The Seduction of Quick Clarity

“Beware the seduction of quick clarity.” What a phrase. I wish it were mine but in fact I first heard it from my Head who got it, I believe, from a sermon. It may even originate from Dilly Baker’s A place at the table, or so Google suggests. But whatever its genesis, it’s brilliant. It’s also, I think, particularly applicable to teachers at the moment. I’ll explain.

In some corners of edutwitter, and elsewhere I’m sure, there’s strong support for what might be called “no frills” teaching.

I’d characterise no frills teaching, at its best, as a welcome and rigorous focus on getting the basics right. For example, in this recent blog Ruth Walker (at least I think it’s Ruth, though she tweets as @rosalindphys) exhorts us to concentrate on making lessons better for all before worrying about underachievement among certain groups. (She noted with approval a comment which described such groups as “canaries in the mine”.)

Similarly, some teachers rail against displays, seeing them as a perfect example of a labour intensive task of questionable value – surely the very definition of an educational frill. And in fact I think a lot of this movement stems from, or at least has the added benefit of, reducing the hours spent on activities which are time thieves.

No-one would argue against an approach which produces better, or even the same, results for less time and effort. I have myself recently tweeted my opposition to an NQT tip advocating double mounting of display work. Yes it looks great but that’s a frill if ever there was one, and the NQT year should definitely be frill-free.

However, I fear that sometimes we feel so pressed that we alight on almost anything that looks like a simple, workable solution that will save us time – no frills – when in reality some of those frills were far more than dandyish decoration. I have two examples.

First, the “canaries in the mine”. Of course it’s likely that if you teach better lessons, all your students will benefit. Ruth’s blog makes that clear. However, to judge by their responses, some readers have imbued Ruth’s words with a significance that I’m not sure even she meant them to have – at least if one of her responses to a question (OK, mine) is anything to go by: “…the key thing is first to get the teaching right…”

I think that first is crucial. I agree with what Ruth writes as far as it goes, but fear that by not focusing specifically on that underperforming group you may not know what it is about your teaching that could helpfully be different. I could aim for a 10% improvement in everything I do, but what if that group actually needs something I don’t currently do, but the absence of which may not be disadvantageous to all? Dual coding, for example. It may well be a good idea but I don’t think anyone would criticise a lesson for not including it, nor necessarily suggest it. Yet maybe that would be the key. Or if not dual coding, maybe more peer marking. Or less. It’s hard to know. The idea of teaching better across the board is admirable, unfrilly and clear. But it might not be enough.

Second, marking. We all know the arguments so I won’t rehearse them here, save to say that it does take up lots of time and it’s not always obvious that it’s worth it. So it’s not surprising that much excellent work is happening to try to find ways to reduce the burden while maintaining, even increasing, the quality. Whole class feedback is a good example. There does appear to be some promise around the idea and I have had several goes myself. But I worry about the “miracle cure” status claimed by some proponents: “I do a whole class set in 30 minutes and they’re all improving brilliantly!” In my experience there are downsides. It’s much harder to keep a record of how individuals have done on specific pieces of work, unless you record that separately, which immediately adds to the time. It also means you have to check that the feedback has been properly acted on: good practice of course but still, time that isn’t always apparent from the packaging. Writing reports is also much harder without individual comments to fall back on, unless you take in and flick through their books. I’m not saying whole class feedback doesn’t work or isn’t a time saver, and perhaps I haven’t got it right yet. But it just might not be the silver bullet it’s sometimes held up to be.

Teaching is complicated and difficult. We all know that. As a consequence, working out what to do for the best is also complicated and difficult. We all know that too. So in the rush to adopt new and promising ideas, remember we work in an almost infinitely nuanced field. Beware the seduction of quick clarity.

Trust me, I’m a teacher

Teachers like to be trusted.  We are, mostly, qualified; we take pride in our work; we know our subjects; we know our classes; we make dozens of professional judgements every day.  So not only do we like to be trusted, we deserve to be trusted.

All (well, most) of that is entirely reasonable.  But one part, a crucial part, is rather vague: the word “trust”.  I’m not talking here about safeguarding-style trust.  I mean the kind of trust that teachers are entitled to expect from the their managers.  How much trust is that, and what does it look like in practice?

I’ve discovered from a couple of recent twitter conversations that for some people almost any amount of active management amounts to a lack of trust, even an affront to their professionalism. Nevertheless, I have a pretty fixed view that managerial oversight, done well, builds trust and improves professionalism.  Here’s why.

