Secret Teacher: I’m always watching!


So this week’s Guardian secret teacher hates lesson observations: oh well. So do I when they’re going badly.  But the secret teacher seems to hate them on principle or at least hates them because they think that I have so few principles when it comes to observing lessons: convinced that I spend my time only looking for Ofsted particulars so I can copy and paste sentences from the Ofsted inspection handbook as I write my SEF.

So, I will try and put you at ease with my thoughts and processes for observing lessons as I try to explain a few things from my end. My first big concern about your highly negative perception of lesson observations is that you feel a single ‘bad performance’ may result in you going on capability measures. From my perspective this shows me that:

1.       Your SLT are actually insane if that is the way they run the school-if they’re judging ‘teaching & learning’ as required improvement then by the same criteria I hope they’re judging themselves as inadequate because Ofsted will! OR:

2.       You haven’t been listening and that ‘bad performance’ is actually indicative of your on-going underperformance in general. OR:

3.       You have no idea about how observations work.

An observation is only part of a lengthy process that looks at the overall effectiveness of your teaching. For example:

So your lesson (‘performance’) was good: big whoop! You haven’t marked you books for bloody ages, your plans are the same from last year and those pupils we identified earlier on as being your target group have made next to no progress since September. Still pleased with the lesson judgement? So you can pull a lesson out of the bag when required but that’s not really good enough is it?

Luckily, this also works in reverse. Your lesson was crap – seriously, on all levels it was awful! It was really boring, I could see you were nervous, you went on for AGES so let’s just forget it: however progress is pretty consistent in your class, your marking is spot on and I can see that you have already adapted tomorrow’s lesson to make up for the lesson today. We’ve all had terrible lessons (and not just during observations) but other indicators suggest that all that hard work you do is paying off.

Now if the latter happened I would naturally go through with you why the lesson missed the mark and I would explore some key issues. I will even give you some suggestions on how to improve your teaching because, I do know quite a lot about teaching believe it or not. These ideas may be around the specific area of the lesson or they may be more general teaching strategies that you could apply in other situations, and like it or not they would be primarily based upon supporting rates of progress.  We would have to agree on another time for me to come and see you and that would give you a chance to put some of these ideas into action.

What else did The Secret Teacher not like:

  1. being told to do group work
  2. keeping teacher talk to no more than 5 minutes
  3. demonstrating progress every ten minutes.

On the surface, I agree with you on issue one-the beauty/frustration of teaching is that it requires variation in delivery: what is effective in one lesson does not translate to another. I personally couldn’t care less about individual or group work but I do want to see the pupils working.

Keeping teacher talk down to 5 minutes is a cute trick and one to try. I have often fed back to teachers with the concept of: ‘What if you only had 5 minutes to get that concept across…could you do it?’ Most of the time this is because the teacher spent too long explaining – no, actually, they spent a quality 8 minutes explaining but then went over and over again until every child and me wanted to shout ‘We get it, please can we do some work on our own now?’ by then there was fifteen minutes left and guess what: at the end of the lesson it was impossible to see in the books if anyone had ‘got it’.

Teachers can ‘go on’ for loads of different reasons (nerves, need to be in control, fear of behaviour issues, they were up all night making a costume for their input and they’re going to get value for money out of it, they’ve taken the idea of ‘judging teaching’ too literally and think I am only watching them) but sometimes a truly great teacher can get things across in the shortest amount of time…then spends the lesson supporting/challenging individuals and groups of pupils.

Demonstrate progress every ten minutes: well this does seem a little contrived but there are enough ways out there for a teacher to gauge progress within a lesson for this to happen more than once. The biggest lag factor affecting progress within lessons is for pupils to be engaged in stuff they can actually already do. Get around the class and if they’re not sufficiently challenged move them on. There are times when pupils need to consolidate and if it’s boring: tough. My only advice is that if your observation is booked two weeks in advance or if Ofsted are coming tomorrow: do yourself a favour and keep that consolidation lesson in your pocket until a later date. If you haven’t droned on for half the lesson, I will have enough time to work my way around the class and I will soon learn how well the pupils in your class are learning and we’ll talk about them during the feedback. (That could be why you went on, hoping I would leave before I got the chance…but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on that one.)

Finally, the secret teacher wants to be trusted to do their job. Well, believe it or not but I want you to be the best teacher in the world too and formally observing you is one way I can help that come true (if it isn’t already). There are set times for observations because I’m busy doing loads of other things and there are more of you than me so give me a chance to see you all. However, every time I come into your class I’m observing; every time I stand by your door and listen for three minutes I am informing myself about the quality of your teaching; every time I flick through your books when you’re on break duty I am checking that you are doing your job consistently. If that sounds creepy or highly untrusting: sorry but in my job, I have to be sure. Because if I keep hearing you shouting at your class, if your books are not marked consistently, if the atmosphere in your room is not positive then I need to know as soon as possible so I can help you sort it out. I trust you to support me in helping you and now you can trust me and get a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s observation knowing whole heartedly what I’m looking for.

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3 thoughts on “Secret Teacher: I’m always watching!

  1. Cath August 12, 2013 / 2:40 pm

    Thanks for this. As someone about to embrace headship, I found it reassuring!

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