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)

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.

Personalised CPD

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how we practised classroom routines at DKA in order to ensure consistency. With similar behaviours and routines used across the school, it is just much easier to teach. Does this mean that everyone is expected to teach in an identical way, or that individual needs are not important? Of course not.

That is why the CPD programme that we have developed is not built solely around the school’s development needs, but with the individual teacher in mind. It is incredibly difficult to make CPD highly personalised, but I believe that we have a system that works, where every single teacher in the school gets the specific personal development that they need. Here’s what we do.

Low stakes coaching observations

This is the most important professional development that happens in our school. Every teacher-from the principal to the cover supervisor- has a weekly coaching observation which is followed up by a coaching meeting. Each probably lasts for about 15 minutes. The idea is to focus on just one small feature which can have a large impact. Paul Bambrick-Santoyo writes about this in Leverage Leadership:

No single small step will dramatically change a classroom in and of itself. Multiple small changes, though, implemented week after week, add up to extraordinary change.

The low stakes, supportive nature of this is crucial in it being used as a development tool- nobody needs to worry about judgement or grading. Coaching meetings will often include some practice, so improvements can be embedded.

Emma Hickey, head of MFL at Dixons Kings Academy, has written about the benefits of coaching here and Harry Fletcher-Wood has an excellent series of posts which explore leverage observations at length.

Differentiated CPD sessions

In addition to coaching, we still have a version of what you might call ‘traditional’ CPD. The traditional model is not particularly effective, because delivering the same training to all staff can mean that nobody really gets exactly what they need, so in our CPD model every member of staff participates in one CPD session per week, but not everyone is in the same one. Tuesday is for heads of department, heads of year and principal teachers, and often has a focus on the leadership of teaching and learning in the school. The other session, for the rest of the teaching staff, is on a Monday. The CPD will often focus on the same topic but from slightly different perspectives. Here is an extract from our plan:

Personalisation 1Of course, just because someone is a head of department, it doesn’t mean that they don’t need to focus on improving teaching too. And just because someone isn’t in a leadership position, it doesn’t mean that they are less experienced. So, even within this model, we need to be conscious of the fact that there are wide differences between teachers. This is why we will have more than one session every Monday and many Tuesdays. These sessions will be created based on what we learn from staff voice, coaching etc as the term goes on. We also have induction sessions for new staff and weekly Teach First sessions, plus meetings of steering groups such as department literacy reps in the example above.

CPD session design

Having noted all of this, it is still difficult- if not impossible- to pitch a session just right so that everyone gets exactly what they need. You could have just two people in a session and not be able to pitch it right. That’s why we always ask- what’s in it for everyone? One of the best ways that this can be done is to allow staff to reflect, to plan, and to consider what they will do for their own classes. For example, this week we looked at some strategies to help with behaviour management. Time was given for staff to plan exactly which strategies would work best with particular students, even scripting what they might say to specific students to get them back on track. The previous week, after a brief presentation on differentiation and feedback, teachers were given most of the session to plan. (They were also able to leave if they wanted to work elsewhere.) This means that teachers are getting something which directly impacts on their classes.

Subject pedagogy

We have also increased the number of departmental meetings so teachers can focus on improving their pedagogical content knowledge. The Sutton Trust ‘What Makes Great Teaching’ report said that “the most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach”, and we place high value on teachers getting better at teaching their subject. While it is useful to improve in more general aspects of teaching, we can’t do a whole staff training session on how best to teach Shakespeare, which is what an English teacher might need. (Well, I will if the principal lets me). In this post on subject-specific practice, I wrote about how MFL used their meeting to practice speaking in the target language.

It isn’t easy to get CPD right for everyone, and we won’t always manage it, but the pace of improvement when you build a school culture around individual teacher development is incredible.

How and why we reflect

Whilst it may sometimes seem that we are under constant scrutiny as teachers, the reality is that for a significant amount of time we are left to get on with it.  We don’t receive regular feedback on our lessons (except from the students) for long periods.  Often, when we do receive feedback, it is in a particular context e.g. a lesson observation or a learning walk with a specific focus.  In fact, we are the regular ‘observers’ of our day to day lessons.  It is the feedback that we give to ourselves that is the primary way we can develop our practice.

