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School Improvement – The Dave Brailsford Model


Today there is a great article on the BBC website about the inexorable progress of the Sky cycling team under the expert stewardship of Dave Brailsford – see here. The ‘aggregation of marginal gains approach‘ is now well known and can be easily summarised as identifying those small performance factors that, when aggregated together, can have a significant cumulative impact. This can apply to teachers tweaking their pedagogy to transform their practice; students breaking down their tasks to focus on the constituent parts to improve; or school leaders aligning their school priorities. The article takes the process a step forward by focusing on the key developments for moving from good to outstanding as a team.

The first quote from the article that immediately stood out was the following:

“You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one.”

This seamlessly applies to a school context. Rather than investing in yet more teachers; or seeking the expensive intervention strategy of paying more for ‘top’ teachers, or even paying for extra teachers to make class sizes smaller, we should invest in quality coaching. We should aim to find more of that most crucial, but expensive, commodity for teachers: time. We should help our existing teachers become better, rather than looking to import in super-teachers, or other imported quick fixes. Coaching is a cheap and crucial method in improving our core business, helping teachers improve their pedagogy. We should question how can we develop better coaching?

So how did Brailsford lead team Sky to become “the most admired sports team in the world“? Being well funded helps, and it helps schools. Team Sky stay in the best hotels, with the best pillows etc. – we benefit from having the best school buildings and the best equipment – it is common sense really; however, less expensive marginal gains are also at work.

Hone in on the important data:

“Every turn of the pedal a Team Sky rider makes is recorded by a power meter, analysed using performance software and then benchmarked against Kerrison’s “power curve” models.

Last year, for example, Wiggins’s training was assessed against a template for a Tour/Olympic double. The gaps between these two lines on a graph – where Wiggins was and where he needed to be – were where Team Sky directed what Kerrison describes as “coaching interventions”.
Measuring power and using it as a training tool is not unique to Team Sky – and neither is it new. But what sets them apart is their total faith in it.”

Yes, obviously we are not teaching machines, although our assessment outcomes sometimes make us feel like we do! The lesson here is concentrating on the right data. There are swathes of data models for schools to the point where teachers become swamped. We should simplify our data collection and recording. This post exemplifies using data as a school leader brilliantly, but the rule applies more broadly. We should question what is the best data and how do we use it?

Slow the teaching and learning down, aiming for high quality mastery over quantity:

“But even with squads that large, most teams race all season, go on holiday in the autumn and then start training again in the winter. There is not much room for coaching.
Not at Team Sky, though. Their top riders race fewer days than their rivals and they structure their seasons to accommodate mid-season “training blocks”. For Wiggins, Chris Froome, the rest of the Grand Tour group and even the 10 riders targeting the Cobbled Classics in the spring, that means time off to train at altitude on Tenerife’s Mount Teide.”

Under pressure from OFSTED, curriculum specifications etc. we often try to cover every minute detail of every subject – we often become overly content driven in the fear of missing the minutiae of a potential exam question. What we must do is slow down the learning. There is a movement for this very ideas – see here. Excellent practitioners, such as David Didau have advocated ‘Slow Writing’. In our department, we are moving towards rooting DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time) into our daily pedagogy. Much better to do 80% of a job brilliantly than 100% of it badly! We should reflect on what should we not do – like Dylan Wiliam implores – we should stop doing too many good things! We should question what can we drop out of our curriculum to allow for real depth and quality to occur?

You get what you pay for:

“All teams have costs they cannot avoid – hotels, petrol and so on – but given the correlation between wages and winning, most keep their “operational spend” down to a minimum, typically allocating 90% of their resources to salaries. It is the cycling equivalent of putting the best possible XI on the pitch at the expense of everything else.

At Team Sky, however, that split is 80/20, with greater investment in non-riding staff, research and training camps. “You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one,” is Brailsford’s rationale.”

Rightly or wrongly (I say wrongly whole-heartedly!), budgets are tight. We should ask the question of every spend in our school: what impact does it have on teaching and learning? This should drive our choices, whether as a subject leader or school leader. People may question the relative wealth of the Sky Team – comparing it to some Wellington or Eton School equivalent. That is true to some degree, but at the head of the innovation team (the ‘Secret Squirrel Club’) is Chris Boardman – a man who devised the world’s fastest bike with the tools in his garage! Great things can still be done on tight budgets, they may just require greater ingenuity! We should question deeply what we spend our money on and we should challenge the government to invest further in top quality education.

Regular communication:

“We’ve got good at conference calls,” said Brailsford, adding these are not just any conference calls. These are mandatory Monday morning conference calls, with standardised minutes.

But as good as these virtual meetings are, you cannot beat an old-fashioned, face-to-face chinwag, which is why one of this year’s innovations will be the establishment of a permanent performance base in Nice, staffed by Kerrison and Shaun Stephens, until recently the head coach of the Australian triathlon team.”

The question should be how do we best communicate? How do we best make use of technology to drive improvement in our practice: such as using blogs, email communication, meeting and training time? Again, what should we not do? Are we wasting our time and that of our teachers with excessive meetings? Or, should we adapt our currently meetings to ensure the hone in relentlessly on teaching, learning and pedagogy?

The “elephant in the room” for cycling may well be the spectre of drug cheats that casts a lengthy shadow over achievement. Our ghostly apparitions may be OFSTED, exam boards (and the tricky shenanigans of grade boundaries!) or our curriculum model; but they are things we cannot control – mere apparitions and even media driven crises blown out of true proportion. We need to follow Brailsford’s model and keep the main thing the main thing – refusing such distractions from our core business of teaching and learning.

The Three Rs and Aiming for Outstanding


This last week I had the pleasure to read some excellent blogs on outstanding practice. It was fascinating to see what fellow practitioners think about great teaching, with exemplary practice outlined in a very helpful way. In this post by David Didau here there is a hugely useful model of what a great lesson looks like. In this post by Tom Sherrington here there is a breakdown about the qualities of great teaching more generally: with a particular focus upon ‘rigour’ (reclaiming it from Govean parody!). I was interested in the overlap and interplay between those two posts. I happened to be teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’ with my Year 10 group at the moment, like David, and I too was being observed. What I wanted to do was not aim to exhibit a ‘showpiece’ one-off lesson (although these can be rattled out the bag by many experienced practitioners to mask a dull daily reality). I was intent on representing the real routines my group exemplify in any given lesson – to display the rigour articulated by Tom Sherrington, combined (hopefully!) with some of the outstanding strategies employed by David Didau.

Although we all feel pressure to perform when observed, we must aim for consistency in our practice before a pursuit of an outstanding lesson judgement, and we must trust in ourselves that this consistency will be rewarded. I have heard from a few wise leaders who have said that if every lesson saw our students display good progress then we would cumulatively see good to outstanding progress in student attainment. Of course, there are a host of important contextual factors to consider, but on a simple level, sticking to the ‘three Rs‘ of relentless and rigorous routines would see students flourish. I do not think it is having low standards to be happy with a consistent sequence of very good lessons, rather than haul ourselves over the coals in an obsessive pursuit of outstanding; it is effective pragmatism and a realisation that rapid progress does not happen every lesson. I have found that some cast iron ‘outstanding’ plans just don’t spark on the day, whilst seemingly simple lessons can smash through the ceiling of mediocrity and see students reach new heights. We must then reflect with care, but without despondency if the lesson doesn’t turn out exactly as we planned or wanted. What is crucial is that we learn from the experience of the lessons that didn’t go well and then tweak our pedagogy to improve still further.

