I’m only as good as my last… [fill in the blank]

Sundays do not count towards the 40 days of lent, so I’m in my rights to give up my writing for the day, as it won’t contribute towards the #40daysofwriting I’ve taken up for Lent. However, I’ve decided to continue writing on Sundays, but make these posts less educationish and more reflective.

This one’s about identity.

I heard it commented this week how Jose Mourinho’s ‘stock had fallen’ in recent times. The ex-Chelsea and Real Madrid manager has won more than most and has an international reputation. Yet like all of us he’s only as good as his last game or his last season. And if it was failure, then it can’t be very good.

I feel the same.

I’m only as good as my last… [fill in the blank]. For most teachers the blank is filled in like this: [observed lesson].

For me, I feel this pressure too. I place much of my identity in what people say about my teaching. Especially observers. When I was observed in the school’s previous Ofsted in 2012, I was so delighted by the inspector’s judgement of ‘Outstanding’ that I wrote an extensive post about it. I was proud. I was successful. I was ‘outstanding’.

But this year, when my headteacher saw me teach in September he said my teaching required improvement. I had positioned myself with my back to some children. These children then went off task during the lesson so a significant group had not made progress. It was irrelevant that this was my first reading lesson in 5 years (I had been doing maths interventions during that period). Some children had not made progress during the lesson. I was disappointed. I was down on myself. I ‘required improvement’.

Two opposite experiences had occurred, each one with an effect on my identity. Because it has become clear to me that I place much of my self-worth in my competence at my job. But surely my identity is more than that.

At the top of my blog I label myself ‘educator and pub-theorist’ (the latter not because I spend all my time in a pub, but because most of my theories are worthy of being generated in such a place). On Twitter I have labelled myself as ‘frogphilp’, perhaps indicating a slight irreverence and lack of seriousness. I am a dad, a husband, a son. I am a gamer, a whisky drinker, a guitarist.

And yet for all these different aspects of my identity, the thing that knocks me back the most is having a bad observation.

I’ve been considering both the negative and positive factors on my identity over recent months in the light of the negative emotions brought about by the negative observation. I think that for me there are things that I can do that make me more vulnerable to a negative reaction like I had, but there are also things that I can do that protect me and make me more resilient to such reactions. But that’s a post for next Sunday.


What I learned from ungraded lesson observations

After 4 years in my role as deputy headteacher, grading every lesson I observed, I finally moved to ungraded lessons this term. I’d like to explain the context of my school here, but for various reasons, not least the brevity of this post, I’m going to limit this post to the things I learned; the ‘why move to ungraded lessons’ can wait for another time.

  1. Teachers talked to me more about their weaknesses. We might dress it up in management-speak ‘areas for development’ but let’s face it, we all have weaknesses. And for the first time in forever teachers were able to talk to me about them. “Maths is not my strong point,” said one teacher, honestly. “No, I find teaching the less able children really hard,” said another. This helps me help the teachers. It means that pride we can adopt based on our last observation is put to one side. We can let it go.
  2. Teachers were more experimental. Previously on a ‘round of observations’, I wouldn’t have seen anything other than quite formulaic: introduction-main activity-plenary lessons. But in this round I saw split introductions where teachers introduced a harder topic for more able children after they had already sent the other groups to the main activity and I saw a lesson which the teacher extended by 20 minutes just because she thought it was going well.
  3. Mistakes were celebrated. I saw a lesson that completely bombed – the teacher and the children knew it. The pitch was all wrong and far too challenging for each group. When I went in later that day the children all told me ‘FAIL – First Attempt In Learning’. They had a laugh about it and went on to having better pitched lessons for the rest of the week.
  4. I noticed things that I hadn’t noticed before. For example in one year group in which I really rate the teacher because she engages the children so well, I noticed a couple of misconceptions that she was teaching the children. They were minor examples of misteaching but would involved some reteaching by another teacher higher up the school at some later date.
  5. There are still some teachers who want to be graded. Some prefer the contentment of knowing that their last lesson was ‘outstanding’. I found it hard to stop myself from confirming an ‘official’ grading and one occasion (slapped wrist, Steve) I did so. Must remind myself to be more determined to remain unjudgemental next time…

Google Docs and the “Ofsted Outstanding” Lesson

It has taken 15 years and 8 Oftsed inspections, but I have finally achieved an Outstanding lesson at Ofsted.

For those people not from the UK, Oftsed is the national body that inspects state-funded education, and ‘Outstanding’ is the highest grade they give.

I’m aware that I could be answering the question “why has it taken you so long?” Or “what on earth have you be doing all this time?” But instead I’m going to tell the story of how I achieved outstanding.

It began the day before when the lead inspector briefed the staff. Gathered in the staff room, sweaty palms and hearts thumping, he introduced himself and went on to give us some friendly advice.

“Just be yourself,” he assured, in his soft Welsh tones. “Perhaps now is not the time to try that experimental drama lesson you’ve been wondering about, but if you were going to take a risk, then take it. Just be yourself.”

