How do ‘Back to School’ signs make you feel?

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One thing you can be certain of is that, within seconds of schools breaking up, shops will be taken over by huge advertising campaigns proclaiming that we should all be thinking about going ‘Back to School’. What this means in reality is piles of neat white socks, Teflon coated indestructible trousers and pinafores, endless rows of new highlighter configurations and, of course, new ranges of pencil cases, my bet for this year – Minion inspired yellow will feature heavily. But how does it all make you feel?

Perhaps you are a parent and have managed to switch roles smoothly, thinking only now about the needs of your own offspring for the next impending year. Perhaps you wave an angry fist at the advertising hoardings berating them for stealing the joy of those early days of summer from tired teachers, ‘just let me have my five minutes of freedom!’ Perhaps you are one of those creatures who has already put the stresses of a frantic summer term behind you, a now distant memory and you already gain a heady sense of anticipation about all the wondrous possibilities of the new academic year.

Maybe the signs cause a sense of queasiness thinking about the big hurdles between now and the start of September – results days. Will you achieve your goals, will the students get where they want to go. ‘Back to School’ signs often prompt the teaching equivalent of resolutions, whilst thinking about the academic year ahead. What must I do to improve; what changes do I intend to make? This is particularly true if the prospect of another year at the chalkface causes butterflies in the stomach – good or bad ones. These are some of the ‘Back to School intentions I have had over the years.

  1. I will not get behind on marking. Interesting one this, given our political leader’s instruction to not do it after 5pm (but to focus on teaching more – I mean if marking has nothing to do with your teaching, surely you know you’re in trouble!). Personally, I have found that a teacher must respond to their own body clock about this. If you are late-into-the-night person, then that can work for you. I haven’t been, hence I often had early starts & other strategies to try not to fall behind. This is an area where teachers can get their own kind of ‘teacher’s block’. Marking becomes harder to do the longer you leave it. Eventually it becomes a giant monster blocking your path, the black cloud that lingers and impossible to ignore. Along with picking the right time, making sure you don’t do the – I’ll do this first because I like this set and it’s easier- route. Personally I think that’s a big mistake, because you have to face the hard stuff sooner or later. I found that if I imposed the discipline of chronology on it, it at least began to chip at the teacher’s block before it took hold.
  2. I will not have an untidy desk/pigeon hole/inbox. This is an area which often reflects the teacher’s character. I’m sure we’ve all heard people say, ‘My desk is untidy, because I’m generally an untidy person!’ There is undoubtedly truth in this, but I found it often just became my excuse. Personally I tend to ‘nest’ – I will happily build piles of paper/debris/rubbish around me, claiming I might need it shortly. I’m not a neat person, but because of that I had to keep a clean desk, because I knew if I gave that notion even a moment to take hold I would have piles of rubbish permanently covering my desk. So, every night I would temporarily clear my work-space/desk, because coming into a clean desk is far less depressing. The same went for pigeon holes – clogging up with endless bulk mailings. So I forced myself to clear it once a week, if possible on a Friday so that coming in on Monday morning was that little bit easier. Didn’t always happen, but was great when it did.
  3. My lessons will be amazing. We tend to review the year and reflect on the highs and the lows, the real achievements we have made and those frustrating brick walls we have faced. The reality is that some of our lessons will be amazing, lots we hope, but it’s worth remembering it takes two, or in a teacher’s case about 30 to tango. An amazing lesson is about synchronicity. Sometimes everything clicks into place and our amazing planning, activities, resources and assessment works. Other times it doesn’t and that’s not always down to us – let’s face it, it could be something as simple as the weather being a bit blustery. Intention and planning can be amazing, and hopefully it will work, but we can still learn a lot about our classes and ourselves when it doesn’t so we should cut ourselves some slack.
  4. I will keep up to date with what’s happening in education. Well if you’re reading this then you are probably already doing one of the best ways to make this happen – using Twitter. Someone once told me you should always have more followers than follow people, but I’ve never managed that. There are always so many interesting accounts to follow, from the headliners to many teachers sharing their resources and displays. Keeping up with the headlines is fairly easy to do via Twitter, but look out for the people who don’t appear on every #ff list, because there are some amazing accounts, blogs, pictures, experiences out there.  If you are a leader and want to dip your toe in the whole research stuff that is going on then I whole heartedly recommend joining BELMAS (British Educational Leadership, Management & Administration Society). The first year is FREE to join and you get two different research journals sent to you during the year (10 a year!), you get book discounts and you attend one of the warmest, friendliest conferences (organised by the wonderful @DrMeganCrawford), which overlaps with a #SLTeachmeet! Where else would I have been able to discuss #WomenEd with the amazing Vivienne Porritt (@LCLL_Director), female leadership in Cyprus, becoming a Headteacher in Chile, the perils of Social Media for leaders (@plurivocal), and Ethics in leadership with the brilliant Rob Campbell (@robcampbe11). Someone recommended it to me when I first took on a leadership post and it’s the real deal, genuine collaboration between research and schools. 
  5. I will have a life outside school. This is something I’ve always been passionate about. We know people who sign up to a lot, not just the classroom stuff, but it’s so important to protect the non teaching bit of your life. I’ve admired the whole #teacher5aday trend on Twitter as teachers at all levels share their time off with others. Our emotional well being is so important for us to function well in the classroom and with colleagues. If things are not right, talk to someone. As a deputy I took the care of staff as a major part of my role and would like to think they knew they could come and talk whenever. Sometimes I think the phrase work/life balance has been hijacked to mean being a parent to your children. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that’s essential, but I think we sometimes reduce the word ‘life’ in that phrase. It’s about our lives, whatever path we have taken, our identities and its that I believe needs looking after, because our school communities can be so overwhelming that we lose sight of that.

