Over the last 15 years of working to develop teachers’ practice, I have concluded that the biggest issue is not getting new information into teachers but it is more about habits; establishing and building the good ones and, more problematically, breaking the old ones. It’s about establishing and changing what a teacher does every day. If you’re serious about affecting and developing teachers’ classroom practice, you have to help them change or build these habits. One of the ways I do this with newly qualified teachers (NQTs) at the academy where I regularly support NQTs is short, weekly visits to their classrooms.
In many schools, teachers are observed too infrequently to be meaningful and often receive too much feedback at once which can be overwhelming and consequently rarely acted upon. In the past I have found that if I observed an NQT once a month I tended to see an untypical lesson; an ‘all singing all dancing lesson’. Neither the NQT nor I derive anything useful from feedback on something that isn’t typical. Sometimes, during the interim time between these monthly observations, the NQT may not have made sufficient progress, may possibly have experienced some difficulties, or may have even started to establish some poor habits which may ultimately be difficult to change. There is also an inevitable build up to this ‘higher stakes’ one-off lesson too which is clearly unhelpful.
So, for the last few years, every NQT I have been working with is seen teach once a week for at least the first two terms and provided with subsequent focused feedback. These are usually relatively short observations; maybe only 15 -20 minutes, and more often than not unannounced. The main purpose of these observations is not to judge the NQT but to inform the mentoring and development process. In short, I try to evaluate less and develop more. As a result of these brief, yet frequent visits, I have found that their development has been accelerated. This is essential as otherwise the children miss out on quality teaching if progress is too slow.
Another advantage of frequent visits is that the children in the class get used to me coming in to their classroom and my presence does not change the dynamic within the room making what happens more typical of their ‘normal’ daily routine. This frequency makes observation and lesson support the norm and consequently so much of the stress has been taken out of having someone come into your classroom. This shorter length of time is an efficient use of my time too and enables me to see numerous teachers in one day.
These relatively short, focused and unannounced drop-ins are scheduled in my diary but I generally do not tell the NQTs when it may happen. I vary the times and days as the day and time of day can be significant too. Each drop-in has a specific focus which is known to the NQT as it is established the week before. So now my feedback is focused on this pre-determined weekly target and often delivered ‘live’ in the classroom. I always write these observations up too using a note-taking app on my iPad which enables me to write notes and generate some reflective questions. I also take photographs and sometimes very short video clips to act as evidence on which to reflect and support subsequent feedback and discussion. More often than not I can email this to the teacher before I have left their classroom.
My feedback is provided at an equally short follow up session and is focused on the agreed target. During this meeting we highlight one area for further growth; a specific, concrete and actionable next step. I try to ensure that the feedback I provide NQTs is observable, possible to practise, has impact on the children and can be achieved quickly. This goal then becomes the focus of the next weekly visit. Some goals may take longer to achieve and therefore carry over until good habits are established.
With NQTs I focus on the basic tools of teaching; the day-to-day tools that every teacher needs to master; the key skills of explanation, modelling, questioning, classroom management (including behaviour management, teacher radar, routines and transitions), feedback, checking understanding and challenge. The goal is to build up a repertoire of these basic tools that become well established, effective and habitual. I have found lasting growth doesn’t come from trying to learn everything about teaching at once. I have found that it comes from working on just one or two skills at a time and purposefully practising them until they become effective, efficient and habitual. We deliberately work on addressing small changes at a time. This is both more achievable and sustainable for a busy new teacher who has so much going on.