5 questions to ask about your CPD

I couldn’t claim that we have all of the answers to CPD at Dixons Kings. However, I feel that we certainly ask the right questions. Here are 5 questions to ask that might help your CPD to be that little bit better.

Is everyone getting what they need?

Schools have priorities. Departments have priorities. Individuals have priorities and interests. We have biases and preferences, the things that we like to do and the things that we want to share. A balance has to be struck, of course, but if teachers leave a CPD session with nothing, then it simply isn’t worth their time.

At DKA, we split our teachers into two CPD sessions during the week and break these up further where necessary. While it is ultimately our decision on the overall content of the CPD program, it is informed by various factors to ensure that it is as personalised as possible. (On top of this, teachers get individual development through the coaching program.)

Are we sharing the right ideas?

When those who lead CPD say that something is the ‘right’ or ‘best’ way to do something, it is likely going to start appearing in classrooms, so we have to hold things up to scrutiny. In the past I was told that learning styles should be catered for, and I did it. I was told that teacher talk was bad, so I eliminated it. It’s all very well to blame others for this, but I have also given bad advice. I still shudder at the memory of the podcast I recorded on ‘showing progress’, or my suggestion in a blog that you could write feedback in code to ensure students engage with it…

Fashions and concepts of best practice change, so it is perhaps inevitable that some bad advice will be given. To avoid it, you always have to consider whether what you are sharing is received wisdom, a ridiculous fad, an inefficient drain on teachers’ time. Even when something makes sense, is it adding to workload? Last year, I ran CPD on my own, but this year I have benefitted from sharing the work with a colleague, Simon Gayle. He is brilliant at calling out any nonsense that I come up with, and vice versa. We hopefully filter out 99% of the possible nonsense, and any that we do share at least we agree on!

How do we ensure that it sticks?

If a focus for CPD is chosen, it needs to remain the focus for enough time to allow it to become just a part of practice. One session isn’t enough. You can’t just ‘do’ something or launch an idea, expect everyone to do it and then move on the next week. The individual sessions too have to be constructed in a way that people don’t just forget things as they walk out. This might involve tasks which ensure reflection or discussion, or even quizzes.

We organise our CPD around a half-termly focus. Last half-term was questioning, next half-term is revision & memory. We therefore plan a series of sessions which we hope develop a deep understanding not just of what teachers should do but why they do it. Another approach that we have is to practise anything that we can, have the theory one week and then follow it up with the practice.

How is it different for …?

It’s hard not to see teaching through your own lens. Teaching to me has always been English teaching and I used to believe that teaching was just a bunch of generic transferable skills. I think that there are definitely a range of things that all teachers can work on, but there are many things that are unique to their subject discipline. For example, you could share some modelling strategies with all staff, but the head of maths shouldn’t model how to do a backflip. You have other considerations like heads of year who may suddenly have all of their free time taken to deal with an incident, teachers who don’t have their own classroom, non subject specialists, split classes- and the list could go on. You can’t put on a session for cat-lovers born in February, but you can at least consider the impact of what you do on as many teachers as possible.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at feedback strategies and we split the session into three. One priority was ensuring that there was a session focussing on feedback in practical subjects (another session was a walkthrough of using mail-merge marking, with the other on timesaving marking strategies). We are also looking to develop our CPD model further to allow teams even more time for subject pedagogy to be developed.

How will we know that it works?

This is the trickiest question to answer. You can evidence compliance quite easily, but this is not the same as something working. This is the area we have tinkered with quite a lot this year and continue to try to get right, so it’s the question on this list that I have the least comprehensive answer for.

One useful start is our half-termly anonymous survey. It has various questions that help us to understand what is going on in classrooms and how people feel about the quality of our CPD. Two questions we always ask are: ‘What are giving you that you don’t need?’ and ‘What do you need that we are not giving you?’ The feedback sessions came out of requests from this survey, as do many of the sessions next half-term. We can compare responses from each half term to the next, showing where improvements have been made and identifying where we might focus next. We can compile data from other sources too, e.g. book scrutinies and learning walks, but it is harder to tie these to specific CPD sessions.

Like I say, we don’t have all of the answers, but I’m happy that we are asking these questions. If you have any other questions worth asking, or indeed some of the answers, feel free to comment.

Improve behaviour to improve teachers

In this blog I reveal the secret of great CPD. It’s the holy grail of teacher development and not only does it help improve the quality of our teachers, but it keeps them in the profession. It’s simple: If you want to improve teaching, sort out behaviour.

You can have great teachers, fantastic CPD and brilliantly planned lessons, but unless the behaviour system is clear, consistent and supportive, much of that goes to waste. Here is what I think schools should do about behaviour and how this helps teachers get better.