My list isn’t comprehensive and it most certainly isn’t true for everyone, I’m certainly not telling people what to do!  I love the good intentions of September, even if it gets hard as Autumn slips into Winter. However it’s worth noting that reaction to the next ‘Back to School’ ad you see. How do they make you feel and perhaps more importantly why. Do they make you think over your resolutions? Butterflies are always a good thing when September approaches, so if you’re a PGCEr or NQT starting out with a tummy full of them do not fear, because I think it’s a good sign. I have them still after over twenty years as a teacher. What’s on your list of good intentions for the next academic year?

Life outside the Forest: one year into research

I wonder how many of you have been watching the series of The Island with Bear Grylls, one episode with the men’s group and the other with the women’s. As soon as it began it was hard not to compare the performance of the two groups according to gender.  Would stereotyped behaviour emerge or would our expectations be challenged?  I was certainly shocked how easily half of the women’s group, venturing out to discover a site for a good base, were lost in the wilderness. They spent days without proper food and drink looping in circles through the trees trying to find, firstly their way to the sea, and then to find their way back to camp.  Watching their struggles, Bear informed us that, without the ability to see the sky or any recognisable landmarks, us humans have the tendency to walk in circles. As teachers we can easily relate to the idea of been immersed in the forest, especially with the way our lives our governed by the academic calendar.  We take great strides into the trees in September and emerge in June or July, blinking at the brightness of the sun.  In between we trek well-worn paths and sometimes discover new ones.  We often think we are in a new place, only to realise we have been here many times before.  Our worlds become a life under the canopy.  We listen to the twittering of the birds, but even these can be deceptive.  We think we hear distant sound of those cutting down the forest only to discover that some tweets are mimicking chain saws, causing alarm about supposed new government initiatives, deceptively convincing.

About eighteen months ago I had a difficult choice to make: to make a move to another deputy role, go for some headships, or to carry on with the research I had enjoyed so much as part of my Masters, by starting a doctorate.  I had juggled the Masters work with life as a Deputy, but knew that for me this would not be possible, if I was to keep going with the research.  So I decided to step outside of the forest.  This would allow me to carry on with the research, but also continue some of my favourite aspects of work as a deputy.  I could work with teachers, as they worked through the PGCE process and write material to deliver to teachers through training encounters.  At the end of my first year of research outside the forest, what I have learnt so far about the process?