With this in mind I tried to aim for a great sequence of lessons, where hopefully the observation lesson would show an accumulation of skills, rather than a one off showpiece. The following sequence of lessons outlines the planning for most of the week, with the lesson plans for before and after the observation lesson being just as crucial:

Monday’s lesson

Key question: How does the theme of power link to the theme of loneliness?
Starter: Who would make the better American president? See PPT. Student feedback: ‘Pose-pause-pounce-bounce’.
– In pairs, create a ‘power map’ using the ‘Character Cards’ resource. The pairing then needs to select three of the characters who have distinctive power relations. – They should co-construct a top grade paragraph that answers the key question. This should be done with students writing alternate sentences (with each partner orally critiquing the sentence of one another) and it should be completed on paper (for the gallery critique).
– Any questions should be posted on the ‘Question wall’.
– Recap the four steps of effective evidence analysis – their group target.
– Recap their proof reading target – each pairing is given two minutes DIRT time on their paragraph (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time).
– Complete a gallery critique. Remind students about the criteria for their feedback and how many paragraphs they should read ideally. The critique notes will be made on a post it note – using the ABC feedback model (Agree with; Build Upon and Challenge). Conduct oral feedback.

Tuesday’s Lesson (Observation lesson)

Key question: How is the theme of friendship presented in relation to the theme of loneliness?Obscure the two themes from the KQ and probe some ideas.
Starter: Who would you most like to sit next to in class? See PPT. ‘Think-pair-share’ responses using the ABC feedback model.
– Revisit the key question and elicit oral feedback using the ‘Pose-pause-bounce-pounce’ model.
– ‘Just a minute’ recap of last lesson from selected student – link to current KQ (articulate end goal of controlled assessment essay).
– In pairs, use character cards to create a friendship map (this is intentionally an open concept). Ask observer to select a map that is interesting. Get that pairing to rearrange the characters on the PPT slide – (See PPT) – whilst orally articulating their ‘map’. Get other pairings to conduct ABC feedback.
In pairs, write a model paragraph that answers the key question (akin to last lesson). Remind students that they need to write alternate sentences. Show a model PEEL high grade paragraph response – see PPT – with ‘four steps to a successful explanation’ model – see images slide on PPT. Question students about why the paragraph is so successful.
– Have two minutes DIRT time (use highlighters).
– Conduct a gallery critique (teacher model first oral response).

Thursday’s Lesson

Key question: How does social prejudice exacerbate loneliness?
– A student is made the ‘Secret Teacher‘ to privately note the best oral responses.
– Individuals note a list of the prejudices present in the novella. In groups, discuss those prejudices. Conduct ABC feedback
– ‘Prejudice Continuum’: the students have to individually select where they think each prejudice resides on the line, from ‘Most individually damaging’ to ‘least individually damaging’. Teacher orchestrates feedback and the ‘Secret teacher‘ orders the answers along the continuum.
– Individual writing of a top grade paragraph addressing the key question. Show two model examples from last lesson and unpick and reiterate key points. Use the question wall for any student questions, with post it notes, and allow a one minute question session midway through their writing. Otherwise, work in silence.
– Have two minutes DIRT time for their writing – with peer proof reading, then individual proof reading. Conduct oral feedback. Select students to read their paragraph, with another student having to give constructive feedback based on our writing targets from the previous week (a four step model to explain evidence).
– The ‘Secret teacher‘ gives feedback on their observations.

(There was a fourth lesson in the week but I wanted to keep the post to a reasonable size!)

Useful resources referred to in lesson plans:

PPT: OM&M PPT Creative Questions<

Of Mice and Men 'Character Cards': OM&M Character cards

Review of the week and the ‘Three Rs’

What I hope is evident is that much of the pedagogy in the lesson plans above is repeated to develop and deepen the habits required to produce great learning. Consistency, good habits and routine are king. The first two lessons of the week, in particular, clearly mirror one another to develop the required writing skills. Repetition is often frowned upon in education, with the misguided notion we should be endlessly creative and different to maintain the interest of students. Students derive comfort and increasing expertise through incrementally increasing the level of challenge through the repetition of the most effective teaching and learning strategies, not from an endless array of activities.

The reality of the lessons outlined above is that I also learnt a great deal about where they stumbled on Monday, when student progress that was definitely not outstanding, to actually inform my planning for Tuesday. For example, they failed to analyse the quotations as successfully as I would have liked on Monday, which was rather unexpected, so I added in an A grade model on Tuesday and spent more time modelling the paragraph structure to enhance their quality of analysis in the subsequent lesson. Not every lesson sees rapid progress – to think this is the case is to have a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature…never mind hormonal teenagers! By working at the core habits relentlessly; however, I was able to make ‘marginal gains’ lesson upon lesson – only nuanced, slight improvements, but essential differences (this recognition often becomes easier with experience). Good became better.

Another clear factor about my pedagogy I hope is in evidence is my focus upon questioning see here and oral feedback see here. I couldn’t write those blog posts without practising what I preach! What is clear is that OFSTED are interested in progress– (it is the latest buzz word careering around schools). Some people are therefore quick to mystify this term, complicating what can be the best, and sometimes the most traditional, of teaching and learning strategies: simply asking great questions and eliciting thoughtful, intelligent feedback. When I hear we people explaining ‘mini-plenaries’ every fifteen minutes, or have our students spinning plates in different ‘learning stations’, with no real deep understanding or knowledge, just for when the OFSTED inspectors are in the room, I despair. Stop the showpiece; don’t invite the circus to town – just follow habits of excellent routine pedagogy!

If we develop real rigour in our habits then it will be obvious that students are learning and making good, or sometimes even rapid, progress: clearly in their attitude and demeanour; in the quality of their questions and feedback; in their written work and in their books or folders. Each one of my lessons above allocated time to make improvements (DIRT). It is trained behaviour, that may appear uninspired or lacking the necessary rapidity, but the rigour of proof reading may well be the two most important minutes of those lessons. Any observer should note that rapid progress is often the product of slow reflection! Not only that, it is this regular habit which may well transfer to becoming more settled habits for students when writing at any time in any subject – the learning trumps the chase for a great observation once more. It is a rigorous routine of real note (thank you Jackie Breere for the inspiration for DIRT) – whether a lesson is graded outstanding or not, students will reap the rewards of such sound learning.

When I speak to many colleagues they simply want to be shown what an outstanding lesson is, what it looks like, and how they can replicate it. This is problematic: as outstanding looks, sounds and feels different in different subjects. That being said, some definitive patterns of learning arise in great lessons. For me, those are seeing students highly engaged in responding to challenging questions, posed by a teacher with the highest of standards; it is feedback being artfully weaved around the group, lifting understanding; it is students reflecting with due care attention to their thinking and their work; and it is the palpable sense of motivation and commitment to the task at hand. These patterns are honed by routine, not derived from any off the peg lesson plan or formula for success.

Postscript: I am thankful to David Didau, Jackie Breere and David Docherty for their ideas that have informed my lesson plans outlined in this post.

Universal Panacea: Revaluing Education


Firstly, let me dismiss the notion that there is any one universal panacea which will have a transformative impact upon education. Sadly, we cannot uproot the Finnish education system and replant it in our green and pleasant land; its roots are bound in a rich local context. That being said, I am interested in the root of the word panacea and its relevance to our current predicament. The word panacea derives from the Greek: ‘panákeia‘, equivalent to ‘panake-‘, with the stem of ‘panakḗs‘, meaning ‘all-healing‘. I am particularly interested in the healing aspect. Our education system is fractured and in need of healing; our policy is driven by polarising ideology and each tier of our system is at destructive logger-heads. As a profession we are in dire need of some restorative healing. My palliative, alas, not an ‘all-healing’ panacea, is to our Department FOR Education, and indeed the current, and subsequent, British governments, to realign what it values and to work in cooperation with the teaching profession. I see cooperation and interdependence as the core values which will help improve our education system and begin the healing.

The idea of ‘investment‘ I am interested in spans broader borders than just monetary value. As Warren Buffett said, ‘price is what you pay, value is what you get’. What would have an enduring impact upon schools in the coming years is that each Department FOR Education begins to truly value state education, school leaders and teachers; not pay mere lip service to valuing education either, but displaying this conviction through policy and investment. This policy needs to be depoliticised like never before and professionalised like never before. We can better professionalise our education system through a concerted commitment to research and development. What we need is a relentless focus upon what works in education, not a rigorous defence of ideology at all costs.

