Thank you for making me think

My new role as a Senior Lecturer in Primary Education has opened up a world of research that was just out of my reach as a primary teacher due to a severely limited budget and a local library that never stocked such literature. Instead, I used Twitter to keep in contact with those that had access to research and who would kindly share their findings on blog posts. People such as Clare Sealy, Carl Henrick, Martin Robinson, Tom Sherrington, Tom Bennett, Daisy ChristodoulouBen NewmarkDavid DidauDavid Weston, Joe Kirby, and many more, became, and continue to be, my go to educators for research focused discussion. Their posts helped form a period of enlightenment for me. They helped me question my own pedagogical approach, make me think about what I was actually doing in the classroom and made me want to find out more. Thank you for this spark as it helped improve my teaching for the better. Working in a school can feel safe and secure but my practice never seemed to improve through the use of lesson observations. I felt like I was merely meeting the needs of the tickbox observation approach so that is why I used Twitter to connect to other like minded, and not so like minded individuals, to help inform and indulge my curiosity about education and help improve my practice.

Challenging my thinking.
My teaching approach has changed over the years and for the better. I barely remember the young, bright eyed teacher I was when I first started in 1997. I full of energy, very enthusiastic and my teaching approach was similar. My teaching was dominated by the Literacy and Numeracy hour approaches and my Headteacher insisted upon it for every other lesson too. I questioned the approach as it wasn’t one that was used in Northern Ireland primary schools but was told that I was now in England and had to use it. Later in my career, whilst teaching in Spain, I had to revise my approach to meet expectations of the observation form. As long as my teaching ticked off what was on the form I was either a good or outstanding teacher. But I wasn’t impressed. Teaching couldn’t be condensed into a form to be ticked off, could it? I returned to England some time later and to my surprise the observation form and what Ofsted appeared to want ruled everything. My every move as a teacher would be questioned and if it wasn’t part of the observation checklist or meet the latest non-negotiables then I could kiss goodbye to the Good and Outstanding gradings. I continued to question what was happening, to challenge these beliefs but, more often than not, I would be told to get on with the job and just do as I was told. Yet, even though my curiosity was being stifled, I continued to ask and search for answers. I wasn’t going to get them from those around me in my bubble at school so I had to look elsewhere. I looked through my timeline on Twitter to find new educators to follow,  people that would challenge my assumptions and make me think.

Making me think about
Daisy Christodoulou’s book ‘Seven Myths about Education‘ challenged my assumptions, chewed them up and spat them out. It felt like been slapped in the face yet it was a fantastic and enlightening read. It made me think about our education system more carefully and it continues to provide me with questions today. Tom Bennett made me think about behaviour systems in schools and why using Minecraft in your lessons could be nothing more than a gimmick. David Didau has made me think about numerous educational matters, some of which I have agreed with and others I haven’t. He got me to think about plenaries, marking and even the word pedagogy. Clare Sealy peaked my thinking throughout the last two years with an incredible series of blog posts about marking, observation and, most recently, memory.

I’ve been at Bishop Grossteste University since September and I am loving the opportunities it has provided me to further my interest in educational philosophy. I can now indulge my interests due to having access to a wealth of literature that continues to question my beliefs in education just like those aforementioned above continue to do so.

I’ve got some reading and reflecting to do.

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Second guessing the observer

Schools usually observe their staff three times a year and a typical observation in a typical school goes along the following lines. The management (SLT) inform the staff when they will be observed. The staff check the dates then plan over the top lessons to show off their teaching skills and a multitude of learning activities that they think will meet the needs of the observation form. The observer comes in for an hour, observes the prepared lesson and checks it off against the school’s so-called Ofsted proof observation check list. The teachers have access to this so called Ofsted proof list so will try to make sure the prepared observed lesson meets all the points on the it.
Instead of an example of how the teacher teaches on a day to day basis we end up with an all singing, all dancing, resource filled, three part mini plenary firework induced New Year’s Eve lesson that attempts to check off all the ticks on the observer’s form. The observation takes place and if the majority of ticks/green highlighted marks are in the outstanding columns the lesson is deemed outstanding which in turn promulgates the SLT deemed outstanding lesson format across the school. If the marks are found further across/down the tick sheet the lesson is deemed good/requires improvement/something you don’t want to hear.

