Observing lessons has always been a staple part of any senior leadership role. However, like most aspects of education, the culture of lesson observations has changed significantly in recent years, and ever since Ofsted gave us the green light to stop making judgements on individual lessons, many school leaders have embraced a more developmental approach to observing classroom practice.
I actually haven’t graded lesson observations for the past two academic years, but stumbled across this way of working more by chance than by good judgement. It was not a strategic decision, rather the idea came to me as I was about to provide some feedback to an NQT at the start of term.
I had a large number of NQTs and trainee teachers at my previous school a couple of years ago and as you would expect I spent a lot of time in classrooms with them, observing their teaching and giving them plenty of advice and guidance.
However, it just didn’t feel right attaching grades to the lessons I observed. These were young, inexperienced and incredibly enthusiastic teachers, embarking on a career during arguably the toughest ever times in education, and for me to tell them that after four weeks of teaching in their NQT year that they “require improvement” did not sit well.
I could see that they were working very hard, planning their lessons thoroughly and marking their books, and it was very clear that they were establishing excellent relationships with their classes. But even when I saw a genuinely fantastic lesson I still didn’t feel that it would benefit the individual if I was to award a grade.
Instead, I agreed with the group that I would only perform developmental observations where I noted down factual observations of what was taking place in the classroom, what I was impressed with, and where I noticed areas that could be developed. This visibly took the pressure off the NQTs and allowed them to use the times when they were observed as a genuine opportunity to engage in a process that improved their classroom practice, rather than being told by someone like me how good (or not) it was. After a few months, word got out to the rest of the staff, who said that they wanted to be involved in these types of observations and a strategy started to evolve from there.
Now as a new headteacher at a different school I expected to face many challenges. However, what I didn’t expect was that some teachers would not like the idea of these developmental observations where an Ofsted grade isn’t awarded.
I proudly stood up in front of the staff, both on my interview day and on the first training day this year, and explained my philosophy on developmental lesson observations and outlined how teachers at my previous school had benefited from the development of a non-judgemental culture where everyone felt comfortable teaching with their door open.
As I said it I noticed many nods and smiles and I thought that this approach would be universally embraced. However, I was genuinely surprised that a handful of teachers had gone to their union reps to express concerns that there may be some Machiavellian scheme where judgements would be made but teachers not informed. Others actually felt offended that they wouldn’t be awarded with a grade.
It has taken me a few weeks, lots of individual meetings and a great deal of information-sharing to convince the more cynical that I am absolutely genuine in my pursuit of developing excellent teaching through a collegiate, supportive and development culture.
On reflection, it has shown me that whatever aspect of school improvement you want to introduce for the first time, you will never please everyone, and it is really important to be completely transparent with the rationale that underpins the strategy.
• SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his first year of headship at a comprehensive school in the Midlands.