Lesson obs – the curse of the Senior Leader

Having spent my last few posts thinking about policy and political mismanagement of our beloved system, I felt I should turn my mind back to my primary purpose – the art, science and practice of teaching. That is not to say that I have, even for one minute, lost interest in the GCSE debacle – I haven’t and nor has anyone else who believes in fairness and justice for everyone, and not just the wealthy.

I often find myself bemused. It is a perfectly rational state when faced with some of the inverted logic of our teenagers and the somewhat surreal places their minds take us. I spend a lot of time with my pupils trying to establish a link or relationship which helps ground us in a more realistic place. That is not to deny that flights of fancy can have their place in learning and often offer some of the most memorable experiences for teacher and pupil. I do, however, struggle with some of the views of my colleagues and ‘bemusement’ reaches a whole other level.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that I am a moderate man. I am in no way aggressively militant about anything, much (current issues not withstanding) and I am struggling with some of the logic of the union action. My Grandfather was a union representative in a dockyard, so I have nothing but respect for the movement. I consider myself to be intelligent in general terms (Howard Gardner fans stay calm) and as emotionally intelligent as any other white British heterosexual man – but how the current actions do anything less than affect the learners in our schools, I’m not sure. Don’t get me wrong – I am very pleased that the action is short of strike action and I applaud, sincerely, that decision – but some of the actions are drawing funds away from the front line in order to pay for increased supply costs. This, I don’t like.

The union action offers colleagues an opt out at a time when, in my particular school, we have been trying to engage staff in a process of whole school development focused on Teaching and Learning. This stemmed from OfSTED judgements, which – although we disagreed with the process and grading – agreed with our own development plans. We want our pupils to receive learning experiences which are nothing short of good – by our own judgements as well as the OfSTED ones – fluffy and fudged as they are. We have tried leadership QA observation, the dreaded learning walks, the evil of pupil pursuit and peer observation. Perhaps unsurprisingly there has been a fair bit of resistance in some quarters to any and all of these approaches, and as for pupil voice – woah! Comfort zone deep space!

I struggle to understand the resistance to allowing other professionals into our learning spaces – to include them in our practice and to use them as a surface for reflection and teacher learning. We’ve all been through it from the start of our first wobbly teacher baby-steps and it certainly isn’t going to go away. I think my view when I was a full-time classroom teacher was always that a) it was the job of management to ensure my students were getting a fair deal and b) there was stuff I could learn from these grizzled old campaigners with snowy white beards and the speckled crust of long practice about their persons. Perhaps my own experiences rendered me particularly open to such processes – I was always keen to learn and I never felt that I could or should disagree – after all, observation is subjective by nature and the views and feedback expressed will always be a matter of personal interpretation. I may not have always liked it, but I did trust my managers / leaders to come from a position of help and support. Therein, I think, lies the rub.

Despite generally good relationships and values and views consistent with wanting to better the lot of our students, many colleagues distrust us simply because we are ‘management’. I recently undertook a brief study of how the process of training for school leadership worked through the lens of ‘Communities of Practice’ – the apprenticeship related model originally expounded by Lave and Wenger. Arguably flawed, though it is, it does offer a framework for considering how people learn as part of a community and one of the key outcomes is the movement from the periphery of the community toward full participation in shared practices. For me an unfortunate side effect of this is that, when a professional joins a new group (such as the leadership community), the act of gaining legitimacy on the periphery of that group can result in a change in how colleagues view us. This results in a process where, despite the fact that values and practices as a teacher haven’t actually changed, you are exposed (potentially) to a subtle de-legitimisation as a member of the teaching community. You are viewed in a different way and the relationships alter to firmly establish you in a new peripheral position of the teaching community. Some colleagues promote the view that, as a senior leader, you have no place in the teaching community – which I feel is patently absurd. One thing I say to all of our PGCE placements is to remember that every member of our SLT has been a teacher and a Head of Department. One or two have previously been ASTs. Becoming a senior leader offers challenges to maintaining the same standards of teaching whilst juggling other responsibilities, but it certainly doesn’t render us as completely different people!

So, if a school with the normal distribution of ability within the staff is to move forward and improve (and OfSTED is a red herring here – this should be the aim even if Michael Wilshaw and his doyens of political retribution disappear) then observation and professional dialogue is a must. Being able to accept that we can all improve (SLT included) our teaching practice is essential and being able to accept ideas and advice from others, fundamental. I certainly don’t fear what my pupils would say – they are usually happy to tell me anyway! I don’t have to agree with the observation that my lesson is “boring” from Tarquin, if he is the only one saying it – but if everyone is saying it, then I need to wake up and smell the Tesco basics decaffeinated coffee (we are in Austerity and other brands are available). After all, my colleagues are quick enough to tell me when they don’t believe SLT are doing their jobs well enough and they expect us to listen – why should we not accord the same expectations to our learners?

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