  1. There is always so much to learn.  I never thought of myself as a great writer, but I didn’t think I was terrible either, but I have learnt so much about the ways I can improve my technique through the superb, critical feedback I have received from my supervisors.  They have challenged every aspect of my thinking process and we don’t get that enough in our working lives.  Teachers are usually such a supportive community that we tend to praise our peers rather than truly critique them.  It’s understandable, given morale at the moment, that the common approach is one of wanting to encourage others.
  2. There’s a lot to learn about the forest whilst being outside of it. Of course I’m not suggesting that it isn’t important for teachers to share good practice with each other. As a deputy I was passionate about learning together as a community, so much good can come from it. However, I’ve been surprised by many colleagues’ quick dismissal of what can be learnt from outside of the forest that can inform and enhance our day to day practice.
  3. Inspiration comes from many places.    I have learnt an awful lot from a host of different sources including the twittering birds of Twitter.  Through my research I have enjoyed the inevitable journal surfing, one journal leads to its references and then that takes you to the next article and so on.  Like many here I’m sure, my Amazon wish list runs into hundreds.  I have also learnt that sometimes we don’t get the chance to encounter some great sources of inspiration.  This can be seen when people share their reading lists, as often the same dozen or so books are there. It’s an argument for access to research, but certainly if there are staff researching in your school it’s a bonus for them to share the good stuff with colleagues.
  4. Life outside the forest isn’t always easy. The regularity of the academic year can make you feel like you are living on a hamster wheel at times, but take that familiar regularity away suddenly and it can really throw you out of kilter.   Teachers often say that the intensely structured life following the timetable of an academic year makes the years fly by. I’ve learnt that’s true, but also that there’s a lot to love about regularity, enjoy the support it gives you and that you always have the freedom to change.
  5. There’s a great view of the forest from here and I actually can see the wood for the trees.  It’s all about a different perspective. Sometimes having the opportunity to step outside can help to see new things about the forest. Just like the women on The Island, with no chance to see the sky or recognisable landmarks, I know there were times when I could not see where I was.  That is why I still see value in the away day INSET, because for that day you step outside of your usual routine. I’ve always felt that the chance to acknowledge the bubble we operate in and to be able reflect upon it is essential.
  6. Some people don’t value my time in the forest.  This really shocked me. I’ve been teaching for over twenty years, but for some my move to senior leadership was enough to push me to cushy forest fringes where I sat in the comfortable visitor’s centre (drinking tea all day apparently).  That was bad enough, but now I’ve basically been asked to leave the forest, because I have no idea of what it’s like to live there. I can, of course relate to there being different experiences of the forest. It’s very different being a lumberjack to say being a botanist. However, I do know what its like. I have learnt a lot from twenty plus years in the woods and I continue to learn from others who share their forest experiences. I have been trained as a teacher, have worked hard as a teacher and I continue to be proud to see myself as a teacher as I continue to teach. Why are some so quick to dismiss that?
  7. There are always new things appearing in the forest. This is one of the most exciting aspects of this life and yet at the same time this can also be a source of frustration. This is why it is important to always remember…
  8. There are many things that do not change. I can recall recently encountering the phrase ‘graphic organisers’ and being excited to discover this new development. I then realised it was essentially structured, i.e. with boxes or trees, etc., handouts. People were raving about their value and it made me laugh given that these have been part of my experience for well over twenty years.
  9. The more questions you ask, the more interesting it gets.   For a number of years I have been fascinated by leadership theory and the impact it has on practical matters.  I am amazed and saddened by those that teach for a living, but are so quick to dismiss any theoretical study of educational leadership.  How does that inspire a love of learning?  The more I study issues of leadership, headship, identity and gender the more I realise these questions definitely still need to be asked.  Another reason why I am a passionate believer in the professional development of teachers.
  10. The forest looks amazing from here. Perhaps it’s because I am not trekking through, looping in circles. In the thick of it, with no break it’s easy to see the forest as some kind of prison, trapping us and sapping our energy. From here, it looks diverse, broad, huge, full of life and energy. New shoots are springing up all over the place ready to be nurtured. I’m hoping those inside don’t build too many fences because being able to go in and out of the forest I think does everyone some good.