Much has been made of the ‘10,000 hour rule’ which suggests that this is the amount of time it takes to become masterful at something.  However, this relates to purposeful practice rather than just time doing something.  Otherwise, we would just teach for 10 years and then all be expert teachers.  In order to use our everyday experience to improve we must make it purposeful and that is where focused reflection comes in. If we are reflective practitioners, then every single lesson becomes a point of development.  Everything that goes well becomes another powerful tool in your toolbox and every negative experience is actually a positive one in that it propels you into further improvement.

These are my rules for purposeful reflection:

Be clear about your core purpose: We do all of this because we want to ensure that the students we teach learn.  Whatever we do has to go towards that- otherwise what is the point?  Don’t get into the habit of reflecting solely on ‘what Ofsted want’ or ‘what SLT need to see’- make it about ensuring students learn things.

Be honest: Don’t kid yourself.  There is no point in reflecting on your practice if you don’t want to admit where it could be improved.  This goes for people afraid to admit a mistake or even those embarrassed to say that they are actually very good at something.

Be open: There are different ways of doing things.  You need to be open to suggestions on things you might change.  This can be difficult when certain methods have worked in the past or work with your other classes.

Be confident: There is a danger of the reflective practitioner becoming the doubting practitioner.  You know that you do everything to the best of your ability and being reflective is not the same as being critical- it is a strength to acknowledge when to do things differently.  Also, we need to develop the outstanding elements of our practice as much as anything.  Dylan Wiliam states that ‘…the greatest benefits to students are likely to come from teachers becoming more expert in their strengths.’

There follows an exploration of some of the ways you can develop your ability to reflect purposefully:


Filming yourself is one of the most powerful methods of reflecting on your practice. Seeing yourself as others see you can be difficult but also very helpful.  If you watch a video of yourself with a clear focus you can pick up on all sorts of things.  I filmed myself recently and was struck by my body language with a challenging class.  It was interesting to see how different my posture, movement and expression were in this lesson compared to another class where I was smiling, moving around the room etc.  Again, this isn’t just about negative things- the first lesson with my year 8 class this year was a textbook example of how to set the tone with a new class and I can use this video to remind myself of how to deliver a positive lesson and the techniques that I used to good effect there.  You can use a bog standard camera or a more complex system like IRIS Connect.


Another way to develop reflective practice is to find a coaching partner.  This really needs to be someone that you trust.  They don’t have to be an expert in the area you want to reflect on because this isn’t asking for advice- their job is to listen and keep it purposeful.  If you have a particular issue, you talk to them about it.  A good coach will ask the killer question and get to what this is really about.  Sometimes they don’t even need to as the process of articulating your thoughts allows you to approach the problem in a different way.

The GROW model is a suggested framework for this:

G: Goal- what do you want to achieve?

R: Reality- describe the reality of the situation you are in.  What are the barriers to you achieving the goal?

O: Options- explore a variety of different options.

W: Will- what will you do?

This is just one way of doing it.  In practice, once you have a few formal conversations following this method you know how it works and it becomes a little less rigid.  The key is for the coach to listen.  Often, that is all you need to get the issue sorted.  This will also work well for self coaching.

Triads/ Professional learning communities/ Call them what you want! 

We have coaching triads in our school.  We are given time in whole school training to meet and plan.  The fact that we are peers and no one line manages anyone or has any other agenda means that the dialogue is safe and helpful.  In one instance, we watched a video of my teaching and my colleagues had some great advice to help me.  One of them suggested something so simple that I had not thought of to manage the behaviour of my class but which helped me no end.  If you don’t have anything like this set up then form a triad yourself.

On top of this, there are all sorts of informal learning communities in a school.  5 minutes of discussion with a couple of colleagues can often be a great way of reflecting.  For whatever you wish to develop, there will be someone in your school who is an expert and who could support you.