  1. The right approach shows trust. At my school we have Professional Learning, not performance management or appraisal. This is a carefully chosen[1]  It shows trust and teamwork: I am not seeking to judge, I am seeking to find ways to help you get better at your chosen profession;  I believe that you want to learn; you are entitled to that respect.

The terminology is important.  It sets the tone.

  1. Good targets beget improvement and trust. A good manager sets relevant and challenging targets which, if worked towards, will help the teacher improve.  One twit-con I had revolved around whether “Read [insert specific history book]” – insert your own subject – was an acceptable target.  Some felt that it was: a teacher with additional, relevant, subject knowledge will be better at their job.  I thought (and think) otherwise.

I agree that it’s great that teachers read more about their subject and their craft. If a member of my team came to me and asked whether, as one of their professional learning goals, they could have “Read Seven Myths About Education” I’d be delighted that they were engaging with pedagogical theory.  But I wouldn’t want the target to stop there.  I’m interested in what they are reading; I want to know what they think about it; I think there might be something others (including me) could gain from their thoughts.  So I’d make the target different.  Something like, “Read Seven Myths and discuss your thoughts on it with Sam [me], with a view to deciding whether areas of your teaching could be usefully refined and whether others could benefit from your conclusions.”  We might even break it down to reading a couple of myths at a time, so that nothing gets lost along the way.

The same thing could happen with a subject specific book: “Read Tim Shipman’s Fall Out, and pick out key examples and arguments that can be shared with the department to improve our teaching of the units on the Executive and Legislature.”  (It’s an excellent book, by the way, and not just because I teach Politics.)

In that way, my team member gets to read the book they want to read.  They also know that I am keen for them to do it, to get their thoughts on it and to pass those on to others. That shows high levels of trust: I trust their views sufficiently to think that they are likely to be worth passing on.  It would, I believe, give my team member a sense of ownership, responsibility and pride that they have been entrusted to help their colleagues improve.  Such goals sit beautifully with a professional learning approach.

  1. If we want to be recognised as professionals, we need to expect some level of oversight. Trust and carte blanche are worlds apart.  Trust has to be earned and maintained; one’s professional judgement is never unimpeachable, however qualified and experienced one may be.  So, teachers should expect to be in some way “managed”.  It’s absolutely in order for a manager to ask a member of their team why they have done a particular thing in a particular way at a particular time; or how they are getting with their professional learning goals.  It’s equally in order for a parent to ask questions, just as we are entitled to ask questions of other professionals in areas beyond our expertise.  By extension, it is entirely reasonable for OFSTED and ISI to come visiting, although I’ll leave others to debate the nature of those visits and how they are conducted.

 A non-teaching organisation I previously worked for actively invited oversight because we wanted to show we were confident in our work and proud of what we did.  I think that’s the way to go.  You’re a proud professional, right?  You do a pretty good job, don’t you?  Then let your manager, and others, see that.  Welcome the oversight.  Done properly, it’s not scary and it will probably make you better.  Trust me.  I’m a teacher.

[1] OK, stolen from the estimable Keven Bartle at Canons High School.

“Good question” questions: how to get more of them.

I recently spoke at the excellent St Albans School Forum on Education (#SASFE18), curated by Mikey Smyth (@tlamjs).  The theme of the day was “Questions and Questioning.”  By popular request – OK, two people, one of whom wasn’t even there, but you’ve gotta take what you can get – I’ve put the key points from my talk in this blog.  Clearly it lacks the verve, wit and downright incision of the live version, but I’m available for bookings.  I can also juggle, if you need a bit of light relief.

As part of my job I observe lots and lots of lessons. In those lessons lots of questions get asked, mainly by teachers. For SASFE18 I thought it might be interesting to concentrate instead on the kind of questions asked by students, and see what transpired.  And I was right: it was interesting.

I went back over all my lesson write-ups (I like to just write down everything I see and hear and discuss that with the teacher, rather than imposing my own view) and gathered together a long list of questions.  Several things struck me:

  • In some lessons, lots of questions are asked. In others, hardly any.
  • The number and quality of questions asked does not necessarily correlate with age (i.e. there aren’t necessarily more or less in any particular age group).
  • Pupil questions largely fall into one of four categories:
    • “How to do it” questions
    • “Clarificatory” questions
    • “Thanks but” questions
    • “Good question” questions

None are bad questions, but the real gold is in the good question questions.  The rest of this post will concentrate on how to get more of them out of your pupils.  (It got quite long, so here’s the summary: get rid of poor questions, model good questions, and create the right environment.  Not rocket science but, be honest, when did you last think about honing your pupils’ questioning technique?)

