I think I am someone who enjoys learning new things, and I believe that the most useful habit new teachers can acquire is learning from their colleagues and learning to adapt to their students’ needs.
This is reflected in the earlier years of my career. I started working in the City but found it dull, so I joined Teach First in 2007. After two years, my headteacher let me take a year out to help set-up Teach for India, where I helped train new teachers. When I came back to the UK I started an MEd in education and politics.
In 2012, I joined the Future Leaders programme, an intensive programme of development that has put me on track to become a headteacher. As a result, I am now part of the senior leadership team at Grieg City Academy and during the last year I have developed a programme to help our newest teachers learn more and develop faster.
This is important because the school has an in-take that demands high-quality teaching. Our students come from many different backgrounds and more than
60 per cent don’t speak English at home, which obviously makes the time they have in school all the more important with regards to their general literacy.
We also have high levels of new students with low prior attainment, a below average number of students with high prior attainment, and more than 70 per cent are receiving free school meals.
Good or outstanding
At the start of September 2012, we had recruited 11 beginner teachers – four from Teach First and seven NQTs – and I took responsibility for devising a training programme that would see them through the year and bring them up to good or outstanding teaching by July 2013.
This was part of a wider school initiative that I set-up, including optional CPD sessions for established teachers who wanted to improve their teaching to outstanding. One aim was to create relationships between the two groups, and with two local high-performing schools. Although this was initially a little slow, we are now doing this on a regular basis this year.
We chose these new teachers as something of a “quick win” – they already had expectations of monitoring and skills development, and sessions that encouraged and stretched them would yield immediate results. So, I developed a programme that ran alongside existing meetings and INSET days but which would provide extra learning, discussion and observations.
The school had recently made significant steps to introduce an open classroom culture, and after the first half-term I introduced a school-wide peer-observation programme that focused on the practicalities of good teaching itself, rather than on policy or theory. Taking advantage of recent improvements in a school is a really good way of making your own work more effective and helping to embed the new changes into the school’s culture.
A practical focus
There was some pre-existing material for beginner teachers but I felt it needed refreshing. Training can have the best intentions, but unless it is relevant and accessible it can fall flat.
So I consulted with our trainee teachers from the year before and the consensus was that every session should be closely related to their own day-to-day teaching and be delivered concisely – because let’s face it, teaching can be exhausting and new teachers’ time is especially valuable when they are also learning how to plan lessons and mark homework. I wanted to avoid the sessions becoming an onerous drain on their energy.
I reshaped the existing training programme, cutting out some of the aspects of theory, creating practical preparation and follow-up tasks for each session. The aim was to ensure that every topic was reflected on before training, embedded in day-to-day practice afterwards, and then re-evaluated and discussed in the next session. Participants would bring their class data and observations to sessions and we would focus on these specific cases, and plan how each of us would respond practically to the issues raised.
For example, the first few sessions focused on behaviour management. In the first session, the teachers had to script the first 10 minutes of a lesson minute-by-minute – exactly what they would say and do and exactly what they thought the students would say and do. This ensured they had the expectations of what would happen in class very clear in their own minds.
In another session, we did solution-focused questioning which worked well. The teachers got into groups of three: one spoke about an issue they were having related to behaviour and the other two listened and questioned. These two were not allowed to suggest solutions – the idea was to get the first NQT to reflect on aspects of the problem they had not yet considered. Both of these approaches were taken from training I had received via Future Leaders.
Structure of the sessions
I took a creative approach to planning and made sure that the sessions were not just given by the staff member responsible for that topic, but also included contributions from many different members of staff who had practical insights.
This year it has included two of last year’s NQTs who had struggled with behavioural issues but have since made excellent progress in maintaining class discipline and are now sharing what they learned.
Sessions were compulsory but I made sure that they ended by 4:30pm, leaving the new teachers enough time to still do what they needed to that evening. Of course, we didn’t just pack up straight away and I deliberately planned a non-compulsory element where there was informal time to ask questions and share experiences after every session.
As I would with my own teaching, I also made sure that the training benefited each trainee by targeting them at their different abilities. I differentiated by linking those who were already teaching good lessons with our “Good to Outstanding” group and our good local schools, and this allowed those making slower progress to be given additional tailored support.
The programme began as a weekly afternoon session but over the course of the year it changed to fortnightly, and concluded with a series of presentation sessions in which the trainees discussed a topic they had researched. Again, the aim was to cut down the programme timetable, although I did also add to it in other ways.
Teaching observations are an excellent way to learn but it can be hard to find the time in a busy day, so it was compulsory for trainees to block out one period a fortnight for observation. We then used this as material for the sessions, with each trainee summarising the observed lesson and discussing the teaching practices used.
Not all of this worked as planned. Organising sessions so that other local schools could participate was difficult and eventually proved impossible to sustain, so have I resolved to communicate with them much further in advance ahead next time.
However, there were loads of things that worked really well, with the most obvious being the outcomes for our teachers themselves.
At the end of the each term, all 11 were assessed using Ofsted criteria. None of them were at the desired level in the September and all of them needed to improve by at least one level, meaning that the sessions would have clear and tangible outcomes when we re-assessed at the end of June.
The results were great and by the summer eight of the participants had reached the target of good or outstanding teaching, with three still working towards it. Both of those requiring improvement had shown the capacity to improve and received personalised support until the end of the summer term.
Throughout the year, I worked with subject mentors to devise clear goals, with some short-term aims. One participant had been having problems with discipline and had self-reflected that she often made threats of punishment that were not carried through. Her goal was to make sure that every time she threatened a detention, she gave it. This was monitored every three weeks and this helped her to focus her energy and observe her own progress.
That’s not to say everything was easy. Schools can be complicated places to work. One of our very competent NQTs was making excellent progress in her teaching but found some of the necessary changes that were occurring in her department very disruptive to her style of working.
One afternoon, I received an email in which she explained how hard everything had become and that she didn’t know if she could continue.
I felt partly responsible because I hadn’t noticed how she had been feeling, but after we met and talked about it, she decided that she wanted to be where she was needed – and she was needed where she was. She’s now moved to a middle leadership role and is able to make changes to some of the things that were stressing her out.
I know that I learned a lot too. As the facilitator of the programme, I got access to all the sessions and it was like going back to training myself. The combination of observation, teaching, self-reflection and practical role-play was really effective. To see the new teachers improving meant I was picking up new best practice too and exploring new ways that I could be a better teacher.
I was delighted that all the participants were offered permanent contracts at the academy, aside from one who secured employment elsewhere, demonstrating that the programme had really honed their skills and integrated trainees into the wider school community.
We are continuing the programme this year and I believe that having these high expectations for our newest teachers will help us to continue improving standards at our school.
Future LeadersThe Future Leaders programme is a leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools across England. It offers a residency year in a challenging school, personalised coaching and peer-support through an online network of more than 400 Future Leaders. Applications for 2014 open soon. Register or nominate a colleague at www.future-leaders.org.uk/express-your-interest. For more information, visit www.future-leaders.org.uk
Lucy Helan is assistant vice-principal at Greig City Academy in London.