The value to teachers of seeing others teach.

In my view and in the view of many others, seeing other people teach is crucial to teachers in order that they may improve their own teaching. Even in 2016, it’s still not happening to the degree that I’d like to see. Working in secondary and primary schools, facilitating Talk for Teaching, I’m regularly finding that the process of visiting another’s class is still new ground for some. I often ask the question of teachers, in a new school; ‘how many times have you been in other classrooms to see the teaching and learning’. The answers are only ‘quite often, or often’ from particular groups.

Sean McKeown, headteacher of Barnsole Primary School in Gillingham recalled this:

‘Prior to the introduction of ‘Talk for Teaching’, a culture existed where only a handful of excellent teachers were praised and the rest, the vast majority, labelled as hard-working but not performing at the required standard of teaching. Consequently, there was a fear of formal observations with Ofsted-style judgments and staff morale was at rock bottom. Furthermore, teachers did not share practice and certainly did not observe and learn from each other. I recall one teacher of twenty years’ experience commenting, that she had never observed another teacher teach. Teachers were confused, suspicious and their confidence levels were exceptionally low’.

Twenty years and never seen another teacher teach! It almost beggars belief, but my conversations with other teachers in other schools, primary and secondary, show she wasn’t alone and I mention two later. In an hour, in the company of Sean, myself and three others, she visited three classrooms and loved the experience.

Who does see others teach?

Invariably, NQTs have seen many others teach. It’s built into expectations from ITT courses and into their NQT programmes. Schools and universities feel that it is necessary for NQTs to see others teach and it is great that they do. NQTs are also often able to observe with their mentor and even if they haven’t, they usually get the opportunity discuss what they have seen after their observation, often in a scheduled weekly catch-up session. Some have even described their experience as resembling Talk for Teaching, in that they were able to discuss the learning in class, with learners, the teacher and their mentor but that’s not the norm. Most observations that NQTs do on their own, still have a fairly traditional format; watch, take notes and discuss with the mentor (and maybe the teacher) later.

TAs have usually worked across subjects and years. They an essential part of Talk for Teaching and can contribute so much to the discussions because of their experience. Talk for Teaching works across hierarchies, breaking them down very quickly, as a session advances. In 2000, the first year of Talk for Teaching, I was working with groups of staff in a secondary school in Nottingham. The set-up was a little different from now, as I’ve refined the process greatly and at the time, I hadn’t yet named the process ‘Talk for Teaching’. On advice, the school had mixed up TAs and teachers to visit a couple of sparks. We all took notes, then had a short discussion after the lesson, where we organised bullet points for later feedback. The feedback to the teacher was after school. The process seems very cumbersome and Ofsted-like looking back! Nevertheless several people were visiting the classrooms of others in different subjects and the school had done nothing like it before. In that sense, it was groundbreaking. One particular TA was so nervous about feeding back to a teacher; ‘I can’t comment on a teacher’s lesson!!’ that I had to be persuade her to attend the feedback session. To add context, before a recent change of headteacher, the school had been very hierarchical and TAs (or teachers) had never been involved in such an enterprise. I started feedback around our agreed points and asked the TA for a contribution. Well, I’d never seen anything like it and neither had the other two teachers with me, or the spark! She was wonderful, effectively taking over the feedback, summarizing brilliantly what we’d seen, carefully pointing out areas which could have been better and drawing on her own experiences in other classes to support. It was a tour de force; the spark felt it was the best feedback she’d ever had, the other teachers were so praising of the TA’s work and the TA left almost in tears that she’d been able to do what she’d just done. Kevin Gaiderman, her erstwhile headteacher, writes poignantly about this incident later in the book. Sometimes, when put in difficult situations, people can just amaze themselves at what they can do. News spread quickly and as Talk for Teaching developed over time, TAs became a confident, essential and integral part of group dynamics. The experience taught me a great deal about what power Talk for Teaching could have beyond simply learning about learning and teaching.