Will I return to the forest? I’m not sure. I actually get to spend more time in classrooms now than I did as a deputy, but who knows where this new path goes, for me it’s undiscovered countryside out here.  This weekend I saw three women from The Island on television talking about their experiences of reintegrating back into society, with all its comforts and excesses.  Despite this and despite their lack of food, water, energy as seen on The Island, they were asked which would be their preferred choice – here or there.  For all three it was easy, they wanted to go back there. It’s amazing what perspective can do for us all.

Reflections on Nurture 1314

20140104-154250.jpgI’ve really enjoyed reading colleagues’ reflections on their past year. I have genuinely been in awe at the achievements of my Twitter contemporaries and have put off reflecting on my own path for fear of it being somewhat lacking. The past year has been a year of two halves, the pivotal moment being moving house during the horrible sticky heat of July.

The first half of my year was as a Deputy Head. Being a deputy is a fantastic job. You know how much Stephen Drew looked like he was having fun as Deputy in Educating Essex, well it’s true. One of the reasons why it is a great job is that you work with so many different people, not just amazing students, inspiring teachers, as you might expect, but also astonishing admin teams, incredible caterers, maintenance staff, medical staff, invaluable support staff and creative gardeners. Every day is different, new problems to solve, ideas to debate, plans to implement. There have been quite a few blogs recently that have really been critical of senior leadership teams. This seems unfair on a number of levels. Firstly, it is so easy for teachers to blame the SLT as some kind of non-human amorphous lump. I’ve even seen tweets along the lines of ‘please let us get on with it’ by poor beleaguered teachers, which makes me feel sad. I have no doubt there are bad leaders, ineffective teams and many, many examples of poor communication in schools where staff are not consulted, involved, listened to or recognised. However, there are some amazing, inspirational examples of leadership out there – you only have to read some great blogs to see that.

The second reason I find the ‘us and them’ approach sad is because it seems to be contradictory to the values and morals we are all trying to achieve in our work. Even on twitter, regulars will know of examples of snide comments, gossipy side conversations when hashtag chats are in full swing, it is so boring. We would challenge that in the classroom, but if we don’t challenge it in the staff rooms then we are surely guilty of hypocrisy. Finally, I think that there is a danger that sniping at senior leaders might put teachers off going for promotion – do they really want to take that on?

Before you think I’ve veered too far away from the path of reflection let me say that what was particularly important in that first half of the year was circumstances that convinced me of the importance of research in developing educational theory. Reading educational research on leadership and management in schools inspired me to be constantly reviewing and auditing what it means to be a leader. If, as a teacher, you inspire one child to think for themselves then you’re doing your job well. If, as a leader, you inspire one teacher that they should aim for leadership then you’re doing your job well.

To reflect on my time as a leader in the first half of the year, I hope I did my job well. I really enjoyed working with staff, training on a range of different topics, with the aim of encouraging leadership in others.

This leads me to the second half of the year. I decided to start this blog to accompany the exchanges I was already enjoying so much on Twitter. I continued to write training material on leadership, mentoring, differentiation and have been able to deliver these to different audiences, gaining so much from interacting with teachers in the process. I have also been able to return to writing about RE matters as well, a subject so close to my heart. I have been privileged to be able to carry on my work nurturing trainee teachers, embarking on PGCEs, either at the start of their careers or early on as a way of securing foundational skills. This at a time when the training of teachers is being questioned and PGCE courses closing. Crazy times.  With education constantly changing, technology advancing faster than we can keep up with it, new educational theory challenging us, this is a time for more teacher training, not less.  We shouldn’t think we know it all, there is so much more to know!

