This much I know about…how all of us will improve our teaching (and so make our school a truly great school)

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 how all of us will improve our teaching (and so make our school a truly great school).

If we worried too much about the chaos of the English state education system right now we’d weep openly. It’s laugh or cry time and it’s important that we laugh – take things seriously, but laugh whilst seizing the opportunity that we have at this point in time to do what we want, as long as it works. So, we should all work tirelessly upon improving our teaching – something over which we have complete control.

Always ask yourself if what you are doing has lost its mojo. As I have become more experienced I have become, paradoxically, less sure about lots of things! For the past 10 years I have organised a weekend away for the SLT to work on strategy, but this year I changed the Planning Weekend process. Instead of spending the weekend struggling with an issue and then returning heroically to present our strategic future to a half-interested audience, I presented the key paper for the Planning Weekend to the whole staff before we went away.

Adapt; I’ve been reading Tim Harford’s book. His argument which prompted me to rethink our strategic processes is encapsulated in this sentence: Whether we like it or not, trial and error is a tremendously powerful process for solving problems in a complex world, while expert leadership is not. 

How we will become a truly great school. This was the title of the paper I gave to colleagues to reflect upon. It was a statement of intent, not a question: my argument claimed that the only way we will become a truly great school is for all of us to improve our teaching. The paper finished with a challenge for all my colleagues: 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. As David Lammy says, You can push and prod people into something better than mediocrity, but you have to encourage excellence.

Headteachers need to trust their colleagues more than ever; my colleagues responded to my challenge with 10,000 words of suggestions for how we might create the conditions for all of us to improve our teaching. That meant that the Planning Weekend was spent paring down our colleagues’ proposals rather than formulating a way forward based solely upon the thinking of my SLT colleagues.

Ownership is all. When I fed back the outcomes of our Planning Weekend ruminations I identified the colleague(s) who advocated each individual strategy. The reception from the staff has been more positive than I could have imagined. As one colleague texted to me: Analyse the training day that outlines the next 3 years…our ideas, managed/facilitated by us, in time given to us – not too shabby, is it?!

Always, always, always explain Why? When I feedback the Planning Weekend outcomes, I spend most of my time explaining why we are making proposals. If you cannot explain Why? then you must stop what you’re doing.

Coherence is all. None of our proposals is extraordinary; they are, however, wholly coherent.

Change your structures to accommodate your core purpose. Before I detail the new proposals below, it’s important to realise that three years ago we changed the school day on alternate Mondays so that we gained an extra hour of time to meet. That hour was combined with the weekly meeting hour to give us two hours of CPD every fortnight on a Monday – in addition to our statutory five training days – where we can collaborate on teaching and learning. These fortnightly CPD sessions are called Subject-based Outstanding Learning Communities (SOLCs), or when we meet as a whole staff they are called simply Outstanding Learning Communities (OLCs). With that in mind, here’s what we’re going to do:

1. Establish a Teaching and Learning team comprising highly talented teacher-coaches; advocate(s): Jenny P.

What?

  • We will recruit a team of up to six teacher-coaches, paid a flat rate sum of £4,000 p.a. for two years and given minimal non-contact time, who will comprise the engine room for leading all staff on the development of teaching across the school; the desire to keep our best teachers teaching explains why the flat rate sum is relatively high whilst the non-contact time is minimal.
  • The T&L team will have a variety of roles, including: to coach colleagues who need support to move from Requiring Improvement to Good or Good to Truly Great; to co-lead training days on T&L; to lead our drive to be a T&L Research and Development centre working with the Institute of Effective Education.
  • The teacher-coaches would be responsible for developing pedagogic practice across the school and would be meaningfully involved in shaping future strategic T&L developments.
  • It is also important that the teacher-coaches are not SLT Performance Development reviewers as there would be an irreconcilable conflict in undertaking both roles.
  • There will be some imperative for colleagues whose Performance Development lesson observations are judged Requiring Improvement to work with a teacher-coach to improve their teaching.

Why?

  • We have to grow great teachers. Our best teachers need to be at the centre of our drive to be a truly great school. John Hattie’s comments at the London Festival of Education are driving this thinking. He said that, 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?

2. Establish a school-wide coaching strategy where every teacher will be involved in coaching to become truly great teachers; advocate(s): Music Dept./Helen D.

What?

  • The Coaching programme will comprise 36 pre-determined cross-departmental coaching trios, whereby groups of three teachers will co-plan and coach each other on aspects of practice which they want to focus upon developing.
  • The July 2013 training day will be dedicated to setting up the programme and training colleagues in the art of coaching and of using the Iris technology (see below).
  • This Coaching Programme will replace the OLCs programme and will comprise 7 sessions a year, one every half-term.
  • There will be a requirement of each trio to contribute to a Research & Development blog recording how their teaching has developed as part of the coaching programme.

Why?

  • There is an irrefutable case for all of us to become better teachers. In two years’ time we want 60% of our teachers to be classed as truly great and 40% as at least good. We are only going to achieve that goal if we provide systematic support for colleagues to improve their teaching.

3. We will invest in the most sophisticated lesson observation video technology – the IRIS Connect system; advocate(s): Nigel C.

What?

