What if lesson observations were every week? How we reduced stress by observing staff more often.

Every year I commission a staff survey and every year – although the overall findings are always really positive – I  have to lock myself away to read it as it always makes me so cross initially!  It is of course done anonymously but with results reported separately for teachers and support staff.  Because we are a relatively small school – 1 form entry – the temptation is to try and second  guess exactly which miserable ***** it was who disagreed (and strongly) that ‘the SLT provides them with the support and guidance they needed to do their job effectively.’ The fact it was a teacher rather than a TA makes it worse.  Teacher results are always more positive than TA results. But not, apparently, in this case. And there are only 11 possible people it could be.  So I run through the eligible candidates, thinking about who this Brutus could possibly be. I summon my deputy (I know it’s not her) and together we run through the remaining 10 teachers and together decide it has to be teacher X and find ways to dismiss their opinion as totally invalid. Then we move on to pinpoint which Judas TA (from the 16 who completed it) does not agree ‘they are treated with fairness and respect.’ And so on through 100 or so criteria. I’m sure we don’t make for a very edifying spectacle which is why I make sure to give myself time to through my hissy fit in private.

Considering I commissioned the survey in the first place, you’d think I’d welcome the honest feedback. I suppose I assume that everybody thinks everything is absolutely marvellous, so am always disappointed that I get any negative feedback at all. In my heart of hearts, I don’t quite understand why people only vote ‘agree’ rather than ‘strongly agree’ that everything within my kingdom, I mean our school, is 100% amazing.  The anonymous thing is necessary, I get that, but so frustrating. It hurts that there is a member of staff out there who really feels that they are not treated with fairness and respect. Hissy fit aside, I want to hear what it is that has made them feel that way and to reassure that of course I value and respect them and if something has made them feel otherwise, I want to put that right straight away. But I don’t know who it was, so maybe they still feel the same now as they did in May, when they did the survey.

The day after I first read the survey, I re-read it and now I am able to have a bit of distance, be a bit more objective and to learn from it.  The most useful learning comes from statements where quite a few people disagree. Usually these are things I can put my hands up to with relative ease or are long running problems – for example 45% of teachers do not feel they are able to strike the right balance between their work and home life. The previous year it was 62% so we’re heading in the right direction although *gnashes teeth* 3 teachers ‘do not agree that senior leaders are looking at ways of reducing teacher workload.’ (Strangled cry of ‘yes we are, it’s in the bloody development plan; I’ve banned marking for God sake…deep breaths Clare, deep breaths)

The stand out finding from last year was that 37% of support staff ‘did not feel the received regular and constructive feedback.’  This was not entirely unsurprising – we knew only too well that we had never found a workable system for appraisal for TA’s and the SENCO started each year with the best of intentions regarding coaching those TA’s who worked supporting children with statements or EHCP’s, with other matters somehow taking precedence in real life. But in some ways it was also surprising; our major school development initiative that year had been implementing the MITA project (Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants), which I have written about here. It had been, by all accounts incredibly successful and we all wanted to build on it this year.  It involved a lot of feedback – including watching video footage of your own teaching – from one’s peers with some teacher involvement from the 3 teachers running the project. We deliberately did not include the SLT (apart from myself as I was part of the team) to make the project less intimidating.  But we appeared to have uncovered a desire for better, more regular structured conversations with line managers about how well TA’s were doing their jobs. What manager could ask for more! What a gift!

At the same time, I was anxious to do all I could to reduce the stress-load on teachers.  Reducing the workload might be a Sisyphean task, but I could try and make the work less stressful. Top of the list of stressors came lesson observations and teaching and learning reviews. How could I make sure I had an accurate picture of our strengths and weaknesses in the classroom in a way that was less stressful? We already didn’t grade lesson observations, but the termly half hour visit was still perceived as being incredibly stressful however much I chucked around terms like ‘developmental’ and ‘helpful.’

By chance, I was reading Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo.  At the centre of his school improvement work, in the centre of his leadership in fact, lay a system where he (or other leaders) observed every teacher for 10 minutes every week for a low stakes observation, followed by a very brief 10 minute feedback session.  He goes through  and dismisses all the excuses about the impossibility of timetabling this and is pretty persuasive. (I’m not quite sure about how big his school is – obviously it is smaller than a typical secondary school – but I’m sure an adapted form of this could be used in even the largest school). I wondered if this might provide a model that enabled the senco to get around her TA’s, allowed us to build on the success of the MITA project, reduced stress in teachers and gave me a stronger picture than the traditional model we had been using. More than that, I hoped be a strong lever, as Leverage Leadership alleged, for further school improvement.  We were in a strong position that every one of our teachers was at least good – many were very strong indeed – and here lay a system of observation and feedback that would enable really great teachers to make incremental improvements every week, which when taking altogether would lead to a substantial school-wide improvement. In other words, we were embracing the UK Olympic Cycling team’s philosophy of going for marginal gains.