Cover supervisors, or teachers covering PPA time are fortunate in seeing classes in many years/subjects and may see more snippets of others teaching than many in a school. Certainly they see many examples of planning and get to speak with pupils across the curriculum in the classes they cover. But again, they relate tales of few opportunities to visit other classrooms to specifically look at learning and teaching and they have seldom visited with others.

I meet a few examples of teachers who have worked in other schools where visiting other classes was encouraged. Very occasionally, I’ll encounter a teacher who has been used to visiting classrooms with others and was a part of an organised routine of doing so. I only tend to work with schools who wish to introduce the process, but examples are beginning to crop up in Twitter discussions, of schools who already use a similar technique to encourage a culture of self-improvement. ‪

The finding of time for teacher’s professional development is clearly very important. Despite the government’s current Workforce Reform talk, what are the chances of more time being given for staff, via more money for schools, for these processes to happen? Here are a couple of examples from schools that may prompt headteachers to think about ways of finding that time.

Teresa Roche (@g_roche5), headteacher of Dronfield Henry Fanshawe School in Sheffield, has a range extremely creative ways of finding time in their busy curriculum to free up staff to be able to pursue their professional development needs. This includes staff visiting each other’s classrooms. Viv Watson (@VivWatson1) headteacher at Cross Lane Primary School in Elland, has employed two HLTAs to allow her to cover staff and SLT to visit lessons together.

In every school I’ve visited to work on Talk for Teaching, the people who had visited more lessons than anyone else were SLT and especially headteachers. They have a wealth of experience to bring to discussions around learning and it is always great to see other reflectors noting how well their leaders can talk about the schools core business: teaching and learning. All the same, senior leaders are exactly the people who don’t need to see so many lessons, as they teach fewer lessons than anyone else in the school.

Headship especially is a tough game. I call them ‘mad’. The leaders of schools with whom I work will, I’m sure, recognise that description and hopefully, forgive me!. The job is often near undoable, it is so demanding and it takes very special people to take on the role. I don’t hold with a view that a headteacher must teach, though it’s great to see so many still teaching. So much is asked of them in so many ways that to teach as well may not be the best value for money for the school. Still, part of their role is to monitor teaching and learning and as such, they will have usually seen more lessons and more teachers teaching than any adult in the school. The point is that beyond their monitoring role, most headteachers don’t need to apply the wide range of teaching skills they are privileged to see. The people who really need those skills are the people in the main group of education professionals that I haven’t mentioned – classroom teachers.

As an interjection, the people who actually see the most lessons in a school and experience the teaching of many teachers are none of the groups I’ve just discussed. It is pupils.

When I ask teachers in the main pay range the same question ‘‘how many times have you been in other classrooms to see the teaching and learning’ the responses are sometimes disheartening. One teacher in a primary, last year, who had taught for 24 years in Year 3 and Year 4, said she had never observed in a different classroom from her own. I had the same response from a maths teacher, recently, in a secondary school. Although these responses are extreme, I have known a number of others say the same in the two phases. More frequently, teachers respond “a few times’, or a ‘few times each year’. A very common additional response in secondary schools is ‘never outside of my subject though’.

The consequences of not seeing others teach.

As I’ve said earlier, I feel that not seeing others teach frequently enough harmed my practice. I fear, if my reader is a main pay scale teacher, that not seeing the teaching of others may be harming your practice. From the inside, that can be hard to see. At worst, it is limiting your development as a teacher and isolating you from seeing things that may benefit your pupils, or things which would affirm that what you are doing is really pretty good (not everything you see is great when visiting other classrooms – I’ll return to that point later).