  • We are going to subscribe to the IRIS scheme whereby individual teachers are able to use a highly sophisticated camera to video their lessons. The recordings are stored in an on-line library, personal to the individual teacher. Only when the teacher is ready to share recordings of his/her lessons with someone who is coaching them, will they do so – up to that point the recordings are for the teacher’s eyes only, password protected. There are other benefits to the technology, including: remote observations where the observer watches the lesson and can control the camera from another room; and hi- tech playback facilities.
  • Ultimately, we will develop a bank of videos which demonstrate the very best practice in our classrooms.

Why?

  • The use of high quality video technology which is under the control of the teacher will help us remove the threat inherent in lesson observations so that we can focus on classroom practice.
  • The evidence of positive impact on developing classroom practice from schools that have been using Iris is compelling. Coaching will be much more effective as both coach and coachee will be able to watch the lesson together and will not have to remember what occurred. The Iris technology will also mean people do not have to observe lessons in real time in order to engage in coaching during S/OLC time.

4. Encourage more personalised use of SOLC time; advocate(s): Garry L.

What?

  • We will encourage Subject Leaders to focus even more clearly upon developing pedagogy in SOLCs. If, for instance, the first hour of a SOLC is for all members of the department then the second half might see the SL coaching a colleague whilst other members of the department are working collaboratively or individually on aspects of their teaching.
  • Under such arrangements, colleagues will spend the last 15 minutes of the SOLC contributing to the subject area’s Development Blog where colleagues can share their ideas and reflections on effective teaching.

Why?

  • One of the general trends clear in the suggestions from colleagues as to how we can all improve our teaching was the increased personalisation of CPD. This proposal to reshape SOLCs comes with an explicit obligation for individual colleagues to take responsibility for their own professional development.

5. Develop 360o student appraisals; advocate(s): Claire Y./Karl E.

What?

  • On a purely voluntary basis individual teachers can ask students for a 360o appraisal.
  • We will set up the system electronically and the feedback will be the property of the individual teacher who can choose to share the feedback with a teacher-coach, if they so choose, in order to discuss the feedback and reflect upon how it might inform their future development.

Why?

  • Students experience a greater variety of teaching than anyone else in school. They know the features of an effective teacher and can provide valuable feedback to colleagues about what has the most impact on learning.
  • If colleagues feel thick-skinned enough the 360o student appraisal could prove helpful in developing classroom practice!

High quality training matters as much as coherence. On the training day last week, after I had fed back to colleagues about the Planning Weekend we had Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) working with colleagues on questioning techniques and  Zoe Elder (@FullonLearning) supporting Subject Leaders on developing their coaching techniques. It was truly great – the evaluation forms said as much…

Sweat the detail, Brailsford-style. We have just embarked upon six weeks of consultation where we will ensure our implementation plan is thorough, clear and achieveable.

The final word goes to Tim Hardford: The ability to adapt requires a sense of security, and inner-confidence that the cost of failure is a cost we will be able to bear. Sometimes that takes real courage…whatever its source, we need that willingness to risk failure. Without it, we will never truly succeed.

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
This entry was posted in School Leadership, Teaching and Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to This much I know about…how all of us will improve our teaching (and so make our school a truly great school)

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  3. Great post John. I see elements of these in many schools I work in, but never where they all join up. Coherence is the key. Thanks for sharing

  4. Eddie Carron says:

    Some inspirational stuff here. I am somewhat older than the OP and was a headteacher for a good deal longer. My interests now are sharply focused on literacy but more particularly on illiteracy. I believe that more rigorous teaching in the early years would resolve most of the negative issues in schools but that we are unlikely to achieve this in less than two decades. In the meatime, I know that perceptual learning can save those who have been abandoned by ritual teaching.
    The upgraded video demonstrating this is at http://youtu.be/d-wlbCFVzto
    An epilogue by three beneficiaries of perceptual learning has been added to the earlier version.

  5. Tim Kelly says:

    I really agree with much of what you say here. In some other work I came across the following:
    “By three methods we may learn wisdom:
    First, by reflection, which is noblest
    Second, by imitation, which is easiest
    and third by experience, which is the bitterest.’
    (Confucius )

    It sort of fits with what you are saying. Outstanding organisations encourage their people to try out new things and learn from the experience, leaving ‘command and control’ behind. In reference to one of your actions, I managed a small project in a NE college where they made very successful use of IRIS, where specilist subject coaches were trained to support and mentor teachers in need of improvement with those judged outstanding allowing their work to be viewed as excellent practice. Best used in conjunction with staff review and staff development planning to ensure needs are met. Coaching is an excellent way forward.

  6. Great, honest post John. I love the fact you used your staff at the start of your journey rather than the end – they became producers rather than consumers.
    On the Pupil feedback, I have used this to great success in my own school, using a system called backchannelling. Two pupils sit at the back of the class and ‘narrate’ their views and reflections in real time as the lesson goes on. Some of the most honest, but useful feedback I have ever had and well worth it for the brave teacher. Worth a try.

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  13. Marie-Claire Keddie says:

    Hi John. Just discovered your blog! Fantastic advice? Hope we can out it to good use in the 6th Form College where I am now teaching. Hope all well at Huntington. Best wishes. Marie-Claire Keddie

  14. Sorry…should read ‘Fantastic advice!…distracted by Germany’s 5th goal!

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