As the media and the government will tell you, we are in dire need of cuts. Cut fast, cut deep…cut pretty much anything. Of course, there is an attempt to hold onto what is valued. Much was made by our current coalition government about education budgets being retained, but the reality is one of harsh cuts, with capital expenditure particularly slashed:

“Over the period covered by the 2010 Spending Review, the state-funded school population in England is expected to grow from 6.95 million in 2010–11 to 7.14 million children by 2014–15.4 Furthermore, the education leaving age will be gradually increased from 16 to 18 starting in 2013. Once phased in, this will eventually require students to stay in some form of full-time or part-time education or training until the age of 18 (instead of 16 as currently). As a result, the declines in education spending over the next few years will be spread over an increasing population, so that resources per head will probably decline by even more than total spending.

In summary, education spending experienced relatively robust growth during the 2000s. By the end of the decade, education spending as a share of national income stood close to its highest level for at least fifty years. However, over the next four years, almost all of this growth will be reversed. Having grown historically quickly during the 2000s, it is now set to fall historically fast during the early 2010s.”

Institute for Fiscal Studies report:

Of course, in austere times we must spend near aligned with our means, but by devaluing education we will inevitably stifle the very innovation that will drive our small nation back towards success, especially when faced with the rise of vast Brick nations in our changing global economy. It may not be short term enough to fit political cycles (a key issue with the politicisation of policy), but it will be enduring and transformative. Many arguments are made to sustain spending in different government sectors, such as defence spending, but evidence leads to the fact that it is a high quality education system which generates jobs, innovation and wealth creation. This American research gives some intriguing evidence to compare state spending and job creation: US education spending creating jobs – University of Massachusetts research.

I am particularly intrigued by the global comparisons of state spending on education and defence. Perhaps it is a universal example of the endemic of governments spending on the ‘cure’ (defence spending) and not the ‘prevention’ (education spending). In Britain, we have spent an estimated £83.5 billion on an outdated Cold War Defence system in Trident, when the annual education budget is an estimated £99 billion. We must get our values right – which will take a significant realignment. One other facet of the education and defence spending comparison is that of ‘research and development‘. Defence RandD spend stands at £2 billion annually. There is no real equivalent budget for RandD for schools! Higher education funding is being slashed and no ‘Big Society’ substitute will do this significant undertaking. This is at a time when Gove and Clegg seek such a valuable evidence base from the likes of the Education Endowment Foundation, showing they are aware of the impact of such rigorous research evidence, but they are tinkling with the issue. Not only that, there is significant current research being wholly ignored by the DfE.

What would be the scope if we invested £2 billion in evidence based research in Education? Higher Education funding stands at a fraction of current military RandD spending and currently the link between Universities and schools is being severed, due to the change in the teacher training model, so such quality research is becoming ever more difficult. What we must do is connect not fracture: universities and particularly Teaching School Alliances can work like a solar system, drawing together schools and practitioners in rich collaboration, rather than work in corrosive competition. The OECD have explored the striking disconnect that sees government ignoring research and development for education, preferring to base policy upon baseless ideology:

“It is striking that there is generally little public funding for educational research. Private businesses do not seem to invest heavily in knowledge that can be applied to the formal education sector, and policy makers do not seem to have a clear strategy for stimulating business investment in education R&D. On average, OECD countries allocated 15.5 times more of their public budgets to Health research than to Education research, but only 1.2 times more of their public expenditure to education than to health.”

Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century LESSONS FROM AROUND THE WORLD, Edited by Andreas Schleicher, OECD 2012

Value Driven Solutions

– Coordinate a substantial, world-renowned R&D programme
– Establish a Royal College of Teachers
– Make teaching a Masters level study profession
– Retain national pay agreements and attract the best candidates
– Systematically link Teaching School Alliances
– Go further than ever before with planning, preparation and research time

It is about time we explored the palliative investments required to heal our fractured Education system. We need our current Coalition, and future governments, to end the cycle of botched and rehashed top-down initiatives, and instead root reform bottom up, through the profession, and focused upon evidence that always accounts for the central importance of teaching and learning. How do we source the best evidence that can create policy without a political criteria? We need to create a Royal College of Teachers that coordinates a substantial RandD budget with schools and universities (John Hattie should be employed immediately as a key leader!). With the recent merging of the Teaching Agency and the National College of School Leadership there is an overt recognition that there needs to be a powerful, respected and well resourced body that hones in on the key factor which improves any education system – the quality of teachers and teaching and learning. The core purpose of the college would be to drive the engine of evidenced based policy, independent of politicians and the short-termism of the political cycle. The real problem is that mergers come and go, new bodies and quangos fly by night, strangled by Whitehall mandarins and politicians hungry to put their name onto the latest set of changes. Any such Royal College must have a truly independent mandate, substantial funding and a strong media voice.

In tandem with that body, teaching would be raised back to the status of true professionalism, with a high bar of entry requirements and a requirement for Masters level study. In Finland, new teachers are expected to be fully versed with a knowledge base of educational development, but they also are required to write a research based thesis as a final requirement for their Masters degree. The rationale is clear: teachers should be classroom practitioners and undertake disciplined inquiry into the impact of pedagogy etc.

The research that outlines that teacher impact trumps every other factor in education is now incontrovertible, and frankly little more than common sense. With that in mind, the palliatives outlined above will help raise the status of teachers and teaching, exhibiting that the government values Education and is investing in the people that will drive its improvement. Teacher pay, particularly performance related pay (all the evidence stacks up against it!), isn’t my priority, as I happen to believe the vast majority of teachers are driven by public service and not the profit motive; however, if we are to professionalise and raise the standard of the profession to be the highest it can be, creating the rigour so celebrated by politicians, then national pay agreements will help retain those high standards. A North/South pay divide in teaching would only provide a further fracturing and enfeebling of the entire school system, leaving school leaders to pillage their budgets still further.

A further investment in people is providing teaching professionals with the greatest of commodities: time. In successful Asian nations, like Japan, South Korea and Singapore (all lauded by Michael Gove), teachers are given substantial time to plan lessons, respond to assessment and to develop their pedagogy. It is that time, and not class size, which is invariably large, which is the most significant shift from our approach. What would be obvious would be to make that time synchronised with the aforementioned programme for RandD: focusing upon teacher quality and great pedagogy. Networks of teaching schools would be synchronised with Universities well versed in research, but with a concerted focus upon practice in the classroom. Also, in Japan, ‘jugyou kenkyuu‘, translated as research lessons, are a crucial part of the developmental learning culture. Every teacher periodically prepares a best possible lesson that demonstrates strategies to achieve a specific goal in collaboration with their fellow colleagues. Rooted in their culture is that highly professional skill of reflection and a research based methodology.

The cooperative model of ‘jugyou kenkyuu‘ brings me back to my central point about a shift in values from our Department FOR Education towards working with the professionals on the front line. Like ‘jugyou kenkyuu’, we learn and improve through dialogue, not by dictat. We need to move towards a cooperative model, where schools and teachers are encouraged to collaborate and school interdependence is engendered, rather than a culture of fearful and corrosive competition. Autonomy can still flourish in a climate of embedded and systematic collaboration: indeed, a remodelled OFSTED could have a core purpose of supporting schools to raise standards of pedagogy, rather than being simple a punitive measure. We need to move towards a revalued model of education that places autonomy and authority back into the hands of teachers, with the highest expectations of research driven pedagogy.

In his ‘Precepts’ Hippocrates (a Greek physician: 460 BC – 377 BC) states: “Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” Let’s collaborate to seize to opportunity to demand better values from our politicians and to demand the best from ourselves as professionals.

Making and Sustaining Habit Changes in Education


As a teacher I am always looking to take on the Sisyphean task of changing the habits of my students to make them better learners. What I have also realised as a subject leader, and as a reflective teacher, is that I am also looking to improve and change my own habits, my practice, and to support my colleagues to improve their practice still further too. Better teaching requires sustained changes in our habits – a very difficult process! Now, I am a great believer in deliberate practice as a path to mastery. I also whole-heartedly prescribe to Carole Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ approach – and the view that grit and effort, and not some divine talent or inspiration, is where most creativity and innovation is to be found. All that being said, I also think that our core habits are rooted deeply within our egos and our motivations are predominantly emotional rather than logical. I was therefore struck by the outstanding book which articulated many of these issues, ‘Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard’, about how to make changes to habitual patterns, for individuals, or groups and organisations through connecting with our emotions and tweaking the environment. Although not a book about school organisations as such, the book speaks directly to schools, and leaders at all levels of schools and education; and teachers, looking to make those habitual positive changes with their classes.

