, putting time into a relationship), then that decision needs to theirs – they need that sovereign ability to make that decision.

Such freedom does not always exist in teaching for both the teachers and the students.

Lessons are expected to be attended at the same time each week. Work is split into weekly blocks, and received schemes of work declare a straight line over the messy terrain of learning. For students to truly learn something – to challenge their assumptions, to develop their foundations, and to establish the useful reflective routines that lead to excellence – the teacher needs to somehow normalise ambition.

Normalising ambition does need the support of parents. It also needs a public performance of your ambition: you need to be able to share with others what you have done. In doing so, whatever purpose you deem to be essential to you (and that is a vital, yet unknown, aspect) may very well be ascribed to the work you are doing.

In the way that I am so often prone to do, I have not given explicit examples of this process of normalising ambition.

Normalising Ambitions

Essentially, you need:

– A booklet of personalised rubrics for each student (can be completed on a class-by-class basis based on prior attainment, or targets). More on this later.

– An ‘achieving outstanding progress’ sheet or ‘normalising ambition’ sheet – both terrible names that need judicious addressing!

– A framework of the mechanics of writing, and a framework for the types of literary analysis you expect students to achieve (the threshold concepts in these subjects).

– The planning, and delivering, of DARTs-based lessons where students receive a series of contextualised text extracts to which they can return.

– A way of planning regular ‘normalising ambition’ sessions where student share with others (either via tables, and then to the class) what they have achieved in the previous week, and why.

The process is still not entirely formed in my head. However, the idea that students become more aware of what they are doing, and why, is essential to me. The notion that what we complete and tackle in class is a minimum expectation is what normalises ambition.

While I am pondering this, there is a final step. Each target the student receives expresses a finality that is without full veracity. The ideal targets relate to the likelihood of what that student may achieve given past progress: that 60% of students may achieve a C, whereas 5% of students may achieve an A. To know, with discernible, publicly-valued, and personalised tasks, that you are giving yourself that chance of achieving outstanding result (or, at the very least, creating that ethos) is key.

I should say that none of this is possible without trust, and working photocopiers! These are things that are not to be expected at times – both require maintenance.