This week a post written a while back comparing teachers to priests and urging us not to lose our faith was (re)discovered. Together with this post about monitoring, conversations and a recent glut of blog posts recently examining school’s observation systems, I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest threat to quality pedagogy are the schools and teachers who chase the ‘Outstanding’ tag.
I remember a lesson that I observed once. There was a tricky character or two within the classroom. Indeed, there were a couple of the highest tariff students in the school at the time. There was a little disruption, but everyone had been making progress over time. The lesson was ‘Good’ according to the criteria. I was asked in the feedback, could the lesson have been made Outstanding by removing the child from the classroom. This scared me as it missed the point. It was a ‘no notice’ observation, which does put on the pressure, but I made the point that if that lesson was the typical diet of that class, then I’d rather that then an ‘Outstanding’ lesson during a brief snapshot. The teacher handled the group of young people brilliantly. Throw the child out and this would be lost. The teacher in question wasn’t chasing an Outstanding grade and that’s a good thing.
The thing is, getting that Outstanding tag for a lesson from Ofsted does not necessarily mean that teaching and learning is all OK. A 25 minute snapshot into the quality of teaching can not be used to judge how well the young people in that class are going to do. I consider these to be ‘thin’ Outstanding judgements, it’s the outcomes that matter.
It’s also worrying that a school may wait for the ‘official’ observation (whether it be linked to appraisal or an external visit from the O people) in order to check the quality of teaching and learning. What is more scary, is when there is no follow up to such a visit. Is it assumed that if a teacher’s snapshot is ‘Outstanding’, then everything is alright? I hope not. I would advocate a system where middle leaders are constantly monitoring the quality of lessons within their area, not to judge teachers but to support the learning going on. From experience, people in schools are pants at having those ‘professional’ conversations. You know the ones, where a Head of Department has to voice concerns over something. How often is the left? How often does the ‘self-talk’ mean that the conversation is put off? ‘I’m sure it’s a one off’ you say or ‘I’m sure it’ll get better.’ This is frightening. The problem can escalate where and early intervention would have solved the problem. This is the point: professional conversations do not have to be adversarial. It’s also right that we are held to account. All the time and not a few times a year, or when Ofsted comes in every other year.
By popping in and out of lessons regularly, you get to feel the pulse of the department. You get to celebrate success. For example, a department meeting started recently by the middle leader using a starter they’d seen a colleague doing. It also involved food so happy days! It allows specific comments to be made when praising staff therefore your feel for the department is authentic and valued. It also allows you to pick up small issues early and act upon them. It doesn’t have to be via an email (in fact, I don;t think it should be) and it doesn’t have to be an official meeting. It can just be a professional conversation after school. ‘I was loving the work of Jimmy today, especially as he’s not been in much. I noticed that a few students hadn’t responded during feedback 5……’
Edit – During a windy walk around the local seafront, I’ve decided to add some clarification. This post isn’t about getting rid of the appraisal / judging of teachers ability to teach. When teaching at GCSE it’s possible to balance developing in-depth geographical understanding and a passion for the subject with teaching examination skills. After all, I can;t think of many, if any, tests we take blind. Driving lessons before the driving test. The thing to aim for is the balance. Just so in teaching. We probably should be preparing colleagues for the ‘visit from the ministry’, but it shouldn’t dictate what we do within school to help improve teaching and learning (and therefore outcomes). As a middle leader, we carried on as normal during two whole school inspections. Like it was just a normal day. Which it was for us. Was this achieved through relentless observations of lessons? No. Read this to find out how it was.
This tactic allows a conversation that explores the issue. Yes, the teacher is being held to account, but there’s also an opportunity to support. It helps if your own house is in order. I was told as a fifteen year old Cadet Flight Sargent in the Air Training Corps never to pick on up on flaws in uniform unless mine was flawless.
In addition, getting into lessons and speaking to young people is a good thing. You get to know them and what they need.
How well supported are the middle leaders in your school to have these conversations? Are Heads of Department fully involved in the monitoring of teaching and learning in order to make teaching and learning the best it can be, not to judge and beat teachers with sticks. How many people are chasing the ‘Outstanding’ label instead of focusing on getting the daily, often mundane, aspects of their lessons right?
Do your teachers only turn it on when it counts when they should be doing the right thing when no one is watching? If we are chasing grades, what happens in our classrooms the rest of the time?
I’ll end with something that’s really scary. In one school, once Ofsted had been and gone, a Head of Department was heard to say ‘No need to mark the books anymore.’