When You Try Too Hard, It Doesn’t Work!

Reading time: 7


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...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

How can you do what you ought, if you don’t know what you’ve got?

“You’d be surprised how many people violate this simple principle every day of their lives and try to fit square pegs into round holes, ignoring the clear reality that Things Are As They Are.” ― Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh


Yes, another post on marking. The title of this post is taken from one of my all-time favourite reads. If you have never read The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet, I’d highly recommend it. My blog post on Reflections of Whole-School Marking proved to be an incredibly popular read. I would like to provide here a little context to everything that has been said about marking over the past week. I do feel that there may have been some who totally missed the point.

Leadership is about what you are, is not just about what you do. (@JillBerry102)

Since I last checked my job description, my role in school it is to be accountable and responsible for whole school teaching and learning. But it is not why I do what I do. I am not bound by text written on a piece of paper. Leadership is about getting the best out of others. This is what I (try to) do. The difference between what, why and how I do it, is having compassion for those that I work with; students and teachers. It doesn’t mean any school leader should do something just because they have to. It should be because it is the right thing to do. It should also be the best, possible way to do it.

Tao of Pooh Wisdom Knowledge Compassion Poster

Who Versus What?

Who are you? is one of life’s simplest questions to ask. It can also be one of the most difficult, and the answer can also change throughout one’s life.

People can be forgiven to think that ‘Teacher Toolkit’ is a self-promotion bandwagon; an egomaniac looking for a quick-buck or a whistle-stop tour on a journey to the top. These people do not know the real me. They will no doubt jump onto this last sentence and share this amongst their peers; perhaps accuse me of being a egomaniac-denialist?

That’s fine. We all judge a book by its cover and we are all human. To know the difference between knowledge and wisdom is to be compassionate; particularly with the staff I am working with. This is really who I am and only those that have worked with me will know this. It is important that we all know who we are as teachers and why we do what we do.

“How can you get very far, if you don’t know who you are?
How can you do what you ought, if you don’t know what you’ve got?
And if you don’t know which to do, of all the things in front of you,
Then what you’ll have when you are through, is just a mess without a clue.
Of all the best that can come true; if you know What and Which and Who.”
Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

Anyway, this is not about me, it’s about why teachers should be looking in each students’ exercise books.

Book Sampling:

There will be some readers who will have looked at the templates below, and felt somewhat disappointed that student books were being monitored in such a way. I do know, there are hundreds of you who do appreciate the good practice being shared. One query I have, is that I’m not quite clear how others – particularly those who have never led a team of teachers – would do this. I am confident that we are doing it as best we can. The process is open, transparent and takes into account context of student/teacher and written versus practical subjects. The template may not say this, but in reality, the process of doing this is school takes this all into account. Maybe work-sampling denialists missed this in my original blog? Let me write it again;

The process is open, transparent and takes into account context of student/teacher and written versus practical subjects. One methodology cannot be applied in all subjects. For example, the yellow box. Nor should we expect, drama and PE for example, to produce written work just for the ease of school monitoring or for OfSTED.

Beyond the template shared here, the process must include conversations with students, teachers, work sampling in and out of lessons and detailed (interview) conversations. I work very hard to ensure those taking part in this process, particularly heads of department, are monitoring work with context. Every book has a story.

The template below has evolved in my own practice over the past five years. It has been used by hundreds and hundreds of teachers; adapted from feedback from teachers, observers, students, headteachers and governors. It has been road-tested. It has changed significantly from when I first used it in a landscape of judging teachers in lessons; particularly in one-off lesson performance to the landscape in which we are now working; teachers are no longer graded in individual lessons. n.b. I do know that 50% of schools across the country are still grading teachers. We do not. This was the first thing I removed when I first started at my current place of work.

Terminology or Process?

The hairs of people’s neck prick up when the term ‘work scrutiny’ or ‘book scrutiny’ is used! Others may call this ‘work sampling’ or ‘book looks’ to take the fear out of the process. Me? Student books are a source of evidence, as is anything we do in school. For the sake of any argument, I call work sampling/scrutiny a ‘book observation.’ This means it provides context; books can be looked at in or out of lessons.

This may cause a storm for a minority of readers who believe what schools and school leaders do, is work to drive out teachers from their jobs and instil a fear and mistrust in their own professionalism. Is the template above, a fear of terminology or process? Thankfully, this is a small minority of people who view the role of teachers, leaders and accountability as a stick to beat with people with. Despite the fear of the template or the process, I do know this is not me.

