During the Spring term at my school we decided to rid ourselves of the shackles of observations once and for all. Since Ofsted no longer collect evidence of how many lessons are graded at a certain level to help them to ascertain a picture of the school’s teaching and learning, observations in their current form seemed to be redundant. As a senior leader I had long been unhappy with observations as I have always felt them to be subjective. Who exactly is fit to judge what makes an outstanding lesson? Who can say that their way of teaching is better than any one else’s method of imparting the same knowledge. Observations are a bit of a lottery. If you have an observer who is from the same key stage as yourself, an expert in the same subject and who shares your teaching methods then you are laughing all the way to your outstanding grade. On the other hand, if your observer has no knowledge of the key stage you are teaching and does not favour your particular methods you know you might not be in for a smooth ride. In many schools it is the SLT who do much of the observing. As a member of SLT myself I am not saying that they are guilty of this, nor am I saying that they can’t be trusted to observe in an unbiased manner. I am saying that it is human nature to judge things by your own standards. Of course we all think we can do things better, it goes with the job. So, observations in their current form had to go.
Last night on #PrimaryRocks there was a question ‘Does observation work in your school?’ I tweeted that we had swapped observations for monitoring sessions. This is not the first time I have tweeted about this and each time I find that people are interested in how we did it. Time to write a post!
As the Senior leader with responsibility for continuing professional development I elected myself to take responsibility for driving this agenda forward. I knew that I wanted whole school buy in, I knew that everyone had a valid opinion on this and I knew that whatever method was chosen to replace observations it had to stand up to our HT’s exacting standards for teaching and learning. A tall order!
Every 3 weeks we have a whole school staff meeting after school for one hour which includes teachers, leaders and TAs of all levels. I chose to use one of these to gauge opinions and get the ball rolling. The idea was well received, I was apparently not the only one who was uncomfortable with the subjective nature of observations.
I asked everyone to work in class groups and gave each table a huge piece of paper and some pretty pens. They had to brainstorm what made a perfect lesson. After 15 minutes we swapped the papers around the groups and each group added to the new paper. You can see where I’m going with this. After 45 minutes we had a whole school opinion on what constituted the perfect lesson. Ideas included ‘sharing plans with your TA’ and ‘behaviour management strategies’ to name two. Altogether we had around 30 points. We discussed some of the ideas and refined them a little but not one idea was discarded. After all, it was someone’s opinion and therefore it was valid and worthwhile.
The office manager was kind enough to pop all of this on the GDrive for me and lo and behold we had the beginnings of our monitoring sheets. Three weeks later we repeated the process and asked the question ‘What should your TAs be doing in your idea of a perfect lesson. Once again we had fantastic answers ranging from ‘sitting with the child and keeping them on task’ to ‘being ready to take over the lesson if the teacher has to leave for any reason.’ This new information was added to the previous work and we now had our new monitoring sheets in place. We split it in to separate sections to include aspects of the lesson such as introduction, use of questioning, behaviour strategies, plenary and so on. It is now a straight tick list for yes or no. There is nothing subjective about it. If your ticks are in the yes box, you can be sure that you and your team have succeeded in delivering a lesson that the whole school thinks is up to scratch. If your ticks are in the ‘no’ box you instantly know that this is an area you need to work on. Everyone has signed up to this and everyone has contributed to it. It is the school’s own model of the perfect lesson.
Everyone is happy with the new method for improving teaching and learning including our HT. There is still the opportunity to discuss the highs and lows (if there any) with the person who has monitored your lesson, that part has not been removed.
The next step in this process was to have all teachers observing each other. This is always a difficult one to solve as teachers have full time tables. However, if SLT have time to go and see the teachers delivering lessons they can step in to class and cover for a teacher which then gives them a chance to go and see what is happening in the rest of the school. Watching others teach shouldn’t be just the domain of leaders, it should be open to all.This is how we have overcome that hurdle. I step in to class and allow the teacher to step out. Job done and it wasn’t that hard to solve really.
At the same time as we were doing all this we introduced the coaching model to our school. All teachers and Level 4 TAs are now trained in the GROW model. We believe that coaching goes hand in hand with our new regime of monitoring rather than observing. Our next steps include focussing in on certain aspects of a lesson. For example a teacher might feel that they have difficulty with behaviour management in their class. Another teacher will pop in, see what’s happening with behaviour management and fill in the tick list which will highlight if there is indeed a problem. If there is a problem a discussion can take place where coaching skills will be employed. As we have all been trained in the art of coaching we trust each other completely.
So there we have it, subjective observations are no longer in existence at my school. We have developed our own model of monitoring and coaching which is supportive of all staff.