I have been a teacher of English for 24 years, a Headteacher for 9 years and, at the age of 48, this much I know about why all of us must improve our teaching.
For the past month, since I last blogged, I have been thinking about how to develop our school so that it is a truly great school. I set myself the challenge of motivating colleagues to embrace change just when things look pretty damn good, which was derived from Charles Handy’s observation that, The paradox of success, that what got you where you are, won’t keep you where you are, is a hard lesson to learn. Consequently, for the last month I have been trying to articulate the case for all of us to improve our teaching. What follows repeats some of what I have blogged already, steals from things I’ve read, but is, fundamentally, really simple; as Jonah Lehrer says in his book Imagine, the answer to any problem is incredibly obvious…we curse ourselves for not seeing it sooner. It’s for my colleagues, but it could be for any school, anywhere.
Like Autolycus, I am a snapper up of unconsidered trifles. These three snippets have been important in shaping my argument about why all of us must improve our teaching…
Dylan Wiliam, in his keynote speech at the SSAT Conference in December said, Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.
John Hattie at the London Festival of Education in December said, We are the first to deny our expertise as teachers and it is killing us as a profession; where is the Royal College of teachers?
Matt Bebbington cites coach John Wooden of the UCLA Bruins who says, Perform at your best when your best is required. Your best is required every day.


If we are honest, we have always known that only at least good teaching is good enough for our students.
I take it as a given that every single one of us wants to become a better teacher; indeed, to become a truly great school we will all need to become better teachers, every single one of us. I am not asking us to work harder in terms of volume of work, but to work harder at becoming better at what we do in the classroom. I am asking every single one of us to be at least a good teacher and the majority of us to be great teachers.
For some of us who have been teaching a long time improving our practice will be difficult – according to Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain all teachers slow their development, and most actually stop improving, after two or three years in the classroom.  But continuous professional development means that we have to reflect upon our practice regularly and systematically. An E-note teacher-blogger wrote recently, Professionalism to me means always being willing to re-evaluate your practices when things don’t go well. It also means being willing to learn from others. Of all the excellent teachers that I’ve seen over the years, the best shared a common trait: they always thought they could do better, and they always thought their colleagues, even first year colleagues, could teach them something worthwhile. This encapsulates why CPD has to be central to the job of teacher; we must commit to continuous professional development in the true sense of that phrase.
The flip side of Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain’s observation is that there are many long-serving teachers at our school who deliver no-frills good lessons, lesson after lesson, day after day. What they do is ingrained in their professional practice so deeply that they would struggle to explain why they are so effective. A challenge for us is to engage with these seasoned practitioners so that they can surface what it is special about their pedagogy; if we can do this, then those teachers can contribute to developing younger colleagues.
In order to stay focused on professional development we need to stop worrying about things we cannot control and concentrate upon what we can do something about – our own practice. The only way to become a truly great school is through each one of us taking responsibility for improving the quality of our teaching. We need to break the glass ceiling which surrounds great teaching so that we all aspire to it and see it as achievable. We need to foster a growth culture which is founded upon the belief that all of us can improve.
For teachers to believe in a growth culture for themselves is difficult, however; it is difficult because teaching is seemingly inextricably linked with our personality. To accept that there is a flaw in our classroom practice can feel like admitting there is something wrong with us as a person.