I’ll take each type of question in turn.

How to do it questions

These were the most common.  Pupils ask them to make sure they understand what they are being asked to do.  Here are some examples:

  • Can we take notes on this?
  • Should we put a cross or a tick?
  • How should we structure this essay?
  • Do we only add three things?

We’ll all recognise these.  They aren’t bad questions but they are a bit annoying: they take up time which could be used on other things and they reflect the fact that either you haven’t explained properly or they haven’t been listening, or both.  They’re just a bit too boringly procedural to add much to your lesson, and can be avoided (see later).

Clarificatory questions

I like these questions better.  They are ones through which students try to clarify their understanding of a particular issue.  They may not drive the lesson forward, but they will probably help ensure that the foundations are secure.  For example:

  • Do you have to re-sign Executive Orders every 90 days? (Bit niche but fellow teachers of US Politics will back me on this one.)
  • Does sea or land heat quicker?
  • Is judicial activism something which overturns a ruling?
  • What was that thing you said about Labour’s rise in the 1970s?

Nothing wrong with these at all, but they probably aren’t the ones that make you say, “Good question!”

Thanks but questions

These are the ones which represent the opening of the rabbit hole.  Perhaps something more tempting than a rabbit hole, actually; sometimes they offer the possiblity of an interesting tangent, a beautifully freeform, off the cuff discussion.  Such questions may well reflect an inquiring mind and some genuine interest, but they threaten to derail your lesson.  Hence the “Thanks, but…”  Some examples:

  • [In a lesson about the UK constitution:] Does the constitution really exist?
  • [In a lesson about the transmission of disease:] AIDS, is that what Freddy Mercury died of?
  • [In a lesson about the 2017 election:] Why does the left wing see the media as so biased against them when there is so much media attention on minor gaffes like fields of wheat, rather than on big issues like Corbyn being friends with Hamas?

None of these are bad questions, but all of them were in the wrong context.  You’ll have to take my word on that.

Good question questions (GQQs)

These are the ones you want.  They take whatever it is you are discussing and move it on a level.  Unlike “Thanks buts”, these ones do make you say, “Good question.”  They show interest, understanding and curiosity and they are relevant.  For example:

  • [In a lesson about the formation of tropical storms:] Why are tropical storms not found on the equator since it’s an area of low pressure?
  • [In a lesson about the transmission of disease:] So, a doctor could be infected?
  • I know second term US presidents are supposed to have less power of persuasion, but haven’t they built up good relations with Congress by then, which should help?

So, what makes a GQQ?  I think it’s a combination of relevance and stretch.  You can use those two requirements as the axes on a graph, which helps show which types of question you want:


How then do you get fewer blue, purple and green questions, and more red ones?

How to do it questions (HTDIs)

This is pretty straightforward.  Make sure your have clear instructions, clearly given, at a clearly defined point in time – i.e. not with 30 seconds to spare, only once everyone is listening with their homework diaries at the ready, etc etc.  You can also use “three before me” or whatever system you prefer to encourage them to find the answer without disturbing the whole class.  I have no great insight here, I’m afraid, save to say that if you actively think about and prepare for reducing the number of HTDIs, you’ll be doing yourself a favour.

Clarificatory questions (CQs)

You don’t want to discourage these; they can be a good sign.  First, at least they are asking rather than wallowing in confusion.  Second, they could represent a gateway to further questions: if they feel comfortable asking a CQ, maybe next time they’ll chance their arm with a GQQ.  And thirdly, they could be preliminary questions which pave the way for a supplementary GQQ.  Perhaps they are just tidying up one area of doubt, which then allows them to pose the question they (and you) really want.

Thanks but questions (TBs)

These can be fun.  But if you get drawn in, ensure that it’s only because you want to be.  Digression can be stimulating but can also leave the rest of the class behind and/or uninterested.  A good way to acknowledge TBs without actually wasting time on them is to deploy the fridge.  When you get asked a TB, say something like, “That’s a great question but I can’t deal with it right now.  Put it in the fridge and if it still feels fresh at the end of the lesson, ask me again.”  My fridge is now choc-a-bloc with TBs; once a question’s in, no-one ever asks to take it out.