I would like to state that the above is a farce.

Teachers do not improve their teaching through this inane process. It only permeates the fallacy of the show off lesson and makes teachers work towards a box ticking exercise that has somehow being tied into performance management. Unfortunately, this is the current teacher improvement process that exists in schools today. It’s an absolute joke and must be done away with. It does not improve teaching, it only makes teachers more stressed in an environment that has already become overtly stressful. So what can be done to alleviate the show off lesson observation culture and create a culture that helps teachers to improve their teaching? I recently read a post from a head teacher in London that has created such a process.

The idea is that schools rid themselves of the ridiculousness of one hour lesson observations carried out three times a year to be replaced by 10 minute weekly drop ins with same day feedback via email. The process is simple – it’s built on trust, guided by a philosophy to support and improve teaching and agreed upon by all staff. The post was from Clare Sealy, a Head Teacher in London, and I suggested the same approach to my own school. They read her post, followed it up, asked more questions and low and behold, they are trialling the approach this term.

If you have an idea to make observations work for your school then talk to your SLT. Tell them, show them, explain it and who knows, maybe you too can have an observation process that improves teaching and learning rather than promotes the New Year’s Eve Lesson display.

Teaching and Learning metaphors

There are those that teach and there are those that create visual metaphors about teaching and learning. I present a few of the many teaching and learning visual metaphors currently to be found online and even on some school walls.

Thank you to @C_Hendrick, @HeyMissSmith, @MrHistoire and @StuartLock for the conversation that spawned this post.

There are probably many, many more but I think I’ve assaulted your senses enough. 

Developing mastery in the classroom through personalised learning

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To master anything you first need to be taught how to do it then have the opportunity to practice it, test what you’ve learned and practice some more until you get it. That’s about it. Yet in schools we seem to ignore this and revert to a list of lesson requirements that appease an observation checklist. My presentation at The Telegraph Festival of Education explored this and suggested a few steps that any school can implement quickly to rid themselves of the unnecessary requirements that they have imposed on teaching.

During my time at the Festival I heard a number of teachers having conversations about education, as they would at such a festival, and the topic of mastery often arose. I used the image of the young child leanring to ride a bike as an example of what mastery is. The opening line of this post also defines it quite simply. So with my definition out of the way I got onto examples of great teaching provided by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby from the brilliant Bright Spots post . I’ve appraoched teaching in this way for most of my career. I have also been made to teach according to what my SLT deemed Ofsted wanted to see in a lesson. What I have found about both approaches is that the latter doesn’t work. It does nothing to help teachers become better teachers and creates the culture of the show lesson for observation purposes which has become so prolific across schools today, in fact my partner has just spent the better part of the evening creating her show lesson for a lesson observation she has tomorrow. And for what? So a member of SLT can feel important at having judged a colleague by ticking a sheet of paper.

So, let’s say that you get this and want to know where persoanlised learning fits in. Well, I’m an EYFS teacher and have been for the last 3 years. What I have discovered working in this age group is how essential it is to build a complete picture of every child in your class. EYFS teachers build these pictures up through daily observations of the leanring that happens and we use this knowledge to provide opportunities for children to practice what they have learned, test their understanding through feedback that happens there and then and helps move the child on to the next steps. Lessons flow into one another, timetables are written in September and never followed from then on, the daily learning structure depends almost entirely on the needs of the child. And it works. Yet when those very same children go into Year 1 and they enter ‘Proper Primary’ the approach is dropped in favour of the ‘what we think Ofsted want to see’ approach. Children are herded into ability groups, lessons become forulaic due to the schools accountability regime and immediate feedback is replaced with multi coloured marking that takes hours to do. Personalising learning goes out the window and mastery becomes another box to be ticked in a lesson observation and book scrutiny.