David Hopkins describes the debilitating link between personality and practice as The Elephant in the Classroom and bases much of his thinking around this on the ideas of Richard Elmore of Harvard University, who says, Confusing people and practice is deeply rooted in the culture of schools, and it is especially resilient because it resides in the beliefs and the language of school people. We speak of ‘gifted’ or ‘natural’ teachers, for example, without ever thinking about the implications of that language for how people improve their practice. If practice is a gift that falls out of the sky onto people, then the likelihood that we will improve our practice at any scale is minimal. There are only so many sunbeams to go around, and there aren’t enough for everyone.
What we must do is be open to the observation of our practice in order to develop it, and ensure we challenge the practice and not the individual teacher. We must recognise the difference between practice and personality. The challenge is to expand our repertoires and take on new skills. In other words, support colleagues as they take risks to improve their own classroom practice.
The other barrier to colleagues opening themselves up to improving their practice is accountability, but as professionals accountability is something we have to accept – as long as we know what is expected then we can eradicate the fear inherent in any accountability system. I want to work in a no-surprises culture. I want to catch colleagues do good things and praise them, not catch them out. Simon Warburton’s latest blog is very good on this crucial mind-set for school leaders http://wp.me/p2YCaB-2g. There have to be judgements made about the quality of teaching; we need to accept that and begin to weave our redesigned Performance Development process into our broader continuous professional development systems.
It is essential that all SLT are respected practitioners who, if not great, are at least consistently good teachers. We have to have an open invitation to colleagues to come to watch the SLT teach.
The best way to make coaching, mentoring and lesson observations developmental is to focus on the impact of specific elements of our practice upon student learning rather than obsessing with any judgement grade. If we accept that we can all improve, then the judgement grade becomes less important and improving our practice becomes the main focus of development work. Dylan Wiliam calls this Supportive Accountability:
DW slide
And let’s not be naïve about OFSTED – it’ll be OK, as long as we are teaching well and that good teaching is resulting in students learning and making good academic progress.  We can and must finally accept that there is no one formula for great teaching, a view heartily endorsed by Michael Wilshaw when he said to the RSA, We need to celebrate diversity, ingenuity and imagination in the way that we teach. Surely this is common sense when every child is different; every class is different, and every year group is different. One size rarely fits all. Surely this adage must apply to teaching as it does to most things in life.
Finally, then, I think becoming a better teacher requires the individual teacher to have three key dispositions. First s/he needs talent; I say it here – every single teacher in this school has talent. Next s/he needs to be open to learning – if s/he does not genuinely think s/he has more to learn about his/her practice then s/he will not move beyond having talent. Then s/he needs to have the will to be a great teacher, the determination to be the best s/he can be. As William Faulkner said, Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.
If each one of us has those three dispositions, and I believe we do, then we will become a truly great school because all our teaching will be at least good and our students will make greater progress than at present; but we are not going to improve our teaching by willing it to happen – we need a systematic structural change to realise our vision of becoming a truly great school. If we are all going to become better teachers so that all lessons at our school are at least good, the challenge for us, working collectively, is to identify the structural change(s) which will create the conditions for all of us to be better teachers. That will be the subject of my next blog…