In my experience these are the hardest to come by.  The main obstacle?  Sadly, I think it’s mainly us, the teachers.  Here are some reasons why teachers sometimes lament the lack of good questions in their classes:

  • “They’re such a quiet group.”
  • “They don’t respect each other’s right to speak.”
  • “They keep asking pointless question.”
  • “The just will not think for themselves.”
  • “They’re only Y7.”

Rubbish, frankly.  The top four can be overcome, or at least alleviated, if we put in the effort, and the last one is no barrier at all – one of the GQQs above is from Y7.  So, if you aren’t getting enough GQQs, do something about it.  Think about three things.

  1. Your classroom layout. There is some research to suggest that pupils ask more questions when they are in a semicircle rather than rows – and that in both layouts, pupils with a more central location ask more than pupils sitting to the sides.  Personally I don’t think the layout is the be-all and end-all, and you may have very good reasons for wanting to seat your class in rows.  Whichever you prefer, though, if getting more GQQs is your aim then it’s worth ensuring that your classroom layout does not act against them.

It’s also true to say that getting more questions won’t necessarily mean more GQQs.  So, we need to move to step 2.

  1. The classroom environment. Have you created the right atmosphere for GQQs? Consider these:
    • Do people laugh at others, or roll their eyes?
    • Do you laugh at others, or roll your eyes?
    • Do only some ask the brave questions?
      • Is that because of you?
      • Is that because of others in the class?
    • Are good questions praised?
    • Are good questions properly answered?

But even if you can honestly answer these in a satisfactory way, your style of teaching may need refining to make it truly GQQ-friendly.  That’s step 3.

  1. Is your preferred teaching style conducive to GQQs?
    • Do you allow time and scope for your pupils to think about their questions? (I don’t just mean pausing to allow more hands to go up; if you really want a GQQ, perhaps you need to get them to discuss in pairs first.)
    • Do your lessons make clear that you view student questions as a good use of time and a valuable part of their education?
    • Do you expect students to switch between “receive” and “transmit”? (I think this is really hard.  If you have been doing a lot of talking, expecting pupils to suddenly switch into interactive mode is quite an ask.  We all know this; we’ve all been on courses.)
    • Do you know when it’s reasonable to expect GQQs? (In other words, would you expect one during the first lesson of a new topic?)

And even if you feel OK with all of these, your students may still be at a disadvantage if they don’t know what a GQQ actually looks like.  For that, we need step 4.

  1. Do you model GQQs? We do this for lots of other things.  We show pupils how to conduct good experiments, how to manipulate clay, how to write a good paragraph, but I’m not sure we are good at showing them what a GQQ looks like.   There are lots of ways to do this; I found an interesting one via the Right Question Institute.  As they put it, “the skill of deliberate questioning is far too rarely taught in schools.”  Here you can see a video of how one US school teaches this; basically towards the end of topic pupils are posed a conundrum, write down all the questions they can think of that might help them solve it, refine them, and discuss why their best questions are their best ones.  (The most useful bits are from the start to 2.05, then 4.55-6.30.)

There are some things I don’t like in the video: the group work is a bit sketchy, some of the questions are poor and the process is interminable due to the way the teacher sets it up. But I like the idea: model what you want, and ask the pupils to replicate; use pre-existing knowledge; and have a group element to provide security.  Other ways to encourage GQQs include:

  1. Give the students a list of questions; can they identify the HTDIs, CQs, TBs and GQQs?
  2. Could they put the questions on a stretch/relevance graph?
  3. Have someone write down all the questions asked in a lesson, and then do 1 and 2 above.

So overall, GQQs are hard to come by but worth the effort.  In the end it comes down to this: reduce the number of poor questions, create the right environment, and model what you want.  Not so different from every other aspect of teaching, really.

So many blogs, so little time

I like twitter. I like being able to express exasperation directly to Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway. I like showing off my bons mots (did you see my one about Metafit?). I like the edublogs it brings me.

Recently though my timeline has been clogged with edublogs. Well established blogs, up and coming blogs, first time blogs, they’ve all been there in the last couple of days. And I just can’t take it any more.

In fact there are several types of “it” I can’t take. In no particular order:

• The sheer number of blogs. I currently follow 118 people and most of them aren’t in education. Yet I’ve had links to ten edublogs in the last two hours. Yikes.

• The recommendations. Often blogs are described as are “important” or “essential”. Of the ten mentioned above one is “fab”, one “brilliant” and another “excellent”. They can’t all be that good, surely; it seems unlikely that edutwitter harbours such a high proportion of top class thinkers.

