As teachers, year after year we strive to become better at what we do in the classroom. Like many of you I find myself asking “what can I do to make more engaging lessons and allow my students to learn the information better?” Many times the answer is observe other teachers and collaborate with other teachers to see what they are doing, but we still do not take the time to do this.
The idea of an open classroom can scare teachers; with an open classroom we are open for criticism, but we are also open for feedback and compliments. I read an interesting article Open up your classroom: we need a new approach to lesson observations (See below) Which begins by saying that the Queen believe hospitals smell like fresh paint because they are always touched up and given a fresh look right before she comes to visit. This is a mask over all of the problems and wear of the hospital and eventually the paint will dry and the problems will begin to show through.
We are hiding behind our doors and moving from day to day without feedback other than the few times that we are told administration will come in which leads us as teachers to plan for hours more than we do on a daily basis. We as teachers are the best resource for one another so why not use these resources? We know what works with the students in the building and what does not work. With the lighthouse roll out it is imperative that we open our doors and allow for people to view the amazing work that we are doing!
Keep an open mind and an open door as we move to increase engagement and learning EVERY day!
Shawn Girch, Business Education Department Chair
Open up your classrooms: we need a new approach to lesson observations
If I can achieve an outstanding after five hours of prep, but usually I plan lessons in 20 minutes, am I outstanding?
There’s a story going around that the Queen thinks hospitals smell of fresh paint because every time she visits one all the corridors are touched up before she arrives. There’s an obvious flaw in this anecdote; namely, I’m not sure in 62 years her Majesty has ever expressed an opinion about anything, so how anyone knows what she thinks is beyond me. But there is also something there about false impressions.
Lesson observations in schools are creating a new-paint kind of smell. I listened a couple of weeks ago to a former colleague who told me they’d spend hours planning a lesson for an observation by their boss. Resources had been perfected, an incredibly detailed lesson plan written and an overly-complicated PowerPoint produced. Why? The opinion of their boss matters, as it should, and they were aiming for an outstanding judgment.
There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s highly commendable. I want all our teachers to aspire to delivering outstanding lessons. I’d certainly like to think that if we get the dreaded call that our staff would show the same dedication as this excellent teacher. But isn’t this twisted logic?
The teacher here is using up the one resource we don’t have a lot of as teachers – time. Not all lessons can be planned and prepped to this level of detail, so the question that needs to be asked is: is the system of judgment on teachers counter productive? If you know with a week’s notice that you’re going to be observed teaching year 8, then most people are going to make sure that lesson is as stellar as possible. But what about the other lessons that week? If I can achieve an outstanding after five hours of prep, but usually I plan lessons in 20 minutes, is it fair to class me as an outstanding teacher?
We judge like this in schools because this is how schools are judged. Or it’s how we think they’re judged. Ofsted gives (an increasingly short amount of) notice, teachers cram in hours of planning and produce lessons that in all likelihood don’t resemble their normal teaching style. The inspectors are hopefully impressed. It used to work. But as judgments are increasingly based on outcomes and inspectors are becoming more savvy at asking kids whether this is the normal way of learning, actually these hours are somewhat wasted. They’re not falling for the new paint smell, and nor should they. So we need to move away from this.
The wise heads reading this will be tutting at my naivety and saying “we know, but that’s not how we form opinions of teachers”. Those people will argue that good school leaders base their decisions and opinions on dropping into lessons, picking up books to see if they’re marked and talking with students. And they’re quite right. So why do we continue with this outdated system of pre-planned lesson observations? Arguably the only way to make them worthwhile would be if the observer appeared, unannounced and watched the lesson. That would give a fair view of teaching standards and for effective judgments to be made.
Culturally, though, schools aren’t there yet. There is a distrust of the observer, and a closed mindset among teachers. We’re all guilty of it. If we’re going to get better at what we do, constructive feedback and an open mindset is needed. Easy words to write, but the easiest starting point is watching others and allowing others to watch you in a real, non-staged environment.
Now ask yourself whether you’d be up for that. I’ll be leaving my door open.
Pete Smith is assistant headteacher at East Bergholt High School.