What the book does so successfully is to give a simple pattern to initiating change and sustaining change – particularly changing the habits of individuals and organisations (with lots of excellent examples). I have always thought that teachers are a particularly habitual bunch! Dismiss it as cod psychology, but we have returned to settings which replicate much of our childhood, so there must be a psychological pleasure we get from the school environment, something that runs deep within us emotionally (I won’t even mention the emotion invested in coffee cups or seats in the staff room, or our class room spaces!). Perhaps this is why we can be so resistant to change? Or maybe we just like to be in ultimate control – we are commanders of our classroom ship so often that perhaps we just fail to allow anyone else to steer and guide our ship to fresh waters!

The pattern for change derived from Chip and Dan Heath (yes, they are American, how did you guess?) is described below. Obviously, I am most interesting in the applicability of this pattern to educational contexts. Forgive some of the jargon, I can’t explain it all; however, a simple explanation of the ‘Rider‘ and ‘Elephant‘ analogy is required. They actually borrowed the analogy from Jonathan Haidt’s book, ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘. Put simply, the ‘Rider‘ is our logical, organised and rational self – steering us appropriately; whereas the ‘Elephant‘ is our powerful emotional self, ready to unleash terrific power at any moment! The tensions between the two are obvious. As the Heath brothers describe, the two both need to be influenced for sustained, habitual change to occur.

1. ‘Direct the Rider’:
– Find the Bright Spots: investigate what is working and clone it;
– Script the Critical Moves: think in terms of specific goals, not a big picture (too vague);
– Point to the Destination: change is easier when you know where you are going.


2. ‘Motivate the Elephant’:
– Find the Feeling: knowing/thinking something isn’t enough to change it, make people feel something;
– Shrink the Change: break down the change so it isn’t too daunting;
– Grow Your People: cultivate a strong sense of identity and instil a growth mindset.


3. ‘Shape the Path’:
– Tweak the Environment: when the situation & the environment changes, so does the behaviour;
– Build Habits: when behaviour is habitual it doesn’t tax the ‘rider’ as much – encourage new habits;
– Rally the Herd: behaviour is contagious – help spread it.


For me, starting with ‘finding the bright spots‘ is key. Too often we aim to get people to change by focusing on what is ‘broken’, or bringing in the ‘expert’, having a whirlwind training session and then expecting long-held habits to simply fall away. It just doesn’t work. Change needs to emerge from the ground up, otherwise we just don’t have the emotional investment required to really change our habits. As a subject leader, I have realised that when people have tried something themselves and seen it work it has many more times the impact than watching some ‘outstanding’ lesson by another teacher in another part of the school, no matter how good and illuminating that lesson may be. Such is the power of the ‘elephant‘ our emotional selves simply switch off to such external stimuli is presented to us – no matter how valid or persuasive. I see so many teachers readily dismiss success from another school with a cynical jibe at the catchment area or the selective nature of another school, rightly or wrongly. People need to feel the change and see it working around them to believe it (sometimes people need to know and feel the problems with not changing). Colleagues in a department observing one another and coaching one another, with close specific focus on a manageable area of pedagogy, can be so powerful because the ‘elephant‘ essentially feels safer and more receptive to new information and advice; more so than being given expert advice by any external party, be it the subject leader, or leaders from the SLT. A learning walk is looked on with cynicism by many, we must provide the conditions for genuine sharing of new habits, such as new pedagogy. There is definitely a place for external experts too – I am a firm believer that we should all undertake educational research, as we would expect of our best students, but we must put them into practice in our context, with our colleagues, in a habitual, supportive fashion. Put simply, imported solutions most typically fail – change is organic and must be cultivated from the soil up.

Scripting the Critical Moves‘ is a key early step to initiating change. Leaders need to lead and people will follow when the goals are explicit and ambiguity is removed. Given a great deal of choice we simply become paralysed! When we have an excess of choice that paralysis leads us to simply fall back into our own habits. It is why students in class love explicit parameters of timings, behaviour and methodology. It gives us comfort too and we safely fall in line and ‘follow the herd’. Given common sense advice, like asking teachers to ‘work towards outstanding teaching and learning’, simply fails because it is simply too ambiguous and frightening (and hard work!) – our ‘elephants’ have too much wiggle room, so we never make the difficult move towards forming a new habit – we avoid the challenge in an act of self-preservation. Too often people fail to change, not out of resistance, but out of sheer miscomprehension. If we want teachers to become outstanding practitioners, and sustain it, we must provide marginal gains on the path towards that mastery – these need to be scripted with utter clarity – right down the the steps of core pedagogy. Then the marginal pedagogy needs to be practised and honed. The critical moves must also involve a clear destination. If you are wanting yourself or your department to move towards becoming outstanding, define the goal with absolute clarity. Make the outcome something like: ‘by the Summer of 2014, 70% of all lessons will be observed as outstanding and 30% as good’. Put like that, the idea doesn’t seem so outlandish! If you begin to ‘shrink the change‘ down to coaching targets for the department and a focus upon ‘marginal gains’ regarding key pedagogy, like questioning and oral feedback, then the change becomes emotionally accessible and even less frightening for the ‘elephant‘ – even to teachers with the most pronounced ‘elephant syndrome’! Once the pathway is established strip away everything that is extraneous to the desired outcome, make the time, hone in on the ‘marginal gains’ with utter clarity. Celebrate each step of the way – every success and even every failure – if we learn from failure we can get further down our desired path.

Emotional motivation is perhaps the most essential aspect of making and sustaining change. I have written before about habits and about confidence. The more I lead my brilliant team of teachers the more I realise that the key part of my job is emotional support (forgive me if I am stating the obvious!). ‘Finding the feeling‘ is the key to all change. Now, you could put the fear of god into teachers to motivate them to change – OFSTED inspections are often the stick with which to beat – however, to really sustain change, positive emotion must be instigated and this positive emotion sustains and helps build persistence in the face of challenges (take note Mr Gove!). Perhaps, instead, you insulate your team and support them with every confidence, encourage their risks and guide them with as much capacity building as you can muster to attempt to achieve your collective goal. What people like Gove ignore is that real change, that makes for real greatness, is powered by positive emotions: by confidence, trust, respect and self-belief. It may sound mawkish but it is true. Change founded on fear and coercion is brittle and short-lived.

At the recent SSAT conference I listened to the brilliant Emily Cummins – a young woman appealing for more real world challenges and projects in our school curriculum to really motivate students. Seeing her impassioned story of working with her grandfather as a child, to becoming an inventor of global repute, often despite her schooling, struck a chord. Working with my Y11 students writing a real letter for local and national newspapers (which was drafted over and over), I saw a new spark in some students, provoked by the potential of the real audience. Seeing the pride some students had in their work reminded me of Emily Cummins. I began to feel the need for curriculum change to something that had more real world applications, to a project based learning approach that involved choice and creativity, that involved technology and a global audience. I encountered a feeling with more purpose than I had felt before. It is something I have kept burning and it will inform the changes I lead as a subject leader and in any future educational pursuits. Too easily we can simply fall back into our habits in education – genuine creativity, really open briefs, co-construction with students – are all laudable pursuits we agree, but we pay them lip service and then return to our default position of our safe habits. Often teaching as we were taught in our turn – an emotional withdrawal to our past. Ultimately, we must experience a real emotional shift if we are to undertake a habitual shift. People need help and sustained emotional, and sometimes physical, support to change. For my mother to quit smoking she aimed to wean herself off the habit by using nicotine patches, although ultimately, it was her love for my father, and making sure he quit too, which is what made the habit stick – she certainly ‘found the feeling‘.