• The FOMO. Which blog will contain the nugget, the insight, the searing critique that I genuinely need? How can I not read the latest one, just in case?

• The variable quality. There has been a massive proliferation of blogs, without a similar expansion in editorial rigour. Thus numbers are up and, inevitably, overall quality down. So before you start reading a blog by a new-to-you writer, you really can’t tell how good it will be. It’s a bit like the Olympic and London marathons. The former requires athletes to have reached a very high standard before entering, so you are guaranteed a race full of serious athletes. London is a different event altogether: a mass participation event that anyone can enter. There’s lots to be said for it but high calibre running from top to bottom it ain’t. I want to know, before I start reading them, which blogs are written by the edutwitter equivalent of an Olympic marathoner, and which by someone running for a beer-fuelled bet.

So, what to do? How to take back control and ensure I read what I need?

I think the answer is to watch the Olympics. That is, to read stuff which has been through the editorial wringer. Drafted and redrafted, proof read by others, and exhaustively reviewed. Something which brings together a number of ideas, perhaps discussed in more depth than your average blog. Maybe they could be put together between an alluring front and back cover. Heck, there could even be specialist shops that would sell the things. I’d read those for fun and be confident I was getting something worthwhile, even if I didn’t wholly agree with it.

That doesn’t render blogs obsolete. Far from it. It just means I can reduce the number I feel I should read. I can pick three or four Olympian bloggers and be happy that their musings, plus the odd well-reviewed book, will see me right. What a relief.

Michaela v School 21

In the past few months I’ve visited both School 21 and Michaela Community School: the former as part of a sort of organised show and tell, the latter on my own.  I’ve been thinking hard about what might constitute my own beliefs about teaching so I wanted to sample two, apparently very much opposed, approaches: Michaela’s strict adherence to direct instruction, or School 21’s advocacy of project based learning (PBL).  Setting up some kind of thesis and antithesis will surely bring me synthesis, won’t it?  Good plan.

Well, maybe so.  But no plan survives contact with the enemy nor even, in this case, a couple of schools.  So rather than come back with clarity I find the way forward even less apparent than it was.  I thought I’d try to explain why, as much for own benefit as for anyone else’s. I have focused largely, though not exclusively, on pedagogy.  I should day that I have only spent one afternoon at Michaela and one day at School 21, mainly in a meeting room, so please excuse any errors of understanding on my part: I’ll be happy to correct them.

There are some very clear differences

I can’t imagine many teachers moving from one school to the other.  It doesn’t take much time on edutwitter to see how passionate Michaela teachers are about their methods.  Teacher talk and no group work are where it’s at.  There is little lesson planning: this advertisement for a History teacher explains that “resources are provided for you”, and the aim is to be able to reuse lessons time and again.  There is a clear preference for low- or no-tech lessons: I know from conversations with Deputy Head Joe Kirby that use of, say, a video clip to introduce a lesson is frowned upon.  Every homework is a learning homework and every day has a quiz based on it.

Meanwhile, over at School 21, they are equally passionate about PBL, which often if not always involves two or more departments working together.  An example we were given was of a combined English and Maths project to campaign against the building of a concrete factory on local land (they won). Through this the students learned the skills to produce a written report which included data from mathematical modelling of the likely pollution.  This involved a huge amount of planning on behalf of the teachers – not that they seemed to mind, and pointed out that once up and running the lessons require little prep – and is very much not replicable; each project undertaken tends to be a brand new one.

Some other contrasts:

  • One of S21’s stated aims is to promote oracy. One teacher we heard from reckoned to speak for about 30% of the time in lessons.  That’s probably about the reverse of many of the Michaela lessons I saw, apart perhaps from in MFL.  Oracy is manifest in many ways, but group work and presentations form quite a large part of lessons.  This is not the case at Michaela.  
  • One of the S21 teachers told us that “coaching [their word for tutoring] is the single most important role of each member of staff” – which would put teaching second at best.  Michaela is certainly a caring school, but I think teachers see themselves as teachers first and foremost.  Certainly they seem to love being in a school where, as they might put it, you can actually teach.
  • “School is not a holding pen for the future,” we were told at S21.  That’s partly why they go out of their way to try to use PBL to solve real world problems.  At Michaela they also prepare their students for the future, but by very overtly drilling them in the knowledge they think they will need.  No solving of real world problems there, at least not until students have the domain knowledge to really attack them.
  • We heard at S21 that PBL is required at KS3 because students need to be given a purpose to their learning.  At KS4 and 5 the purpose is (or will be) provided by looming public exams, but without this carrot in yy7-9 it’s up to teachers to provide sufficient stimulus.  Michaela, I think, would roundly disagree.  Creating purpose through PBL is unnecessary, because what greater purpose than to learn, and unhelpful, because it distracts from the serious business of knowledge acquisition.