For my whole career to date I have been proud to see being a teacher as a profession. I liked that I ticked the professional box in questionnaires about occupations. What surprised me early on and continues to surprise me is the way that many outside of education seem to think anybody can be a good teacher. Even after the actual demonstration that being a good teacher is not about what degree class you have with Jamie Oliver’s academy, we still hear that content knowledge is the same as delivering knowledge. It seems bizarre to me to not see delivering knowledge, enabling learning in others, is a craft, a skill that can constantly be developed. This inspired me to pursue training others. Conversations with others also inspired me to continue to pursue my area of research interest, that different personalities have qualities that lend themselves to certain leadership roles. Women in education can sometimes be forced into certain gender stereotypes which makes them less likely to consider certain roles. Even this week we have been hearing about women in education sometimes being fearful of joining in fully with Twitter debates.

It wasn’t an easy year. It was a year of challenges but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing does it?

Looking ahead. I wonder.

Continue to read and write, but more so. Continue to work with teachers, trainee teachers and mentors, but more so.

Research leadership in education.

Try to paint more.

Stay true to my guiding values and vision.

Be happy.

I want to Continue to Develop Professionally: one teacher’s learning journey

Teachers don’t come out of a box labelled ‘Teach20131115-121424.jpger’. We take a long journey, some longer than others, but still a journey. For many of us it begins with school and with the way in which we were taught ourselves. Either we were lucky enough to have some inspirational teachers who nudged and encouraged us along paths that were new and challenging to us. Or alternatively we had terrible, terrifying experiences that gave us clear ideas about how not to do things and therefore made us think that if we were a teacher we would definitely do things differently.

Next came our degree. Some, lucky enough to know what they wanted to do from early on combined an interest in a particular area with an educational underpinning. The rest of us had a specialism that had become our particular beloved subject. If you work with sixth formers or spent any time with school leavers you’ll know that not all pick their degree subjects out of a deeply held passion for that subject. So it would be interesting to poll colleagues to see just how passionate they were when they came to take their subject. Hopefully, hugely. You come to the end of the degree and do you think, ‘hooray, now I can go and do my teacher training’? Some must do. I’ll be brutally honest, genuinely I wasn’t that sure at all when it came to considering teacher training. A friend working at a university told me to give it a go and if it didn’t work out I would come out of the year with a great qualification. He was right and I was wrong. It was a great move to make, fantastic even.

So now the teacher training. Boy, have we heard some opinions about teacher training of late. I have heard lots of teachers dismiss their PGCE year as inconsequential. I think I must have gone to a really good course with great lecturers (let’s give them a plug – Exeter!) and yes my lecturers were pretty special – including Terence Copley and Ted Wragg, but I definitely think I learnt a lot. If nothing else I thought a lot about things, about what to do if they misbehave, about writing a scheme of work, about how to teach history by building trenches out of tables and chairs (in the days when you had a second subject). I also learnt how hard it was to prepare a million lessons, evaluate them and produce amazing resources every single night. During teaching practices I would meet up at the weekend with a fellow student teacher for soup and bread (financial resources were so limited) and we would encourage each other and commiserate over the latest lesson disasters, ‘oh you had a child faint in your lesson? I can better than, I had a girl cut her hand‘. If nothing else it was practice and people very quickly told us when we did something wrong.

As a senior leader I have been privileged to be able to mentor PGCE trainee teachers through their QTS year. Far from being a waste of a year, it was great to have time to sit and discuss lots of different aspects of teaching, pedagogy and strategies. It’s really tough for PGCE trainee teachers, especially those trying to work a 90% timetable, as their levels of paperwork are huge. Being observed by tough criteria is challenging and I think the process of target setting and checking is a continual process of development. Once you get though the PGCE year there is now the NQT year. I’m so old I didn’t have to do that. It’s quite a frustrating year in some ways if anyone attempts to make it a simple repeat of what has gone before. My last NQT and I kept coming back to the word ‘bespoke’ about what we were trying to achieve. However, I think, depending on the circumstances it is like the process of starting with stabilisers and then taking them off the bike. Someone is there for the few wobbles and occasional crash, but otherwise you’re heading out on your own.

