Good to outstanding teaching – some thoughts

This post is an extension of a post I made during my ongoing work on the Good to Outstanding teaching online unit as part of the National College’s Head Start programme.  It was in a response to two questions.

  1. As a Headteacher, how can you use lesson observations to move teaching from Good to Outstanding?
  2. What is likely to be the principal barrier – and how will you tackle it?

This is my response.  It is not a completed article, more along the lines of a reflection.  I want to share it to add to the debate and hope, that by doing so, I am able to build this into a coherent approach or methodology.

I think the first key point about lesson observations is trust.  Teachers need to see that the lesson observation process is fair and constructive.  To that end I believe, and I’ll be honest and say I didn’t always think this, that lesson observations should be planned and shared with the teachers in advance.  Set it out as an opportunity to catch them being good as opposed to wanting to catch staff out with unannounced observations and learning walks.  We reinforce the behaviours we get by the actions we take so we should act to catch more people being good at their jobs, not the other way around.

Secondly, be crystal clear about what constitutes outstanding teaching and learning and develop ways in which this can be shared and promoted with staff as often as possible.  I read an article recently from a superb blog about the success of checklists in high risk fields such as surgery.  Atul Gawande’s book, “Better” focusses on how improvements were made in surgery by the implementation of simple checklists.  I am going to explore this with my teaching and learning group in a fortnight.  Is it possible to produce a checklist of what outstanding lessons contain?  Some of you will feel that this is a prescriptive approach to lesson planning but my attitude is that this is not a prescriptive teaching style but elements of great planning.  For example, if I produce a checklist with a “Do it now” item, (taken from Doug Lemov’s book on Teach like a champion) it is not dictating the teaching style of the lesson but a small component of it. But, can you imagine if every lesson in your school got started within 2 minutes of the students entering the room?  Indecently, Gawande released a book specifically on checklists called The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right in January 2011.

Just as an aside – whilst I am developing this theme of outstanding lessons and what they look like, I am always far more impressed with teaching that appears to have excellent routines.  Little things like how the students get into groups, how they approach a plenary, how they pair and share and how they can crack on with a task with little input from the teacher (reduced teacher talk) says far more about learning being outstanding on a continual basis than anything like whizz-bang teacher led activities.

Secondly, we need a lesson observation framework and performance management system that has teacher development through its very core.  If a member of staff gets a 3 or 4 then what happens?  In our school they have a meeting to review the lesson in detail and suggest ways in which the same task could be improved.  Then they are seen a week later with either the same group or a different one if they prefer.  We have had two situations like this since September and in both cases they went up in the second observation – one to a good and one to outstanding.  There are lots of positives in this approach.  Staff see it as fair and supportive.  In fact, the teacher who got an RI was actually pleased that he had the RI WITH the mentoring afterwards as it clarified what we were looking for in an observation and he realised it was a lot more like his normal teaching style.  This builds trust across the whole staff because, of course, they talk.

I am less decided about buddying staff up with outstanding colleagues.  I think this needs a careful approach and might work in a coaching style dialogue, not a, “this works for me so you should do the same”.  Teaching is a very personal pursuit and needs to be developed with care and consideration.  However, it would make sense for schools to invest in these practitioners to help coach others as part of a CPD programme.  @Shaun_allison has produced and shared some excellent resources in this area at this website, Class Teaching.

Underpinning all of this is a sound and evidenced based approach to CPD.  In theory the CPD should reflect the findings of the internal self-evaluation, the lesson observations and performance management.  The whole thing is a cycle, school improvement plan aims pitch the school slightly ahead of where it is now and structures the actions the school will take to get there.  Why is it then that CPD often involves moving days to finish earlier in the summer term?  Whole day events planned for all the staff, even though some of them will certainly have a range of expertise and the aims of the INSET often seem to represent a holistic school target and not the findings of the lesson observations.  For example, how many schools have run whole school INSET events on literacy and not mentioned it as a feature of their lesson observations?

It is quite easy to say that a lack of trust in the motives of school leaders is the biggest barrier to developing teaching – and I do think it is a fundamental concern.  However, I think we as school leaders need to shoulder some of the responsibility here as well.  If we get the cycle wrong, if we don’t plan the CPD appropriately and fairly then we are at fault as this is where the trust starts to slide.  In my opinion the majority of teachers want to be more effective at their job.  They need us to celebrate their strengths, highlight their weaknesses fairly and plot a supportive and relevant path through training, coaching and observations to enable them to be more confident in their day to day work.  Perhaps this should be the measure of our actions, not just whether period one on Monday morning is good or outstanding.

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