I hold two enduring images of fifty-something teachers in my head. They are both male, perhaps because they draw to some extent on people I have known, and perhaps because they also serve as the poles of the role-model I hold for myself. I apologise to female readers…
One is polished, urbane, supremely assured, completely in control of his work and his life. He is a successful teacher, probably head of a largish department (in the days when HoD still meant something). Nothing comes as a surprise to him – he has seen (and dealt) with it all before. He is liked and respected by his pupils, and treats them with a mixture firmness and good-humoured condescension.
The other sad character lacks confidence, is slightly dishevelled, probably has leather elbow pads (a sore point for me as a geographer) keeps to the shadows, and is both the butt of disdain and the recipient of hassle from his managers. Long-suffering personified – but he is not necessarily a bad teacher.
Most importantly, both are their own people – and neither probably fully exists.
I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I am sulking as a result of the mishap outlined in my previous post, and I would like to thank those who have made or sent supportive comments, notably e=mc²andallthat, whom I met once and found to be much on my wavelength. But it’s true, my professional pride was bruised this week and it nudged my self-perception slightly towards the perhaps less desirable end of the spectrum.
I think the consummate professional would take the blow on the chin, identify what went wrong, and move on. So that is what I have done. I am annoyed at myself for getting a few things wrong, notably forgetting that the school introduced (I’m tempted to say imposed) a new observation form this year. I prepared using the old one, only realising my error five minutes before the observation took place. I also took at face value the new advice not to produce lengthy plans for observations; had I done so, I could have spelt out some things that went overlooked.
Bizarrely, I had a slight sense of sleep-walking towards my doom, probably not helped by an actual shortage of sleep over recent weeks. But I also refuse to angst over the things that I know full well were simply the misfortunes of chance.
It is absolutely right that one should ask oneself hard questions in such situations – I am not in the habit of defending the indefensible, but I do know that I am fundamentally a perfectly competent teacher, and it should take more than one somewhat poor lesson observation to dent that . Quite how I deal with the recent self-realisation of just how much I change under scrutiny is another matter.
But I am also annoyed at a system that generates these problems in the first place. Once again, my reluctance to discuss publicly the specifics of a particular school makes providing detail difficult, but there is value in reflecting on the wisdom of using an observation form that stretches to four pages of close A4, over twelve narrowly-defined categories. Often it is stipulated that the absence of concrete evidence must result in a ‘Requires Improvement’ verdict. While there is a certain logic, this narrows the scope of what a teacher can do, and utterly ignores the fact that much of what makes lessons work is subjective or impressionistic, or both. One is guilty until proven innocent.
It also flies against the policy that there is no (longer a) presumption for or against any particular teaching style, as what is expected all but ties both hands behind one’s back. The effect is rather insidiously to deprive both of my bi-polar role-models (and everyone in between) of their essential autonomy and turn them into powerless apparatchiks of the school-state.
I was actually somewhat heartened to read the form, as most of the criticisms were in fact defaults to R.I. because I hadn’t demonstrated the required form. This is less damning than criticism of my actual teaching, of which there was little. Basically, I once again demonstrated my inability to jump through hoops.
It didn’t help that the two observers were both young and relatively inexperienced, despite their rapid promotion; I suspect they found it difficult too – but they were confined by the stipulation of tick-boxes that leave no room whatsoever for interpretation or wider context. And I think this is the lesson to be drawn here: over-constrained scrutiny engineers a magnificent possibility to snatch failure from the jaws of success. The wider profession seems, slowly, to be realising this – so why are schools like mine and that of e=mc²andallthat heading in the other direction?
I talked over my lesson with a couple of colleagues. During the feedback, I enquired whether certain significant subtleties within my lesson had been noticed; the reply suggested not. Again, I don’t cast blame: I’m not sure, aged 25 I would have spotted the finer points of a lesson from a thirty-year teacher, either. But as one of my colleagues said, it seems as though I have been judged using tools insufficiently sharp for the job.
I am now wondering whether to let this lie, or attempt a response – and this is my main point for writing in detail here. Some time ago, a senior colleague ran CPD on conducting “Courageous Conversations”; someone asked whether this included conversations up the hierarchy as well as down. It appeared that the possibility had not been considered.
I know that some see me as wordy (some readers might agree!). But education is a complex business, and sometimes it is necessary to develop ideas at length. After all, we would criticise students who did not attend to necessary detail. And when we are scrutinised in such precise and minute detail ourselves, is it not reasonable to expect a detailed response?
So I shall be writing a response to the observation, but it will have to be on plain paper. The room provided on our new observation form for a comment from the teacher is – well, I think you can guess that…