So then you’re on your own. Hopefully, with supportive colleagues, you are still nurtured and encouraged. So how does development continue at this point? Well there has been a lot of flack recently about training away days, but I always liked the space they gave me mentally to listen to an alternative perspective. Even if the trainer did not inspire, it was a different viewpoint or even a reassurance that you’re not doing a bad job. I also ended up organising a national conference for about 200 delegates myself for a few years, and with a small team, we worked for months and months to prepare everything. Ridiculously hard to put on a day for a decent rate that teachers really enjoyed. I know that they are not as fashionable these days, but I still think they are really useful, often because it is an opportunity to tackle a new topic or learn about a new development, but then I would say that.

What has crept up on me is the rise of the Teach Meet – a wondrous phenomenon of the sharing of good practice. Something that senior leadership teams ideally should have been encouraging throughout. I think Teachmeets are amazing events, not least because it is a chance for teachers to get a pat on the back. If they get positive feedback then it is affirming and pushes you on that you’re doing a good job. It’s basically like a lesson observation without the children, which is where for me it’s limitation lies. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing negative about a Teachmeet, but if possible (and there’s the rub) I think lesson observations are better. Not only do you see the amazing teaching idea and all right it’s only one teacher and one lesson, but you see the interaction, the evolution and adaption of the idea which is ultimately what it is all about. So, personally I think the more you are able to observe lessons, the better, that certainly makes it possible to continue to develop professionally.

As a professional I believe that to continue to develop I want to learn from someone who has studied more than me. It means I read some of the amazing academic texts that are have been published. My understanding of teaching has been transformed through reading giants such as Fullan, De Bono, Holt, Grint, Robinson and Cowley. A school I worked in was forward thinking enough to run extended internal INSET with fantastic experienced leaders that challenged me and opened up whole new worlds of academic study that inspired me to do a Masters degree. For me, that is continuing to develop professionally. If I think about teaching an A level class, I would share peer essays for them to think about potential mistakes, or to understand parallel examples, but I wouldn’t teach a new topic with them. I would encourage students to lead revision seminars to ensure their understanding was correct and to help them understand through teaching, but I wouldn’t ask them to teach a new topic.

We can gain a huge amount from sharing good practice amongst peers, but our learning is about pushing forward, about recognising that there is always more to understand. There is so much more I want to learn on my horizon. I thought it was quite sad when I saw someone on Twitter say that they didn’t know a teacher who had ever read an academic educational journal and then make use of it in the classroom. Through twitter we have access to some amazing articles now and sometimes an article from an incredibly different context can inspire new ideas. I remember coming up with a new curriculum idea after reading about the schools in a tiny fishing town in Newfoundland. That’s an amazing thing about professional development, it creeps up on you when you least expect it. I have been lucky enough to be able to deliver INSET in some schools. I love delivering INSET, not because I can’t teach, or have failed as a teacher, but because I am passionate about communicating ideas and being part of that process that gives teachers head space to continue to develop professionally. So the learning journey continues, it’s an education accumulator. We should always share good practice, but let’s not be afraid of the idea of an expert. There’s already too much ‘us and them’ in education, let’s not make learning from academic educational experts as part of CPD another example of it.

“In order to be a teacher you’ve got to be a student first”

Gary L Francione

Teachers are just too darn nice – let’s play Top Trumps! Getting more from lesson observation

I know that one of the ways in which I have been really lucky in my career so far, is that I have been able to go into many, many different classrooms and observe teachers. It is something I love to do, not least because you always learn so much from observing others. Being observed, however, is quite a daunting thing at times. I know that at the start of my career I used to be incredibly nervous when I was observed. My memory tells me that my first observation as an NQT was nothing to celebrate. My observer told me that during the lesson I said “OK” 76 times. Now I’m not sure if I have remembered that number accurately, but I can believe it. I was so nervous. Teachers are on the whole masters of their own domain and so to have a rival authority figure in the classroom does make you question your judgements. I also remember that when I was inspected in my first post, it included a dismal lesson observation that was probably the worst lesson in history. I was so demoralised and embarrassed at how badly I had performed. It really matters that when you are observed you feel like you have shown your best to others. I knew I hadn’t and there were so many things I learnt from that horrible experience. What’s interesting is that I can remember details more vividly from these lessons than I can from the numerous more successful observations over the years. I bet if you asked a few senior leaders they could also tell you some juicy details from terrible lessons they taught, that had been observed.

