What a performance!


‘I saw him teach a lesson – he’s not that good’ – I heard someone say this recently, and it made me cringe.

Dear all, make a point of challenging people when you hear them say this kind of thing please.  Here’s why:

The minute you start to make a judgement like this about a teacher over a lesson, is the minute you fall into the performance trap – a trap that you would never lay for a pupil, I hope. This kind of approach to teacher appraisal is deadly for the profession, anti-learning and stuck fast in a fixed mindset approach. Here’s the thing – I just don’t think I teach as well when I’m being observed in a judgemental way because I’m not a performer – I’m a learner.  I’m also confident that I’m a good teacher –the classes I teach make good progress, but I also embed the idea of learning into their little heads and how to be a learner – which is more important than anything to me. But I walk away most nights after school and wonder: how can I get better, how can I get the kids to learn better. Just as effective learners challenge themselves, so do effective teachers.

Like I said, performance is deadly for teaching. It’s like this see – you come home every day and reverse your car into the car sized space outside your house; sometimes you do it without even thinking, it’s like magic; you even impress yourself at times when you look back and see just how perfectly you managed to get  your car in that tiny space.  Then one day, you arrive home and your neighbour is there trimming a hedge – he pauses when he sees you in your car; you line up your car, and he turns to watch, ready for a chat and a hello when you get out. Then all of a sudden, you can’t park your car for toffee! You’re like a seventeen year old, your provisional license fresh from the DVLA. In and out you go, paying more attention than you’ve ever done before to that tight wheel-turn out, and that sharp turn in -but it’s no good, every time you think you’ve done OK, you look up and your ten feet from the kerb. Finally, you opt to park across the road where there are no other cars – you get out feeling silly, mumbling something about not being able to park when people are watching; you and neighbour laugh together; he agrees, says it’s the same for everyone. And it is.  Even though my neighbour doesn’t give a damn how I park, I do when I’m being watched and it spoils my parking.

When teachers are under pressure to perform, when you know that you’re going to be judged, it’s no different from fumbling about parking in front of people –especially when you know those people observing you want to see all the things on their little tick list and are desperate to see ‘a great lesson’ so they can sleep at night before Ofsted come. It’s worse too when you know that the people you work with will talk about ‘your lesson’ in the same kind of terms they might use when watching a stage play or a dance troupe. This is why when we hear that kind of talk about teachers, we need to challenge it because it only embeds performance culture and is no good for anyone.

I’m not saying that lessons can’t be commented upon – quite the opposite, and I’m not saying that teachers can’t be held to account – they should be. However, as with so much in teaching, it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Lesson observations can be very different in a school with an authentic learning orientation. They feel better; they allow teachers to challenge themselves; they allow leaders to challenge themselves too and all that finger pointing and showmanship is absent.  Just as a teacher’s job is to make pupils think, so it is a leader’s job to make teachers think, and nobody thinks well when caught in the headlights. Think about all the things we hear over and over again now: wait time, thinking time, talk partners, no hands up, meta-cognition, reflection time, –  it’s all about the thinking, all about the learning. It must be like this for teachers too if we want them to improve.

For me, the first step is to allow teachers to feel invested in any kind of observation cycle in just the same way that we want pupils to be invested in an assessment cycle. Create a dialogue about what the focus is – make the learning intention clear; create a dialogue about what success might look like: what would the children be doing and saying in an effective lesson and create a dialogue about how we can support and facilitate this.  Let the teacher take charge and tell you what they want to try – let them talk to you about their methods and their choices, open it all up. Then in the lesson, focus on what you’ve agreed- are the children doing and saying what you expected? Is it working? This will allow for rich dialogue after the lesson – a dialogue for learning. People talk about lesson study and teacher learning communities (TLCs) – these are along a similar line aren’t they – but the point is that it’s about learning, not a performance. Nobody is calling anybody anything, are they? If you do lessons like this, you don’t talk about the teacher being anything and if you build this kind of culture in your school, people gradually stop talking about each other as performers with a label attached. It makes a massive difference to helping teachers get better, which is what all schools want.

It’s all about the learning, not the show.

Tah dah!

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