I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about…why we should never grade individual lessons again!
What is the Headteacher’s single most important responsibility? If you read the first four adverts for Headships in this week’s TES online Jobs section you’d think it was to gain an Outstanding OFSTED judgement:
- This appointment represents a great opportunity for the right person to build on what has been achieved and to lead our committed and talented staff in pursuit of the school’s ambition to be nothing less than outstanding.
- The Governors wish to appoint a committed Christian to lead our successful school, to sustain our inclusive Christian ethos and take us from ‘Good’ to ‘Outstanding’.
- Due to the planned retirement of our Headteacher, the Governors, Staff and children are looking for an inspirational, visionary leader, with the ambition to drive our school from good to outstanding.
- Building on our current success, we want our new Headteacher to take our school from Good to Outstanding.
I thought the Headteacher’s single most important responsibility was to grow great teachers.
Growing great teachers is a tricky business. Zoe Elder first alerted me to this excerpt from a speech by Dylan Wiliam in which he explains, with some wit, just how difficult it is to teach. If you missed it first time, here it is; if you did see it, it’s worth watching again…
We can all be better teachers. My paper, How we will develop into a truly great school was acknowledged by colleagues such as Sir David Carter and IOE Director Chris Husbands as a well-articulated, persuasive argument for all teachers to engage in developing their classroom practice, no matter how well they may teach currently. I thought it was pretty good too, but it didn’t win over many of my colleagues’ hearts and minds. The reason for my paper’s failure was the Performance Development process (aka in most other schools, Performance Management or Appraisal), and more specifically, the OFSTED grading of lessons.
We have officially scrapped making lesson judgements. I know that many people have already argued that individual lessons shouldn’t be graded, but two things have recently brought home to us the folly of grading lessons. Firstly, some of the vacuous reasons behind judgements given by OFSTED inspectors during our inspection last November: That was an Outstanding lesson up until the moment the students turned on the computers when the pace of their learning dipped a little so it can only be judged as Good. I think the very average experience of our OFSTED inspection has given us both confidence and courage. And one Performance Development lesson observation debrief last term began by the teacher saying to the Deputy Headteacher, Just give me the judgement: I’ve got lots of things to get on with. The judgements are unreliable and they get in the way of teachers working on their teaching skills.
We still make a judgement about teacher effectiveness, but we do it annually in September, taking into account a whole range of mandatory evidence which the teacher provides:
- Review of their students’ examination results against the students’ academic targets, providing class by class commentary on their students’ performance;
- Lesson Observation feedback;
- Feedback from work scrutinies;
- Good evidence of thoughtful lesson planning;
- Any further evidence which might relate specifically to the teacher’s Performance Development objectives.
We can now make Performance Development the genuinely effective vehicle for growing great teachers. I line manage directly 30 teachers; my responsibility as Performance Development reviewer to those colleagues is as important as any of my responsibilities as Headteacher. If I can get the process right I reckon I will, as a Performance Development reviewer, have a huge impact on student outcomes.
In these times of austerity all our resources need to be directed towards improving teaching. I spent 150 hours observing lessons last year and the £8,000 the hours cost the school did not equate to £8,000 of positive impact upon those colleagues’ teaching skills. Time is our most precious and limited resource; it seems madness to spend so much time in classrooms without that investment in my time helping to improve significantly the quality of teaching at Huntington.
Without a video record of the lesson the developmental potential of the lesson observation process can never be fully realised. When Jonathan Raban was writing his travel book Coasting he met Paul Theroux in Brighton who was writing his own book The Kingdom by the Sea. The meeting features in both books and this is Raban’s reflections upon Theroux’s account of their meeting:
His book, The Kingdom by the Sea, came out a year later, in 1983. I read it avidly and with mounting anxiety. It had only one seriously flat patch, I thought – his account of our meeting in Brighton. There wasn’t a single start of recognition for me in his two pages: what he described was not at all what I remembered. But then memory, as Paul had demonstrated … is a great maker of fictions.’
My experience of certain post-observation discussions has been similar and I wager there have been individual colleagues who thought that my account of their lesson was not at all what I remembered! I discussed a lesson recently where the teacher could not recollect what he had said and only reluctantly accepted my version of events because I had written down what he had said verbatim.
Encourage colleagues to film themselves first to gain confidence. Once they have got over the shock of seeing and hearing themselves, ask them to share their video with you when they are ready so you can coach them. If the purpose of lesson observations is to grow teachers not grade them, you’ll be amazed at how open colleagues are to filming themselves teach.
With good teachers you’re working at the margins of skill development. At the moment I am working with a number of colleagues on very specific elements of their practice: tone of voice; gestures; questioning; the language of Growth Mindset; the deployment of Teaching Assistants. And for these good teachers it will take tremendous conscious effort to change practice that’s been ingrained for years. It’s Doug Lemov stuff – like I said in a relatively recent post:
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.
What we will introduce is a Growing Great Teachers Professional Development Journal where teachers keep a record of exactly how they are working on their teaching as part of their professional obligation to improve their practice. This will keep the relationship between teacher autonomy and accountability in fruitful balance.
Have the courage to ditch the OFSTED criteria and agree your own. As a team of 125 teachers and Teaching Assistants we agreed our own Features of Truly Great Teaching last year and have now adopted them above the ever changing OFSTED criteria. It may be easy for us to do since we were recently inspected, but Sir Michael Wilshaw has made it clear that there is no prescribed way to teach.
As your school grows in confidence introduce an Open Gardens-style initiative, where subject areas open up their classrooms for a week to show their colleagues their best teaching.
We have to change from the industrial model to an agricultural model, where each school can be flourishing tomorrow. Now, I know that Sir Ken Robinson is so last year, but his philosophy about getting the conditions for growth right in our schools rings true to me. I think our decision to stop grading lessons is a major step to realising the school culture I have always idealised, the one I have had on my office wall for over two decades:
A Personal Vision of an Idealised School Culture – Roland S Barth
I would welcome the chance to work in a school characterised by a high level of collegiality, a place teeming with frequent, helpful personal and professional interactions. I would become excited about life in a school where a climate of risk taking is deliberately fostered and where a safety net protects those who may risk and stumble. I would like to go each day to a school to be with other adults who genuinely wanted to be there, who really chose to be there because of the importance of their work to others and to themselves. I would not want to leave a school characterised by a profound respect for, and encouragement of, diversity, where important differences among children and adults were celebrated rather than seen as problems to remedy. For 190 days each year, I would like to attend an institution that accorded a special place to philosophers who constantly examine and question and frequently replace embedded practices by asking ‘why’ questions. And I could even reside for a while in a laundry dryer if accompanied by a great deal of humour that helps bond the community by assisting everyone through tough moments. I’d like to work in a school that constantly takes note of the stress and anxiety level on the one hand and standards on the other, all the while searching for the optimal relationship of low anxiety and high standards.
It’s all about creating a school culture where staff and students can grow…
I would add one more line to Sir Ken’s aphorisms…Great Headteachers know what the conditions for growth are and bad ones don’t.
Are you working towards establishing an ‘Outstanding’ school or a school where teachers are truly great and the experience for students is extraordinary? As Paul Calf realised, it’s a false opposition.