Winnie The Pooh

Image: peacay

Experience or Naivety?

In my experience, teachers who have proven to be well-below par are few and far between. Teachers do a great job. They work hard, mark books and always do what is best for the students in their care. As school leaders, we must protect their well-being, workload and keep them well-away from myths, fads and work that is about ticking things off for OfSTED.

When I was a middle leader, there were many things I didn’t understand. I had never led a school. I had never really worked outside the confines of my own department. Social media was new and sharing best practice online was unheard of!

For anyone who was against my original blog post, from what I can gather, do not lead schools or teams of teachers. I would argue that they have never led a process of monitoring the quality of marking across large section of students. How would any of these people have any clue about monitoring, evaluating and reviewing the quality of marking across any school, never mind my own?

And let us not forget, that this is just one school; everybody does it differently and there is a need for every school to have their own methodology for doing things. We are all at different stages of our journey and we all have different needs. We must respect this in each other to be doing what is best for our students.

During the past two weeks, approximately 25 staff have visited lessons, spoke with teachers; taken out a sample of key stage students books from across the school. We have looked at the marking altogether in one room, away from the classroom and away from the teacher. We have also spoken with the student in class. Furthermore, we have even taken the students out of class and spoken to them in one-to-one interviews about their exercise books and the quality of verbal and written feedback they receive in the lessons. From my point of view, this is a robust process and has triangulated information for a variety of sources. It is valid. But the real test will be the reliability of information the process produces and what happens with the qualitative data. Any action plan put in place must communicate with our teachers what we need to do.

I would like to remind my readers something I have advocated for some time; sourcing information from a variety of places in order to assess the quality of teaching taking place. He is the graphic once again;

Progress Over TIme @TeacherToolkit

Read the blog

Reflection and Development:

I’ve spent the last few days reflecting on the positive and negative experiences that my colleagues and I have discussed throughout this process. As ever, nothing is perfect and with any type of work we do in schools everything is developmental. With this in mind I seriously thought about modifying our document once more to replace what I think will suffice our own needs for next several years to help our marking move forward.

Teachers are to be trusted when marking; some will need training, particularly in their formative years. Teachers can also become easily distracted when marking; ticking and flicking every single page and providing meaningless feedback that gives no student the opportunity to improve. We do know that verbal and written feedback, if provided in a sophisticated and meaningful way, can make the biggest difference. And that if the students are given the time to act upon feedback, including the teacher checking up on that feedback has been actioned,  has the most significant impact on student progress.

Therefore, with the past month being involved in the process again in great detail, I am looking to draft another proposal to modify the work that we have done this time. This is something I would like to put in place in the spring 2016. The new and improved template will ask just one question; is there evidence that the child has acted on feedback (verbal/written)? And before people start shouting at their devices and computer screens, this will be a serious attempt to ensure (a template) one size does not fit all. That context is needed for everything; that teacher and student conversations are required to enable the full picture to be gathered when looking at a student’s book.  That curriculum time should be proportionate to the marking that is evident e.g. one lesson a week or five lessons a week? And finally, what subject are we observing, practical subjects such as drama or PE, or a subject such as English and history that requires extended pieces of writing? How we assess marking in these subjects will be very different and require a level of expertise on the part of the observer. 

The initial re-draft looks like this below and will go out for consultation next term. I’m confident this is a significant development which will focus on what matters for all stakeholders involved. Marking will still be monitored, it’s just how we go about this that is being modified. 

Book Looks Work Sampling Scruntiny

On a final note regarding marking student books. As long as there is teaching, the need for marking will never disappear. Teachers will always be required to mark books and marking will always be the bane of any teacher’s life. We have a responsibility to mark a student’s book and provide them with feedback. Whether we are marking the right piece of work and offering a student with the correct piece of feedback, is the question that is yet to be answered by all of us.

I hope that the development offered here, will be to provide not just a answer, but provoke thought and help develop all of us to become more reliable in our methods of monitoring, evaluating and reviewing marking and feedback across an entire school.

You can’t save time, you can only spend it; but you can spend it wisely or foolishly. (Bejamin Hoff)

Into the Sunset with Pooh and Piglet E. H. Shepard

Image: Into the Sunset with Pooh and Piglet by Ernest Howard Shepard


@TeacherToolkit logo new book Vitruvian man TT


Free Resources

Sign-up for Exclusive, Newsletter Resources

Enter your details below to start receiving our free newsletter offering discounted and zero-cost resources!

2 thoughts on “When You Try Too Hard, It Doesn’t Work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.