But also some similarities

First, some non-teaching ones.  One: both schools are in difficult London boroughs.  According to this 2016 survey Newham (home to S21) is the third unhappiest place in the country to live and Brent (Michaela) is fourth.  Two: both serve multicultural communities.  According to the 2011 census, Newham’s population is 71% BAME; Brent’s is 64%. Three: both are newish free schools. S21’s first cohort sat their GCSEs this year, Michaela’s will do so in 2019.  Four: both have very clear aims which are espoused by strong, charismatic leaders and borne out by enthusiastic, committed staff.

More interestingly, in some aspects S21’s pedagogical approach seems more akin to Michaela’s then I had imagined.  We heard that at S21 PBL does not continue into KS3 because, as mentioned above, the requisite purpose is provided by GCSEs and A-Levels.  That suggests quite a focus on exams, which is certainly similar to Michaela: in one Y9 lesson I saw while there, GCSE exam technique was already being explicitly taught.  (That said, in the 20 mins or so of a Y11 English class I saw at S21, there was some teacher talk, some group chat, some feedback.  Not the Michaela way at all.)

Next, their school mottos.  One has “Head, Hand and Heart”, the other “Work Hard, Be Kind.”  Pretty similar really, and although the former (S21) explicity mentions “hand” – which its website describes as “generating ideas, problem solving and making” – Michaela too prides itself on the creativity of its students.

Also, both schools are clearly unafraid to do things differently.  Oracy and regular PBL are not so explicit in most schools, and neither is such a strong emphasis on direct instruction.  But both schools, and critically both leadership teams, believe passionately in what they are doing and the way they are doing it, despite the brickbats that come their way.  

Perhaps, then, they aren’t quite the thesis and antithesis after all.  If Michaela isn’t the joyless info-factory of legend, then S21 isn’t the frothy free-for-all that some would suspect in a school wedded to PBL – not least because those wedding vows are broken at KS4 (and some teachers don’t abide by them anyway, we were told).

So what does all that mean?

Both schools want to produce the same thing: well rounded, well adjusted students, well prepared for life beyond the classroom.  S21’s excellent GCSE results suggest they are doing something right, but I have no doubt whatever that Michaela’s first cohort will also do stunningly well.  Both schools have been rated Outstanding by OFSTED.  At KS3 they go about things in very different ways, and while there are variances at KS4 too they may be less marked. All of which means, well, that neither appears obviously better than the other.  Oh well.


Teaching, managing and radical thinking

Like many of us engaged in edutwitter I’ve been on the end of the odd rasping comment from Andrew Old.  However, that doesn’t mean he’s always wrong.  Indeed, I might even go so far as to say that I sometimes agree with him and that, therefore, he is sometimes right.

Most recently, I found myself agreeing with much of what Andrew wrote in this blog about what he terms “managerialism.”  I hope I summarise it correctly if I say that in his view there are too many managers doing too much management, which itself is too often seen as the only career path for teachers – none of which furthers the cause of education.  

I was particularly taken by this phrase: “Good management is management that enables teachers to do their job. It is about creating a culture in which the most important work, the teaching, can be done.”

That’s dead on.  And it made me want to try to take things one step further, and outline what might happen if we thought more about what makes a manager.

Being good at something does not make you a good manager of that thing. We’ve probably all seen or experienced that, if not in teaching then elsewhere: football’s a clear example where good players can make terrible managers.

This isn’t really surprising when you think about the different things the roles require.  Here’s a table, related to schools rather than football.

A good teacher may well: A good HoD may well:
  • Teach outstanding lessons
  • Model good practice for colleagues
  • Think about developing his/her own practice: be the departmental pedagogical powerhouse
  • Provide leadership and oversight of the department
  • Assist with colleagues’ professional development
  • Deal with departmental administration

 The lists could go on.  The point though is that most of the items in the teacher list do not make good preparation for the items in the second.  A teacher who is brilliant at conveying theoretical physics to Y12 will not necessarily be  good at keeping colleagues up to date with the latest changes to the exam spec.  Similarly, the reflective practitioner who always seeks to hone her own lessons will not always be the one who can take the holistic, strategic view required of more senior colleagues.

