#BookLooks and Mantras: The Ugly Truth by @TeacherToolkit

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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I am writing to offer an update, regarding what we have managed to achieve this term and what impact this is having on raising standards of teaching and learning.

In early September 2013, I wrote here about why we were “placing #LearningWalks in Room 101“. I wrote about many other things too, but I aim to keep myself and you focused on what has been a fundamental shift in pedagogic thinking.

This read is about marking and mantras.

The Ugly Truth - Marking (hides behind a wall).  Photo Credit: bump via Compfight cc
The Ugly Truth – Marking (hides behind a wall).
Photo Credit: bump via Compfight cc

I’ve had some very significant conversations with colleagues over the past 6 months; including (of course) with my own principal and leadership team, specifically on our drive to raise standards and the quality of teaching and learning. You can read about our journey in a nutshell, in my PiXL presentation shared here.


What I hope to offer here, is in two-parts.

  1. Who are you? What are your values? What do you believe in?
  2. The latest chapter in our teaching and learning journey.

Who is @TeacherToolkit?

This question (Who is Ross?) was asked of me in my last appraisal meeting (obviously my real name was used), and what was meant by this question was this; who are you really as a person? And as a teacher/leader? And how does this pair up day-to-day in the school environment?

The Ugly Truth - Who are you Ross?  Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass via Compfight cc
The Ugly Truth – Who are you Ross?
Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass via Compfight cc

What do you believe and what are your educational values?

Now, when this question is asked by many people, to many, many teachers; particularly in interviews; conversations with friends; colleagues in meetings and during appraisal discussions. It can throw up all sorts of permutations. A year ago, I wrote ‘Could you sum up your educational philosophy in 140 characters?’ as a short attempt to answer this question.

It’s funny how your own opinion can change depending on when the same question is asked.

Look into my eyes!

But, when asked to you directly, and particularly when you are off-guard, I do feel this question can drive straight to the core of your beliefs. Can you hold eye contact and answer? This is fundamentally why we choose to become a teacher (I hope) and continue to do so.

Would you be prepared to answer this question, off the cuff at any given moment?

I don’t know!

Is it okay to say ‘I don’t know’?

Perhaps not!

The Ugly Truth - they looked on into the wilderness... Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass via Compfight cc
The Ugly Truth – they looked on into the wilderness…
Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass via Compfight cc

So, as this question fleeted around my mind, and our conversation dipped in and out of whole-school teaching and learning. My principal discussed that it is even better to say; ‘this is sh*t’ and disregard a policy; a document; a theory; an opinion or even a blog! He was emphasising the importance to me, as a person, and as a teacher on moving onto the next level. Whether this be, having an opinion or for a future job-role; specifically as a headteacher.

What would your values be if you led your own school?

Now, without going into the full details of my personal appraisal (now, that would be an interesting blog to share!), the discussion could be centred on three key points.

  • This is the school’s point of view.
  • This is Ross’ work from A to B. This is complete; that is in progress; this is embedding; that has been binned and so forth…
  • What does Ross really think?

And it was the last question that was pivotal. I felt a seismic shift in my thinking; perhaps a key tipping point for the future in terms of my own leadership; thinking and blogging!

The Ugly Truth -  Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass via Compfight cc
The Ugly Truth – could you go it alone? Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass via Compfight cc

This will now form the second part of this article on #BookLooks and Mantras.

Book Looks Context:

Over the past term, I have questioned how we have moved with teaching and learning. Am I moving from A to B? Have I focused on what the day-to-day picture is at school?

Recent;y, we have duly titled this: ‘The Ugly Truth’, versus the abnormal appraisal process, which showcases teachers at their best (or worst) without taking into account the big picture; ‘progress over time’.

We, like most schools, would use the following sources to make judgements:

Judgements over time (old school process).
Judgements over time (old school process).

and that the fundamental change (the tipping point) for us, can be summarised in the slide below.

Judgements over time...
Judgements over time…

Personally, I have found this approach to be incredibly powerful as a leader and a classroom teacher. (On another note, this would be a great source/process for appointing teachers in new positions at interviews – another bee in my bonnet!)

Referring back to my appraisal discussions. Do I agree with this? What is my own personal view?

Is this just a move from A to B for the school? Or just a move from A to B for me? And most of all, do I agree?

I have also discussed with many of you (my colleagues online) and in the many emails I receive; that the current landscape and national pedagogic shifts in the teaching landscape continue to slide and sway. Much of it is unsettling and lacking credibility. I know this is a sweeping generalisation without the specifics, but the stories I receive are wide-ranging, specific and catastrophic!

I am not sure if my blog should be a place for discussing this… So, to summarise. I do feel that shunting learning walks was the right move for our school and book-looks is the next, best step, to help raise standards of teaching and learning. This is our journey. We know our students better than anyone else.

I’d expect each classroom teacher to say the same and it is my responsibility to equip them, to be able to do so …

To consistently support students, teachers and the school, day-to-day.

Rewind 24 months:

Standards of teaching were confirmed at 64% ‘Good or Outstanding’ (Ofsted 2011)

Cartoon by Malcolm Laverty (Copyright)
Cartoon by Malcolm Laverty (Copyright)

A term after receiving Ofsted, we moved onto informal learning walks with the aim to observe teachers on a more voluntary basis. All departments were included and heads of department were expected to lead and communicate the outcomes. The response was patchy, but there was now the option to observe from afar, using @IRIS_Connect. Using IRIS dramatically provided us with many new outcomes and possibilities.

