Talk Up Teaching

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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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Why do teachers and schools impose silly ideas on one other?

Over the last two weeks I have watched a prominent ITT provider post a recruitment video, sadly promoting the fact that teaching and learning could be assessed from walking past a teacher’s classroom door … and another school leader boasting about the fact that they could evaluate the culture of a complex school environment within the first 30 seconds from being on-school premises.

Have we not away from this dialogue? If we want to ‘talk-up’ our profession, why do we impose such silly concepts onto one another? Why do we take pride in the fact that we believe we can understand the complex world of the classroom and a large institution is a mere 30 seconds or less?

If this is all it takes to determine a ‘good’ teacher, why do we need to train at all? Can you really walk past a classroom door or stand in the school reception and gauge the flavour of what is going on? If we truly wish to raise the status of teaching with the public, our politicians, or parents and with one another, we need to ‘talk up teaching’. We need to stop making foolish assumptions about one another’s ability to teach.

Rewind …

I was promoted in my third year of teaching – Tom Sherrington appointed me! I was 26 and had barely mastered the classroom. Six or seven years later in my heyday as a middle leader, I began to understand what was working and what I should continue to develop. Overall, I was confident, but I knew nothing at a deeper level about the complex world of the classroom and schools …


In 2004, I was confident, experimental and had overcome most of the difficulties we all face in the earlier parts of our teaching career. I certainly hand’ mastered anything and I accept that I was also a world apart from the policies of senior leadership and how successful schools sustained a balance between high-stakes teaching and unsolicited autonomy.

In 2008, despite leading a team of 13 staff and being on the cusp of school leadership myself, I was still a good step away from having any whole-school perspective. I was leading on one or two initiatives, but due to the nature of my role and responsibility, I rarely observed colleagues outside my own department. This was in a climate where all of our English state schools were grading lessons…

Collaboration or Isolation?

In the early 2000s, it was rare to observe another teacher unless it was your job or you had been told to do so. It was often voluntary and something you did in the little free or non-contact time you had available. Whole-school systems for using observations to develop and help coach colleagues were few and far between. This is still an issue for many in our cash-strapped schools today!

I also had not yet faced having to support or challenge experienced teachers who were reliable and all-around solid practitioners, but whose personal confidence sometimes undermined the collective school vision because they would ignore policies and procedures. They were simply isolated and demotivated.

Drawing reliable conclusions …

Twenty-five years on, I now kind of understand why. I had not yet understood, or been encouraged to recognise, that these behaviours may not be helpful to the overall success of a school, but there was often a good reason for these behaviours in our colleagues. I was still developing a repertoire for observing a wide range of teaching practice and methods, holding colleagues to account, as well as developing them.

The challenge of supporting colleagues and ensuring high standards in your team is a fine balance to master for everyone. It is a very real issue for many. My experiences of lesson observation have grown significantly and I have just immersed myself into academia. I now find myself emerging into an entirely new era of methods and processes I knew very little about.

Today in 2019, I am still trying to gauge reliability from observations into the complex world of the classroom. Perhaps I am a rare breed, or maybe you also have this feeling? It’s definitely not imposter system. I know the classroom very well, but our observations of others are merely the tip of the iceberg and to understand ‘what works’ is a lifetime’s work.

Let’s try to find out what makes good teaching, but for goodness sake, let’s not do silly things to one another by actively promoting that we can make any reliable judgement about our colleagues from walking past their open classroom doors or standing in a school’s reception area

If I could offer one piece of advice to every teacher across the world, observe your colleagues at every given opportunity, no matter how busy you are. Everyone is busy, but good teachers make time for observations. It’s the only way to truly learn about classroom pedagogy and avoid making silly and unreliable assumptions.

4 thoughts on “Talk Up Teaching

  1. 44 years in the classroom and 38 years in headship, and I too fail to grasp why ‘new’ leaders can promote such idiotic views to their colleagues. Having taken a break from site-management headship for 10 years, I’ve returned since January this year to running a secondary boys section with 60 staff across 5 years groups, 7-11. Amongst my own colleagues, now I am down and dirty with them, I see things about their practice I couldn’t see as their Principal, some things good, some things unnecessary etc.
    I’ve also been inspecting other schools since the early ’90s, and the classroom landscape has utterly transformed, partly because a child’s mental health (or lack of same) is so much more obviously on view now. The Child’s voice is heard/seen/felt in more ways than ever, and with the back-up of the health, welfare and social services no longer guaranteed, I am amazed just how skilled schools are becoming as the centre of everything for a child; you can’t suss that out in 30 seconds that’s for sure, for it’s home brew in every location, being done differently as circumstances and skills permit.

    1. Hi James – thanks for the comment. Interesting to hear your journey and what you are now doing. Can you think of anything ‘silly’ that you think you may have done as a headteacher? For me, it would have been believing in the process of grading teachers in lessons, reliably. You?

  2. I think we could say that it’s a complex ‘dance’ this thing called teaching, and there is no one way to assess all the elements involved in getting it right. A school bursar once told me that you can tell a lot about a school by the toilets, and in part she was right! That said I do believe we can develop a ‘sense’ of what is good and not good about a school and although it may be hard to put our finger on what ‘it’ is exactly we are aware of it. The Japanese have a word for it I think, “Zanshin”, a state of awareness, of relaxed alertness. Being aware should not be enough to make an assessment on but it is important in being able to identify, recognise and pay attention to the things, things that will help support an assessment. I can remember entering a classroom where I felt that there was something not right, the class teacher was unaware of it but moments later two boys ‘faced up’ to each other. I was able to quickly intervene and the incident was stopped before it started. Perhaps the claims made by some exagerate this value or accuracy of this ‘awareness’, this sense but to either rely on it or to dismiss it I think is wrong. I think it is important we learn to develop our Zanshin, to learn to listen to our inner voice and allow it to help us make accurate assessments. Assessments made not only on the data we are sometimes presented with but also on what we may also call insight or expereince.

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