I was a bit wary about how staff would feel about it. It could come across as even more stressful. The SLT thought it a good idea so I dropped the idea into conversation with various teachers, stressing how light touch the approach was and promising no reviews by outsiders this year. these intial soundings were all positive. Then I discussed it formally in our end of year INSET day (held on June 23rd when the school was closed for the referendum) and no one objected, so in it went into our development plan.

Over an enjoyable dinner in early September with my two former deputies, both now head teachers in their own right, there was much chortling about how impossible I would find it to fit it in. This actually was a great spur to prove them wrong. We had already set up our new diner date for early December. I was determined to come back with tales of how well it had worked.

How it worked was as follows. We didn’t start until the third week back, to give people a bit of time to get to know their classes. In my experience, the first two weeks are full of realising you’ve pitched work too low or too high – so I thought a bit of grace time to sort that out would be more productive all round.  There are 8 class teachers plus the deputy who teaches groups in the morning. Of these 9 teachers, I would aim to see 7 a week while the deputy would see the remaining 2 (obviously she didn’t observe herself). The senco would dedicate Thursdays every week to seeing TA’s when they were explicitly supporting children with SEN, aiming to get through these every 3 weeks.  She saw each TA with each child – so where TA’s work with more than one child, she would do a different observation for each child (rather than per adult). The Early Years leader would use part of her nct each Friday to see at least two of her support staff (out of a team of 6) each week. I would then mop up anyone not included in the system (for example a couple of TA’s who do not work with  statemented/EHCP children at all), staying  5-10 minutes longer in the class where I was seeing the teacher so I could also take notes on their role. Notes were written up as bullet points on an excel spreadsheet and feedback was given during either assembly or the next break or after school. Sometimes if a TA was in class just before lunch/end of the day they would cover the last 10 minutes so feedback could be done then.

I immediately loved the new system. I got into classes so much more regularly and could give bite sized feedback that was acted on immediately. I also timetabled myself to sometimes go at unusual times – at the very beginning of a lesson as the children came in, or during story time – for example, to check that every minute of the teaching day was being exploited for maximum learning gain. Often feedback was all positive, with only the most minor point being picked up on (that green pen on your whiteboard is hard to read from the back of the class – try something with better colour contrast*[1]) or suggestions for how to build on what I’d seen rather than development points as such.  Often when there were points they were about getting smoother, slicker transitions, something we need to introduce as proper whole school system in due course. It did allow me to introduce things I’ve got waiting in the wings for the right time such as SLANT to teachers for whom it seemed appropriate. For example in one class children listened really well to the teacher but possibly in a less focused way when their peers were addressing the class. Getting pupils to track each other when talking has really increased pupil attention to each other. Most of my comments were generic about teaching itself – use of voice, transitions, questioning routines rather than subject specific as such, although these did feature.

Alongside these ‘drop-ins’ as we called them, the maths leader continued to coach and team teach with teachers new to our mathsmastery programme for the full hour during her nct, the early reading teacher has a coaching programme for all staff (teachers and TA’s) teaching phonics and rotates around them, sometimes coaching, sometimes modelling and our literacy lead is in different classes each week helping staff implement our new system that has replaced guided reading and to model how to give feedback on writing now that we do not remotely mark any writing. Obviously if during drop ins we had encountered concerns about teaching, we would have had to adapt the drop in programme for something more formal for the person concerned, but that is not where we are. I did see one (10 minute slot of a) lesson that did not work – it was in a guided reading lesson before we replaced them and exemplified everything about why we moved away from that model – independent groups busy doing activities that don’t actually help them learn much – so we had a discussion about what learning the teacher had assumed would occur and problem solved why reality and aspiration were so adrift and moved on.  I already knew this teacher is usually fabulous but under this system I was back the next week anyway, and the next and the next, so any sustained loss of form would have been quickly picked up. But the system allowed me to see it for the blip it was – we all make mistakes.

We also still do work surveys, although we now see pupils books in lots of different ways. Most staff meetings involve bringing books along for us to share together what’s working and what’s not and we now make sure every full governing body meeting and some committee meetings involve looking at pupils work. again, because books are looked at so often, problems are picked up early and the whole thing becomes routine rather than a make or break high stakes stress-fest.

All the staff doing the drop ins liked them and felt they knew so much more about learning in the school than previously. The senco managed, more or less to stick to her Thursdays-for-drop-ins timetable, although time for feedback can be an issue. Unfortunately due to ‘exigencies of the service’ the deputy is now teaching almost all day so has had to drop out of the rota after a few weeks – she maybe manages one a week on a good week. But how did the staff feel about them?

