I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about being coached to improve my body language!
You get what you give. I once gave my colleague Zoë Parker a poster of the first Clash album. When she left for Australia she bought me this poster in return. Brecht’s gaze now arrests everyone entering my office.


How do you move from good to truly great? As @HuntingEnglish has discussed, this autumn, as part of our drive to improve teaching even further, we have launched a three-year coaching programme whereby six times a year we work in designated coaching trios on the elements of our practice we want to develop as individuals.
I keep on working at being a better teacher. My post back in March, about my dismay at the lesson observation feedback I was given, highlighted my questioning technique and how I subliminally used hand gestures to help students to the right answer. It’s been bugging me ever since and at times I’ve been reduced to perching upon a stool in lessons so that I can sit on my hands to control them as I teach. I took our coaching trios initiative as a chance to focus explicitly upon my use of body language when I teach.
Video technology has come a long way since the static VHS at the back of the class room. I remember setting up a VHS recorder on top of the filing cabinet over a decade ago and filming myself teach. The only thing I remember is how I had a tendency to walk up and down the room with my hands palms-down on my backside! Bizarre stuff. Now I have to get over the middle-aged, grey-haired, slightly portly imposter with the Jimmy Hill chin who happens to be me. The two videos I’ve produced have taken no time to create using an Iris-Connect camera to film and Windows Movie Maker to edit.
The element of performance in your teaching is important. In this first video I am asking (on reflection, in a quite ham-fisted way) AS Economics students to shape possible examination questions from a case study on the housing market. My coach/mentor is a newly qualified drama teacher and in our first session she enabled me to watch my body language and listen to my tone of voice in a fully conscious state. I could see that I appeared wearily grumpy and came over as a bit intolerant. I think if anyone told me I was moody I’d refute it, but I am, I guess, and there it was on screen, as we watched the first video. And the drama teacher background of my coach/mentor was pure genius serendipity; she suggested in mentor mode that I should act a bit more, modulate my voice so that I sound more positive, and stop pointing at people! The video hit me hard; I’m not sure how I could have developed my confidence if I’d been taught by me.
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Teaching is inextricably linked to the teacher as a person like few other professions. In my defence this was a pre-OFSTED inspection lesson, period 3 on a Wednesday, the very hour the call could have come… I may have been a bit impatient, but I do love this class, honest!
Keeping focused on the small developmental area of your practice between coaching sessions requires real discipline. In the second video we concluded that I had made some progress, but I am still a bit away from perfecting my body language and tone of voice. I am giving some feedback to the same class about an essay on subsidies. The point I am making is that subsidies given to producers don’t directly reduce the price of goods, they enable the producers to increase production of the goods and it is that increase in supply of the goods which then results in a reduction in price – it is a subtle but important difference.
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Laughter is important. There were three moments which amused us when I was being coached. The first one is where I wake Harry up from his trance without missing a beat (59s). The next was the moment when I repeat my June lesson observation habit of using my hand gesture to guide the student to the right answer (2m 49s). And lastly the nano-second when my whole body says out loud, For goodness’ sake I can’t believe that you don’t get it! (3m 17.5s). I also think it’s funny how, as price falls, I begin to topple over (4m 58s).
I’ve been reflecting upon teaching second subjects. I think there is something in the fact that when I teach English I have two decades of experience in explaining complex things clearly to students who find those things difficult; I have yet to establish my range of strategies for explicating Economic complexities and I don’t yet understand why students can’t get it, because it seems so simple to me.
My coach/mentor used our introduction to coaching in our latest coaching conversation. She is learning to use coaching questions as I am learning to reflect upon my practice.
I could quite easily have entitled this blogThis much I know about…the importance of a teacher’s body language/questioning/clarity of exposition. The more times I watch the videos the more things I notice need improving! In the second video, amongst many improvements I could have made,  I needed to plan my questions in more detail. I should have begun with just the one supply curve, then gone to the shortage, then the second supply curve; that would have obviated the need to erase the first additional supply curve when I was in full retreat and it would have made my exposition and questioning easier to follow.
Working on marginal elements of your teaching requires fully conscious effort. Doug Lemov cites Joshua Foer from the latter’s study of memory, Moonwalking with Einstein: The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practising…to force oneself to stay out of autopilot. Lemov goes on to say, The process of intentionally implementing feedback is likely to keep people in a practice state of increased consciousness and thus steeper improvement. Working on my coaching feedback has taken enormous effort. If developing practice is not privileged within a school it is very hard to engage teachers in meaningful development of their own teaching. We have all at some time or another intended to work on the feedback given to us about our teaching, but, as Lemov says, we end up losing sight of it amidst the wreckage of our tasks list. Or perhaps we try it briefly and tell ourselves we have made enough progress, or that the feedback wouldn’t really work.  And even if improving teaching is an explicit school-wide priority, it helps if the Headteacher presents a convincing case for all of us to improve our teaching just to win over (as far as you can) the hardened sceptics. As @HuntingEnglish pointed out in his post I cited earlier, you also need to change operational structures so that you give explicit time to teachers to develop their teaching: you can’t just wish teachers to be better.
Endnote: I have been captivated by Veronica Weusten’s book The Talented Teacher, recently recommended to me by @realdcameron. I think it is delightful and true and confirms for me my heartfelt belief that, fundamentally, students need to feel loved; get a copy if you can!
Click here to find out more about The Talented Teacher:

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This post has 18 Comments

  1. I love this John. It’s so brave to put yourself out there for us all too see.. love the grumpy first clip! And the Harry hand wave is classic! I want more posts like this. Real lessons! Honest evaluation.

  2. Another timely post as I’ve been talking to the Head at the school where I’ve just become a governor about introducing video for CPD, having heard about it from a couple of schools I’m working with. It’s great to now have something I can share from a colleague Head that demonstrates the benefits first-hand – and it’s so important that you’re also involved personally in the coaching, “walking the talk.” Thanks for sharing, John, much appreciated.

  3. Great post, John.
    Does the coaching/using the IRIS technology help you to acknowledge what you’re GOOD at, too? I see the importance of building on strengths at the same time as acting on what you consider to be your weaknesses (though you may not want to talk about your strengths!) I think with less confident practitioners, unless the coaching encourages them to reflect on what they are doing well, too, they may find it hard to develop a balanced picture of their performance.

    1. We are very very clear that focusing upon what you do well is a recommended way forward. Switch by the Heath bros is good on this…find the bright spots!

  4. You have me considering how I can do better in my classroom. Thanks for the inspiration. 🙂

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