Lessons in Feedback 4a: Pleasing the Parents

#28daysofwriting Day 3

In my previous post on this subject, I suggested that there’s only one thing teachers need to do in the independent sector and that’s please the parents.

So the big question is how. What do parents who pay actual money for the children to go to school want? I think they want opportunities for the children. Opportunities to excel at sport and music. Opportunities to broaden their life experience. Opportunities to excel academically.

I’ve discovered in my short time in the independent sector that parents love getting feedback about their children. A quick chat turns into a mini-parents’ consultation. An email turns into an essay about their child. I was warned when I started that you have to be prepared to say no, otherwise the demands become ever-increasing and unmanageable.

I wanted to do something proactive. Something that would enable to efficiently keep the parents in touch with what is going on in the classroom. I’d heard of Class Dojo, but never used it at my previous schools. It sounded like the right sort of thing. A web-based platform that also works on Android and iOs devices that can connect with parents. It sounded like I should set it up.

On my first day in class, at 7:30am I still hadn’t done anything about Class Dojo. I logged onto my computer, set up an account and by the time the pupils were coming in an hour later I had setup all their names and my behaviour system. It was fantastic.

By the second week I had all the parents connected. They were watching videos (I use Magisto for this, as I posted previously), seeing photos of their children’s work and communicating with me about lost items and organisational details. I swiftly found that by being proactive about feedback to the parents, I kept the impromptu parents consultation to a minimum and dealt with small matters before they big issues.

Were the parents happy? Yes. And what’s more, because they were in touch with what was going on in the classroom, they could be part of the feedback loop with their own children, an extra voice helping the children refocus on their learning and make better progress. Awesome.

Lessons in Feedback 4: Pleasing the Parents

One of the things I have loved about moving to the private sector in Education is how straightforward it is. It works like this: if the parents are happy, they pay the fees and the school stays open.

I’ve drawn a picture to show this:

How private education works

Of course, the challenge is to know what to do to keep the parents happy, i.e. the ‘???’ in my diagram. I think the bulk of the answer is ‘feedback’ and I’ll come to that, but it’s worth considering just how complex the equivalent picture is for state schools.

In state schools you have to keep the parents happy. And you also have to keep Ofsted happy. And your local authority, or Academy chain if that’s relevant. And you have do well enough with your SATs scores to keep a decent position in the league tables. The pictures looks more like this:

State school have more things to think about

My diagram is by no means accurate, but I hope it shows that people running state schools have a lot more ‘stakeholders’ to please. This obviously filters down to the teaching, because pleasing parents, pleasing Ofsted and attaining brilliant SATs results are three different things (related, but different); therefore, they require more complexity. Often we hear the phrase ‘putting the children first’, and that’s a lovely sentiment, but the reality is that there are many different factors affecting what goes on in the classroom.

Anyway, I need to get back to the point about providing feedback to please the parents and so I will. But it will be in the next post.

 

Lessons in Feedback #3: instant images

This week I could see that some pupils weren’t getting it and others clearly were. When this happens I like to the use the good work of some as exemplars to those who haven’t ‘got it’ yet.

But how to do this?

Of course, I could wait, mark the good work and the bad work and then start the next lesson by showing some how they have failed. But this seems a little harsh to me.

Or I could hold up the good work and talk about what makes it so good. But then some can’t see it.

The best thing for me is to instantly show an image of the good work so that all can see what their successful peers have done and work towards getting it.

Now I’ve had very efficient ways of doing this in the past at previous schools:

  • visualisers are great, but I don’t have one in my classroom.
  • I’ve found an iPad connected to an Apple TV to work great.
  • I’ve tried to use an Android tablet with a Chromecast, but the wifi settings of a Chromecast are often not geared for the networks found in schools and so don’t work.
  • a tablet with Reflector App on your PC works well, so I’m told, but I haven’t got that working in my classroom yet.

And so, without the required technology, I was forced to take a photo on my tablet, share the photo with my computer (via the cloud) and then display the photo on the screen. Rather an inefficient process.

Although this took a few extra seconds, it was still a more efficient way of feeding back than holding up the work and expecting everyone to see from all over the classroom.

And now I’ve added the ‘more efficient image feedback’ heading to my New Year’s resolution mindmap – so I have to find a more efficient solution by the end of the year.

Lessons in Feedback 2: Video

Recently I moved from teaching Key Stage 2 pupils (aged 7-11) to Key Stage 1 (aged 5-7). Suddenly my written feedback had no meaning as, being five, most of my pupils couldn’t read anything I wrote. They also didn’t have the self awareness for feedback to actually make an impact beyond that lesson. I needed something that would enable them to reconnect with their learning, both later on (like after a weekend), and at home.

The answer was video.

