Judge Me!

Lesson judgements: how valuable are they? A different question to how ‘valued’ are they? (Which if you believe what you read on Twitter the answer is um, well, what’s the least valued thing you own? Well smash it to pieces with a hammer and chuck it in the sea and you kind of get the idea.) I do however find them valuable. I don’t consider a lesson judgement to be the sealed fate of a teacher but they can help support an evolving picture of teaching and learning in someone’s classroom. They can also be the springboard for a quality discussion about a lesson that can lead into deeper discussions about pedagogy and teaching styles which for me is a welcome break from talking about pay policy, universal free school meals and whatever changes have been made to the new renewed just published finalised next draft of the Ofsted inspection framework.

On this particular matter of being pro-lesson judgements you are going to have to imagine that when I discuss the judgement with the teacher it is done nicely, appropriately and fairly. I appreciate that is a pretty big ask but just run with it.

Putting it bluntly (and this is not meant to represent the manner in which I offer my feedback and judgement) I think it is good for teachers to know:

a) How that individual lesson stood up against whatever observation criteria you are using in order to provide some kind of ‘benchmark’.

b) How that lesson contributes to the other evidence used to make a judgement of quality of teaching over time.

c) That I know what I’m talking about.

Anyone who has had to give a less than ‘good’ judgement during feedback will know that it is at those times that reason c) seems the most important. It’s one thing for a teacher to feel rubbish (because we all do when we’re told any part of our practice is not good) but at least they can be told by someone they trust. And again, you’re going to have to take my word for it that I know a thing or two about teaching…seriously just go with me here.

I think in reality, it is reason b) which has become vitally important to get across very, very loudly and clearly when feeding back and sharing a judgement. Not only because I feel that the most important judgement is that of quality of teaching over time rather than quality of teaching within an hour but also because it is the one reason that teachers tend not to hear no matter how clearly you try to make it. (Talk about a positive sandwich; teachers tend to need an extra side order of happy chips with an extra thick affirmative milkshake with a cherry on top – even then they’ll still focus on the hair that was found in the middle of the first bite)

So in case I haven’t made my thoughts clear: I like judging lessons.




Something happened recently that made me adapt my opinion. I haven’t changed my mind – I still think dissecting a lesson in order to make a judgement is still a perfectly sound and effective way of developing teaching BUT I’m wondering if it is more effective to share this with teachers when it isn’t about their teaching.

Let me explain: during a recent set of interviews, a teacher joined me in the lesson observations section. Throughout the lessons we were able to discuss what was happening and I was able to challenge the teacher into considering why a lesson had ‘tipped’ into RI or had become inadequate. Afterwards, the teacher reflected and said how they had found it interesting to see the process of judging lessons ‘from the other side’ and how by being detached from the teaching they were able to see more clearly the points at which during an individual lesson, judgements begin to get formed.

What followed was a short discussion about how these individual lessons could impact upon pupil achievement if the quality of the teaching remained at that level for a sustained period of time. Suddenly it became clear why an RI lesson needs to be analysed and issues addressed so that key pupils make progress rather than get left behind. The teacher said it was a genuinely interesting and valuable experience and possibly more so than their own observations.

So I began to wonder if it would be beneficial for all teachers to see all ranges of lessons done by other teachers. There would be no emotional attachment that can cloud key messages, opportunities to consider the impact of repeated exposure of unsuccessful lessons on pupil progress and the chance to compare particular lesson traits with your own. It’s a safe way to make strong judgements that can really support teachers improve and develop their own teaching.

It sounds ideal; there’s just one problem. How can I make sure teachers see unsuccessful lessons? Well I could constantly interview and select the worst candidates: not sure HR would approve. I could set up peer observations across the school and hope that most of the lessons are appalling – not sure that’s a particularly healthy way to run a school. Or I could teach. I could deliberately teach poor lessons and invite teachers to observe me and together we could identify why my lesson was not good. Although I am an outstanding teacher and like to think my staff agree and consider me to my a wise and knowledgeable  professional who knows how to successfully move every child on: I probably could force myself to teach inadequately time and time again. (Now, call me paranoid but I sense you are all finding that bit quite easy to believe!)

How many pupils does it take to get inadequate?


I’ve just had an HMI visit. It wasn’t an official 6 weeks after Ofsted visit; it was one out of the three support visits that any requires improvement school is entitled to before the next full inspection.

I dictated the day and had telephone conversations and emails with my inspector who just asked me to make sure that the day was useful to me. ‘Nothing,’ he said, ‘nothing that I see will trigger an inspection’ (except safeguarding issues such as, oh I don’t know, a child leaving your premises and being missing for an hour) ‘and nothing that I recommend needs to be obeyed-it’s just some extra help’.