Have clear classroom expectations so that teachers can actually teach

Teaching is so complicated and getting better at it is hard. Think how difficult it is to give an explanation of a concept to students who have never encountered it before. Imagine how much harder it is when nobody is looking or listening. In that situation, instead of getting better at explanations, we have to get better at something different: explanations for students who won’t listen. There’s a skill in that, but why should we have to develop that skill?

If the behaviour system is clear and supportive, teachers are not spending their time dumbing down content to make it more ‘engaging’, they’re not spending lessons negotiating with students about rules and sanctions, and they are not creating lots of individual classroom routines and consequences. Some systems have three or four steps before any kind of a sanction is given, and even then the sanction is unclear or decided by the teacher. Our system is one warning and then a detention. It works.

There is an argument that says that relationships should come first, and that sanctions get in the way of that. Relationships are so important in teaching, it is true, but it is difficult to build relationships with students who are allowed to misbehave and impossible to establish rapport with the others in the class when you are dealing with their disruptive peers.

Leave the administration of detentions to others in order to free up teachers’ time

Teachers should not be arranging and manning detentions. (Then rearranging them when students inevitably don’t turn up.) We have central detentions every day, manned by SLT, and organised by admin staff. A lot of people put in a lot of effort to ensure they run smoothly, but not classroom teachers. Classroom teachers should be freed up to concentrate on what they are really good at, what they are trained for and what they are employed to do: teach. That freed up time can be used to improve teaching.

Let new teachers teach

Why should it be a rite of passage that new teachers (new to the profession or new to the school) have to battle through the first few months? It’s hard enough getting used to so many new aspects and then on top you have to deal with poor behaviour. Teachers do need to learn their craft, but this applies to those of us who have been teaching for a much longer time too. If you make it easier for new teachers to teach, you ensure that students behave in their classroom in pretty much the same way they do in the principal’s classroom.

It comes back to that idea of what teachers are actually getting good at. There are all sorts of behaviour management techniques that help, even when school behaviour is generally good, but behaviour shouldn’t be all that new teachers have to think about and the only thing that improves.

Support teachers who use the school system

People leave the profession because of poor behaviour, which is likely to actually be poor behaviour which is tolerated and excused by leadership teams. What makes some of this worse is the strange idea that teachers who give out detentions are bad teachers. It is a ridiculous thing to insist that teachers follow the systems and then tell them off for it. If you are struggling to teach in a school with no practicable behaviour system, then told off for trying to tackle behaviour, you will quickly start to- have to- tolerate poor behaviour and then what is the point? We should never ever blame teachers for poor behaviour. In fact, those teachers who follow the school systems should be praised and held as examples for others to see.

While a good behaviour system will have few grey areas, there may have to be some wiggle room on occasion. Sometimes there may be a pragmatic response to a situation that must be taken-professionals should be allowed to take this course where appropriate. And I don’t believe that teachers are infallible- there are times when I could have handled a situation better and de-escalated it. In a supportive culture, we can be open about our misjudgments and seek to rectify them.

I am grateful for the work that the behaviour team in my school put into allowing me to just teach. It makes my job as CPD leader much easier and it is making me a better classroom teacher. Behaviour isn’t perfect (because it is a school!) but everything is in place to allow for good behaviour, and good behaviour leads to great teaching.

 

A Culture of Practice

Practice plays a huge part in teacher development in our school and this week I was reminded of just how effective it can be. Doug Lemov, in Practice Perfect, writes that “Great practice…is not merely a triumph of design and engineering, but a triumph of culture.” Here I share five examples from the last week which exemplify how powerful a culture of practice can be.

Practising our questioning

We want our CPD to have a lasting impact, so we will often organise a practice session to follow on from a more theoretical session the previous week. Last week we had Principal Teachers from various subjects delivering questioning training as part of a carousel for staff. Following this, we asked teachers which strategies they would like to practise. This meant that we focussed on wait time and stretching students with follow-up questions.

DKA Practice 1My colleague Simon has put a great deal of effort into designing and refining a model of practice which works. We always start with a good model, so in this instance I used Teach Like a Champion videos to show narrated and silent wait time and effective deeper questioning. Before practising, I asked staff to script possible questions/ phrases they might use and to reflect on how they would ensure wait time was effective. Because practice is so common in our CPD sessions, we don’t need to spend too much time explaining what everyone has to do. Everyone practises; everyone feeds back. The only problem this week-if this can even be considered a problem-was that some groups became far too interested in discussing questioning strategies that they didn’t all get to practise. I saw many of the strategies used in lessons later in the week and I am sure that I’ll continue to see them over time.

Practising our coaching

On Tuesday Simon led a session on giving coaching feedback with our Heads of Faculty and Principal Teachers. We have a whole half term dedicated to ensuring that our coaching is high quality and consistent, which gives us the luxury of spending time practising. (Coaching involves weekly low-stakes observations and short feedback meetings.) We practised how we might ‘tease out’ a coaching target from a coachee, ensuring they retained ownership of it, and also the key idea of linking praise to concrete examples. I obviously buy in to these practice sessions, but the culture feels so embedded that all leaders participate fully and this can only be a good thing. Practising coaching doesn’t just help us to coach others; it can help us to become better at coaching ourselves.

