As with all schools we have a programme of learning walks and observations that are part of the performance management cycle. These are done with various aspects as the focus, e.g. questioning, AFL, etc. These are generally arranged by someone in leadership and to be honest the general feel from the staff is that it something that is being done "to" them rather than "with" them.
A little while ago I was discussing this disconnect between "done to" and "done with" with Rob Williams, my department's teaching & learning leader (@robewilliams79). We thought there were two aspects that contributed to this. One is the general perception of scrutiny and the other is about having a sense of control.
Perception of scrutiny
As trainee teachers we all have loads of scrutiny; every lesson is observed, and we get feedback throughout the process. This reduces a little in NQT years when we still have a number of observations and monitoring of our practice. Once the NQT year is over though - we're left to it, with observations for performance management actively limited by union agreements. Effectively the classroom door closes at the end of the NQT year and we become free to develop bad habits, free from scrutiny except specific times when it is applied to us.
It's just like learning to drive - once you've got your licence and have been driving for a few years without supervision most people would not like to go back and take their test again, and that's what the performance management visits begin to feel like for many.
The result is that over time scrutiny of practice becomes something exclusively linked with performance management and not about CPD. The baggage of gradings and the associated fear of falling short of the mark means that these observations or drop ins become a big deal for many. This in turn means that an otherwise confident, competent teacher can find the whole thing excruciating, meaning that they actively avoid any form of scrutiny other than those absolutely insisted on.
Out of control
If you're told "I'm coming to see you teach in Period 3 and I'm going to be looking at your deployment of AFL techniques" you have no real control other than the detail of the lesson plan. If you happen to be a good (effective) teacher but find some aspects of AFL difficult to demonstrate in lessons, or if the lesson you need to teach based on the SoW doesn't led itself to lots of visible AFL the whole experience becomes traumatic. You end up shaping the lesson to suit the observation rather than delivering the lesson that the students need. You also don't get to show off all of the other really good things you do on a day to day basis because you have been given a "focus".
Firstly we decided that we needed to encourage people to be more open with their teaching. We'd previously seen @TeacherToolkit's "Open classroom" information and decided that we needed to push this with the team... Then a throwaway comment was made by one of us (can't remember which one) "why not have a department open day". We both thought it a good idea but left it there to mull over for a while. It just happened that while checking twitter later that day I spotted a tweet from @TeacherToolkit on the very subject and there is the resulting feed:
And so the idea went from a throwaway comment to planning a full day....
Open department - mad? brave?
Interestingly the first response from almost everyone Rob and I mentioned this to was "are you mad?" or "you're very brave". Most agreed it was a good idea, but there were all sorts of concerns, for example Annabelle was really supportive of the idea but wasn't sure that others would be...
The strange thing is that we really shouldn't be afraid of this kind of thing. If we're that unsure in our practice that we don't want to invite people in then how good are we in the first place? Teaching requires a level of confidence to carry it off - we generally have around 20-30 observers in every lesson in the form of students. Why should having another adult in the room make things less comfortable?
Anyway - we pressed on...
What we did and how we did it...
Priority from the start was that it had to be optional - we didn't want this to be something imposed on anyone - that would have been completely the reverse of the intention.
We spoke to the department to gauge reaction, emphasising that we would choose which lessons people could come and see, and that the focus of it all is showing what we know we are good at. I'm really proud to say that the department were up for it with no persuasion.
Then we chose a date - we waited until the exam season was over and we also changed timetables early so wanted things to settle in there too, hence the delay between the 24th May and the chosen 5th July.
Each teacher was asked to identify which lessons in the day they would be happy to have people dropping into, and I'm pleased to say that most offered most lessons. We decided to place a limit of 3 drop ins per lesson to minimise disruption to students. We posted a sign up sheet in the staffroom and publicised it through staff newsletters and briefings. Here is the finished sign up sheet...
As you can see - we offered a total of 20 lessons across the day. In addition we also offered the chance to spend a bit of time talking to staff about department admin processes that we use in maths. We had 23 members of staff sign up, but actually had closer to 30 drop in somewhere during the day.
We had visitors representing Science, MFL, English, Psychology, History, Geography, and even had our Library manager and Business Manager pay us a visit too. Those dropping in included NQTs, mainscale teachers, heads of department, heads of college and SLT, and they visited lessons taught by a range including NQTs and experienced staff.
Take away menu & feedback sheets
We also loved @MrsPTaylor's idea of a Take Away menu, so Rob put one together, largely from the things that I've already blogged about (but that haven't necessarily been well shared across the school). We handed them out to everyone that dropped in.
We wanted to use the day to share practice across the school, but also to get ideas about where our next focus should be. Vitally though we didn't want any form of judgement being made in terms of Ofsted criteria, etc - it's about professional development NOT grading. Therefore the feedback sheets given simply asked for two stars and a wish.
An example of the tri-fold menu and a selection of the first feedback slips are shown below...
It was unbelievably positive. Feedback slips were really constructive both in their praise and in the opportunities for improvement. It was just really nice to see members of staff from outside of the maths department wandering in and out of maths lessons - universally with big smiles on their faces.
The maths staff were really pleased to have had the opportunity to show what we know we do well (normal, well planned, effective lessons), and to receive feedback from others in the school in a non threatening manner.
Based on the feedback slips we also seem to have given others a range of ideas that they can apply in their subjects.
Without a doubt it's a success - We now think we might look to do a couple of these per year. The main reason being that if we get used to having people in our lessons more often then "official" learning walks and observations are less of a big deal.
Key points if you're thinking of doing this.
I can't emphasise enough the importance of the voluntary nature of this. As a department we agreed we wanted it and offered it to the school. I would hate to think that someone from an SLT sees this idea and directs departments in their school to run something like this. Bringing compulsion into it would be destructive rather than constructive. Therefore I really hope that you suggest and encourage but don't direct.
During the day Rob was asked by one of our visitors "if our department did something like this would we have to do this menu thing too?" The answer is simple - not if you don't want to. Days like this can give a lot, but it shouldn't be a burden in preparation - we had most of the info around us in any case so it was mostly a cut and paste job.
For the whole day we required no special prep from anyone - no insistence on formal lesson plans (5 minute or otherwise), no enforced structure, no compulsion to offer even one class for drop ins. Even no compulsion to come and visit for those outside of the department - it's all completely optional.
The result of this optional nature is it all becomes very collegiate and supportive, and completely disarms the threatening nature of drop ins.
I really struggle to express how proud I am of the department for being bold enough to do this. I've never heard of anywhere else doing something like this during a normal teaching day, however I'm pretty sure we won't be the last (we'll do it again even if nobody else does!). The general perception of the maths department has risen immeasurably as a result of simply offering this day, and if it sparks further sharing of practice within our school or in others then it's even more worth it.
I also need to make a point of thanking Rob for his part in this and the work for the Menu and feedback slips which put the icing on the cake.
We now have a list of constructive things to work on in the coming 12 months based on a broad spectrum of feedback from peers. This is worth more than a limited sample by only a small number of observers which is what we would get from a normal learning walk or observation cycle.
If you run something similar then we'd love to hear from you about what you did and how you felt it went. If you've got any suggestions on how we might make the next one even better then I'd like to hear them too! All thoughts welcome...