We can help by ‘shrinking the change‘, making those crucial ‘marginal gains’ which are much easier to tackle than hulking great challenges; supported by ‘tweaking the environment‘. Since I have been subject leader we have made little but significant tweaks to our classroom environment with pedagogical intent. A couple of years ago, we moved from an array of seating arrangements, most typically rows, to a common arrangement of group tables in every room. That one small shift initiated a sequence of changes to our pedagogy that made us all ensure that our group work and peer interaction was more thought through. Our seating plans became more nuanced to suit the group dynamics. In short, we shared ideas to deal with the tweak and we subsequently planned better lessons. Buoyed by that change to the environment, we added further tweaks, such as multiple whiteboards on the walls, to create more flexibility in the room and more opportunities for ‘visible learning‘. We initiated an iPad pilot for more enriched, multi-modal group collaborative work. Such technological innovation was quite frankly alien to some of our department, but the tweak to the environment meant people were trying new innovations in their pedagogy, and they were being forced to shift to new patterns of pedagogy the quickly became a new normal. The ‘herd mentality‘ was also a powerful force. We shared training time to build confidence and becalmed the ‘elephant’. Some colleagues unexpectedly attempted the changes with gusto and the positive response carried people along for the ride – habits were changing, not by force, but incrementally and by choice, from the soil up. Tweaking the environment works!

By following these steps and planning with precision, we can make positive changes to teaching groups, to our practice, to leading departments and indeed schools – making our job as teachers in the heady future of 2013 a little less Sisyphean a task!


Confidence – The Rosetta Stone of Teaching

Nearly a decade ago I began teaching English (not very well if I remember!). I was a startled rabbit of the most baffled kind. Each morning I would quietly take ‘Rescue Remedy’ in the gents toilets to help conquer my raging nerves, before embarking upon the war of attrition that was every school day as an NQT! University success was a distant memory. I made the usual mistakes, experienced the typical emotional roller coasters, and eventually made my way through it to the other side. Now that I have a leadership role myself, I see that confidence is not just the Rosetta Stone for students to unlock their potential, it is just as important for teachers. Not just new teachers either, confidence waxes and wanes – sometimes when we think we are on the other side we are dragged back in the swim – battered by self doubt!

As a Subject Leader, I have the privilege of experience and the greater self-confidence it typically brings, yet the old ‘imposter syndrome’ never goes away – but, perhaps that is a good thing. I have seen brilliant teachers and trainees wracked by self-doubt, whilst the worst of teachers can be full of conviction in their own superior ability! As a friend, colleague and leader, I suppose it is my job to help guide through that tricky course between two different types of self doubt: one with the attendant drive to keep getting better, and the other self doubt that becomes crippling and destructive for a teacher.

I hesitated in writing any blog posts about confidence, as I didn’t want to betray any professional secrets of colleagues past or present. I discussed this with my brilliant colleague Helen, a young teacher, still fresh from completing her NQT year, who agreed to guest post her personal thoughts. They mirror many of my experiences as a new teacher and it is a refreshingly honest account of why confidence is crucial in teaching:

A few weeks ago my Subject Leader introduced the new personalised coaching ideas which would form the basis of our faculty training time this year. The idea was to focus in on one or two key things that would improve our teaching and work on them in discussion with other members of the faculty– in his words making ‘marginal gains’ to move from good to outstanding. Excellent in theory: I was an NQT last year, I’ve got this reflecting thing down and I have a whole multitude of things to fix! In reality, it was Monday afternoon, Year 10 had been in an entertaining mood and, as such, my reflection on my own practice extended about as far as: ‘What on earth am I doing – it was supposed to be easier this year!’ I survived the session, went home, cried, then composed (although didn’t send) a long and dramatic email to my Subject Leader complaining about the whole situation. So far: so mature. The main thrust of my ramblings concerned the central issue that teaching is wholly personal. And with that it can be potently emotional and even psychological. So a discussion of our areas for development can begin to delve into a whole heap of insecurities which we would often rather keep hidden.

Luckily, I have a very supportive department who spent the next morning soothing my concerns, and a Subject Leader who can generally pick up on my mood within about five seconds of entering my classroom! So, with my Subject Leader, we spent break discussing the roots of my email (which when I showed to him he found hilarious). We came back to the same place we ended up throughout my NQT year. Confidence. Or a lack thereof.

Confidence can sometimes be overlooked in discussions about teaching, but it seems to be absolutely central to everything we do as teachers. Not in a ‘standing up in front of 30 teenagers requires confidence’ way, but in the ‘I need to have a fundamental faith in the decisions we make every day‘ fashion. In my NQT year, the thing I found hardest was not dealing with tricky students (however fun Friday 5 with Year 9 can be!); it wasn’t the piles of marking which seemed to take over my life; but it was the sudden sense of responsibility for my students. There can be debate over how responsible we are for the students in our classes, but as I started my job I seemed to shift from a twenty three year old whose greatest challenge was driving a car and remembering to pay the bills, to having groups of teenagers whose progress in English was pretty much at my door. The Year 11s who needed a C to get into college, and the Year 13s who wanted to get into university, were now mine for a few hours per week and I had to try to get them there. This is an exaggerated way of looking at things and I had an incredible NQT mentor who counselled me down from these hyperbolic heights, but the main thing I had to develop, and will continue to develop, is the confidence that I am making the right decisions and doing the best by my students.

So on an afternoon in October, a discussion of marginal gains collided with a mindset of ‘there are so many things to fix – where do I even start’. I’ve been a perfectionist for much longer than I’ve been a teacher so it’s a tough habit to break. Therefore, it was only once I had admitted this to my Subject Leader – and more importantly to myself – that I could actually get on with the job of coaching and improving. If we fail to recognise this central point then any coaching will be as productive as my initial session – I was there, I was talking, I was listening but I wasn’t making any (to use a buzzword) progress.

It was only following an emotional email, a break time discussion, and a few good lessons, that I could get my head around what I needed to do in terms of my own coaching targets. I can only speak as new (ish) teacher, but it’s an easy cycle to get stuck in: lessons go wrong, emotion kicks in, confidence is bashed and the ability to be positive about how to improve can start to slip out the window. Yet, it is this emotional focus which actually makes it one of the trickiest things to combat. My Subject Leader can give me a range of strategies to improve my questioning but, much as it frustrates him, he cannot wave a magic wand and teach me to have faith in the job that I am doing. It is the ultimate part of the job that requires marginal gains – saving those comments from students and colleagues, taking pleasure from the fact that all my Year 13s did get into university and slowly building up self-belief. Building confidence. It is also something that fluctuates continually depending on the class, the day, the topic, or even the weather!

There are endless discussions over how to improve our teaching, but I know that at the centre of my own practice is a more personal battle: the need to be able to step back and reflect, without losing faith in my instincts. It is easy to put on the confident-teacher mask, but to really move forward that confidence needs to run much deeper. The first step to becoming the type of teacher I want to be, is developing the confidence to believe that I can actually be that teacher.

I am very lucky to share my working day with bright stars like Helen, who care so much about what they do, the students they teach, and the colleagues they work with each day. Perhaps the ultimate paradox about confidence is that teachers who lack it are driven to reflect deeply and become much better for it, whereas the teachers who are too full of it end up becoming gorged on their own self-importance and never become truly great teachers. What Helen’s words remind me is that we teachers must keenly remember that we are human – all too human – that we should tend to one another as we aim to do for our students. We should remember that we all want to be better teachers, but that the process is fraught with fears and other attendant doubts. Finally, and most important of all, that we should be kind to one another. Yes, that is the main thing I have learned working as a teacher. Not just with our students, but with our colleagues too – we must be kind.

So let us celebrate then the humble teacher, struggling to get better each day – building their own wall of confidence, so that their students may do the same. And let us be kind to one another.

A Taste of Berger: Reading ‘An Ethic of Excellence’


Reading Ron Berger’s ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ should not be undertaken in the hubbub of morning buses or busy trains, nor it the middle of a lively office – it should be enjoyed in the privacy of a quiet room at home – preferably in a New England home, designed by Ron himself, with a roaring log-fire burning…well, we can all dream! Seriously, his book is rather an extended essay reflecting upon his patent wealth of experience, his humanity and his clear generosity of spirit as an educationalist. He is quite obviously both an outstanding teacher and a master craftsman – a character Robert Frost would have written a great poem about! Indeed, there is something poetic and heart warming about his many anecdotes that he shares. His book does not simply offer comfort to an assailed group of teachers however; he also offers practical tool kits for creating building ‘an ethic of excellence’ within schools.