Practising our meetings

As this session was going on, Heads of Year were in the room on the opposite side of the corridor, practising  for the meetings they would each be having with form tutors the following day. There are some important changes happening to tutor time and they wanted to be clear and consistent in the message. I am a year eleven form tutor and on Wednesday I was in the year team meeting where the impact of the practice was obvious. The presentation was clear and every part of it made sense. For me, the presentation was excellent, not only because of the content (sensible changes that removed any unnecessary admin and focused on the core roles of form tutors) but because of the way the explanation was delivered by Nick, the HoY. Talking to another Head of Year, he felt that this practice session had been incredibly useful and that we should arrange more of them. Which we will.

Practising our routines

This week a new senior leader joined us and was immediately given a practice session on school routines, along with a cover supervisor. Practice can be difficult and uncomfortable for some, so there is often a sense that we might have to sell it. But the best way to get ‘buy in’ is often just to practise and then the benefits are tangible. Not only do these introductory sessions mean that certain school routines are embedded quickly, but an appreciation of practice can happen too. I believe that practising classroom routines on the first day back was such a fundamental part of establishing the positive school atmosphere that we have at Dixons Kings. Far more useful than a school policy document, far more hands on than a powerpoint, practice works.

Practising in coaching

In our weekly coaching feedback meetings, there is often a chance to practise. This won’t necessarily always happen, but the opportunity can be taken. This is certainly the area where practice is not yet fully embedded, and we have a CPD session on Tuesday with coaches looking at this. As a coach, I have found that practice and rehearsal works well with all teachers, whatever their level of expertise and experience. I work with some excellent teachers and with them practice means that we can have a very precise focus and get it right. For example, one great teacher I have been working with has been focussing on her tone of voice during errors, experimenting to avoid a tone of disapproval while indicating that we must be fastidious in avoiding errors. Practice is great for this kind of thing.

On Tuesday we will be practising practising. I know that today Simon will be rehearsing his session, which means that he will be practising practising practising. And you don’t get more committed than that!

See also these two posts on practising in subject teams:

Subject specific practice

Practice: a collaborative approach to successfully tackling curriculum changes (written by my head of department)

Driving your own CPD

CPD1The drive to work is a nuisance that we would all rather do without. Instead of letting it become dead time, there are ways that your commute can become a productive way to develop teaching. Here are three ideas to use the car journey to get your CPD in gear. (Ok, that is the last pun, I promise.)

Practice and rehearsal

Teachers can improve by practice and rehearsal and the car is a great place to do this. We can practise explanations to ensure that what we say in class is precise and effective. We can think about and prepare responses for the lesson derailing comments that students typically make: “Can we have a fun lesson?”; “I was only talking about the work!”; “When am I ever going to need Shakespeare?” If you deliver training sessions, it helps to rehearse them. When you don’t practise them, like a recent presentation I delivered on threshold concepts, there can be unnecessary confusion. Another thing worth practising is the difficult conversation: with students, with parents and sometimes with colleagues. You might get some funny looks if caught in traffic, but you will get worse looks singing along to ABBA. See this post on Talking to Myself for more.

Audiobooks

If you feel that you never have enough time to read books, audiobooks are priceless. Before you know it, you will have listened to several books on the commute. I tend to choose books that I might not otherwise read in my free time such as those on leadership, organisation and history. My ‘reads’ this year have included Practice Perfect, Getting Things Done (both books I had already read and wanted to recap), The Advantage, Built on Values (both about values driven organisations), The Great Courses: Victorian Britain and Just Listen. All of these have been very useful but I’m not sure if I would have read them were it not for my drive to work. Get a free trial with Audible and give it a go.

Podcasts

While I am not ready to replace Shakespeare with Serial, as one English teacher did, I do love a good podcast. There are none that I listen to that are specifically about teaching, but there are many that focus on things that we often overlook in teacher development such as organisation, productivity, health and wellbeing. Beyond the To Do List, the 5am Miracle, Cool Tools and This is Your Life with Michael Hyatt are some that I have found useful. I also like Steal the Show, which offers advice on how to present to audiences. Podcasts are free, so you can experiment with a few. Mystery Show will do nothing to improve your teaching but you should listen to it anyway.

Not all CPD can take place in a car- don’t try and host a teachmeet in a Corsa.

I coach, therefore I learn

Weekly coaching observations are an important part of teacher development in our school- my colleague Emma Hickey has written about her experience of being coached here. These are obviously designed to help the teachers being coached but I am increasingly finding that coaching others helps my own development.

