Sometimes it feels as if teachers are constantly being measured. It’s as if the focus is so directed toward the measurements, judgements and tools for accountability that the bigger picture, better teaching and learning, becomes blurred. This is a barrier to better learning, better attainment, better teaching and enjoyment. I see it as the role of leadership in schools (and I write from a middle leadership point of view) is to do this:
One of the most important functions that I perform as a middle leader is to act as a filter or buffer zone between the external politics (Gove, Ofsted, Speeches, Agendas-that-help-other-people, SLT) and the young people in our care. It’s the role of middle leaders to monitor the quality of teaching and learning so that it improves, or at least stays stable and that it matches our vision for the department. Let’s be honest, it’s great to play around with naughty learning and awesome new pedagogies but we can’t do that until we keep the wolf (Ofsted) from the door by ensuring that results are at least Good. In saying that, I should stress that I put Gove, Ofsted et al quite low down on the agenda. In other words, if we are going to monitor, let’s do it with the right focus, which is on the big picture of young people and building their foundations for lifelong learning.
I have no problem with accountability.
‘Right then Rogers, how?’ I hear you say. Here I can only speak from experience. When I took over Priory Geography in January 2008, there was no effective monitoring of the quality of teaching and learning. Results were well below expectations. The department was failing its students. The reason for this was almost non-existent monitoring. What was in place was the wrong sort of monitoring. Over the past four and a half years the following monitoring techniques have been developed. They are presented in no particular order apart from the first:
- Develop a culture where all conversations are about learning and monitoring is about mutual support rather than judgements. Some of our departments meetings are held in pubs, coffee shops, on the motorway, over Twitter. Conversations about what we should be teaching and how students should be learning aren’t arduous when they are in the right setting. After all, how can we achieve a genuine ‘learn anywhere, anytime’ culture if we don’t model it as teachers? I’m typing this now as I feel like doing it and I have the time. It may be clichéd to say, but monitoring should be done with rather that to. The most important part of the process are the conversations afterwards. Ignore the judgement (there often isn’t one anyway). Focus on the process. The worst thing in the world is when someone drops into your classroom and there is no feedback, even if it’s a quick email. I have even experienced situations where SLT have come into my classroom and not even said anything to anyone.
- Conversations focus on the positive, then the improvements. Many teachers operate at the unconscious competent level. In other words, they do great things but don’t know why they are great. By unpicking why things went well we can help teachers to reach the conscious competent level of teaching. If we only focus on the negative or improvements, or if staff can’t identify what went well and why, then those great things of teaching get lost. One way to do this is to steal ideas, and every week I gain ideas from the team I work with, including the PGCE trainee.
- Regularly drop in. The idea that monitoring is a twice-a-year event linked to performance management is preposterous. Observations and drop-ins don’t need to be judgemental. There is no need to take action against a teacher unless you see something's really out of place, such as abuse or unmarked books since September when it’s July. I encourage my team to drop in on me, I drop in on them. This could be from one minute to the full hour. I could chat to pupils, praise them, work with some difficult students, help team-teach a GCSE Controlled Assessment lesson, chat to students outside about their progress. It doesn’t matter. I always acknowledge the teacher, say thank you to them for letting me in. If I see something amazing, or not quite right (I am completely OCD over headphones worn as medallions for example) I’ll send and email, mention it in curriculum briefings or meetings, or just have a chat. I don;t always get this right, but the following conversations are the key. It’s also important to tell others in the team about good practice and to allow the team to feel they can pick up on my own. As an Air Cadet Senior NCO I often had to judge the standard of uniform. I would only do so if my own was immaculate. Similarly, I would only criticise poor toilet cleaning after I had demonstrated that I was willing and able to do the job myself.
- The timing of ‘proper’ observations and drop-ins are important. Just as teaching about UK depressions make sense in the winter, so does the timing of monitoring. At the moment (May) Year 11 have only 3 weeks to go and Year 10 are at a critical phase of their Controlled Assessment. Therefore, I’m focused on those classes. In the same vein, there’s little point is ‘officially’ observing a Year 11 class in May and then making suggestions and celebrating success when it’s too late. See them in October. The main point here is that as a middle leader I have a clear picture of the quality of learning and teaching all of the time. Ofsted agree with me, and we conduct business as usual when they come in, including naughty learning.
- Peer Observation. The only way to get better at teaching is to watch others teach. Everyone should be able to watch anyone, and talk about it afterwards over a coffee, ale or funny blue coloured bubbly drink.
- Talk to students and support staff. The people that really know what learning and teaching is like in our department are the young people and the teaching assistants. We gather information through survey money, allowing students to comment on the quality of us (in effect writing a report on us as teachers). Teaching assistants tell us that lessons in geography are amongst the best in the school. I don’t need to conduct a billion drop in’s when professional conversations point me in the right direction.
- Look at exercise books. Marking blah blah. But students deserve quality feedback as most want to do better. Marking is something that I always struggle to keep on top of, but the reaction of students when they read a positive comment or realise what they need to do better encourages me to try. The sampling of marking is random (ish ) and again targeted / timed. At the moment we are developing the ‘feedback-five’ where the class are given the time to respond constructively to the marking. I’d also link this to regular drop-ins – not all (in fact in our case very little) evidence of quality teaching and learning can be found in exercise books. It is the 21st Century after all. However, we must continue to recognise that we are still judged using (and out of date) written assessment regime. It’s our job to help our students work the system they have while simultaneously campaigning to change it as well as subverting it.
- Moderate assessments. This is a regular part of department meetings. Are we all on the same page?
- Share student work. If it’s great, or if there are patterns that suggest the teaching / assessment / learning activity needs to be changed then it’s important to share that.
- Share pedagogical risks, failures and successes. Otherwise how do we learn as teachers?
- Monitoring is a planned, continuous process. Focused on improving teaching and learning and not a set of knee jerk reactions. It’s a friendly process if done correctly and by improvement teaching and learning, staff actually enjoy their jobs….
Overall, it’s the role of leadership to strip out what’s important from external forces and keep the focus where it should be. Much has been said about Wilshaw’s recent comments. In nine years of teaching and 9 separate Ofsted encounters, it has only ever been a positive experience. I would also say, somewhat controversially maybe, that yes, teaching is a stressful occupation, however I’m not able to compare it to every other occupation on the planet. I simply haven’t walked in enough shoes. Plus, at the end of the day I get almost 13 weeks to spend with my little boy. Yes, there are times where I have to work occasionally in the holidays, but I love my job and it really doesn’t compare to the 25 days that some of my friends get a year. Having worked in other sectors, I certainly wouldn’t trade my place that I consider to be privileged.
I’ll say again that Gove, Wilshaw nor the Government are in my classroom. It's my choice about the feel of my classroom and what I do (yes, within certain limitations). It’s the role of school leaders, at all levels, to keep the focus where it should be. To allay teacher’s fears of Ofsted.
Naive? Maybe, but I’d rather be naive than a cynic who strips all of the joy out of the role. In my humble opinion, Ofsted doesn’t kill serendipity, bad leadership within school does.