Sometimes I feel that teaching & learning is in a state of twilight zone. An era of song and dance has given over to evidence base practice and a focus on progress which has now been linked to pay. Performance is important however we need to be cautious that we don’t over prescribe neat solutions and create a culture of fear that will choke out creativity and risk taking in the classroom. But how radical do we go?
Leadership of Teaching & Learning Catch-22
Last year I was responsible for teaching and learning that included staff development, CPD and coaching. In addition, I was also responsible for performance management and capability. We are a big school and at the time we had around 90 teaching staff. However, from day one I struggled with the role, not in terms of expectations but of my role as teacher developer and executioner – I was in a Catch-22. How can I honestly go into classrooms to support colleagues and encourage them to be radical, coach and mentor them to get improve their practice but simultaneously be responsible for whether they have a job next year. The dual persona did not sit well with my core values, in particular the one on trust.
I was honest and transparent but some colleagues were wary of my intentions. Many, if not all, did not trust me. Not necessarily because of me but that in the past five years the school had experienced seven principals and five restructures – fear is evident. A particular colleague was so mistrusting of my intentions that he had asked his head of subject if I was going to sack him because I popped my head in his classroom and asked if everything was alright. We just returned from Christmas break I made it a point to see everyone and ask them how things are going (I was still new to the school and had not met everyone properly). That was my intention, however, he interpreted it differently, which is shame because he was good.
This year things began to change. Under our new Executive Principal I was made head of key stage 3 (Years 8/9) with more emphasis on the pastoral side and performance management landed on the Vice Principal’s desk. Before the dust settled I had staff asking me for support in planning and pedagogy. I had more discussions about philosophy of learning and radical ideas than I ever had when I was over teaching & learning and, in general, more people spoke to me. What was happening? Colleagues seeked my advice, coaching and ideas but not when it was my actual job!
The change appears to be that the fear was removed. This only affirmed what I was toying with in my head – things had to change if we are to improve in the classroom. We need to start thinking outside the box, or let’s just get rid of the box, when it comes to staff development. Some of my ideas are already happening across the country and the others are up or debate.
What are my proposals?
1. Stop grading lessons
2. No more lesson observations as we know them. What do two or three lesson observations tell you about a teacher’s ability? Instead advocate anytime, anyone.
3. Rethinking learning walks – who is the learning for? The policy or the teacher? Teacher focused support required.
4. Lesson observations, learning walks or whatever are no longer linked to performance management
5. Bottom up approach, middle leaders drive teaching & learning in their areas
6. Coaching records are not recorded
7. Introduction of regular peer observations. 1 target given to improve on a regular basis – based on David Brailsford 1% marginal gains
8. Marking to a bare minimum (only on regularly set assessment pieces) – How many hours a week are burned for marking? What real impact does marking have? Let’s say 20 hours a week – imagine if 15 of the 20 hours was used on lesson planning.
9. Book monitoring needs to go in its extreme forms. How subjective can one monitoring process encapsulate? Should checks be made to see if assessments are being completed – yes. Should assessments be moderated and checked for accuracy – yes. Does it matter if I provided a WWW/EBI, with two stickers, a merit, a verbal feedback stamp, and useless pages of red pen.
10. Or scrap marking and feedback in exercise books altogether – that is how radical Michaela went, a secondary school in Wembley.
Free to be Radical?
I am not suggesting that all teachers are made equal but what I am saying is that if you are to get the best of people scaring them to death with bureaucratic subjective processes is not the way to go. Yes, certain system are needed in place, yes some teachers will need to be put on capability and yes challenging conversations need to happen. However, the classroom is a practice ground. Teachers should be taking risks, trying new ideas and having fun. I quite like what Daniel Pink wrote about in his book Drive on autonomy. He says that some businesses in the United States have introduced ROWE (results only work environment). Basically the employee has full autonomy to reach their targets. How they do it is up to them. There are some examples of employees starting work at 10 in the morning or leaving for home early. To the company it does not matter how you do it, just get the results. What is the impact? Companies have seen a significant increase in employee satisfaction and business profits.
Are we giving teachers real autonomy, free to be radical in the classroom and seek challenge and support? My worry in staff development is that there is some much emphasis placed on complex processes that the actual intent is being missed – student progress (our results, our targets). Some may argue that processes improve progress, yet, I have yet to truly see it. For example, a teacher I know was given a ‘4’ in their lesson observation and a ‘4’ in their book monitoring. We as a leadership team were told that the teacher was going to be given a formal letter to improve which outlines mandatory CPD workshops and coaching and if improvements are not quickly the teacher will be put on capability. What was not mentioned was the fact the teacher in question was one of the best science teachers who had the highest results last year and was number two the year before. Now within in one month they are at risk of losing their job. Is it me or does this makes no sense at all?
Student results matter but teachers need autonomy guided by basic processes in order to improve performance and, currently, I don’t think “we” are moving in the right direction with staff development. Change needs to happen but how radical do we go?