Our informal process was now less time-consuming and flexible. But, although staff were happy with learning walks taking place, feedback became a problem and we addressed this with feedback training for all teachers; Open Classrooms; triad-observations and coaching and mentoring via our Good in Ten CPD programme and our Good to Outstanding programme.

Using IRIS Connect in class
Using IRIS Connect in class

What we have not yet addressed, is our ‘Consolidating Good’ CPD needs for staff who have just secured ‘consistently Good’ progress over time. This is something I do agree we have missed, but were not yet in a position to discover its need. This will be published next term…

So, what now?

Standards of teaching and learning have now risen to 74% (July 2013) and we are not stopping there. We want to achieve 80% ‘Good or Outstanding’ by April 2014 and eliminate all ‘Requires Improvement’ teaching by July 2014. What I mean by this and want to make VERY CLEAR – is Requires Improvement teaching over time – and not one-off snapshot judgements. (See pie chart above).

We are well on our way to securing ‘progress over time’ judgements; starting with staff training next term. We will be looking to inform all our teachers; equipping them with data; marking; teaching and feedback strategies in order to know their students better than even before!

It is a big ask; as with incoming staff, particularly new staff to the profession, there is the likelihood and the expectation, that ‘new teachers’ (not all) will not yet be in a position to secure ‘consistently Good’ progress over time.

The Ugly Truth - have your cake and eat it! Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass via Compfight cc
The Ugly Truth – have your cake and eat it!
Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass via Compfight cc

This will be a team effort; one that is transparent, supportive and beneficial to all teaching staff and our students.

Therefore, we are moving to a reporting mechanism for all staff, that includes a teaching and learning overview of standards, that includes all teachers, but also removes new staff from the overall picture in terms of whole-school judgements, standards and reporting. A modified version of The Ugly Truth.

This will be vital for the school to move forward accurately and transparently towards a consistent model of ‘Good’ teaching over time.

Reporting on standards:

We want to ensure that our data and judgements are accurate and tailored to meet various levels of teaching. Therefore, we aim to move to three levels of reporting:

  • formal observations (gradually moving away from this model altogether).
  • informal observations for new staff / new teachers
  • day-to-day practice. i.e. progress over time, to include sourcing evidence from books; data; typicality and support day-to-day.

More teeth:

This academic year, as originally stated in September 2013, in light of recent Ofsted changes and this post; our staff have asked for feedback. Teaching staff DO NOT want learning walks. So, we binned them!

The Ugly Truth - did you hear the news?  Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass via Compfight cc
The Ugly Truth – did you hear the news?
Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass via Compfight cc

Our teaching staff want quality observations with quality feedback. We can best achieve this with book-looks that can also take place outside the actual lesson.

Book Looks:

Our priority is to be supportive and developmental as possible. But we are not complacent. We must turn the gas up and start to reduce ‘Requires Improvement’ teaching in our school (full stop). Book-look data will allow us to see one-part of ‘progress over time’. The data will inform accurate assessment of teaching.

I have stated many times, that you may observe me for an appraisal lesson, yet judge the lesson ‘Good’, yet my books and data may be absent. The data would be consistently below expected levels of progress and would therefore confirm, that despite my one-off show and tell lesson, I am consistently teaching ‘Requires Improvement’ lessons day in, day out.

Our book-look process is not designed to catch staff under-performing. Deputy Headteacher, Simon Warburton describes this method accurately in his blogpost. Our aim, is to identified weaknesses in our appraisal processes and target specific support for teachers who need to improve. We know our teachers can teach well, yet (as stated earlier), The Ugly Truth says otherwise.

The Ugly Truth - there is no hiding place. Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass via Compfight cc
The Ugly Truth – there is no hiding place.
Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass via Compfight cc


We aim to get straight to the point regarding our school priorities.

  1. Written feedback and literacy,
  2. challenging gifted and talented,
  3. and the overall quality of teaching and learning.

Therefore, to encapsulate all three priorities, we need to place paramount focus on student books and written feedback in lessons. Here is our simple template which is working very well.

Initial template
Initial template

During our recent book-looks in October 2013, we found a vast range of data to support our feelings, that marking was still inconsistent! Below, you can see the data for one department. I am included on this list!

The data:

CaptureWe have equipped our middle leaders to conduct accurate and detailed monitoring in their own departments. We have rearranged our leadership team to ensure each head of faculty has even more support throughout the year. Accountability can be pinpointed and staff can be supported even better.

Yet, if a teacher teaches a ‘Good’ lesson, yet they are highlighted in red, yellow or orange above, this simply informs us of The Ugly Truth!

In many schools, this evidence would lead to capability.


Our training for 2014 will be for all staff, not just senior and middle leadership. The focus will be simple: peer observations in order to make accurate assessments on student progress. This will include teachers who are not marking their books.
Our next step, is to develop a student observation panel and introduce a ‘consolidating Good’ CPD programme. We will also be re-visiting The 5 Minute Marking Plan to ensure teachers are clear on what to mark and what NOT to mark. As for my appraisal and mantra, well, I’ll save that for another post due soon …
The Ugly Truth - sink or swim! Photo Credit: and[w] via Compfight cc
The Ugly Truth – sink or swim!
Photo Credit: and[w] via Compfight cc

Further reading:

I have presented our journey and all the information shown here, at the PiXL Club Annual Conference on 2nd December 2013. I will update this post with further information.

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