But by bit various teachers volunteered feedback.  One nqt said she loved the new system and found it so much less stressful (the previous year she was a TeachFirst trainee) and more helpful getting regular small steps to work on. One teacher who gets ridiculously nervous around observations said it really helped because now they happened so regularly she just couldn’t get herself all worked up about it. As a result I’ve actually seen her teach really well rather than impeded by nerves. A teacher new to the school who previously came from an outstanding school where, reading between the lines, observations had been extremely high stakes, said initially she thought it sounded a bit barmy and lacking in rigour but having had it for a term she now found it simultaneously less stressful but more rigorous – in that it actually moved her practice on more effectively. Previously she would go to extreme effort and put on an all singing all dancing show and be given very positive feedback. Whereas now we saw her bread-and-butter day in, day out teaching, warts and all, so she received feedback that helped her improve without feeling she had failed in some way. She could risk teaching normally.

In order to get a more rounded picture, I wrote a quick 7 question survey using Survey Monkey and attached it to the weekly calendar I send out every Friday, asking colleagues to let me see how it was going. Out of 19 respondents, 17 preferred in and 2 did not have a preference –so no going back, that’s for sure. The next question asked how useful was the feedback they had received.  11 (again out of 19) said it was very useful, 6 fairly useful and 2 occasionally useful. Considering some people are so strong that I failed to find anything of significance to feedback most visits and it is meant to be about mainly finding marginal gains, I’m more than happy with this.  Asked if they agreed with feedback given 10 said yes always, 7 said often and 1 said sometimes (1 person didn’t answer that question). Asked if they thought they had improved as a result, 7 said they had improved a lot, 9 said they had improved in the areas identified and the remaining 3 a bit. I can’t know for certain but I’m assuming that’s from the strongest teachers who are being tactful in the face of my not very helpful feedback.

Timetabling the drop ins was the biggest headache, so I was hoping that the staff were now so blasé about them that they wouldn’t need any prior notice and would be happy about me popping in at any time… in my dreams. 5 staff would be happy with this and 1 – the one who used to get really nervous – said she would be ok if she knew the day but not the time. The remaining 7 said a resolute NO, so I guess that is not going to change. Not yet anyway.

The other bugbear is time for feedback.  Sometimes I feel it would work just as well by email – as long as both parties reserved the right to ask to meet in person, either prior or post observation.  This really divided opinion. 5 said this was a great idea, 6 didn’t mind either way, 4 would prefer face to face but didn’t hate the idea whereas 4 hated it as far too impersonal. So next term – people will get a choice between email or in person – although the person dropping in will reserve the right to meet them in person if what they need to say is too complicated or needs the human touch. So I’m hoping that will save loads of time with 11 people opting for email.

Finally, I asked them if they would like the opportunity to drop in on colleagues themselves.  6 said they would find this very useful, 9 quite useful and 2 said yes but it would need to be for longer to be useful. The remaining 2 said no thanks, they would find this too awkward.  I also asked colleagues to email any further thoughts, although these comments would not be anonymous. Only 1 teacher did. She reminded us that when we launched the idea, sometimes the SLT were going to cover the class teacher so the class teacher could observe (and subsequently better guide) their TA.  In class they are too busy doing their own role to observe their TA as well, yet this would be really useful. We had forgotten this and it was great to get the reminder and something we must remember to do next term.

So overall it’s been a great success and one that we will continue to build on. It’s been particularly useful in enabling me to track the implementation of key development plan initiatives as week by week things move from being innovations to becoming routine.  Or not.  At my evening out with my former deputies I reported back that I had missed one week when I was ill, 1 week when everyone was either out training, on a trip, doing an art workshop or performing in a concert and the last 3 weeks of term when it was assessments and nativity plays I had done every week – 8 weeks in all. Next term I will skip the first week as we are doing pupil progress meetings and probably the last but intend to do every week. Some weeks I’ll be covering teachers so they can observe their TA’s. I’ve also started teaching year 6 science 1 lesson a week, so I will have to get myself dropped into at least occasionally.

It may not be suitable for all situations. One of my former deputies has recently taken over a school that was in a bit of a mess (though thought it was amazing). She didn’t think it was ready for this yet, particularly as she didn’t have a strong leadership team around her who she would trust in their judgements yet.  And it’s a bigger school so she would absolutely need colleagues to help out. She’s thinking about starting it with her leaders though.

If I could change one thing about how we implemented it, I’d change how we recorded it.  I copied Leverage Leadership and created a spreadsheet with a page per teacher. However, maybe they either are much more familiar with excel or used a different programme but this has been so unwieldly.  I finally now know how to use the return key and add a bullet point using excel but have to remind myself afresh every time I use it. Then there was the problem that if one person had the spreadsheet open, no one else could use it. We are only a small school so don’t think we need an expensive web based system like BluSkyEducation (although do leave a comment if you have a suggestion of a system that might work) so we will probably transfer over to a word based system next term.

Looking back, I’d never return to the old system. It seems so inflexible and uninformative.  This system tells me what I need to know about the school improvement journey, helps staff improve, reduces the stress they feel and reaches all staff – not just teachers.  I’m looking forward to our staff survey next May and hoping various key indicators show a marked improvement.  I’ll still be grumpy initially though.

[1] They’d only used the green pen for a couple of comments – not for the main text.

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What if lesson observations were every week? How we reduced stress by observing staff more often.

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