Teaching is a lonely profession. Outsiders rarely understand this. On any given day, I might communicate with over a hundred children, adapting my register and tone according to the needs of the class, the child and the situation as best I can. Yet, for many of us, communication with our colleagues can become little more than a passing word in a noisy corridor. Days or even weeks can gently slip by with little more than a cheery “Morning!” or a half-hearted “Good weekend?” As much as I enjoy teaching, I am always in role in the classroom, even if this has become more natural and relaxed over the years. I wonder if in our drive to improve the educational chances of our students, we might have forgotten the very human need for adult conversation.
The equation we work by is simple but probably wrong: hard work equals better educational outcomes. Doing seems to take precedence over thinking. Talking about teaching seems even more frivolous. How can we justify sitting down for a chat when there is a pile of mock exams eagerly awaiting our inspection? I wonder, though, whether the chance to stop, think, discuss and, dare I suggest, laugh about our practice with our closest colleagues is shamefully undervalued in our profession. Discussions about teaching can feel all too formal and rushed. They can also create an honesty problem. The fear of being ‘found out’ if we admit our weaknesses looms large.
Nothing, however, is worse than the forced feedback discussion that takes place after a graded lesson observation. However good the relationship between the observer and the observed teacher might be, however beautifully the lesson might have gone, the lesson grade – that arbitrary numeral from 1 to 4 – taints every moment of that most awkward of meetings. However much we might dress it up with ‘successes’ and ‘areas for improvement’, the purpose of the meeting becomes to feed back the grade. That grade forces an uneven dynamic: the observer becomes a judge and not a support; the teacher must succumb to the observer’s ‘superior wisdom’. Even though both are privy to the lesson, one view is unavoidably valorised over the other. The grade itself is obviously codswallop. How we can bottle the hugely complex social and cognitive dynamics that constitute a lesson, or part of one, into a comparable single digit is beyond me.
This gross crudity destroys the opportunity for the feedback session to become the vital meeting it should be. Two professionals have shared an experience in the classroom, albeit from opposing vantage points, bringing different experiences, beliefs and biases into the mix. What better catalyst for a rich discussion on the values, theory and pedagogy that underpin successful teaching?
Roll on this week and roll on my first non-graded lesson observation. My school has thankfully taken the plunge and introduced a feedback-only system. Before the lesson I had spoken to Kate Bloomfield, my Head of Department, about my experimentations with ‘gallery critique’ and that I wanted her view on how effective she felt it was. In my planning, I made a few adjustment to the way I run these lessons by sharpening up the focus of feedback and giving students the opportunity to ‘magpie’ ideas from one another.
In the feedback meeting our discussion was wide-ranging. Kate praised the structure of the lesson and the effort of the students. Kate pointed out that the quantity of writing students had to read might have been over-ambitious for some. Might it have been more effective if those students who struggle with reading were asked to read shorter sections? This was a salient point which brought ideas about working memory to mind. We discussed the videoing of lessons such as this using IRIS technology and the benefits of having a bank of ‘good practice in English’ videos. We began to roughly plan some ideas on this for next year. I shared my reflection that it had been pointless to ask students to write feedback on each other’s spelling and punctuation; teaching them to proofread as part of the gallery critique process could be much more effective. Kate discussed how she would teach a similar lesson next week. My final action was to email her my lesson PowerPoint.
In short, we had a relaxed and interesting discussion, from which we both took something. We were able to talk and think about teaching and learning as two professionals in a meaningful way that would directly feed-forward into our future practice. More important than the planning, the lesson and the feedback was the fact that we had a genuine chance to put everything to one side to talk about teaching.
The end of lesson grades has given birth to something much more exciting. Time for discussion is limited in our profession; let us make sure that the fleeting chances we do find are not dogged by meaningless accountability measures.