I started using a service called Magisto. This collects your videos and photos, then edits them into a splendid-looking short movie with sound and effects. It is free if you want to do 20 videos or less, but if you need to add more you have to pay a yearly subscription. Here’s an example of some stop-motion videos I collected into one Magisto movie.

Each week I would take a few photos and videos of work and activities in the classroom, then put them into Magisto and share the resultant video with the pupils and parents. It often took less than ten minutes.

What I found was that it was a great way of getting 5-year olds to remember what they had done in the previous week and therefore connect them with their learning. Also it provided a way to engage the parents with their child’s progress, so that they too could talk to their child about their learning.

The children and the parents loved having this and it became a far more effective way of feeding back than marking. One father told me that his son, who had made tremendous academic progress during year 1, had only done so because of the video feedback.

It made me realise that for this age of children engaging the parents is the most important thing you can do.

Lessons in Feedback 1: Marking

For a few years now, educators have been working with the influential Sutton Trust Teaching and Learning Toolkit in their back of their minds. This states that the best value, most effective thing you can do is provide effective feedback.

Many schools have taken ‘feedback’ to mean ‘marking’ and this has arisen to a whole load of both sad and funny stories about pen colours. The best of these, in my opinion, is this one. While for some schools, the marking policy has resulted in a greatly increased teacher workload, others have seemed to have a more enlightened approach. I was surprised to find my son who is in Year 10 at a local grammar school asking me for a particular colour of pen similar to one I use. It seems that at his school, the teachers ask the students to do their own marking. Brilliant – not every teacher is being beaten by the marking policy – some get their students to do it.

My own experience of ‘being beaten by the marking policy’ involved my handwriting, which to be honest, did tend to get a bit spidery, especially towards the end of the a set of thirty books. I also had a conversation with a school leader in which I was criticised for crossing out a word. Apparently a teacher should set the best example and use Tippex when they make a mistake in their marking.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve drifted from the idea of providing effective feedback so that a student can gain greater understanding and have become more concerned with how books look so that external visitors will get the best idea of the school.

The Frantic Curriculum

I attended a curriculum meeting at my children’s primary school recently. It was presented be a couple of school leaders and it soon became clear that the new (2014) National Curriculum had made them frantic.

The frantic was subtle at first. Just undertones of frantic like an out-of-tune bassoon at the back of an orchestra. Little dissatisfied notes like ‘I don’t know why they put that statement in there…’ and the like.

By the end of the meeting, the whole wind section was off with comments like ‘Gove didn’t know what he was doing’ and ‘ this bit is just too hard.’

Personlly, I quite like the 2014 curriculum. I included it in 4 posts I wrote some time ago about the broad and balanced curriculum I think school should follow. At the time I categorised these into 4 strands:

But I was clear then, and I’m still clear now that the National Curriculum is not the only determiner of what should be taught in schools. Education is broader than that.

And I think that part of the growing sense of frantic in UK education is because teachers can’t see past the National Curriculum. This is certainly true of what I heard at the meeting at my children’s school.

Aside from the fact that most people don’t like change, so change in itself can be a frantic event, there is the issue that some parts of the curriculum are genuinely harder.

This means if you’ve been teaching in one year group for a while and it happens to be a year group with some significant changes, the likelihood is that you’ll need to look at your subject knowledge. This is fine, if schools recognise the need and calmly set about training teachers in the right areas. But I can see that where schools don’t put time and energy into developing the subject knowledge of their staff, then the curriculum will be just one more thing tipping teachers over the edge.

Don’t panic; sweep.

While researching my previous post, I came across another Michael Ende quote that encapsulates much of how I feel leadership has gone wrong in UK Education to make it all go so frantic.

I haven’t even read the book it’s from yet, though I now feel I need to.

Here it is:

“…it’s like this. Sometimes, when you’ve a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is and feel sure you’ll never get it swept. And then you start to hurry. You work faster and faster and every time you look up there seems to be just as much left to sweep as before, and you try even harder, and you panic, and in the end you’re out of breath and have to stop–and still the street stretches away in front of you. That’s not the way to do it.

You must never think of the whole street at once, understand? You must only concentrate on the next step, the next breath, the next stroke of the broom, and the next, and the next. Nothing else.

That way you enjoy your work, which is important, because then you make a good job of it. And that’s how it ought to be.

Michael Ende, Momo, 1973

School leaders have the responsibility to ensure their teachers are great, because great teachers make an amazing difference to children’s lives.

But many of our school leaders no longer inspire greatness. Instead, they measure how much sweeping* has been done, encouraging teachers to focus on how much sweeping* they have failed to do, rather than enjoying the act of sweeping*.

Since changing jobs in September, I’ve been able to enjoy teaching again. Of course, this may be because I’ve moved to the independent sector, I’m not sure, but this I do know:

  • there are less formal lesson observations.
  • there is more reporting to parents
  • pupil progress meetings do not exist.
  • there are more parents evenings and generally I have 100% attendance at each one.
  • There is one yearly, formal assessment.
  • There are no SATs or Year 1 phonics screening tests.