Upping my game

My teaching isn’t bad at all, but when I see another teacher doing something I don’t do or something I don’t do well enough, possibilities suddenly open up. On Friday I watched a History lesson where the teacher expertly used paired work, group work and hot-seating, things that are less common in my classroom but which worked brilliantly in his. On Wednesday and Friday I saw amazing-but contrasting- examples of in-class interventions from Maths and MFL teachers. I love when I see something that challenges me to be better- this post from Andrew Warner captures this joy of seeing a great lesson.

The process of giving advice often forces me to reflect on my own teaching. Sometimes when I suggest a way to improve, I could almost be giving myself the same advice. It can be easier to spot an area for development in someone else than notice it about your own teaching.

Improving the quality of CPD

It’s tough to get CPD right, but the more lessons that I see, particularly outside my own subject area, the more confident I am in designing sessions that are useful for everyone, and not just a few. There is generic advice around teaching which doesn’t apply to every subject so seeing lessons and discussing the nuances with others helps me to deliver better training. I have an English teacher’s approach to marking, not a music teacher’s. I have five lessons a week with year 10, not one. Every lesson is a chance for me to learn how another teacher’s experience differs from my own.

I can also see the impact of CPD. I don’t mean checking up and holding people to account, because that is far removed from how coaching should be. I mean whether it is effective enough. Largely, when we introduce something new, or suggest a way of doing things, teachers will do it. That’s a massive responsibility and if something that we say doesn’t work, or isn’t actually helpful, then it is good to see that and do something about it. It works the other way around too- I can see where our CPD has been very effective and then share examples of good practice.

Thinking deeply about teaching

I have more ‘lighbulb moments’ in other people’s lessons than my own. Sometimes, seeing several lessons across a week allows me to think about a particular aspect of teaching in a more than theoretical way. One of my favourite posts, The Space Between the Question and the Answer, was conceived in this way. I had been contemplating questioning and wait time then saw how various teachers went about this and the effect in their classrooms. Sometimes a single moment in a lesson will lead to a massive shift in understanding.

Seeing students in a different light

In one of my coaching observations I see a Maths class made up of many of the students that I teach. It’s fascinating to see a different dynamic at play. Much like when a student sees you in Asda and it blows their mind, seeing students you teach in a different context is an eye-opener. The quiet student who comes to life; the one whose behaviour is much better than it is in your lesson; the hidden world of student behaviours that you miss when you are not looking.

Making me more open to feedback

I am confident in my own teaching but there is a danger that confidence becomes arrogance, and arrogance becomes resistance to feedback. I’ve definitely been there. The culture that we have at DKA- and my own role as a coach- has helped me relish the feedback I receive. When I coach others, I don’t judge or look for problems, I just look for what might be the simplest way to improve. I know that my coach is thinking this too, so it helps me to relax. Each week my coach makes my brain hurt a little with her questions, which is exactly the way I want it.

I would recommend that all teachers get into other classrooms, even for five minutes a week. Those five minutes could make all the difference.

Subject specific practice

Last week I wrote about how we practised classroom routines on the very first day back at Dixons Kings Academy and the benefits are still clear two weeks in. But while whole school routines undoubtedly have value, they aren’t the only things worth practising. That is why we followed up that first practice session with one designed by individual departments.

Some departments chose to continue to develop routines unique to their settings, with Science looking at practical lesson routines and P.E. focusing on changing rooms. In English, we considered the teaching of structure in the new GCSE.

The MFL department focused on getting better at using target language and they invited me in to watch a follow up practice session this week. The session was designed by the Principal Teacher of MFL, Amy Evans, following the method designed by Simon Gayle, who leads on practice across school. It was a joy to witness and I thought it would serve as a good model to illustrate the key elements of practice.

Create an effective model

MFL PracticeThe model is crucial, because if you practise something that isn’t good enough, then you are getting better at the wrong thing. In this instance, the MFL department were looking at the language that they would use to manage lesson transitions, explanations of tasks and mini white board work.

While the pre-planned model was strong, the team identified some things they would still need to translate e.g. the best name for working in pairs. It wasn’t as simple as translating word for word because they needed to use cognates, words in the target language (in this case Spanish) which sound similar to their English counterparts. Often, with practice sessions, this discussion would occur after the model had been practised and suggested improvements come to light, but here it was an important part of ensuring that they were practising the right things in the first place.

Practise

Now that the model has been established, one teacher practises. They are the teacher and the others are the students. This is the part where purposeful practice might descend into horrible role-play if we let it. It definitely isn’t about pretending to be kids and acting in a childish manner- there is nothing more cringe-worthy than an adult pretending to be Kevin the Teenager (unless the adult is Harry Enfield). We should be experiencing something that is likely to occur in the classroom- the whole purpose of practise means to effectively rehearse for regular classroom situations. Of course it can never be exactly like a classroom but David Beckham didn’t practise free kicks because the practice was exactly like a game; he practised because when a free kick inevitably came up in a game, he was drilled in exactly what to do.