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This post has 30 Comments

  1. Very, very interesting John. If you contact me back with your private or school email address I will send you a paper which I have just written for my colleagues. I can’t publish it as it contains school data.

  2. Thank you John,
    This post has some great insights: everyone must improve their teaching to become at least good and at best great, because everyone can improve; let’s stay focused on what we can control, not what we can’t; the mindset of good teachers is to be open to learning, improving and becoming the best they can be.
    I’ve been thinking about other questions that this raises, that my new blog (http://pragmaticreform.wordpress.com/about/) is looking to address: what makes good teaching? what distinguishes great teaching from good teaching? and what kind of school leadership enables good teachers become great? I’ll be posting on these questions in the coming months.
    But I just have one question for now that I’d love to get your thoughts on. You quote Dylan Wiliam – ‘we need to focus on the things that make a difference to students’ – and you say we need to ‘focus on the impact of specific elements of our practice upon student learning’; my question is, in your experience, what specific teaching practices make the biggest impact on student learning? Perhaps this could be another blog post?
    Thanks, Joe

    1. Hi Joe. I think the quality of feedback, questioning, direct instruction, and teacher/student expectations are amongst the most specific teaching practices which make the biggest impact on student learning.

  3. “The best way to make coaching, mentoring and lesson observations developmental is to focus on the impact of specific elements of our practice upon student learning rather than obsessing with any judgement grade.”
    It always amazes me that we seem to readily accept Dylan William’s assertion that giving students grades slows their progress down in learning by getting them to foreground the importance of the former at the expense of focus on the latter, but we don’t think about the same effect on teachers. Perhaps as teachers we are our own worst enemies, and having been brought up in a system which emphasised grade over learning, we are ourselves obsessed with our teaching grade. I guess the present OFSTED accountability systems only reinforce this. However, I would love to see a developmental observation system that said “Actually, we (observer and observed) are not interested in the grade, and won’t be talking about it at all. We need to focus on improving the practice, no matter how good it is”.
    I’d be really interested to know if any school has done this, and how staff reacted. I fear this may be too radical a move for some, but in the long term, surely this is a step towards creating the culture you’re talking about?
    Great blog once again. Thought-provoking as ever.

  4. A great encapsulation of a school’s priorities. Thank you for taking the time to put it together. A great blog.

  5. What evidence do you actually have that teachers don’t reflect on their practice and strive to improve their work?
    Teachers are by far the most valuable asset a school has: they need to be cherished. This is all too often forgotten, ignored or at the very least goes unrecognised by managers.

  6. Thank you for this blog. I enjoyed reading it and recognise and agree with many of your assertions. However, I wonder how much of this issue is about becoming better organised / better at collaborating and sharing effectively rather than being a better teacher per se? The vast majority of teachers I know can teach a good or better lesson when they have the time and energy to plan effectively. Unfortunately, from my experience, most planning, excluding observed lessons, is done on the hoof. Not because teachers don’t care or because they are lazy, but due to an overwhelming work load.
    A number of points raised in the Guardian’s Secret Teacher article chime with me (http://www.guardian.co.uk/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2012/dec/01/outstanding-lessons-daily-impossible-secret-teacher)
    What I find most unfortunate is that our egg-box school structures make it very difficult for colleagues to genuinely collaborate and share workload. Added pressure of accountability has, in my view, divided the profession up further.
    It seems rather absurd that the whole country is following a common national curriculum and yet many individual teachers are breaking their necks to plan and teach in relative isolation. In my opinion, better school structures and CPD models needs to be put in place that allow all teachers to develop their practice in a united and supportive way.

    1. We have a fortnightly 2 hour CPD session for joint planning, achieved by changing the school day and teaching a little less. It really works!

  7. Thank you for putting this together so well. I used to work in the NHS where there was a culture of striving for improvement, not because we were getting it wrong, but as an opportunity for doing it better. We shouldn’t feel threatened by striving for improvement but applauded for it.

  8. Thank you, John. You have pulled together so many strands so effectively. I hope to make use of some of them with the teachers at my school.

  9. John
    Thank you – I always find your blog posts extremely refreshing and thought-provoking. But becoming better practioneers it seems to me is only half the story to becoming great teachers. What often gets missed it seems to me is the lack of emphasis on fostering imagination, which requires space, time and stimulus. Teachers are both artisans and artists, and both sides need to be fostered, otherwise we will just become excellent, soulless technicians.

  10. Hi John,
    I’m a beginning teacher and your reflections are very insightful. I just read an article by Marc Prensky (of digital natives/immigrants fame) about incorporating ICT in the classroom in powerful vs trivial ways. You can follow me on Twitter @imagewrite and see my retweet to find the link. It recommends we ask our students to find new ways of using technology in every assignment we give them. I think imaginative ways of incorporating ICT that truly demand a workout of the higher-order thinking skills is an area that all teachers can work on to improve their practice and equip students to navigate the challenges of 21st century working and living. I’m also writing a blog on http://plethorum.edublogs.org/

  11. Great thought provoking blog, there are many things that make for effective CPD the need for it to be a continuous process is key so that teacher development can take place in classrooms and with peers…not just on one off INSET days or training sessions!

  12. Thank you for this wonderful, inspiring, insightful, thought-provoking blog. It has reaffirmed many views I already had, and given me food for thought in other places.

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