In short I am being measured less and the bottom line is that if parents are happy, the school gets paid and can continue functioning. The outcome of this is that I enjoy my job. Every day.

*of course, in this instance sweeping is a metaphor for teaching.

The Servant of the Nothing

The Nothing from the Neverending Story
The Nothing, actually looking a bit like a something

On Tuesday, I quoted Gmork, the evil servant of the Nothing from the Neverending story.

Of course, when the film-makers tried to depict author Michael Ende’s ‘Nothing’ they had to choose ‘something’ to show it. So they chose stormy clouds. It looked quite effective. In 1984.

In Michael Ende’s original story, the Nothing was more sinister than storm clouds. It was an emptiness that signified the death of ideas and dreams. It was madness to look at it. It was a hole in the soul, best described by one of Michael Ende’s fantasy creatures, a bark troll:

“You don’t feel a thing. There’s just something missing. And once it gets hold of you, something more is missing every day. Soon there won’t be anything left of us.”

And here’s the thing: I was once a servant of the Nothing. I think I might have done school leadership well at one point. But then someone pointed out that my action plans needed more measurable targets. And so I chose the easy things to measure – the half termly progress numbers that are actually meaningless. Then I heard that someone else was using non-negotiables in the school, and instead of saying “well that’s a doomed approach,” I decided I could set even more non-negotiables.

My actions plans were SMART. There was no room for original thought. My teachers could all look forward to being compliant. I had contributed to the death of ideas and dreams, replacing them with, well, nothing much.

As a person that depends on creativity for my own motivation, I had actually caused more more damage to myself than anyone else, but for all those teachers who remember the staff meetings with me standing up and sharing another new document, probably packed full of non-negotiables – I’m sorry.

I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’m sure there are leadership teams out there who’ve replaced inspiration for measurement, contributing to taking dreams away rather than building them up.

The Empress of Fantasia has the last grain of sand in her hand and is about to hand it over to Bastien.
The Empress hands over the last grain of Fantasia

But there’s still time to come back. After all, Fantasia was rebuilt with only a grain of sand and some imagination. We can surely do the same with the UK education system and bring it back from the Nothing.

 

 

How do you measure eternity?

Why are teachers so frantic? One reason is that they went into teaching for one thing, and discovered it was something else. Edward Burton got me thinking about this in his comment on a previous post about the measurement community, which you should really go and read.

Meanwhile, a Henry Adams quote, though usually taken out of context, comes to mind:

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where their influence stops.”

Henry Adams 1938-1918.

Whether you take that positively, or negatively (as it was first written), it is the fact that measuring eternity is a very hard thing to do.

And surely here’s the problem.

Teachers go into teaching expecting to positively affect children’s lives. They want to teach them so that they can have better futures. But when they get into teaching they find that they are measured half termly on arbitrary progress numbers that have more to do with performance than learning. They find they are given a raft of non-negotiables that they have to comply with. As Edward Burton points out:

Things which are easy to see are easier to measure.

And so managers measure the easy stuff and forget that the true measure of a child’s education is what that child is doing in twenty years time, or the kind of person they are forty years from now, or their impact on eternity.

And you can’t measure that stuff.

It’s no wonder that we’re frantic. Desperately trying to meet goals that we don’t believe in. Desperately trying to prove that we’re doing a good job. Distraught at our lack of perfection. Frantic.

 

Goals, Roles, Processes, Relationships.

  1. Goals
  2. Roles
  3. Processes
  4. Relationships

In that order. Don’t forget the sequence.

It’s basic leadership theory. You can learn about it easily by doing the NPQH or pretty much any other leadership course. But putting that theory into practise is a little harder.

When something goes wrong in schools it’s normally because somebody didn’t follow that order.

Maybe they put relationships as their top priority and forgot that the school is there for something – it should have a goal.

Or maybe they defined the goal brilliantly but then didn’t define roles too well, so that the conscientious teachers went above and beyond their duty and ended up burning out and growing bitter.

I think the problem I’ve seen and experienced first hand recently is that we have become a ‘process-led education system’. In my previous post I asserted that too many non-negotiables take away any sense of control a teacher has. They then lose hope. Non-negotiables are an example of a process-led system. Setting non-negotiables says: this is how we do things. Now do them. Setting them without a goal and without defining roles is a symptom of a ‘frantic’ leadership team. They have become too busy to explain their actions or to think carefully about who is best suited to carry out them. And relationships: well, forget those.

If we are to get back to a collective emotional state that is calm and purposeful, without being frantic (my first post on this subject), then leadership teams are going to have to be brave and set their goals first, then define their roles for achieving the goals, then the processes by which the different roles can be fulfilled and finally work on the relationships so that everyone can get on and work positively with each other.

Easy really.