At this point the teaching assistant I was working with looked nervously across it me. Not only does my teaching demonstrate a tremendous lack of risk-aversion at times, but I had already planned some experimental drama that week. And the teaching assistant was leading it. And it was in a maths lesson.

The second piece of advice the lead inspector gave us (and I would recommend this to anyone about to undergo an inspection) was to do a ‘mini-plenary’ as the inspectors walk into the room. Inspectors used to watch whole lessons, but these days their time is so tight, they can generally only see half-an-hour chunks. A mini-plenary is where you would stop the activity or whatever was going on, check on how much the children have learned, remind them what they were aiming to show they had learned by the end of the lesson before proceeding with the rest of the session. The idea is to show the inspectors that progress has been made (even though the inspectors might not have seen it) and more progress is still expected. Inspectors get very excited when they see progress.

Of course I didn’t follow this advice either. Experimental drama and no mini-plenary? And I have the cheek to call myself a teacher.

Maths apparatus the inspector saw: cups on a stringMore of what the inspector saw: cards on the wall

Admittedly, the lead inspector was a little bemused when he walked into my room. Or so he told me afterwards.

It was 9:30am on the second day of the inspection. The lesson was half an hour old and the inspector could see:

  • one student playing shops with the teaching assistant;
  • another student playing dominoes with myself;
  • assorted apparatus scattered on the floor;
  • fraction cards stuck to the wall;
  • the rest of the students intently staring at the screens of their Chromebooks.

Half an hour later, when he walked out he said one word to me. “Stunning.”

So what had turned a potential mess of different activities into a ‘stunning’ outstanding lesson?

Answer: Google Docs

You see, Google Docs had enabled me to have high quality interactions with three different groups of learners, using only two adults. Here’s how.

Group 1: The experimental drama

I have some children within the class who, despite being eleven years old and nearly at secondary school, have great difficulty remembering maths facts and them applying them to real life situations. They just don’t get the link. Hence the maths role play area.

The week before we had set up a ‘stationery shop’ in the classroom – everything was priced from pencils to sparkly sharpeners. With the teaching assistant as the shopkeeper their task was to choose items for less than a set amount, say £10 – then work out how much they would have to pay and how much change they would get. The teaching assistant is particularly good at teaching the children how to add up quantities with differing amounts of digits, like £3, £1.15 and 45p – something that often causes confusion.

By the time these sort of children get to eleven years of age, they have often labelled themselves as maths failures. For them, maths become a grey despair. The drama adds a light-hearted element to their maths learning. Enjoyment brings engagement, engagement leads to motivation and motivation accelerates learning. The inspector was impressed by the motivation of these lower-attaining children and recognised that it was accelerating their progress.

Group 2: The dominoes game

Some of my children don’t know any games. Draughts, Monopoly, chess – they’re all a mystery. We have some marvellous versions of dominoes that are brilliant at showing the equivalence between fractions, decimals and percentages. However for many of the children I can’t use the game because the very act of playing dominoes is too much of a barrier.

In this lesson I was able to use dominoes 1:1 because the Google Docs (which I’m coming too) enabled me to. The advantage of playing dominoes with a child 1:1 not only could I support them with the game, but when they were stuck finding an equivalent for the dominoes in their hand, I could unpick their misconceptions and teach them the concepts. For me, a 1:1 interaction with a student provides the best moments of teaching and hence the most powerful learning. The inspector was impressed that I’d planned time for these 1:1 interactions to take place.

Group 3: The Google Docs

Different children represent two fifths on a Google Doc

Often, whilst a teacher works with a small group or an individual, the rest of the class complete tedious worksheets or engage in something known as ‘group work’. Not with Google Docs.

Each child worked individually on a small part of a Google Drawing to represent what different fractions would look like. This particular group of children need lots of concrete examples to help them understand the abstractness of fractions. Showing a child the digits ¾ is often not enough – children need to represent it with apparatus and images. In this case the children demonstrated to the inspector when he spoke to them that they were really understanding fractions in a way they hadn’t previously.

The five sixths drawings prompted most discussion in the plenary
The three eighths representations

Moreover, when the students were stuck, they contacted me via chat. So instead of shouting out (and disrupting their peers), or bringing their work over to me as the teacher (and thereby disrupting the domino game), they were able to silently ask questions of me.

I had opened  4 Chromebooks on the table next to me, each displaying one of the fractions Google Docs that different children were using. Two fifths had the most activity, but other children attempted five sixths and three eighths.

The inspector was particular impressed that the children supposedly on an ‘independent activity’ still had the means to seek adult support, and therefore be taught, rather than spending the whole lesson being stuck. And the Google Docs chat feature minimised the disruption to other learners.

The Google Docs them prompted some excellent discussion at the end of the lesson, particularly the five sixths pictures, which two students had drawn incorrectly. Each had drawn five sevenths instead of five sixths. The discussion in the plenary draw out their misconceptions and we were able to correct them collaboratively on the Chromebooks.

Google Docs had enabled both myself and my teaching assistant to work more effectively as teachers – to spend more of our time actually teaching. As a consequence the children were motivated and enjoyed their learning and so the inspector could only see outstanding progress being made during the lesson.