So far, so unsurprising.  It’s odd, then, that the most usual path to HoD-ship is being recognised as a good teacher.  Odd because the skills aren’t the same, and also because by becoming a HoD there is less time for actually teaching.  And should that HoD be further promoted, say to the dizzy heights of SLT, time in the classroom drops even more and the skills required for success become even further removed from those which first caused the teacher to stand out.  

We all know all of this.  So why is it still the case?  I think because changing it requires a culture shift (hard) on several fronts (even harder):

  • Schools need to find ways to persuade the best teachers (once they have found a reliable way to identify them, which is another matter altogether) to stay in the classroom.  
  • These expert teachers need to feel that they are as important to the success of the school as their more “senior” colleagues (the word “senior” starts to be difficult here as well).  This might mean SLT-level roles.
  • All teachers will eed to accept that other colleagues, who may not be as good with Y9 on a Friday afternoon, are nonetheless exactly right for the job of, for example, writing the strategic development plan – and that for now they will end up higher on the greasy pole.

That last one refers to an even broader point.  As Andrew says, the most important work in a school is the teaching.  Yet the most senior, and probably best remunerated, members of staff don’t do much of it and probably don’t even need to be all that good at it.  

I’m sure there’s a radical solution to that.  I’m just not sure I’ve thought it through enough to put pen to paper.  Someone braver than me might want to dive in though.  Someone not frightened to deploy the heavy artillery.  Someone who doesn’t mind rubbing people up the wrong way. Any ideas who that might be?

He’s a model and he’s looking – not great

Model scholarship.  Model good behaviour.  Model the school’s ethos.  Model teamwork.  Model leadership.  There’s an awful lot of modelling to do as teacher.

There’s perhaps even more to do as a member of SLT.  SLT should set the tone for their colleagues.  They must be scrupulous in their adherence to school rules and policies; how else to expect students and staff to do the same?  They must take the lead in tackling poor behaviour, whatever the risk to their relationship with students. (As one of my perennially untucked Y11s told me last year, “Sir, you’ve become a real uniform guy.”)  And they must help ensure a decent work/life balance.

They (OK, we) must do other things too, but in this blog I want to focus on the last one: modelling work/life balance.  At the risk of being accused of virtue signalling or martyrdom or some other sin that I’m not even aware of yet, I work very hard.  In at 0700, rarely leave before 1830, lunch at my desk, another 4-5 hours on Sunday.  I also prefer to think of holidays as “time when the students aren’t in school”, in effect taking “leave” when I want some time off.  That may be a hangover from a previous, quite long, career outside teaching.

I’m not writing this for sympathy for my plight or advice on how to manage my workload.  That’s just how I choose to do things.  What I do worry about though is the message it sends to others.

I look after our newly or unqualified teachers.  I remember well how difficult that first year in particular was and I recognise the need for downtime.  The idea that they may see my car when they arrive and again when they leave, and infer that long hours in school is the only way to get on, horrifies me.

But what to do?  If I don’t get into work early, my journey will be unworkably long and I won’t get a parking space, meaning leaving the car up to a mile away (honestly, I’ve tried it).  If I don’t leave late I’ll end up doing more at home, after the kids have gone to bed, when I am much less good.

I can’t go round explaining to everyone about my particular circumstances, and even if I did there are other SLT who keep similar hours, probably for similar reasons.  We already have colleagues who spend just as long in school and doubtless others who do similar hours while at home.  It’s not healthy and I’d like to model something different.  Yet I can’t without seriously jeopardising my ability to do my job to the standard to which I aspire.

I can’t be the only one in this position.  Advice, please.  If not for my sake, then for those who may see me and think I am a model.

But I like having comments to look back at…

I’ve been thinking and reading about whole class feedback (WCF) recently.  There’s a lot out there but the general consensus – from my personal echo chamber, anyway – is that it’s a really good thing because it:

  • saves teachers time;
  • makes students think about their work;
  • acknowledges that carefully crafted comments receive nothing more than a cursory glance;
  • adheres to the Wiliam principle that feedback should be more work for the feedback-ee than the feedback-er.

Thing is, there’s a use for written feedback beyond telling students how they’ve done and how to improve: tracking student progress.  As I understand it, whole class feedback is aimed at, well, the whole class.  That presumably means that when I come to look at the feedback later, perhaps when writing reports or UCAS references, or before parents’ evening, I can get a sense of what everyone has been up to, but very little on how individuals are doing.  Which is not ideal.