The ‘Ethic of Excellence’ is a great book for teachers, and most definitely leaders, at all levels, who are passionately interested in their craft. Clearly, the best way for you to get a taste of the book is to read it, so I have selected some choice quotations from the book to think about and hopefully encourage you to read this great book.

Firstly, this quotation, from the introduction, is a timely reminder for Gove and his ilk about the great work that already exists in our schools:

“I’m concerned when I pick up a newspaper these days and so often find an article about the “crisis” in education and how a new quick fix will remedy things. More tests, teacher-proof curriculum, merit pay, state standards.

It reminds me of the advertisements for diet products. Fast Weight Loss! Dramatic weight loss! No Work! Lots of money is spent on diet products and a lot is spent on new educational tests. But it seems that almost everyone who loses weight quickly with the aid of a quick fix product ends up gaining it all back. Weighing yourself constantly doesn’t make you lighter and testing children constantly doesn’t make them smarter. The only way to really lose weight and keep it off, it seems, is to establish a new ethic – exercise more and eat more sensibly. It’s not a quick fix. It’s a long-term commitment. It’s a way of life.

I have had a hard time thinking about a quick fix in education because I don’t think education is broken. Some schools are very good; some are not. Those that are good have an ethic, a culture, which supports and compels students to try and to succeed. Those schools that are not need a lot more than new tests and new mandates. They need to build a new culture and a new ethic. I don’t believe there’s a shortcut to building a new culture. It’s a long-term commitment. It’s a way of life.” (P4, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)

This extract reflects brilliantly upon the transformative power of an individual piece of learning:

I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry. When the teachers at the Austine School for the Deaf pointed out to Sonia that many students wouldn’t obsess over their work as she does, her reply was quick: This school has ruined me for life, she said. I’m never satisfied with anything until it’s almost perfect. I have to be proud of it.” (p8, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)

This extract reflects upon the power of ‘Critique’ in shaping good practice and it provides simple but effective guidelines for peer assessment:

“We try to begin with the author/designer of the work explaining her ideas and gaols, and explaining what particular aspects of the work he or she is seeking help with.
We critique the work and not the person.
We try to begin our critique comments wi something positive about the work, and then move on to constructive criticism.
We try to use I statements when possible: ‘I’m curious why you chose to begin with this…?’ Or ‘Have you considered including…?'” (P94, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)

This concept of the ‘assessment inside the student’ really struck me:

“Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards? Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort” (P103, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)

If I were to have the temerity to suggest improvements to the book, I would suggest Berger explores how technological developments can brilliantly enhance the public critique of student learning. Readers of the book can explore how blogs, YouTube and other Internet platforms can display the work of students with the significant power of a ‘real audience’.

Finally, what I find most powerful about this short little book is the tremendous warmth towards his students, and young people more widely, that emanates from his words. There is no dispassionate irony, his style is graceful but wholly focused on improving education for students for the sake of students. Mr Gove could well do with having this is his in-tray. Creating systems of school competition and running schools for profit are exposed as brittle and fraudulent in contrast to the values of cooperation and excellence at the heart of Berger’s brilliant book.

Try it, buy it – trust me, you won’t regret it:

Beating the ‘October Blues’ – Better Learning with Better Behaviour

It is over a month in, the start of term vigour and optimism has waned for almost all involved, and everything begins to feel more like hard work. The ‘October blues’ phenomenon is something I have noted in my last few years teaching. As a subject leader, I have witnessed the spike in behaviour issues which appears as consistent as the coming of winter at the beginning of each October – the grace period afforded by September soon ends for most. Perhaps it is the seasonal shift, the cold winds and the interminable rain, compounded by tiredness from students and teachers alike; perhaps it is the students exercising that old adage that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ when it comes to their new teachers for the school year.

Now, we certainly cannot change the weather, amongst a whole host of other factors beyond our control. But we can dig in, reiterate core habits in our pedagogy and master our behaviour management techniques with the greater understanding of our groups granted to us by our graceful September (I would hope!). I have always taken a positive view of behaviour management. I have never believed in an ‘unteachable’ student (though that hypothesis has been sorely tested!), nor have I ever believed in the unteachable group. It is an incredibly powerful belief, one that can test the pride and self-image of a teacher, but can also liberate them, and their groups, from the fixed mindset of failure. I’m not arguing here for the grand transformations seen in films like ‘Dangerous Minds’, but instead for a much more quotidian, gritty and unheralded challenge to master the disaffected Year 11 groups; the chatty Year 7 students; the hormonal and erratic Year 9 groups, and every other archetypal group that tests our patience on a daily basis – some spectacularly so – especially when the ‘October blues’ descend.

The solutions – like the issues – are nuanced and multi-faceted, but if I were attempt to simplify them, my list would be comprised of the following:

Keep the main thing the main thing. The tiredness has set in, the meetings are clashing and the Open evenings are here already… The relentless pace of teaching today makes a mockery of Wilshaw’s home by three o’ clock assertion. With all the demands upon our time we must put the teaching and learning first – make those tricky decisions to prioritise, say no to opportunities and distractions. Focus upon planning your lessons and marking their work. Students very quickly size up a teacher and their standards. If you mark thoroughly, clearly and with consistency at the start of the year most students will commit themselves to working for you. If you give the feedback that involves them and shows the path to small, but crucial, steps to success, again, they will be much more inclined to follow you, to behave and to do some learning! Ultimately, great pedagogy is the best behaviour management tool there is – that is why planning is essential to progress.

Only accept the best work and create a drafting culture in your classroom. I think the key factor that underpins student behaviour is motivation. With high levels of motivation comes pride – with pride comes effort. By refusing sub-standard work you are explicitly sending a message that pride and effort is paramount. This week I had one of my groups complete a detailed written answer three times. The first effort wasn’t good enough – everyone did it again – some a third time. We then all completed a model version for what was the fourth draft for many. The reality is that if I don’t set the tone now, in the first half-term, it will be irrecoverable. In Ron Berger’s brilliant, ‘Ethic of Excellence’, he explains how peer and teacher led ‘critique’ can enhance motivation. It makes clear how students can be motivated by praise and positive relationships with purpose and the highest of standards. He also explains how a drafting culture it essential for real life and for success. In October particularly, you must make your students accountable to these highest of standards.

Help students to learn how to learn. I believe one of the most common failures that we have as teachers is to make assumptions about student learning based on our own personal experience. If you have become a teacher then the obvious reality is that you knew how to learn effectively on the whole; you probably had parental support in giving you the many subtle messages about the very literacy of learning that supported your success along the way. Many of our students simply fail at the first hurdle by not having this internal understanding of how to learn.

If a group is having difficulty with collaboration and group work ask yourself: have you made explicit what outstanding group work looks like; feels like and sounds like? This should be a task you can undertake with students to share these expectations – no doubt reiterating the messages about effort and behaviour with which you began the school year. Many students simply do not know what being a good learner feels like or how to become any better. We confidently talk to them about becoming ‘independent learners‘, but have you had students collaborate to try to unpick what we mean by an ‘independent learner’? If you have, is it memorable or visible in the classroom? A good task to undertake is to have students work in groups to create ‘the ideal [insert appropriate subject] student‘. They can have fun creating a name – you can give them prompt questions as a starting point. At the heart of the task is getting students to unpick how to learn effectively. You can select the best character – with a composite of the best skills, attitude and qualities required – and have that character visible and on display in the classroom. This can be referred to on a regular basis to reiterate the key messages about learning, whilst simultaneously providing a template for good behaviour in a very positive way.

