I’ve had a shaky few years recently for various reasons but I think I’m getting back to my old self. I can tell this partly because I seem to be pissing more people off. I’m not saying this is a particularly good thing but it is familiar.
This means I can look back & start writing objectively about things I couldn’t write about before because they were too recent. So. I’m doing a few posts to get things off my chest. I don’t especially expect anyone to find them interesting but I can now write about them without getting upset so here we go.
Today I’m going to talk about …
I was thinking about this after reading this about Ofsted observations being not very useful in judging the quality of teaching.
Observations were the thing I hated most when I was teaching.
I came to teaching late after successful years in a variety of roles & industries – What can I say, I have itchy feet – It meant that I was used to being treated as an intelligent adult and having my judgement trusted. In teaching (at least in my experience), this isn’t the case.
We were observed twice a year. Once was by our line manager, when we were supposed to be able to negotiate which lesson was seen, and once was part of an institution-wide review. In the latter case all we were given was which half of the week we would be observed and it could be by any senior member of staff. This was meant to help prepare us for an Ofsted visit.
The first few years were fine. In those days, there were different grades for teaching & learning & 7 grades. I honestly can’t remember the grades but there were good points & points to improve. As time went on the pressure to perform well in these observations increased. As Ofsted observation grades changes, so did ours. We had grades 1-4 Excellent, Good, Satisfactory, Poor. My place of work was ahead of Ofsted in deeming Satisfactory not to be satisfactory. A Grade 3 observation grade meant a stiff talking to & re-observation. In my experience, the grade given depended as much on who was doing the observing as much as on how the lesson went.
One year I had been given the second half of the week as my “time slot” I knew full well that some teachers managed to elicit hints about which lesson would be observed but I had none. By Thursday evening nothing had happened and I was getting very tense. On Friday I taught what were probably my three most challenging classes. I taught IT across the board to students who did not want to, and “had not signed up to” do IT (good luck to all those FE teachers who will be delivering GCSE resits to unwilling kids who failed them in school). On Friday morning I had two Performing Arts groups followed by a Sports Study group. I was delivering the same content to them all, although it would be delivered to the two kinds of students in very different ways. I had prepared a lesson which ticked all the boxes on the list of “How to deliver a Grade 1 lesson” which had been handed out the previous week. I had printed copied of the Scheme of Work, lesson plan, copies of handouts, a character profile of the students with their additional needs.
Of course, I hoped I would be observed in the first lesson as they were usually the more co-operative of the groups and Sports Studies students on the graveyard shift on Friday was always, shall we say, demanding.
No-one turned up to observe the first lesson. “Oh good” I thought optimistically. I can iron out any kinks. The class behaved appallingly. I suspect they simply picked up on my tension. Performing Arts students could be charming, mercurial, sensitive and infuriating. Often all at the same time.
The class were awful. Simply awful. I don’t believe there was anything wrong with the lesson but they were having one of those days. I kept thinking ahead to the next class who were generally less co-operative and how that lesson would be even worse, and the afternoon………..
Eventually, I burst into tears. There, in the classroom, in front of the students. I was mortified. It was bad enough crying in the loo or in the staffroom but in a classroom? In front of students? It was unthinkable.
The class were wonderful. They calmed down. Sympathised, behaved (*mostly) for the rest of the lesson, and, miraculously made no attempt to make capital from my distress. In a rather twisted way I could blame my distress on the fact that my mum had died a few weeks before and I suppose, in hindsight, that did have an effect, but truthfully, the cause of my distress was the stress of waiting to be observed and criticised.
The observer came to the next lesson. It was OK, not brilliant. I was still too shaky. No idea what grade it was given, I’ve obviously blanked that out.
Other than that, my worst experience was when I did a lovely lesson for an observation. The kids worked hard, learned stuff, enjoyed themselves. The observer enjoyed herself & told me so. When the report came back, my manager told me I had been given a grade 1 but they believed it was really a grade 2 because of a couple of improvements listed. Grade 2 went on my record. I was so cowed by the whole business by then I didn’t even go back to the original observer to ask. I think that was the point at which I realised it was time to go. I was obviously never going to win.
….Oh, no, there was an even worse occasion when I changed everything I was going to do in a vain and misguided effort to do what I thought was wanted and the class just refused (quite understandably) to co-operate at all. By then it was all too late and I was a dead woman walking anyway.
It is possible to have good experiences of observations where the focus is support rather than judgement. I had a wonderful staff mentor who came in and helped me to identify what I was doing right and what I could improve and how. If all observations were like that I would support them wholeheartedly. Sadly, they seem to be far more about bringing teachers into line and people pushing their own favourite styles & theories. I hope the way they are done improves. I don’t think that will happen.