Agony Aunt: Attention, marking, promotion...

Nic Ponsford

Nicole is the digital leader of @WomenEd, leader of @WomenEd_Tech and founder of @gendercharter. Previously, she was an award-winning AST in Media and New Technologies. Nicole is passionate about gender equality being the ‘new normal’.

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In the 1989 time-travel classic Back to The Future, the vision of 2015 saw re-lacing Nike sneakers (which would help many EY teachers), flying cars (petrol or battery run?) and hoverboards (which would definitely be my mode of corridor-transport).

As the regular Agony Aunt for IMS, teachers have written to me (thank you) asking how 2015 can be a better year - for you and your students. My role here is to help change the future, your future. You can see me as your own personal ‘Doc’ Emmett Brown, and this feature as the DeLorean. I have a wealth information and advice, practical and solution-focused shortcuts, based on my own ‘McFly’ years (both in the classroom and from the outside).

So. Here we go - let’s hit 88mph.


Emmanuel Nzeaka: “How can I ensure the absolute attention of my class?"

Nicole replies...

Absolutely? If you want to get all of their attention (and you don’t have a hoverboard), the long-term strategy would be to find out what makes an interesting lesson for each and every one of them. How do you personalise their learning, make them feel engaged? I would have a whole group discussion and then allow them to complete surveys on what engages them. What do they already like about your lessons? What don’t they? Then talk it through with them. They’ll feel that they have a ‘voice’ in your classroom.

Cut down on distractions. Rather than being a ‘prison guard’ and demanding their attention, look at what distracts instead. Take away anything they do not need. Ask students to put pens down / turn monitors off / turn over keyboards and “look at me” when addressing them. They can put hands on their heads and even stand (if they are prone to chair-tipping). All books should be in the centre of the tables when they are not needed.

Register This: Shave-and-a-haircut. Not literally - unless you are a bit of a mess. This is seen clearly in the Roger Rabbit sketch here, when the need to complete the two-bit riff is illustrated by the great rabbit himself. This also works on students! Instead of ‘calling’ for attention with your voice, an alternative can be to knock the table to this - and wait until all of the students respond. They love it, and it will keep you sane too.

Secondary Maths HOD (anonymous): “How can I make my marking load easier?

Nicole replies...

After over a decade as a Secondary English teacher, I have learnt a range of shortcuts and tips regarding marking. I did mention a few apps that help with Maths quizzes in this Guardian article, but I know this doesn’t help those with non-guesstimate answer grids. As an A Level examiner and moderator for OCR for many years, I have had to really organise my marking - and know my (marking) strengths. Hopefully this will help you too.

Pick Up The Pace. Speed-reading great skill when it comes to 6-weekly piles of essays. If you have not taught yourself how to speed-read or skim - do. This will save you time and energy when it comes to marking. Here are a few tips for speed reading.

Break It Down. Say you have 32 three-page handwritten essays to mark. Consider it takes three-four minutes per student to mark. This is then approximately two-three essays every 10 minutes or so. You may find that you can mark three in a row and then need a break. This means you can do ’10 minute’ blocks throughout a day, rather than all of the books in one sitting. This suits me, as I can give it my full attention for a specific amount of time, rather than dedicating a whole evening to it.

Dead Mice. Bear with me on this one. This is more about how you set the work you mark. When I was training, a LT member told me this cautionary tale. A ‘Dead Mouse’ is when students give you assessed work which is akin to a cat bringing you a “dead mouse” as a present. The ‘cat’ is excited and feel that you will be too by a rather ropey product. You don’t share their enthusiasm. Both parties are mortified.

This taught me, early on, that the work I set needed to have a tight focus / be solely based upon what I wanted to see expressed - albeit it a writing technique, fact checking or evidence of learning. The writing / production / piece was not to display a range of things - just one or two specific outcomes. This resulted in work with some life in it.

Another tip is to set time / length targets. An inspired cat might write for an hour at home, or pen several A4 pages, but if you are only looking for a few elements, they can achieve the same within a few paragraphs. It might be that you read it all 80 pages of it, but only mark two paragraphs.

Anonymous middle management teacher: “How do I get promoted?”

Nicole replies...

I get asked this A LOT. As a teacher (NQT+1), I was the head of a large A Level department that I set up from scratch. I then continued to climb the ladder quickly to SLT - in several schools. Here are a few tips - following a lot of lessons learnt...

Look for Opportunities. Part of the issue in some schools is that all of the LT posts seem full. Some Leadership Team members look like they have embedded themselves in the role (and room) - rightly or wrongly. So what do you do if there is no room for promotion? Create a role; investigate what the school needs to do next, then propose you fill this role. Look at recent reports or where the school needs to inject something new in terms of progress, attainment, access or aspiration. Go online, speak to people in the staff room. Speak to the students and parents. What is your school lacking, and what could you provide? It might be shaking up extra curricular activities, transitions, or alternative curriculums. Then research it. See how other schools work and what impact this area has had on them. See where there is a budget and a need - then create a proposal. Include what you need to do it, you can then negotiate with your head from there.

Think of Your CV. If you know the path you want and have a position in mind, it can be useful to work on your CV in advance. Know you want to be a deputy head leading curriculum development? Then ask to work with the examiners, the data-Excel-geek and subject leads. Want to be an assistant head or subject lead? Look at what other whole school projects or events you can lead. Look at where you can show you have managed a budget, organised a whole-school activity day or worked with teachers outside of your school. All of these examples will evidence that you can not only be promoted, but that you have already done parts of the role.

Next time:

“How do I set up a blog? (Primary teachers - subject leads)” and “How can I engage better with parents? (schools)”.

Get in touch with editor James Cain at if you have questions for Nicole. 

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