Follow the school systems with the utmost rigour and complete relentlessness. Sometimes, despite the best pedagogy, eye-poppingly intriguing resources and a positive attitude toward every student, some students are still reluctant to get on board (perhaps it is SAD!). We know who they are – their names and reputation often precedes them, in September and in October! This is where you show them you care by having the highest of standards and being firm with the school behaviour systems. Try not to palm them off at the first opportunity – try to establish your authority with your detentions, your call to parents – before asking from support from your school hierarchy. Even if it fails with one student, the rest will surely take note. Be so relentless with your expectations and standards that one word can be shorthand for a host of things – ‘Active Listening‘ is very precise instruction to my classes (stop talking, pens down, eye contact to speaker etc.). This direct simplicity can be highly effective, even after a windy lunchtime with some epic fight on the school field! Keep it to the three ‘R’s’ – rigorous and relentless routines!

Don’t suffer in silence. I am writing this blog as a teacher and a subject leader. I know that the best of teachers still have tricky classes, they can still struggle; that inexperienced teachers will have nightmare lessons and groups and struggle even more. Any subject leader worth their salt has been there and knows that it is the core of their job to help in these situations – not judge staff, or throw their staff to the wolves. I have decidedly struggled with a fair few classes and I got through it because I shared it in my department and I wasn’t frightened of asking for help. My most important work is coaching teachers through those situations, imparting my experience, care and help them improve. All I ask for is that effort and care reciprocated – with that, no monthly dip or worse is insurmountable. I am not naive to think that every school has an entirely supportive approach – so if you are stuck in such a scenario, speak to colleagues you trust, make supportive connections beyond your school (like building a support network through Twitter for example). Finally, if you are suffering, know that across the country many are suffering with you, that your subject leader or head teacher have struggled in their time, and that the ‘October blues’ will inevitably pass like the seasons.

Next blog: ‘Nightmare November – The Annual Nose-Dive’…only joking!

What makes a great teacher?

This blog post is directly inspired by reading a blog post by @headguruteacher on ‘creating the conditions for great teachers to thrive’, which links back to the post which has given rise to my attempt:

In a weekend where many teachers have risen to the Daily Mail sound-bite bait about lazy teachers going home at three o’ clock, we would be mindful to not be distracted by the inanities of tabloid spin. We must ‘keep the main thing the main thing’ – if we have an army of teachers doing the job brilliantly and collectively then no machiavellian Education Secretary, or OFSTED attack dog, can sway us from our task; they may fiddle with our exams, they may cheat the statistics, cut budgets and worse, but many of us teachers will support our leaders in this fight whilst we pursue the main thing – becoming great teachers.

Here is my list of what I see as the key qualities and attributes of great teachers (without the wealth of experience of many of my blogging betters I may add):

1) Great teachers are ‘reflective practitioners’: Being a ‘reflective practitioner’ was a buzzword on my PGCE course nine years ago. It became quickly scorned and parodied as empty ‘teacher speak’ jargon. ‘Of course we do that’ we mocked – someone is yet again being paid to state the bloomin’ obvious! Yet, in my first few weeks of teaching I quickly realised a few things: being reflective was essential…and I wasn’t very good at teaching! Now, this was a shock to the system, as I had been very proud of being successful at University. I soon realised my capacity to accept failure had greatly diminished, and I was near ‘get your coat and find the sanctuary of a further degree’ state, or even a ‘disappear into a vacuous career in human resources’ position. It was only a dogged determination to not give up and ‘lose’ that saw me persevere. I had to accept, with humility, that I would have to grind away through a succession of failures before I could be half the teacher I wanted to be. I observed great teachers, tried some quick fixes, but received very few quick victories. What I resolved to do was to reflect upon what I had failed at – not label students unteachable, or go along with the tags of ‘awful groups’ and such – but to reflect upon my practice and to get better – one lesson at a time. About three years later, I realised that resistance from students had largely fell away, that I was planning and teaching good lessons, marking good work and seeing mostly good results. Now, I wouldn’t label myself a great teacher, nor am I displaying false modesty, when I say that most great teachers don’t think they are great (sometimes they are neurotic about being a failure!) – but they are wholly focused on getting better. Great teachers have a ‘growth mindset’ that they can get better – and they also project this onto their students – creating the conditions for great learning.

2) Great teachers are always learning: Now, I am aware that this may sound trite and downright cheesy, but it is unequivocably true and therefore needs stating. In ‘Glenngary, Glenn Ross’, by David Mamet, a play scathing about the injustices of consumer capitalism, the predatory boss states that salesman should follow the basics of salesmanship: “ABC – Always Be Closing”. The basics for teachers who want to be great are not too dissimilar in their simplicity: ‘ABL: Always Be Learning’. Luckily for us, school leaders now undertake better CPD within schools, whereat teachers learn in communities, learning from colleagues, and basing that learning rooted in their pedagogy. We also have the awesome CPD tool that is Twitter, connecting us with fellow teachers, sharing resources and ideas. In the last year I have sourced a wealth of great research through Twitter. In my English and Media Faculty I have looked to harness the collective knowledge of this wider research. I have a simple notion that the best students undertake great wider research, reading around the subject to enrich their understanding – therefore teachers should be no different. After reading ‘Visible Learning for Teachers’, by John Hattie, in the last year, I have reconsidered many of the prejudices of what I thought I knew about teaching and I have been determined to root my pedagogy in the evidence of the best of educational research and practice. This new learning is helping me on the path towards aiming to be a great teacher.

3) Great teachers are passionate: Again, some people may dismiss the idea of ‘passion’ as a simplistic and often misdirected notion, but I mean a very specific concept of passion which I wrote about in a previous blog- defined best by John Hattie (see, point 2 is important!) and worthy of quoting in full:

“As I noted in Visible Learning, we rarely talk about passion in education, as if doing so makes the work of teachers seem less serious, more emotional than cognitive, somewhat biased or of lesser import. When we do consider passion, we typically constrain such expressions of joy and involvement to secluded settings not in the public space of being a teacher (Neuman, 2006). The key components of passion for the teacher and for the learner appear to be the sheer thrill of being a learner or a teacher, the absorption that accompanies the process of teaching and learning, the sensations of being involved in the activity of teaching and learning, and the willingness to be involved in deliberate practice to attain understanding. Passion reflects the thrill, as well as the frustrations, of learning; it can be infectious, it can be taught, it can be modelled, and it can be learnt. It is among the most prized outcomes of schooling and, while rarely covered in any of the studies reviewed in this book, it infuses many of the influences that make the difference to the outcomes. It requires more than content knowledge, acts of skilled teaching, or engaged students to make the difference (although these help). It requires a love of the content, an ethical, caring stance deriving from the desire to instil in others a liking, or even love, of the discipline being taught, and a demonstration that the teacher is not only teaching, but also learning (typically about the students’ processes and outcomes of learning). In the current economic climate of many countries, property values have plummeted, leading to fewer resources available for the education budget. As Doug Reeves pointed out to me, passion may be the only natural renewable resource that we have.”

4) Great teachers have the highest of standards for all their students: Michael Wilshaw, that machiavellian caricature and rent-a-quote teacher basher, has one thing absolutely right – high standards are essential. Difficult circumstances may contextualise and explain the many difficulties and privations faced by our students, but that should not mean we compromise on standards. Indeed, we must over-compensate for the absence of boundaries and high expectations at home, with the highest of standards in school. Standards of behaviour, manners, effort and quality of work all mould a pattern of excellence which our students learn from. We must be relentless and rigorous with those standards. At my school this year, one of the key strategies is to not accept substandard work – to return it to students unmarked for redrafting. Now, put simply, we would all sign up to that, and many of us already do. But to really stick to this credo takes a lot of effort and work on behalf of the teacher. The great teacher does this because they are passionate about standards, they are passionate about the transformative capacity of their subject – this attitude is infectious. It comes back to Wilshaw’s quickly infamous ‘three o’clock’ criticism. Those teachers in the pursuit of greatness work far beyond school hours, in work and at home, and this commitment to the highest of standards is becoming the norm. There are those who let the side down, as in every profession, but in my experience there are fewer and fewer. Long may these high standards reign – praised or not by our political leaders.