MFL4The teacher practising needs to try to eliminate self-consciousness, which I know is difficult for some. Once the first tentative steps are made, practising becomes easy and routine. The MFL team, with a shared purpose, were able to put this self-consciousness to one side so they could focus completely on making speaking in target language second nature.

MFL3Like any department, the MFL team has a range of teachers with different levels of experience and different areas of specialism. We have the experienced Head of Faculty still striving to improve their teaching, the Teach First participant developing their craft, the French specialist benefitting from practice in Spanish, the native Spanish speaker reflecting on a novice’s perspective. Well designed practice will have something for everyone.

Throw a spanner in the works

Each round of practice has a ‘spanner in the works’. We felt that an unpredictable element in practice sessions would be beneficial, and the ‘spanners’ are designed to ensure that. They should be about testing the model, rather than just throwing in something ridiculous like a bumblebee in the room (hay un abejorro en el aula). Two examples of ‘spanners’ for this practice session were:

‘Purposefully use the wrong gender when completing the Do Now activity for person 2.’

‘Use ‘me gusta’ + verb in the ‘I form’ e.g. ‘me gusta nado’ for person 3.’

Most of the time, teachers make mistakes practising anyway, so there are always plenty of spanners.

Give feedback

After the teacher has practised, somebody feeds back. Ideally, they then practise again following the feedback, although this isn’t always possible. In many cases, the one practising has already given their own feedback! It’s not unusual to see someone pop out of practice mode to reflect: ‘I wonder if it might be best to…’ or ‘Can I try that again because…’. It was great to see the MFL teachers do this because  this means that they can practise on their own, and can reflect quickly in a real classroom situation.

MFL2Feedback can and should be ‘nitpicky’. In this case, a mispronunciation or a grammatical error here and there needed to be picked up. If a ‘student’ makes an error, accidentally or on purpose, and the teacher didn’t spot it, it must be identified. Here, in this supportive environment, with a focus on a tiny sequence of teaching, the MFL teachers were getting the most helpful subject-specific feedback. Honestly, they won’t get this highly focused feedback from non-specialists.

I hope this is a clear portrayal of the habits and benefits of subject-specific practice. The team clearly value practice, because this actually took place in the time allocated for department meetings, and they had not been ‘directed’ to practise. All admin had been taken care of so they could concentrate solely on improving their teaching. If only all department meetings were like this.

 

 

 

 

Practising classroom routines

On Thursday I took a walk around the school during a lesson changeover. Students were walking out of lessons quietly and calmly, teachers were greeting their new classes as they arrived, and within 3 minutes work was taking place. Every lesson was different, but there was a consistency that meant that it was easy for students to learn. This wasn’t left to chance; it was the result of two hours of dedicated practice of classroom routines seven days earlier.

Our routines are so important, but when systems and routines are the sole preserve of the classroom teacher, we get inconsistency. And inconsistency is unfair. It’s especially unfair on the students, because they don’t know what to expect. Behaviour that is acceptable in one lesson suddenly merits a sanction in another lesson. It’s unfair on the experienced teacher who works tirelessly on developing their own classroom routines that are not followed elsewhere. It’s unfair on the new teacher, who needs to create classroom routines on top of the many many other things they must do. It’s unfair on the Teach First participant or the cover supervisor, who haven’t got the benefit of established routines.

So a school approach to classroom routines helps to ensure that consistency. At Dixons Kings Academy, we have tried to unpick the moments in lessons that could benefit from shared expectations and routines, from the habits for individual, paired and group work to the shared routines for mini whiteboard use. Yes, some elements are prescriptive – scripting of how we bring a class to silence for example- but these routines are designed to make it easier for teachers to teach the way that works best.

If we say a routine or expectation is important, then it can’t just be sent out in an email or relayed as a ‘policy’. It needs to be exemplified and practised, which is why we dedicated time to practising our entry and exit routines on our first day back. In addition to building consistency, practice shows us where we are going wrong (or where we might go wrong) and need to improve, but also helps reinforce what we are doing well, making us more confident and comfortable in the classroom.

We practised how teachers line students up, how they greet them, the way they bring them into the classroom, and complete the Do Now activity. We then practised how to end lessons (standing behind chairs in silence, teacher scanning the room to ensure that it is tidy, an orderly dismissal).

It’s a simple practice method. We share a model of what is expected, staff practise once through in groups of about six, receive feedback then repeat. Everyone practises, and everyone feeds back at least once. While the models that we practise are carefully considered, they are open to feedback, and practising will often identify the flaws, creating better models in future.

The group that I practised with had a couple of new members of staff. The practice was useful for them in internalising everything they had been told about- and as you might expect on the first day back- they had been told a lot. Think of that first lesson when students are sizing up their new teacher and the teacher starts the lesson just like the experienced senior leader. Immediately, the new teacher carries just a little more authority. For me, as someone who seems to forget completely how to teach by September, it was great to warm up. I won’t have my own classroom this year, so my entry and exit routines have become even more important. The practice session allowed me to consider things that I may have otherwise left to chance. For example, where do you stand at the end of the lesson? How do you move around the room? How do you dismiss classes from your classroom? How does this change in a completely different room? I don’t think that these are trivial questions at all.