However, if I’ve WWW’d and EBI’d or similar, and kept a record of those comments, I have a nice bank of individually tailored remarks to which I can refer if ever I’m asked or want to know how someone is doing.  If I really don’t think the students will benefit I guess I needn’t pass them on, but they are nonetheless helpful to me and to be honest if I’ve written them I presumably think they are worth sharing.

So there’s the conundrum.  There seems to be a gathering view that WCF is better for students than WWW/EBI.  But for recording student progress, the reverse is true (even if it takes longer).   Perhaps they aren’t mutually exclusive and I should do WCF sometimes and WWW/EBI at others.  But if – as my reading suggests – WCF is increasingly seen as The Way Forward, how can I record what I actually want to know without adding individualised comments and thus doubling my workload?


New Year’s Resolutions

In a recent post I wondered why I’m not a better teacher and tantalisingly promised a follow-up on what I plan to do about it.  So here it is.

  1. Remember that I don’t sit the exams.  So however good I might get in the classroom, there will still be some who don’t fulfil what I think to be their potential, for all sorts of reasons.  (Thanks @EG_carr for that one.)
  2. Be more willing to revisit existing lessons.  It’s easy just to produce last year’s lesson plan and use it again.  After all, it was probably OK.  Sometimes, though, lessons or series of lessons need looking at again, even if the syllabus hasn’t changed. That can be hard – you have something that works on the stocks and there is always so much else to do – but occasionally it’s necessary.
  3. Listen to advice and then do what’s right.  This year I have read books, blogs and tweets which challenge a lot of what I believe about teaching.  Undeterred, I will continue to spend time making displays; I shall use powerpoint where it’s helpful; I will talk when I think it’s right, and encourage group work where that is appropriate; and so on.
  4. Tell fewer jokes at the wrong time.  This blog from @Rosalindphys really resonated.  Not because, unlike her, I am “labouring under the crippling delusion that I [am] funny” – I actually am hilarious, I mean have you even seen my tweets? – but because sometimes the temptation to interrupt thinking and working with a wisecrack must be resisted.
  5. Be less accepting of substandard work because “s/he’s too shrewd not to knuckle down when it matters.”  That is a) an easy out for me, b) true far less often than I would like it to be and c) a way to waste opportunities to improve during the year.

So there you have it.  Don’t beat myself up, freshen up some lessons, stick to my guns (while being willing to change firearms if I find better ones), be less funny and expect and enforce higher standards.  Job (should be) done.

Why aren’t I a better teacher?

Results are out soon. They will bring with them the usual mix of joy, disappointment and indifference – among students, that is. For me, they will bring the usual question:    why hasn’t my obvious teaching genius been reflected in uniformly jaw-dropping results – particularly when compared to those of colleagues?

It is entirely possible that this is a window into my character that I don’t really want to open. It lays bare an innate competitiveness which I don’t like and don’t recognise in my day to day approach. I am a prolific producer of resources which I think are great – natch – and which I always share with colleagues at my current school (sometimes they humour me by using them) and, where I think they might be useful, at my previous one. Part of my role is to mentor staff brand new to the profession (we don’t insist on a teaching qualification) and I do this assiduously.   I engage in departmental and school wide debates about how to improve our teaching. To put it shortly, most of the time I’m not in it to win it, just to improve the education my school offers.

That changes at this time of year. I really, really want my students to do well, but not just for them: for me, too.  Raw, value added, whatever measure you care to mention, I’m not fussed. I just want to top the podium. Every time.  To prove that I am the teaching genius I think – I know – I am, you see.

So, that fact that my results might not show this is a source of some disquiet. Of course there are lots of variables in play and I can’t control them all. My colleagues are brilliant.  Exam results are only one measure, etc etc.  But that won’t stop me thinking, what did I do wrong? What can I do better?

That might sound admirable, except that it has questionable roots and usually leads to a state of near despair. I work really hard. I am – and forgive the arrogance but I can’t make the point without it – pretty highly rated by students and colleagues alike. I read and think about education.  I prize knowledge. I question, I challenge, I stretch. I do all those good things. And still, I don’t blow my peers out of the water at exam time.

I doubt I’m alone in feeling this way, nor in disliking the fact that I do. Fortunately, experience shows that the feeling will soon give way to a set of new year resolutions which, if I stick to them, will help me improve. This year though I’ve read more books, tweets and blogs than ever before, so my NYRs will be more closely targeted. I’ll also publish them on this blog. I mean, there’s no better incentive to reach a goal than to tell people about it, right?





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