Hammering mastery into your curriculum whilst still expecting teachers to teach according to what you think Ofsted want to see does not work. And it will never, ever allow children to master anything they learn.

I suggest you start looking for answers by reading Tom Sherrington’s excellent ‘Principles of Effective Teaching’ post to gain an insight into how your school can start developing effective teaching and learning. And if you want to improve teaching through obsevations then please read Tom Boulter’s recent post ‘Making observation optional’.

For further information on how you can personalise learning in your classroom check out these posts ‘Innovating learning requires innovating the classroom‘ and ‘Personalising Learning‘.

Going for interview – Square pegs in round holes

This isn’t a blog about getting your first teaching post, this is really about that next step up the ladder, the leadership post. I recently had an interview for an Assistant Headship post. I wasn’t successful but the process I went through was. I learned a lot about applying for the job and want to share that experience.
You want to move onto the next level. You’ve been a teacher for a few years and you’re ready to move into leadership. You’ve had a taste of it with your Core Curriculum involvement and you scour the TES and ETEACH websites looking for the right post. You nod your head at a few and decide to apply. You download the application form and you discover your first problem. You are a Mac/Linux user and the Doc file format doesn’t show correctly on your screen. Some parts work and others just refuse to do what you know they are supposed to do. If you’re a Windows user you’re laughing, everything works. But no matter what OS you have we all face the inevitable question – just how do I ensure the different sections I have to complete are not replicated in my covering letter?
Completing the application form
DO NOT REPLICATE YOUR COVERING LETTER IN OTHER PARTS OF THE APPLICATION
Look at the bullet point loaded personal specification that the school has included in their application pack. Use the sections in your application to answer every bullet point. There may be a skills and knowledge section where this fits right in. You could use bullet points to answer every bullet point the schools is looking for or divide the section into headed paragraphs that do the same. Just make sure you tick every box the personal spec is looking for. If you don’t, your application is as good as dead. Complete every part of the application, leave nothing unanswered unless it specifically advises you to do so. Once you have completed it, check it through. Then check it at least 10 times and ask someone else to check it. Any mistakes found by the school means death to your application.
Covering Letter
DO NOT REPLICATE THE PERSONAL SPECIFICATION IN YOUR COVERING LETTER
Your covering letter is about you and how you fulfil the needs of the school you’re applying to. Use this to answer the job description and how you fit it. Make sure you are all over it. Highlight why you are the best teacher for the role, forget modesty – the school has put out an ad looking for the best applicant and your letter should answer that call. Keep it to two pages and only go to three if you are absolutely certain that the last paragraph requires a third page due to its absolute brilliance. Do not waffle. Keep everything succinct yet detailed enough to make the panel sit up and take notice. Always think “What would they say when they read this part of my application?” 
Shortlisting
If you haven’t gotten shortlisted then email the school and find out why. Some schools will reply and give feedback, those that don’t you can blacklist. If you have then dance your victory dance then sit down and prepare for the onslaught of interview. Shortlisting may be a foot in the door, but take heed, most of your body is still outside.
The Interview
Interviews for leadership posts are a tough; headship posts run for two days! Get prepared. Spend the time from your shortlisting notification to the night before the interview preparing. Read the school application pack through, note everything they ask for. Read through their latest Ofsted report and note down anything that requires further reading. You will try to do everything you can to make sure you are completely prepared but you will realise that you can only do so much. The night before should be spent switching off from the interview. It’s difficult but try to forget you have an interview the next day. Turn up for the interview in good time, it’s better to be early. Settle yourself, meet the other candidates and focus on your day ahead not theirs. Ask questions, look closely, be polite and courteous at all times – the whole day is part of the interview process. If you have been given time to visit the school then make sure you visit it. Go into every classroom, talk to every teacher and TA, talk to children, look through books, look at displays, talk to the office staff, canteen staff and caretaker. Take everything in whilst containing energy for the main event – the interview itself.
You will probably have a data task and/or in tray exercise to complete in 30 minutes or less. This is not based on real life so focus on the most essential and glaring points. If data based then hone in on what needs improving and what is working. Focus on safeguarding issues first if it’s an in-tray exercise. You will probably meet the school council who will ask you carefully vetted questions that will help decide on the successful candidate. 
The interview itself is a minefield of questions. Do not under any circumstance try to search for ‘interview questions for SLT’ as these will lull you into a false sense of security. You can read as many exemplars as you wish, you can learn as many possible answers you think your brain can take but nothing will prepare you for the variation of questions an interview panel can come up with. Here’s one for future reference – “What do you think your most recent reference said about you as a leader and what do you think your next reference with this school will say about you in three years time?” 
Answer everything truthfully, do not waffle. If you don’t know then tell the panel. Keep answers short and to the point. I have always found this part hard as I can talk but talking is different from answering a question succinctly. You will be provided with a water, drink it as it will help you calm your nerves and compose an answer when you need to think. Questions will be tough but are not asked to catch you out. The school want the best teacher for the post so every question, no matter how ridiculous, has been put in to find the best candidate. 
The wait
Keep in mind that the school will have a good idea of the type of person they want. You might have ticked every box on the panel’s form but if your personality doesn’t fit with the school then you will not get the job. If you haven’t been told of the school’s decision before leaving you will have to wait for the phone call. It will usually come before 6 but prepare yourself for a longer wait if the panel haven’t reached agreement. If you are unsuccessful do not be afraid to ask why. The points where you have fallen can be worked on for the next application. If you’re successful, accept the offer and wait until you say goodbye before jumping around shrieking. 
I have been through many interviews and no doubt I have more to come. As I said, I wasn’t successful in my most recent interview but I have learned what I need to focus on to get me closer to a successful outcome. During an interview you can ether play the game or be yourself. I have always chose to be myself as I want a school to know what they are getting. I have told panels that I am a maverick, independent in my thinking, I research good practice and question everything that management and government ask of me. I do not hold back with my viewpoints and I have no doubt lost out to other candidates because of this. You have to decide for yourself where your principles lie. I wish you well in your endeavours. 
Resources for Interviews