There are more things to practise of course, and we won’t spend every session on the absolute basics, although we should never become complacent. With a relatively small amount of time spent on embedding simple whole school routines, we free teachers up to concentrate on the complex art of teaching.

Next week: how we practise in subjects.

Talking to myself

Teaching is a job where what we say matters. Our explanations, our questioning, our modelling, our interactions- they all rely on our talk being focussed and effective. We need clear explanations that bring students who know little about something closer to the level of experts and we need to often say just the right thing in just the right way to ensure that students respond in the way we need. We plan powerpoints, create beautiful resources, mark exhaustively, but nobody has ever asked me to practise what I’m going to say.

Over the last couple of years, I have started talking to myself. In the car, in my house, in my classroom. Here’s why.

Clarity of explanation

Above all, I think that we should practise our explanations. For example, this half term my students in year 10 are studying Romeo and Juliet and I recently taught a lesson which was just me and a visualiser. I explained, discussed, questioned and the students and I annotated. Act 3 Scene 1 is a scene most English teachers know well and I am no exception, so I certainly could have winged it. Instead, as part of my preparation, I practised what I was going to do and what I was going to say. I literally sat at my desk at home, annotated the scene and explained it as I would have explained it to students.

This rehearsal allowed me to do a number of things. It meant that I would not be blindsided by phrases such as ‘alla staccato carries it away’ and I could think of my discussion of the tricky layers of meanings of words like ‘consort’ and avoid saying things that I would have to clarify later. It meant that we could focus on Romeo’s response to loss, the essay topic, and avoid too many tangents (I just can’t manage no tangents). Instead of my questions being improvised, I knew exactly where I would ask which questions to which students.

Now, we cannot reasonably be expected to do this for every single part of every single lesson but I know that my students’ understanding of this scene is far stronger than if I had not rehearsed. Most of my practising takes place in the car on the way to work anyway, making the most of that ‘dead time’, so does not add extra hours to my busy day.

Sometimes they call you Sheamus- or is that just me?

Sometimes they call you ‘Sheamus’- or is that just me?

Be prepared

I do love the unpredictable nature of students (mostly), but there are things that they say again and again. Sometimes I see teachers who have the perfect response to certain behaviours and comments and I wish I was as quick. Except, I don’t have to be quick-witted enough to come up with the perfect response in the moment– I can script it and practise it in advance.

So what are the things that students always say?

“Can we have a fun lesson?”

“I wish we still had Miss…”

“This is boring.”

“Other teachers let us…”

“What do we have to do again?”

“I don’t get it.”

I’m sure that list could go on. If we don’t practise responses, we have to rely on conjuring up the perfect comeback or reply instantly. And if we don’t deescalate these things, they can build up and destroy lessons. I have polished how I reply to “Can we have a fun lesson?” to such a fine art that we can always quickly move on.

It isn’t just what they say. It could be dealing effectively with a late student or someone swinging on a chair. Dare I say it, we might even admit that sometimes behaviour across the class is not acceptable and they need a stern reminder. Practising this is not saying that we want it to happen, or that telling off a class is something great, but that if it has to happen we don’t need to be angry and frustrated, making things worse with an improvised speech.

Training sessions

When I deliver a training session to staff, I like to rehearse it at least once as it makes me familiar with the material. My main reason for saying the thing out loud is it often forces me to consider how what I say is received and allows me to explore whether what I am saying is, well, nonsense. We can often write eduspeak and add received wisdom into what we say. Sometimes I catch myself saying something that I don’t actually think or couldn’t justify.  And there is also the unfortunate business of that extra bullet point on a list that you had forgotten about…

Difficult conversations

Sometimes a difficult conversation needs to be had. There’s nothing worse than addressing a legitimate concern but phrasing it wrong or waffling on to another topic. Before you know it, the conversation is no longer about the one thing that it probably needs to be about. Whether this is with a colleague, a student or a parent, a little bit of practice beforehand will ultimately help the conversation to go where it needs to.

When I attended Teach Like a Champion training in October, these principles of practising talk were clarified and focussed for me. Teaching is a profession where saying the right thing is crucial. From our lessons to our meetings, our training sessions to our calls to parents, talking is teaching. So why leave it all to chance?

Further reading:

Michael Slavinsky’s write up of the first TLAC training day explores similar ideas: Uncommon Schools Training – practising to perform

Julie Ryder discusses the same training here: Teach Like a Champion Part 2: Training the Trainers

 

Better teachers of our subjects

What makes a good teacher?