The primary role of all main pay range teachers is to teach and teaching can be very isolating. It is possible to spend the majority of a days time in your classroom(s), speaking with other adults, before and after school, in passing and perhaps over lunch, or at break; but not in their classrooms and very seldom when they are teaching. The nature of the role, in most schools forces that outcome. You have a classroom. You may be unfortunate enough to be itinerant, but while you are teaching a class, you are in a room. The door may be open, but unless you have a teaching assistant, many of you will be alone in that classroom with sometimes over 30 pupils. In Tanzania, where I have recently visited a number of schools in two consecutive years, the numbers are up to 100 in classrooms the size of ours. Nevertheless, the situation is the same: the teacher is mainly alone. In Secondary, many teachers will not have another adult in class, to speak with, all day except for a passing visit to perhaps gather resources, or to collect a pupil. You will have planned mainly alone and you will have marked, mainly alone. In primary schools, the presence of TAs usually and ostensibly reduces the isolation, but that demands a good relationship to be successful. If the relationship sours, I’ve spoken with primary teachers who have felt more isolated with someone else in the room!

When adults in the school do talk, the focus of that talk may well not be teaching and learning. When it is, it may be about individual pupils and their behaviour, rather than how learning for a class, or individuals in a class, could be improved.

Schools do provide communication opportunities and times when practice can be shared, INSET days, after school meetings, in-school department/subject time. Nonetheless, this sharing, in these forums, is second hand. No matter how well it is related, the experience is filtered through another individual and other social and emotional factors come into play when deciding whether the testimony will be useful to you. Video work can be a help. Seeing others teach through a lens, sometimes in real time, can give a better sense of what is actually happening, but a lens limits vision and restricts other senses. In my view, there is nothing to match being in a classroom, deciding for yourself where to look and listen (and smell!) and having a colleague, close by, with whom can quietly discuss something as it is happening, for learning about teaching and learning. Nothing.

I’ve alluded to the creativity of schools in providing time for staff to visit other classrooms, but even then, the amount that can be learned is restricted, if only one person visits. Schools that I’ve worked with have had so much feedback that having several people together in a classroom multiplies the learning by far more than the factor of the number of people in the room. Two people together would be the minimum, for me and even in more formal, performance management observations, or learning walks, I feel it is far better to have two people observing than just one; even though the one might be the headteacher. Two is good, 3-4 is even better, but there is nothing wrong, once Talk for Teaching is established, if even more visit.

The reasons quoted are that there isn’t enough time and the cost of releasing staff. Thus we constantly get fall between these two stools. Teaching unions and associations argue that teachers need more time for their professional development. Teachers wholly agree. So do I, but I also recognise the financial implications. The government baulks at the cost of providing extra, contractual, time to teachers for their professional development, much as many of us feel that should be done. At the same time the government says it recognises the value of professional development for teachers. Nikki Morgan, on March 26 2016 published the three reports on reducing teacher workload and announced it at the NASUWT conference on the same day. They stemmed from an analysis of the responses of 44,000 teachers who replied to the ‘Workload Challenge’ questionnaire. One major recommendation was ‘better sharing of effective teaching to inform planning – underpinned by continuous professional development

To free teachers up to see a lesson of someone else’s has traditionally required the school to cover their lesson, at rates of somewhere around £150-£225 per day. Release two, or more teachers and the cost would be hugely prohibitive. So the report focuses instead on reducing the time devoted to marking, planning and producing resources and to data management (the focus of the three reports), neatly stepping around the thorny issue of providing more time and then specifically tagging that time to be used for professional development. Time costs money.

@ChrisWilson101 raised this excellent point on Twitter: I’d be interested to compare (these costs) against the cost of not supporting this level of CPD…’. It’s such a valid point. If we are to continue to improve the quality of our professional workforce, getting teachers and other school community adults into other classrooms is a necessity for me; not an option.

A proportion of headteachers are using creative means to find more time for PPD, despite little government help. In addition, I’ve yet to come across anyone in the profession who doesn’t see the need for better professional development through ‘sharing effective teaching’ – the government’s point.

A draft excerpt from ‘Talk for Teaching’ Published soon by John Catt Educational