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Letters to a New History Teacher: No. 7

Maintaining the GCSE momentum (or seeing GCSE through their eyes)

The once pristine exercise books are dog eared. The work inside shows progression … from neatness and care to messy scrawl and doodles. The bright eyes seem dulled. Sometime this term my once pert, engaged new Year 10s, eager to get started with their GCSE History, will seem deflated. What have I done? How did I manage to do this?

I’ve been here before so I need to give my second NQT self some pointers. Firstly, try to have a broad perspective. Is every single book – every single student – showing these same characteristics? No. But I’m a teacher and there’s something in me that always focuses on the have nots / will nots / can nots. Ok so I’ve not helped myself yet. Second question: Can I turn this around? Yes! But how?

My old self, NQT 1, found this stage with GCSE classes tough. But thankfully I’ve got a few years on that NQT and I hope the following advice to me as NQT 2 might aid you.

Turning around a new GCSE class who seem dulled and deflated is all about where you are sitting.  Imagine yourself as a 14 year old. For the first time in your education (which feels like an eternity) you’ve been given a choice about what you would like to study. Amazing. Gone are at least some of the subjects you despise (for me, languages – thanks to a French teacher who thought it hilarious to remind the whole class every lesson that “Esther Ar-NOTT very good at French”) For those students who’ve chosen to continue with History can you thus imagine what hope and anticipation was tied up in that choice? And so too with their other choices. So when September arrived for these children there really was a sense of starting afresh and hoping that their choice was the right one.

And then the work began. Oh dear. Real work. Hard work. A lot of it. Because this time exams are involved. Real exams. That will affect your life forever and ever (or so say the assemblies and lectures these children get given endlessly). And suddenly the choice doesn’t feel so sparkly exciting anymore. It feels like a burden. Perhaps they made the wrong choice; that history GCSE text book is very thick (how will I remember it all?). So if you are sitting where those 14 year olds are, GCSE history now seems very big, with an awful lot going on, with not a lot of guidance about which bits really matter. “All of it” isn’t a helpful reply. Hence I’m reminding my NQT 2 self that my students need me to help them learn how to digest this beast that is history. As soon as possible I need to teach them how to study – at the same time as covering the content. If I can help them to process and learn as they go (you might call it ‘revision’ or ‘consolidation’) then they are going to feel a lot less overwhelmed and they’ll stop worrying that they made the wrong decision. I need to have a look at Dale Banham’s material on revision as he has loads of ideas to make it fun and engaging, including a cowboy shoot out!

See BanhamHallGCSE on the SHP website

Secondly, I need to revisit my medium term plan. I’ve been following the department resources carefully, sticking to the plan and our shared approach. But perhaps I need to be brave and say a plan is a plan but I’ve got to think about the 20 individuals (20 x someone’s child) in my class and work out their likes and dislikes. How can I tailor the plan and tweak the lessons to better suit them? If Joanne can’t stand role play I shouldn’t force her to do it because ‘it will be good for her’ (have you ever been force-fed cod liver oil; don’t do the same – metaphorically – to your students). Instead I need to offer pathways or options for what we are doing. If you like X, try doing Y. If you enjoy P perhaps Q will suit you. It’s a type of differentiation (differentiating the how) but with a view to all arriving at a similar destination. Make that seat those Year 10s are sitting in a little more comfy and less like the seat at the front of a comedy club that no one wants.

Thirdly, don’t overdo it. I remember in NQT 1 being very worried that I wasn’t covering enough content and that I would be doing a great disservice to my students if they didn’t know every single fact about the Monkey Trial or Sacco and Vanzetti. But actually, GCSE specifications tell you exactly what you need to cover and the past papers and mark schemes give you more than enough pointers about what exactly you need to cover. So get to grips with them, do some analysis and then work out just how little of that monster GCSE textbook your students actually need! And then, magic of magic, teach them how to select. It’s a bit like a wardrobe: no one wears all of their clothes every day. They choose clothes based on the weather or what they are doing. So too with history. You have a wardrobe of stuff and you only ever need a selection of the things in it to answer a question. Do some exercises whereby you provide 10 fact cards and lots of past questions and see how many questions they can use those fact cards for. The answer will be ‘all of them’ but the children need to see this, visually, to make that perspective of theirs in their chair that bit more welcoming.

Finally, I will say to myself “don’t be afraid NQT 2 to inject some of that brilliant ‘Year 7 style’ fun into GCSE lessons”. Just because they are 14 it doesn’t mean to say they won’t enjoy something akin to Je Suis Le Roi (check it out on  if you haven’t come across it here. In fact Ian Dawson‘s Thinking History website has lots of great suggestions. Don’t just read the GCSE ones or the ones specific only to your topic – read around and let one idea fertilise another). And think creatively: bring the light back into their eyes by getting them tied up with string to show the links in the causes of the American boom, or make them go gaga over play dough to model the terms of the Treaty. I am not proposing we dumb it down, but rather that we help the students to access the demanding nature of our subject via avenues that are tree-lined and sunny, rather than grey and bleak!

So the next time things seem to take a turn for the worse I will go and sit in one of those student’s chairs and think carefully about what it is to be them right now. It’s usually not about you but rather about how to cope with everything that we are expecting a 14 year old to cope with.


Esther’s blog returns after half-term on November 2nd.