Now I am nearing the end of my career, I tend to look back more frequently than before. I would like to start with some things which, if not introduced properly, can make experienced teachers very cynical.
1. Literacy initiatives.
In my 30 odd years teaching career I have lived through at least 4 literacy initiatives. They all tend to start the same way. A staff survey or primary school data indicates concern about the literacy among pupils and a working party is set up to look at the issue. Despite protestations that literacy should be seen as a whole school issue, the working party is always led by someone from the English department. While this may seem logical, the resulting policy ends up focussing on English department concerns. Things like using etymology to work out meanings of new vocabulary (where the science, maths and geography departments may have more expertise) or the use of tenses (where the modern languages department may have more expertise) tend to be downgraded as the English department naturally focusses on areas where it has most expertise (punctuation, paragraphing and writing for different audiences). The policy is launched with great fanfare, the assemblies are held,the posters are made, the subject handbooks are updated and data shots include a literacy column on the spreadsheet. Usually the whole thing dies a death when the chair of the literacy working party leaves or gets promoted, having ticked the appropriate boxes on their CV and performance management documentation.
2. Crosscurricular initiatives
I have lived through at least 3 of these. The idea is perfectly sensible. Departments should compare their schemes of work to see where there is overlap, or where there is scope for some cross curricular teaching, with appropriate references made in your lesson to the work you know the class will be doing in another subject. Again, time is set side for departmental collaboration. Yet it rarely lasts long. Changes in syllabus or staffing will mean that where once a cross curricular theme was possible, the new scheme of work makes it no longer so. A new head of department may have something else as a priority on their performance management objectives. Or another initiative in something else (eg literacy!) comes along and departments are told to prioritise that instead.
3. Student voice surveys
One of the perverse consequences of performance management is the need to evidence the impact of something. Hence the endless requests for feedback from students.
James Herriot, the internationally famous vet, wrote in “All Creature Great and Small” about his clients. ‘There were some people who thought I was a pretty fair vet, some who regarded me as an amiable idiot, a few who were convinced that I was a genius, & one or two who would set their dogs on me if I put a foot inside their gates. All this in a year. What would be the position in 30 years? Well, as it turned out, very much the same.”
I have to say James Herriot hits the nail on the head for me. In the course of my career I have been called everything from brilliant to crap. I have had children who loved my lessons and children who hated them, with others in the “all right” camp. On Rate My Teachers (remember that?) I had one comment saying I was the best teacher in the school. Next time I looked another comment appeared saying I wasn’t cut out for teaching. I have been privileged to teach academically able students through a lot of of my career. Some have told me that they loved the way I explained things. Others didn’t like the way I taught. Early in my career I remember being totally eclipsed by a new Head of Department whose lessons I thought were captivating. How does he do it, I wondered. He left after one year, totally burnt out. Yet even he was not universally popular. In my experience, even the “legends” will have one or two students who don’t like their personality, style or method of teaching.
4. Observing each other teaching
David Didau’s book “What if everything you knew about education was wrong”, has a chapter entitled “Why lesson observation doesn’t work”, which is a fantastic response to those who think observation is the key to school improvement. However, the one thing he omitted to mention was that observations at secondary level become even more pointless if the observer does not have the specialist subject knowledge.
I remember observing an A level physics class and having to grade it and comment on the teacher’s subject knowledge. I felt a complete fraud. Of course, I could see whether the students seemed engaged, knew what they were doing, were receiving feedback and having their written work marked, but beyond that I didn’t have a clue what the teacher was going on about. She could have been teaching them absolute rubbish, but I wouldn’t have known.
In my career, I have had countless observations by people who do not speak or understand a word of the language I have been teaching. I have even had some “outstandings” from them. When you think about it, it is quite frightening to think how easy it could be for me to go on for years peddling misconceptions. Equally, when being criticised, I resent comments from non specialists wondering why the children were noting down vocabulary in the lesson ( surely it was all in their textbook or couldn’t I have given them a sheet), telling me that it was too teacher centred, or wondering why they were working on something in silence.
This leads into another issue – we all have our own prejudices as to what constitutes a good lesson and we will look for things that confirm those prejudices and disparage things that don’t. We are all human beings and we are not as objective as we like to think. I have to observe my colleagues teaching and I do not always agree with everyone’s approach. I find it difficult to keep my own prejudices out. Nevertheless, at least my colleagues are aware that I have specialist subject knowledge and know what it is like to teach it, day in and day out.
I would not say that lesson observation is always a waste of time and it is certainly beneficial for new teachers. But for experienced teachers something else is needed.
So after all of this, here are my two suggestions to keep the old sweats on board.
1. Differentiate CPD for experienced teachers See my previous blogpost on this here.
2. Before any initiative is embarked on, arrange a meeting with experienced staff beforehand. Ask them if they have experienced the initiative before and if so, what lessons needed to be learnt. If they say it didn’t work, ask them why. I expect that in most cases the answer will be that initiatives need TIME to embed and should not be just about ticking someone’s peformance management objective for one year. Even if the initiative is about something they are not likely to have experienced before (eg new technology) ask them about the drawbacks, rather than just dismissing concerns as “negativity.” Of course there may be someone who just grunts “won’t work” and refuses to say more when asked why. But my guess is most experienced teachers will feel grateful that their years in the classroom are being acknowledged and will try to be constructive, even more so if their suggestions are taken on board.
Over to you, SLT!