Now, I could have sent him to areas of the school that I know we’ve improved with the aim of getting some validation. But in all seriousness: why waste an opportunity! No, I welcome the challenge and advice. Plus I genuinely, one hundred percent respect this particular inspector- he is painfully astute at times and his approach is purely supportive to the point that I  may be developing a serious man-crush.

It was a tough old day. He did see some ropey lessons and worse he saw them with me meaning I had to say it as I saw it (or at least how I knew he saw it) in order to make sure he didn’t back out of his agreement not to trigger a full section 5. But by the end of the day he was left assured that we were ‘on the right track’.

Lesson observations: they got more abuse on twitter than Michael Gove at an NUT rally. The main grudge seems to be: don’t judge me as a teacher based on one lesson – and if you’re talking purely ofsted that one lesson becomes 20 minutes of a lesson. I understand the frustrations felt by teachers and have written about it before with the main thrust of my argument being a good SLT should not judge the quality of teaching on an observation but through a variety of evidence.

Take my handsome challenging HMI inspector. He saw lessons that could be judged inadequate but after looking at books and planning and talking to my middle leaders he was satisfied that the lesson did not reflect the day to day quality of teaching. So I was pleased because overall he was satisfied that my claims of school improvement were not just hot air and he was pleased because I was able to come out and say a lesson was inadequate.

Inadequate. It is such a horribly loaded word that has no supporting features whatsoever. When uttered all it does is break people. But we are all going to have to grit our teeth and accept the fact that it is part of the fabric of school improvement. It hurts – no, in fact it stings. It smarts more than the public humiliation of defecating into your swimming trunks after belly-flopping off the top diving board (er…I imagine). And the immediate response is denial or trying to nonchalantly shrug it off as unimportant but you can’t accept the fact that everyone can see poo dripping down your leg as you get out of the pool someone believes that you just taught really badly.

20 minutes. That really gets on people’s nerves. Can you really judge a lesson to be inadequate after only 20 minutes? Look at it from a different perspective: in 20 minutes worth of a lesson, learning didn’t occur. Does that still sound harsh? Probably. Well get a load of this: it may be because in 20 minutes worth of lesson, learning didn’t occur for some pupils. What? I know. It’s tough. But I watched three children on the carpet (subtly) do nothing for ten minutes. They didn’t engage, they didn’t really answer any questions and then when they went off to do their work they didn’t really know what to do. I looked in their book and they were doing the same work as everyone else. Plus, the teacher didn’t go near them-they stayed with the SEN group-it’s as if those three children had gone unnoticed under the radar. But it’s only three pupils! How many pupils does it take to get inadequate? (In other words: how low are your expectations?)

In 20 minutes, that will get you an inadequate. Why? Not because three children in 20 minutes didn’t make progress at a significant rate; but because the teacher did nothing about it. Now, this is why a lesson observation should only be part of the process. Planning over time, work in books over time might show great learning over time for those pupils and all the others. If it does: great you are a good+ teacher. However, if planning over time shows you don’t cater for those pupils’ needs, if work in books show no progress or clear differentiation and assessment is either static or inaccurate then what I saw in those 20 minutes starts to take on more serious connotations.

As a school leader I try really, really hard to make sure my staff understand that lesson observations offer a snapshot: give me a way in. If they tally with planning, work in books, assessments and progress then it gives me an overall assessment of the value for money of your teaching over time. If it doesn’t tally (lesson was awful:  everything else fine; lesson was great: everything else ain’t) then it gives me somewhere to start supporting you. HMI saw that this was the case and left saying, ok I saw some not great stuff in lessons but I think those lessons were anomalies and all other evidence suggests that teaching and achievement is improving.

However this still leaves us with a conundrum: could a school get ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’ if ofsted only saw requires improvement or inadequate lessons? Truly good and better schools will have all the other evidence to suggest that they are indeed good or better. And even the best teachers can mess up a lesson or even lessons (because remember, how many pupils have to not make progress to form a poor judgement). It is also possible (in terms of probability) that in one school at one given point in time, every teacher in the school will deliver inadequate lessons (one or more pupils not making visible progress in a twenty minutes time frame) throughout the day. But if EVERYTHING else indicates the contrary, will ofsted’s overall judgement overrule this fact? Will we ever read an outstanding ofsted report that reads: ‘the inspectors observed 15 lessons over one day and all were judged to be inadequate: the quality of teaching and achievement in this school is outstanding’?

I don’t know..but it sounds like a bloody good challenge!

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.

For the original article please follow the link: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/aug/10/secret-teacher-lesson-observations-playing-the-system