Saturday, 7 September 2013

Good as a foundation for better

How many outstanding teachers are needed for an outstanding department?
I want our department to be outstanding and produce outstanding outcomes for our students (and staff). However I'm increasingly of the opinion that to achieve this I don't need to have a department full of outstanding teachers; we don't even need a majority that are outstanding, we may not even need one.

The department is a team and together we can achieve performance that is greater than our individual abilities. I think it is important to say this because there seems to be this general feeling across teaching that all teachers should perpetually strive to be outstanding. However unless you're one of the few truly gifted individuals that churns out outstanding lessons without really trying then the relentless pressure to be outstanting can be counter productive in terms of time spent planning or demoralisation when that elusive grade 1 always seems out of reach.

More than just observations
Firstly we need to get away from the concept that a teacher's ability over a period of time can be judged from a single lesson observation.

We had a range of lesson observation outcomes in our department last year, from "good" to "inadequate". However this snapshot simply doesn't indicate the quality of teaching that was really going on day to day, week by week and month by month. It also doesn't account for the fact that these observations were made mid-year, and we were actively improving various aspects of practice throughout the year, some as a result of feedback from the observations.

When you compare the yr 11 class residuals to the teacher's lesson observation ratings then the worst residual is linked to one of the "good" teachers. Conversely the teacher who's lesson was judged as "inadequate" delivered one of the highest residuals.

As I rated most of these lessons I have to wonder whether I was simply being too harsh, or whether the lessons observed really were less than outstanding or even less than good. I will certainly be thinking about that when we go through the observation process again. I am also raising the question of how to account for long term performance in these ratings across the school (I'm sure it's not just me).

It's also notable that there are departments in our school that have a large number of teachers consistently graded as outstanding, even a majority on grade 1, but our results are better than theirs. (were those observers too generous or is there something else going on?)

It's also important to remember that many staff find the whole observation process so stressful that they become effectively incapable of delivering their very best when being observed. Over thinking the plan, worrying about what the observer is or isn't seeing or being derailed by an apparently small mistake that gets compounded by nerves are all possible.

We definitely need a more balanced and rounded view of a teacher's performance, not based on Observations alone, as Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) suggests very well in this great post. See also this from David Didau (@learningspy).

An accumulation of good can be outstanding
As mentioned above, NONE of my department's teachers were graded outstanding in their individual observations last year. However as a team we delivered the following list of achievements:

  • Second consecutive school record year 11 results with over 77% of students achieving expected progress in maths (well above national average and would have put us in the top 5% of schools in our local authority vs last year's results).
  • Year 10 results that show we are ahead of prior years at an equivalent point, meaning we expect well into 80% making expected progress next year, possibly into 90%.
  • Year 8 and 9 performing well ahead of FFTD targets, and Year 7 hitting FFTD target.
  • Consistent identification via pupil voice as the department that gives the most useful and regular feedback.
  • I could continue this list but that's not the point of this post
Now I'll admit these stats may not quite fully justify my claim to be an outstanding yet - I have no external observation that can certify this. However the stats certainly do indicate that we are well on the way to getting there. These highlights are an important part of our journey towards outstanding and certainly place us towards the top end of good rather than the lower end.

The key thing we have been working on in my department is developing key aspects of practice that are just basically "good". An example is feedback and marking - we started with a wide range of practice from outstanding to missing altogether. We're now in a position where I am confident that all teachers in the department are consistently delivering good feedback. Those that may have done outstanding marking may even have been able to scale back - spending their time on other important things both inside and outside of school. At the same time the poor -markers have got a process to follow and a framework that helps them to achieve a good standard. I discuss more about this in this post

Good as a foundation for better
This pursuit of a core of good practice was acknowledged by one of our deputy heads at the start of this term. On reflecting on how the department has delivered substantial improvements in the last two years she said that she had realised that it was no single big fix, and it was nothing that was all singing and dancing. Nor was it anything else that stands out as clearly outstanding on its own. It was driven from a clear focus on consistently good practice. Do this for long enough and the combined results can be outstanding.

Part of this post is inspired by one of our long term teachers who retired at the end of the last academic year. His approach to teaching maths was to be uncompromising on the basics. His lessons were always sound, but he used no gimmicks. He rarely took any risks, and he used a fairly traditional approach, often chalk and talk. He also never dressed lessons up for observations - he simply delivered the lesson he would have planned anyway, and he was consistently rated as good. He never aspired to be outstanding in an observation. But this relentless focus on good meant that his results WERE outstanding. He helped a large number of students with E and D grade targets to achieve Cs. He secured Cs with challenging pupils through consistently high expectations. He was held in high regard by pupils and parents, and now he's retired I hope we can continue his unrelenting pursuit of basically good.

Sum of the parts
What I'm trying to say is that the sum of the parts can be greater than the apparent value of the individual bits. Consistently good practice brings outstanding results. A core of good practice with key tools and approaches shared across the department then also gives the foundation to build the occasional outstanding lesson onto.

We can't all be outstanding on a specific day in a specific lesson. Very few can be outstanding consistently for a long period of time. However I am happy to guide my team towards
just being relentlessly good, and if we keep it up for long enough that will be just as effective in the long run.

To all those good teachers out there - keep going, you've still got a great chance of producing outstanding outcomes!

All thoughts welcome as always.


  1. +1

    Seriously. I'm loving this post and I want people to read it so I'm going to share it a LOT.