Lesson observation: No more performing for the crowds...

Written by: HTU | Published:

Frustrated with the format of traditional lesson observations, deputy headteacher Lizzie Williams changed her school’s approach so that they become more about CPD than performance management.

Teachers are the most important, and costly, resource a school has. I am currently deputy head at King Solomon Academy Primary School in Westminster, an area identified in the 2013 Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index as being the most deprived of all of London’s 600 wards. 

The school serves a diverse community: no ethnic group is larger than eight per cent (including white British), we have 70 per cent with English as an additional language, 60 per cent free school meals, and 17 per cent of our pupils are “looked-after”. Needless to say, this context provides a wide range of challenges to us as educators, especially as our mission is to close the achievement gap so our pupils can access equal opportunities later in life.

Our attainment targets are higher than national expectations, yet our pupils enter school significantly behind their more affluent peers. Excellent teaching, therefore, is an absolute necessity in achieving this accelerated progress.

The impact of very effective versus poorly performing teachers has always been well documented, and this difference is proven to be even more pronounced for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. This has led me over the course of my career to both examine and question the established method of developing teachers in UK schools: the lesson observation. 

As both a teacher and school leader I have felt dissatisfied with the process of lesson observations for years. As a teacher I often feel succumbed to the pressure to produce an “all-singing, all-dancing” lesson when observed, even though I knew my “performance” didn’t necessarily reflect the reality of my typical teaching. 

If deemed “satisfactory” or worse, I felt hopeless. How could I work any harder? If awarded the elusive “outstanding”, I often felt like a fake. Moreover, I frequently found the feedback frustrating: an overwhelming array of targets and a detailed narrative dissection of a lesson I would never again teach. 

As a deputy headteacher I experienced frustration from the opposite side of the process. Observation and feedback is time-consuming, and yet many lessons don’t reflect day-to-day practice. I also felt the process focused on proving performance rather than improving teaching. Reports show most teachers feel that teacher appraisal had little impact on the way they teach in the classroom, and an anonymous questionnaire I conducted in my school supported this. 

Just 10 per cent of our teachers agreed that this kind of observation helped them to learn and develop. Furthermore, they felt the traditional observation undermined teamwork and caused them considerable stress.

So I was left with a question: how can observations be re-imagined so that they are seen as CPD rather than performance management?

In 2012, I was fortunate to participate in a study tour to New York, where I attended a seminar led by Doug Lemov and visited some of his Charter Schools. With his colleague, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, Mr Lemov has worked to develop an interesting approach to lesson observation and feedback. 

Taking this back into my school, we implemented a new strategy of observation that involved all teachers being observed weekly at a pre-agreed time, for 10 to 15 minutes, followed by a brief weekly coaching session where they are set one succinct target. The lesson isn’t graded, the teacher often collaboratively identifies the action step with their coach and, importantly, the discussion and practice that follows focuses on how to achieve it. 

The potential is exciting: that teachers can develop as much in one year as many do in 10. So the implementation of this model – Instructional Leadership – then came to form the basis of the “impact initiative” I undertook while on the Future Leaders programme.

Alongside an overarching aim to improve the quality of teaching across the school, I was also keen to create a professional culture based on collaborative learning; to develop “learner teachers” and to shift performance review towards teachers’ progress rather than performance. 

Trust was a big issue, and so before implementing Instructional Leadership, a key task for us was to change the line management structure so that I wouldn’t be line managing any of the teachers. Staff had reported that this would be less stressful and more conducive to a collaborative process. Also, I made sure that all the teachers in my school were involved, regardless of their teaching proficiency. I wanted to show that I acknowledged that all teachers are capable of improving and deserve to be developed and invested in.

So we began to roll-out the model throughout the school. Initially, it was a logistical nightmare. Fifteen observations and feedback sessions every week overwhelmed me, causing productivity in other areas of my role to drop because my timetable had become so fragmented. Over time though, I learned to improve my efficiency and developed strategies to manage all the information while maintaining the personalised, bespoke feel to the coaching sessions – one of its main benefits. 

Slowly, trust began to build among staff. Teachers who had at first only asked me to observe them teaching lessons they felt confident in, now began sign-posting me towards aspects of teaching they were struggling with, or when trying something new for the first time. Of course, things don’t always go to plan, and sometimes I observe parts of lessons that don’t go well. But it doesn’t matter, because one lesson forms only a small part of what I see over time. This is in stark contrast to the traditional model where teachers often feel their lesson grade is like a badge of identity that cannot be changed until the next gruelling round of observations. 

The impact on teaching and learning was transformative. At the outset, there was some caution from teachers but soon their mind-set changed as they realised it was a great opportunity to develop and learn. 

Three months in, I sought feedback from the teachers and asked them to compare both observation models. Compared with the previous model which they felt was competitive and divisive, designed to enable the leadership team to “measure” and “test” them, they all said that the new process helped them to learn and develop. 

One teacher reflected: “It’s helped me by giving me micro-targets to work on, very realistic rather than broad-based that I didn’t know how to tackle.” Happily, they reported that the weekly observations were much less stressful and also promoted teamwork. They liked the equality of Instructional Leadership; that all teachers, regardless of experience or competence were set weekly targets. 

Externally judged lesson observation data also proved the successful impact of Instructional Leadership on quality of teaching: in the year in which the initiative was rolled out, “inadequate” teaching was eliminated and lessons judged as good or better increased from 62 to 93 per cent.

Over a year later, Instructional Leadership is well-established and we now have a further three Instructional lead teachers observing and coaching across the school. The perception of lesson observations among teachers has changed and we now have a genuine “open-door” culture. Professional, reflective dialogue has been normalised among teachers and teaching is consistently high-quality, as verified by Ofsted in June 2013, when it judged 90 per cent of observed lessons to be “outstanding”.

Importantly, Instructional Leadership has also achieved trust and collaboration in our staff team, with teachers now displaying their weekly targets on their classroom doors and inviting feedback from their peers. Looking to the future, we are keen to roll this out to our support staff too, and we are currently exploring how to build capacity for this.

Beyond the school, I have been involved in rolling out Instructional Leadership across our network of 14 primary schools, meaning that I now “coach the coaches”. The pressures of success in education are omnipresent and ever-changing. Instructional Leadership offers a supportive framework that enables us to focus on what’s most important: becoming the best teachers possible for the pupils we serve.

  • Lizzie Williams is deputy headteacher of King Soloman Academy Primary School in Westminster.

Future Leaders

Future Leaders is a fully-funded leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools across England. For more information visit apply.future-leaders.org.uk/register-interest


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