5) Great teachers ask great questions: These principals of great teaching are deceptively simple. Socrates could have told you great questions were essential to great teaching and it will remain an eternal verity. How great practitioners go about it varies, but there are common principals. Great questioning knows the students in front of you: their skills, levels of understanding etc. Questions are targeted with precision. They are not bounced back with tennis balls, but passed around the classroom like basketballs; students build on the answers of others, challenge them where appropriate (ABC questioning – Agree…; Build Upon…; Challenge…), creating learning that is richly shared and developed in nuanced ways. Students have time to digest those questions, but are not allowed to be excused of the responsibility to answer (however limited that answer may in fact be). Great teachers have useful frameworks for questioning, like Bloom’s Taxonomy, but they are not beholden to them. Finally, a great teacher creates an atmosphere that is ‘questioning’, sometimes even of the knowledge of the teacher, but within safe boundaries where debate flourishes but arguments are controlled. Note – my previous blog on questioning fleshes out these ideas:

6) Great teachers use assessment FOR learning: well, most of us have read Dylan William, or John Hattie. AFL works – there is lots of evidence to prove it – inside and outside the ‘black box’! It promotes efficacy and independence in our students; it helps them meet realisable goals; it helps give variety to pedagogy and some semblance of a life for teachers not overwhelmed by marking! Great teachers obviously provide rigorous frameworks and models for self and peer assessment, they don’t simply chuck students a marks scheme and hope for the best. Students need training away from the dependency of summative judgements made by teachers, towards the richer world of AFL techniques – it takes time and careful planning – it doesn’t appear effortlessly – although some great teachers may appear to make it look effortless (they are the swans kicking furiously under water!).

7) Great teachers focus on relationships: I have come across a few bad teachers in my time and the one defining common factor is that they don’t actually care much for children! Great teachers are the exact opposite – they put a huge amount of work in establishing and maintaining relationships. That isn’t some wooly softly, softly approach – experienced teachers know all students love firm boundaries – but it is about warmth and caring. You need to care enough about the students to prepare the resources, make the ingenious plans and master the challenges. When you walk into the classroom of a great teacher the ‘buzz’ of the class is palpable, and it may appear unique and special, but it can be replicated. By speaking to every student in every lesson, where humanly possible, you can better know your student and show you care about your relationship; by marking their work rigorously and in a timely fashion you show them you care about your relationship; by reprimanding them when they are out of line with complete consistency and fairness, you are showing you care about your relationship. This is where Wilshaw’s message may be lost in translation (I am stretching to find common ground!) – he shows he cares for his students by implementing a rigorous regimen – great teachers create that rigour, but with less confrontational approaches.

What has gone unsaid is how school leaders foster and nurture these qualities. Well, I hope those are implicit in the qualities stated above. From school leaders having a core purpose and vision that evokes passion from teachers and promotes positive relationships; to creating a culture of learning for staff that is democratic and dynamic; to finding the time and coaching for reflective practitioners to hone their pedagogy. School leaders can create the conditions, but ultimately teachers do the work to get there.

Keep Getting Better – Coaching In Our English and Media Faculty

I am just momentarily emerging from the deep waters of the first week back – the frantic planning, data crunching and the usual torrent of jobs. Amongst the maelstrom it is so easy to forget what happened five minutes ago – never mind what happened in the opening day training session (our SOLC – Subject Outstanding Learning Community). What I am determined to do this year is to relentlessly focus on the main thing – the main thing will be our coaching programme – with a complete focus on teaching & learning.

The starting point was to reflect on the evidence before we then considered our specific coaching requirements. The place to start was therefore John Hattie and his brilliant ‘Visible Learning’ – with his vast armoury of research (with a little bit of OFSTED):

Huntington English & Media Coaching PPT

After discussion of this wider evidence, we then honed in on our specific Faculty targets. Each teacher then got the chance to talk and reflect upon what they needed to develop individually to improve their pedagogy. We have a range of great teachers with diverse skills and experience – so am I exciting about coaching and, crucially, being coached. I shared my personal coaching goals as a model – fully aware that I am really intent on not losing sight of my teaching because of my Subject Leader role:

English & Media Coaching Pro Forma.AJQ example

Now, the real business of graft and craft starts – trialling, failing, failing better and succeeding! We need to make sure we don’t lose the main thing – share what works, share what doesn’t – embrace the failures as steps to success. I love what Hattie simply calls ‘deliberate practice’ – being passionate and rigorous about pedagogy – reflecting upon what worked and what didn’t – going again and improving still further. I’m already pretty tired and it is only week one, but I feel quietly confident that we will have another positive year ahead, and that will keep me going!

The Top Five Essential Reads for Teachers

My last post focused on becoming a better teacher and how we can undertake our own professional development by dipping into the wealth of great books at hand for teachers. I wanted to create a simple list of what I view in my humble opinion as the best books for teachers out there in the market. I thought of two key factors – ‘philosophy’ and ‘practicality’. By ‘philosophy’ I mean those books that get us thinking deeply about our role and our pedagogy – books that reinvigorate our passions and spark new thinking. ‘Practicality’ is self-explanatory but essential for the best educational books for teachers. If a book gets you scribbling notes furiously or splashing each page with post-it notes then its usefulness is clear. The selection is in order numerically, but that doesn’t indicate any order of priority of quality:

1. Visible Learning for Teachers: John Hattie

John Hattie has developed a global wealth of research in order to provide evidence for what works in education. The findings are fascinating and thought-provoking: strategies like homework are exposed, whereas strategies like formative feedback are heralded. The motto of the book is ‘know thy impact’ and it explains there is no ‘silver bullet’ answer, but that we must approach our teaching with passion and ‘deliberate practice’, focusing in upon the evidence of what works for our students. Don’t be put off by the statistical analysis or the science of a ‘meta-analysis’ – even this English teacher got a hang of the numbers! ‘Visible Learning’ – the original Hattie text, for which he has based this sequel – was rather grandly labelled “the Bible” in one review, but it really is a seminal work. A must read!

Give this a look:

2. Embedded Formative Assessment: Dylan William

Dylan William is the undoubted king of AFL. The opening chapters present a precise and near perfect explanation of why teacher pedagogy is absolutely crucial. This is followed by chapters simply bursting with practical strategies for formative assessment, with well chosen research and examples. It ties in neatly with the evidence provided by Hattie, in Williams’ own eminently readable style. Put simply, it does what it says on the tin!

Give this a look:

3. The ‘Perfect’ series – ‘The Perfect OFSTED Lesson’ by Jackie Breere and ‘The Perfect English OFSTED Lesson’ by David Didau

These two books come from the same excellent series and they both provide a great range of practical strategies to attain the much vaunted ‘outstanding’ in OFSTED observations. Both texts don’t obsess about OFSTED, rather they are focused about sharing great pedagogy. Clearly there are common parallels between the two books, but they each provide different ideas and approaches, with the English specific book (Didau) exploring SOLO, for example, in a clear and driven way. Don’t be put off by the ‘English’ focus either – Didau’s book presents strategies that are easily applicable across the curriculum and would potentially provide some new angles of pedagogy that prove fruitful for different subject areas.

4. Full On Learning: Zoe Elder

This simply brilliant book is comprehensive and packed full of the philosophy of ‘why’ and the practicalities of ‘how’ for teachers. It presents a great range of research and a thoughtful exploration of pedagogy with lots of practical ideas and tips for further research and classroom applications. The book also happens to be aesthetically quite beautiful, which is an appropriate match to the artful thought processes of the book itself. This really is required reading for teachers at every stage of their career.

5. What’s the Point of School?: Guy Claxton

This book is very much a philosophical exploration of education, packed with interesting research and questions to stimulate every teacher. It should be required reading for every PGCE student or NQT, but it is appropriate for even the most seasoned of veterans too! It stands up well to a re-read to refresh our sense of purpose and direction. It also does what good educational books should do – it reminds us of the crucial value of our vocation and the transformative positive effect we can have in our complex and rapidly changing world.

Give this a look:

Note – Any such list clearly has to make difficult omissions (it is very much an imperfect science!) – please comment if you have any other recommendations.