Sunday, 21 October 2012

To be seen or not to be seen?

Observations, a word to send shivers down the spine of most teachers. I know when I first started my NQT year I didn't mind observations. In my mind they were a way of people assessing my performance and providing feedback to allow me to improve. Unfortunately they ended up feeling like a stick being used to beat me. I know that sounds like hyperbole but that is how it felt. From a fairly strong starting point feedback from observations became more about what I wasn't doing or needed to improve rather than what I was good at and how I could build on it.

I also felt that rather than advice being given a lot of the time my feedback was based around my observers trying to get me to teach in their style. Something I now know is a deficiency in the observers ability to advise rather than it be that I was teaching 'wrong'. Eventually I started getting seen by teachers from outside of the department and the NQT process. Surprise surprise actually my teaching wasn't as pants as I had been led to believe it was. Sure there was still stuff to work on, there always is, but I wasn't the poor teacher I had been made to feel I was.

Often I felt that people could only say 'good subject knowledge' in the plus box and the rest was negative. Whether it was or not is not the point really it was the feeling of inadequacy that followed me about which dragged me down. Teaching is very much a run of form type of job I feel, if you can't keep on top of things it quickly can overwhelm you. The difference that someone having some belief in you can make is amazing. I know this seems a bit disjointed at the moment but I am trying to get down as much as I can remember of my feelings from that time.

I found that as people from other departments observed me - and in lessons that were not an 'OFSTED/observation special' that I know some teachers have - the positives began to come back. People had good things to say about my practice. Which was nice. This meant my mood began to improve and with it my general demeanor. Which also made me want to do more in the preparation of my lessons and also more around the school, which really helped improve my relationship with students.

Switch forward half a year, NQT out of the way and now at a new school. The school still has the formal 1 lesson long observations (3 times a year for performance management) but it also runs 'snapshots'. Now it is important to get the difference between snapshots and observations right - I keep getting corrected when I refer to snapshots as an observation. An observation, I am informed, is a lesson observation that goes towards your performance management. A snapshot is a 20 minute observation of your teaching that is designed to be a supportive process to allow people to be made aware of points where they could improve their performance. It is not related to performance management and it is not something that could be held against you for competency purposes. So is not an observation.

Still following? Apparently there is some union issue or something to do with them. I don't mind the system because so far people have liked my teaching and given me some good pointers with which to improve. However I think that is where the rub is at. If you are secure with your teaching you don't mind being observed. If you have a tricky class, or a tough area of the curriculum to teach, or are having a bad day/week/month/term the last thing you want is the threat of a snapshot (which are drop ins with no warning). So I can understand why people might not like them, especially as they are 'random based on rooming' which has meant some people getting seen 2-3 times a week (I got snapshot'd 6 times in my first term at my school). However for the record I don't have any issue with them - I have been seen twice so far this half term and one was part of a departmental review - and like the system as it seems to bring out the best in me.

The marking of the snapshots is interesting too. The OFSTED criteria has been converted to a 100 point system - a core 70 marks and a further 30 for additional teaching practice. When I started the basic requirement was for the core 70 marks which would equate to a satisfactory lesson. However now OFSTED have changed satisfactory to notice to improve that requirement has been bumped up to 85. A requirement that you don't have to fulfill as this is purely a supportive system and not one that you are being judged on. Still following?

In honesty I usually make or get near to the required level (70 last year 85 this) based on the additional section. Things like high expectations, use of different media, interaction with students, interesting and engaging activities etc. What is better for me as a practitioner is that I have managed to iron out the inconsistency that plagued my early teaching. Most of my scores from last year were around the same mark. Which is good! Well not good old school satisfactory, but it is good that I am more consistent! However it also helps highlight things that I need to work on - making sure students know their target levels, using data to fully differentiate work, using a wide range of AFL techniques, using the schools behaviour management policy quicker - these are all areas of constant development for me (there are more, many many more).

So what have I learnt from a PGCE, NQT and a school where snapshots mean you could get seen at any time (basically what do I know about people judging my teaching based on being judged a lot).

  1. Be consistent. I have retyped this 3 or 4 times to try and make is sound less patronising. On a PGCE you have a fair amount of time to plan and deliver high quality lessons. You aren't afforded that time as a classroom teacher. Some people used to get around this by having a 'OFSTED lesson' to pull out for observations etc. My advice, don't do that. Make sure you are consistent with your classes, that you are attempting to deliver a good a lesson as you can each day. I know its hard work and tiring and I appreciate that it is not always possible but in the long term it will pay off. Especially when you have taught that lesson a few times and have worked the kinks out of it. It will seem like hard work at first but I promise you, your lessons will go better and your observations will reflect that. 
  2. Mark regularly. A bit of a no brainier but regularly just checking of books really helps. Not just does it help when someone comes to observe you but it also helps with your teaching. You do not have to do streams of high quality marking - once a week pick a lesson and go to town on it - but just make sure you are marking regularly.
  3. Don't over talk. The temptation during an observation is to talk to much. I think it is a trying to keep control thing but it is something someone will pick up on very quickly. Get the students up to speed, get them working and be quiet for a bit. 
  4. Don't just teach from the front. Circle and check their work, remember we are taught teaching is not telling (see above) so get in there and see how they are doing. This also helps show the relationship you have with your class.
  5. Do not be afraid to change. Classic PGCE/NQT mistake is to cling to the lesson plan like a life raft. If it isn't working change it. If there needs to be more instruction give it, if you need to change the task then do it. Do not be afraid to deviate it is a higher order teaching skill and you probably do it all the time anyway!
  6. AFL AFL AFL. So important I will say it thrice, you probably use mini-plenaries and directed questioning or show me white boards or traffic lights or a thousand other AFL techniques during your lessons. Make sure you don't forget them just because someone is in the back of the room. One thing I always used to get pulled up on was showing the progress of my students during the course of an observation. If you stick some AFL after an activity you are signposting it. It is just good teaching and learning to be able to know where you classes are at during a lesson.
It is important to remember that even though someone will judge what you are like as a teacher based upon their observation of you it is just a one off lesson. It is easy to let that thought bury you but don't, turn it on your head and think 'I am a good teacher I am going to show this person' and go for it. Like I said though be consistent. I find if you are consistent in your practice the going for it part becomes easier than if you try to look outstanding by having some all singing all dancing lesson that is well outside your comfort zone. It is also important to remember that we are always improving and developing as teachers and you need to make sure you are getting constructive feedback from any observation you have. A 'well done outstanding lesson' is about as much use as 'that really wasn't good' if it doesn't allow you to improve!

And the you have it. I will leave with 3 great pieces of advice/quotes I have had during my development. 
  • 'you like science because you look at something and go 'that's weird why does it do that' if you can get that moment in your students you don't need to worry about engagement' 
  • 'try to make sure that most of your lessons are at least good, then once a week for each group really pull out the stops for an outstanding lesson, it will stretch you but also keep your groups interested in the subject'
  • (teacher in the last year before retiring) 'why would I want to get feedback from some arse inspector who hasn't been in a classroom properly for years, I know I'm a good teacher and nothing some moldy old fart can say will change that'
I really like the last one but then I just got 95/100 so I currently feel as secure in my teaching as he did (he was an absolute legend though). As ever thoughts or comments welcome, providing they are constructive. 

Roll on half term!

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