The thing about lesson observations is that whilst no one particularly is desperate to be critiqued – note critiqued not criticised – it’s the way you learn. This is why I entitled this blog as teachers being too darn nice, because one of ways in which lesson observation can be least effective is when all observers say is that it was really, really good. There are going to be many outstanding practitioners out there and many outstanding lessons, but we all want to get better. Would we think the teacher was any good, who gave back an essay to an A star student with the comment “really great, I learnt a lot“. There are many reasons why feedback from observations tends to be more praise than guidance and I will look at just a few of them.

1. Who am I to judge? Teachers often are humble souls and so they frequently question whether they are experienced enough to be able to suggest improvements to colleagues. Of course it is all about sharing experience because teaching is all about having choices. None of us will respond in exactly the same way each time 20131016-210447.jpgwe are faced with a challenging subject, topic, class or pupil. We select from our great array of strategies as to which would be the best approach at that time. Therefore we should see lesson observation, particularly peer observation like a game of Top Trumps – swapping cards on the best, highest scoring tactics. In recent years I have spent a lot of time observing PGCE students and NQTs, learning so much, because you don’t just learn from people who have been teaching longer than you!

2. Nobody has ever taught me how to do it! Very true. When we train to be teachers we learn how to plan and teach, we don’t learn how to mentor. I do think to be a good mentor you need to work on very different skills. We all know that when we ourselves have been observed, some people have been better at giving feedback than others. If you feel a little uncertain about your mentoring skills then get yourself to some INSET training on it or ask your school to put some training on dedicated to it. It’s an important part of development so definitely worth the investment.

3. Teachers are just too darn nice. When teachers are working collaboratively, boy are they collaborative. It’s all about encouragement and therefore we have to super positive because of the overwhelming sense of solidarity amongst colleagues. There are of course problems with this. Firstly observation just becomes all about back slapping. It’s lovely to be praised and you will frequently find me tweeting that not enough of this goes on in schools (@imisschalk), but bland praise with no substance becomes meaningless. The other problem with this is if peer observation is all lovey dovey it can then make it harder for managers to observe (for example as part of appraisal) and to fairly critique; ‘oh it’s so demoralising, all they do is criticise‘. It is not being nasty to suggest alternative ways to tackle something. If someone were to say to me, ‘this has worked really well for me, you might be able to adapt it for your class’ I think I would be able to take it and not to rush to the staff room in floods of tears.

Teachers are all about having high standards and if outsiders (and by outsiders I mean newspapers and politicians) suggest our standards are slipping we are outraged. Therefore we should carry that through to our observations. If a lesson plan is confusing then say so. If class noise levels got just too loud then ask if they thought so too. If you didn’t understand the main concept or objective then focus discussion on it, it might just be you, but it also might be that several students had the same experience as you. The discussion that can follow from that, carefully managed of course, could be really exciting and a chance to discuss underlying aims, approaches and goals.

It’s been such a tough time in education recently with oh so many changes and it is really easy to forget all the good stuff going on. So many teachers are keen to share good practice that now is the time for really useful observation feedback. This is about standing up for standards, discernment is a good thing! Work scrutinies across the country are looking for comments in pupils’ work that move learning forward, using numerous strategies, so why shouldn’t we want that for ourselves as well? After all that work you put into your planning, do you really just want a ‘Well done!’ or ‘You are working really well’ for your feedback.

So, stop being too darn nice and start being real.