Have you ever been to a Michelin-starred restaurant? They’ll typically prepare food using innovative cooking techniques and serve exquisite dishes that are filled with flavour.
You know what I don’t notice, or even look for, in such establishments? That green sticker in the window or on the wall that displays the restaurant’s hygiene rating. It’ll barely even register on my mind.
Now, consider my local chippy. Fish & chips, pizza, Indian curries and fried chicken, all available from the one shop. In places like this, that hygiene sticker will be the first thing I look for. Odd, isn’t it – when I’m uncertain about quality and don’t entirely trust the service being provided, I’ll seek reassurance from an official body.
The monitoring and scrutiny we undergo as schools essentially provides us with hygiene stickers for education providers. To extend that logic, if we want our teachers and schools to be Michelinstarred equivalents, we have to look far beyond the basics.
In order to dissect how we can monitor and scrutinize more effectively, we need to be clear as to why we’re carrying out this monitoring and scrutiny in the first place:
1. It’s about performance.
I feel that if I don’t keep my eye on what’s happening, performance will decline or derail.
2. Its about consistency.
I personally feel that if we’re not checking up on teachers, they’ll deviate from the ‘game plan’.
3. Its about standards.
A teacher may be doing their very best and following our instructional programme to the letter, but their best may still not be good enough.
4. It’s about CPD.
I feel that when I intimately know what teachers are doing, I can plan better CPD for them.
I don’t think anyone would argue that performance, consistencies, standards and development are bad goals. However, my hope is that we can start asking ourselves whether there might be a better form of monitoring that puts our education professionals front and centre, rather than at the edge..
No policy required
Issues with performance and consistency become far less challenging when a school’s instructional programme is clear. For example, we use ‘anchor charts’ at our school. These are sheets of A1 paper that record key learning, created with the children during lessons and subsequently hung on washing lines in the classrooms. It’s impossible to visit Three Bridges and not be immediately struck by this obvious visual indicator of just how consistent our learning is.
However, we don’t have an anchor chart policy. Nor I have ever conducted a learning walk and fed back to teachers about the quality of the anchor charts in their classrooms. What we currently do with anchor charts came out of a collaboratively designed, intentional and instructional approach we devised some years ago. Yet all staff now do it – even those colleagues who weren’t around when the anchor charts idea was originally introduced. Often, the things we’re looking for in terms of consistency don’t require a policy or playbook.
How do they staff know where the staffroom is? They follow the crowd. It’s important to them that they eat collectively, so they’ll watch closely and follow others’ lead. When something doesn’t take hold, the thing to do is ask why.
Skill and will
Typically, when there are inconsistencies in the implementation of a new approach or development it’ll be because it’s us, the leadership, that needs to change, rather than them.
The roots of inconsistencies can usually be traced to one or more of the following:
• The teachers find it a waste of time.
• It’s never been clearly explained and agreed.
• It was a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist any more.
• The time to impact ratio is off (consider marking – it’s something one can spend hours on, while getting very little in return).
When it comes to standards, there’s often a key question to consider concerning ‘skill’ or ‘will’. A lack of skill can often be fixed with the right support in place, but a lack of will is harder to address.
In the latter case, I’ll often imagine myself in a scenario where the staff in question have tenure under the US/ Canadian academic career structure and effectively can’t be fired, no matter what. It’s a thought exercise that changes my perspective in a useful way. I start thinking more about push and pull factors. How can I get them to come with us?
My default position is that we rise together. Instead of time-consuming lesson observation techniques, I prefer to use ‘micro-views’ and two-minute ‘lesson looks’. If an instructional program has been presented clearly, then you’ll know immediately upon entering a lesson what success looks like.
In just two minutes, you can still listen to teaching, quickly talk to a child and look at a table of books. It doesn’t take much more than that. There’s no need for a notepad, clipboard or laptop – just a brief, friendly visit. If you register that things are problematic, you can attend to the situation with the aid of a ‘behind the scenes’ document aimed at supporting the teacher’s development – at pace, but with humanity and humility.
CPD should rarely be reactive. Strong leaders will know their staff, be able to anticipate when new developments are likely to cause a struggle, and effectively gauge where that struggle will be for people that are new. If we’re constantly responding to what’s wrong, we’ll never move forward. Instead we’ll be stuck, endlessly chasing our tails. Go into things with the expectation that certain concepts, strategies and approaches will be more challenging, and plan this in. Don’t wait for things to go wrong and then try to recover.
Maintain multiple streams of development – some streams for new staff, for example, and others for more experienced colleagues. Involve as many people as you can in your school and staff support, not just those with senior titles. Know your strengths, and develop those areas marked by struggle.
Lower the stakes
In racing, drivers don’t slow down when they see a crash but instead hit the accelerator. Mid-level leaders can support and broker CPD that’s appropriate for meeting today’s challenges, but we also need to keep our hand on the heart of the school and our eyes to the sky.
When decisions are made collectively between teachers and leaders around a school’s basic expectations, you’ll find that the need for compliance monitoring and scrutiny becomes all but obsolete. Books, planning, environments and displays all start to become routine. If you’ve been able to create a culture where teachers have a genuine voice, you’ll see their commitment soar.
With no need for close, corporate-style monitoring, you’ll soon see that teachers are their own biggest critics. Give them a low (or no) stakes opportunity to learn, improve and grow and watch them take off.
Powerful mechanisms that can really build consistency and improve performance include…
• Professional growth partners
• Opportunities for coaching conversations
• Organised research lessons
• Lesson study
• Teacher research groups
Jeremy Hannay is the headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School