Applying for the post
Questions (please keep in mind, these are for your information rather than learning answers by rote)
Data
Interview Technique
STAR situation – task – activity – result

What I love most about teaching

I love teaching.
I love teaching even when outside influences do everything possible to make it the most difficult and time consuming job in the world.
I love teaching because I make a positive difference in the lives of the children I teach.
I love teaching because there is nothing quite like it, every day brings new surprises.
I love teaching because every class is different, made up of individual personalities that fill you with laughter and joy.
I love teaching because I get to share those moments when learning has clicked.
I love teaching because I find it challenging and rewarding.
I love teaching.

How do we improve our teaching?

It seems that now, more than ever, every facet of teaching and learning has come under the microscope that forms every teacher’s Performance Management. I have my own PM coming up later this month which will examine my performance during the 2013-2014 academic year. The discussion will examine in great detail the targets that were set last year and ascertain whether or not these have been achieved using evidence that I have gathered. Afterwards a new set of targets for this academic year will be set and the PM process will continue. I can safely say it does not improve my teaching.
What helps to improve my teaching is my own analysis of how effective my teaching is. I manage this by reviewing lessons I have taught and checking through work produced by children in my class, I read over notes I have taken during the day and adapt my next day’s planning if required. I look for gaps in my teaching that may have left children behind in their learning and ensure that in the next lesson these gaps are filled and their learning is more successful. Research and strong evidence of good practice also helps build a clearer picture and develop my teaching. It might seem like common sense but with the fast paced teaching and learning classrooms that outside influences have helped to create, teachers find themselves with less opportunities to reflect on their teaching and improve it.
It’s only by looking closely and focusing on the details that my teaching will improve. How do you improve yours?