Teachers should have good subject knowledge, but anyone who saw David Starkey on Jamie’s Dream School knows that it isn’t enough. Teachers should have good knowledge of pedagogy, but you wouldn’t want me teaching German. Is good teaching just a sum of these two things? Subject knowledge + pedagogy? Not quite. Effective teaching is an understanding of the way that these two combine very specifically in our subject areas.

What makes your subject unique?

In the Venn diagram of subjects, the areas of crossover are quite small. Yet we spend much of our time in school CPD sessions designed to fit around all subjects when this may have little impact. That’s why we have to focus on pedagogical content knowledge– how to teach our subjects well.

Let’s start with behaviour management as an example (This is obviously not about teaching subject content but good behaviour is crucial for good teaching). There are certainly a number of useful strategies that can be shared with everyone. We know that there are ways of using language, certain routines and habits which tend to work in all subjects. However, there are very subject specific issues which can only be addressed by those subject areas. Students in music practice booths. The Wild West of P.E. changing rooms. The moment a student in Science discovers that pulling on goggles makes them hit the face with a satisfying ‘whack’. These are highly specific to each subject area so time should be spent with those departments working on those areas.

Another example. For many years, a typical training session in schools might be designed around ways to identify misconceptions. I’ve delivered them myself. Ways to check on whole class understanding such as using mini whiteboards and hinge questions. But it isn’t just about the methods we use to check for understanding but the depth of knowledge about the types of misconceptions students might have and how best to identify them. The Sutton Trust report into good teaching stated the following on this topic:

As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.

Spending time on these aspects will be where the greatest gains are, rather than looking at a hundred ways to identify them. For a great example of a subject teacher doing just this, have a look at Harry Fletcher-Wood’s extensive work on hinge questions in History.

And the list goes on. Feedback. Explanations. Modelling. All unique. Literacy is especially problematic and can lend itself to whole school initiatives that never really have a chance of working because of the different ways that subjects work. Of course there are some things which can be communicated as good practice and getting the whole staff body together can be the most effective way to do it, but time for staff to explore subject implications should always be built in.

Department meetings are a place where this can happen too. The best subject areas are the ones who remove as much admin as possible from their meetings and concentrate on teaching. But subject teams do not always have control of how often they meet and there can often be competing focuses.

Leaders need to know subjects

To support teachers in developing their ability to teach their subjects well, leaders need to develop a clearer understanding of what effective teaching is in every subject. I am seeing a greater number of lessons at the moment in a number of subjects and I find it fairly straightforward to give feedback on general pedagogy but there are some aspects where I am simply not an expert. For example, I have observed a number of science lessons this year. I have tried to familiarise myself with what makes good practice in Science, but I would be unlikely to notice if a basic error in terms of subject knowledge was made. While I feel that I know a little about Mathematics, I would struggle to tell you if a concept had been explained properly and understood. Whereas in an English lesson, I’d be very confident in providing highly developmental feedback because I know the subject very well.

How can leaders develop at least a working knowledge of subjects? I’d recommend reading Ofsted’s subsidiary guidance for each subject as a useful starting point. Not to use as a ticklist, but to get a sense of the kinds of things that might make the subject unique. There are often more detailed subject reports like ‘Moving English Forward’ and ‘Music in schools: wider still, and wider’, where the following is found:

Promote teachers’ use of musical sound as the dominant language of musical teaching and learning by:

–       ensuring that lesson planning includes a strong focus on the teacher’s musical preparation as well as defining lesson structures and procedures

–       establishing musical sound as the ‘target language’ of teaching and learning, with talking and writing about music supporting, rather than driving, the development of pupils’ musical understanding

–       developing and refining teachers’ listening and musical modelling skills, so that they can more accurately interpret and respond to pupils’ music-making and show more effectively how to improve the musical quality of their work.

This won’t make up for my lack of musical knowledge but it will give me a start in understanding a key part of excellent music lessons. The next stage is to listen to the experts- the music teachers. When Ofsted say, ‘establish.. musical sound as the target language of teaching’, we need to work with music teachers in our schools to understand what that means in the classroom. If we don’t know then we can give feedback which is inaccurate and unhelpful- and potentially harmful.

Paired observations with subject experts and meetings with relevant teachers before seeing them teach will help to make the process easier and help us with what we need to know. We need to know that students in P.E. might do well in the half term on badminton but regress when they are assessed in gymnastics (I did!). We need to be aware that ‘target language’ is crucial in MFL. We need to consider that an R.E. teacher may see 20 different classes in a week. We need to know that progress in one subject is different from another nationally. And so on.

I’m not dismissing the need to look at general pedagogy but I feel that I have become a better teacher in recent years by trying to become a better English teacher and the greater focus we place on subject expertise, the better.

Why we should all volunteer to lead training

Leading training is one of the best ways of developing your own practice.