I enjoy writing this blog.  Once I click ‘publish’, my ideas and thoughts become solid and voiced so I have to reflect on what I truly believe and know about teaching.  Blogging has been useful to summarise my thoughts after training sessions I have attended or before sessions I have delivered.  Sometimes I set out to do a ‘how to’ guide like this and am reminded by all the things that I used to do or which I have never tried.  The blog is as much about developing my practice as sharing it.

If blogging doesn’t feel like the right approach to you, then you could find another way to reflect and share.  You could tweet your reflections or even volunteer to lead a training session.


We have a lot of data nowadays as teachers.  I don’t think we use it well enough.  Since I discovered how to use pivot tables in Excel, I’ve looked at my data a lot as I can organise it easily.  For example, when analysing behaviour data for my classes, I noticed that one group had significantly more consequences on one particular lesson.  That made me consider the fact that this was a lesson which I arrived in after teaching in another classroom away from my normal base. I was taking a few minutes to set up, hand books out etc.  An awareness of this led to a tiny change of practice and now that lesson runs smoothly.

Reflecting on students’ work

I do a great deal of my reflecting as I mark books.  You can teach a lesson but students don’t get it.  They may well have enjoyed a lesson but learnt nothing or you may have work which seemed to be brilliant as they completed it in class but misses the point.  Your job as you mark is to reflect on what they actually learnt and whether your methods of teaching were effective.  Again, this isn’t about looking at the negative things- sometimes it is about realising that they learnt a great deal when you did x but not when you did y.

360 degree feedback

One of the most interesting experiences for me was getting 360 degree feedback.  As part of a middle leadership course, I asked for feedback from a number of colleagues.  It could be quite difficult reading anonymous feedback from colleagues but it was fascinating to see how other peoples’ perception of me differed from my own perception.  The reflection part is in acknowledging the degrees with which this perception reflects the reality.  I won’t go into details here but I did receive some feedback which helped me to build better relationships with my colleagues around issues which I had no idea were issues.  You might also include student voice in that feedback too.

You need not even go to any of these lengths.  Sometimes all it takes is a 5 minute reflection on your day in the car on the way home- whatever works.

The same but different

As a mentor of an NQT, I was looking to support her with her lesson.  She observed me teaching a lesson with my year 8 group and she delivered a very similar lesson to her year 7 group.

Although this was initially designed to be me team-teaching/ coaching to help improve her practice, I quickly realised that I was picking up tips on how to improve my own teaching.  There were lots of moments where a different spin illuminated an aspect of the lesson that was lacking in my own lesson.

For example, part of my starter activity involved pupils placing post-it notes with their answers on the board.  I then sorted these post-it notes into an order on the board, describing what I was doing and why.  She asked two pupils to sort them and explain why.  It was a tweak that brought that bit more to the lesson. The questioning in the class was also much better than in my lesson.  Pupils were required to  think for longer, to discuss and to feedback.   Actually, I probably don’t mean ‘better’ here,  rather it was different to how I approached it.  I am definitely a teacher who is reflective, but I still have certain entrenched methods which have served me well- but they are not the only  methods.

So many different factors affected the delivery of the same lesson too: the time of day, the room, the make-up of the class so much so that a lesson which was, essentially, exactly the same as mine was in fact quite different.

The less formal approach to this ensured that the experience was different to the norm.  I have undertaken many observations in my time and I know that once you place a judgement on a whole lesson, you then place absolutes on what is good and what is not.  If I had gone into this lesson and judged it, the process would have been nowhere near as revelatory.  I would have been ticking, and notetaking, and checking to see if certain boxes were ticked.   My feedback would have been centred around what would have made it a better lesson observation and not necessarily what would have made it a better lesson. For example, pupils were incredibly engaged with their writing.  The teacher let them continue and scrapped a plenary at the end.  I knew that the start of the next lesson will perform a similar function so I didn’t think anyone needed to panic.

Before I meander off on any number of tangents, I’ll bring the topic back to the initial idea.  In the next few weeks I will be creating more opportunities for this kind of paired experience and will be encouraging teachers to plan and teach lessons together.  I will also make time  to observe my colleagues and learn as much as I can.