I remember the first time I contributed to a whole school training session.  It was several years ago and the subject was literacy across the curriculum.  I was given 10 minutes to show a literacy booklet we were using in English.  Who knows what I said because it was the most difficult thing I had ever had to do and I expect it was a bit dull.  I would love to say that my booklet had a profound impact on the practice in the school.  But it didn’t.  In fact, we stopped using it in English shortly afterwards.  However, I do remember a colleague who came up to me afterwards and thanked me as they were going to take some of the ideas into their department.

A year or two later, I was working in our team of ‘advanced skills practitioners’.  I was allocated ‘written feedback’ as my topic to teach on an AFL carousel training session.  I introduced to staff the concept of comments only feedback and the session was received well.  Consequently, I was considered a bit of an expert on written feedback and this led me to do lots of work with colleagues around feedback.  I learned as much from them as they did from me.  Over the last few years, I have delivered regular training sessions on written feedback to our NQTs and to other staff when appropriate.  Each time I set out to improve on the previous session and each time I find more useful ideas to share.  I have also delivered many, many more on a range of topics in a range of contexts.

What I have learnt from this is that leading a training session is actually the best CPD for the person delivering the session.  In order to stand in a position of expertise, you have to make sure that your practice is carefully honed and that you are ready to respond to questions (from the enthusiasts and the cynics!).  I am fortunate that training teachers is part of my job but even if it is not part of yours, there are so many ways to get involved in delivering training.  Lead an item in your department meeting, go to a Teachmeet, write a blog, Tweet.  Or just go to the headteacher and ask to lead a training session.

Here are my thoughts on delivering training sessions and how they help my own practice:

Start with why (back to this old chestnut again!)

Often, the need to cover something whole-school comes from Ofsted or our own evidence base of learning walks, observations and teacher feedback.  This may be the start, but for a session to be truly meaningful there needs to be a real reason why something is important.  Therefore every session needs to have a focus on how the ‘thing’ benefits learning.  It isn’t okay to say ‘Ofsted want to see good displays’ but it is okay to say ‘These are the reasons why high quality displays can improve learning in your classroom…and Ofsted will be pretty impressed with them for those reasons.’  If I am not convinced that there is any point, then surely there is a better way of spending our precious time.  Sometimes preparing this part draws my own practice fully into focus.  For example, classroom displays were pretty low on my agenda until I was asked to deliver training on them in my department.  Now I am utterly convinced of the value of a good display. 

Show, don’t tell

Wherever possible, bring real world examples into the session of teachers doing what you are talking about and students benefitting from it.  Don’t make this about imaginary students.  This helps to eliminate the ‘it won’t work with our kids’ nonsense that you sometimes hear.  In my session last week, I used an example from a student’s book of him acting on feedback.  Instead of talking about an ideal pupil, we were talking about a student we all knew.  It wasn’t a perfect example either.  He had acted on one target but not attempted the other.  This was actually more helpful in the training session than a perfect example. (His was the fifth book I had looked at from my class and the first few had not acted on their targets at all. ) This really helped me to look at how I monitor that students are acting in their targets.  Also, if I can’t find any examples which are good enough in my own work then I have to question whether the strategy I am about to share is actually worthwhile. 

Give teachers time to talk

I may be an experienced teacher, but there are always people in the room who know more about any given topic than I do.  There are NQTs who learnt something fantastic in their placement school.  There are teaching assistants who saw a Maths teacher use something that they think the English teachers could use.  I think it is really important to give time to teachers to reflect and share as I know that I learn loads from these chances to chat in training sessions.  Whether this is simply ‘5 minutes to talk about it’ or an activity like a diamond 9, these are the parts of the training that can sometimes offer up the most powerful ideas.  In a school where learning conversations like this are the norm, everyone learns from each other.  While I may not benefit from each conversation in the room then and there, you can bet that the best ideas will become ‘viral’.  

Plan follow ups

If you leave the topic there, then some teachers will use the ideas but many won’t.  Teachers still have to find time to build things into their practice and to change habits.  One training session won’t always do it.  Have time in the session to plan the follow ups and allow time in further training sessions to build on what has already been achieved.  As the leader of a session, the follow up is twofold.  One is in giving support to help others develop their practice and the other is in applying all the new ideas discovered in preparing/ leading the session.  It is often the case that the more I find out about a topic, the more I realise that I have miles to go before I get it right. So the follow up is as much about looking at your own practice as everybody else’s.

Seek feedback

If you are leading training, you really need some feedback on it.  Obviously, the monitoring and evaluation will allow you to see the impact over time butit is always worth seeking feedback on the sessions themselves.  Sometimes, I will just ask a trusted colleague who tells it like it is.  Other times, I will ask for more formal feedback.  Getting this feedback can be tough when it isn’t positive but if that helps you improve, why wouldn’t you want the feedback?  In response to comments made by NQTs in their written feedback training, we adapted our whole school training on the same subject later in the year.  Someone told me bluntly once that one of my training sessions was pretty much just me reading a PowerPoint out loud and she could have read it in 5 minutes.  Ouch!  But I won’t make that mistake again.