01 November 2021

The Monday Briefing: Butterflies

The Monday Briefing: Butterflies

During the summer term, the College underwent a review of the last academic year. This entailed an audit of how far we had satisfied our three priorities: the expansion of Student Voice and Leadership within and beyond the classroom; establishment of an enrichment programme which empowers students to develop new skills, offering guided pathways to success; and an enhanced investment in continuing professional development for staff, encouraging excellence in lesson delivery, enrichment and wellbeing.

Some aspects of these goals were curtailed by the debilitating nature of the pandemic, particularly in terms of our enrichment programme which had to find new ways and means online. Despite its enjoyment and inclusiveness, internet chess did not quite cut it as an all-encompassing extra-curricular provision. We are getting more ‘back to normal’ in this sense, with football, running, Model UN, film club, engineering and programming activities coming to the fore. This target has remained for this year, and we must look to make our offering for all year groups as comprehensive as possible.

Student Voice is certainly a different beast now at the College. A truly responsible leadership team of Head Boy and Girl, along with their deputies and wider prefect team can now effect change. The impressive Distinct magazine showcases their talent with an exciting new edition on the way soon, and the worthwhile charity initiatives carried out so far: provisions for the local Food Bank and a spooky Halloween tales fundraiser have exhibited their generous spirit. They have also embedded the tremendous student mentor scheme which has undoubtedly accelerated the settling in process for many of our new students. This target was fulfilled. Of course, we will continue to promote opportunities for student leadership, but we must also recognise that the progress made has created strong momentum.

The area from the last academic year which has demanded a rethink is in professional development for staff. This has been a hot topic throughout my time in education. With the ineffectiveness of several government attempts to increase teacher numbers, and Covid having pushed many teachers to the decision of seeking a new career direction, CPD, and so, the importance of retention, need to be treated as more than the afterthought it was when I first qualified in 2004.

I’ve read some excellent pieces of research on the subject: The CPD Curriculum by Mark and Zoe Enser; Putting Staff First by John Tomsett and Jonny Uttley; 60 Second CPD by Hannah Beech and Ross Morrison McGill. All of these books have provoked extensive thought on how we can implement a model which fits best us at the College. It struck me that we need to make the offer which we provide on a daily basis for our students similar to that which we should also seek to supply for staff. If the College vision is to ‘Empower students to progress within a supportive environment,’ then that should also be the offering for staff here.

CPD has always been quite staid in my experience. A few ideas which have emerged following observations, book scrutinies and learning walks. These have often prompted appraisals where performance is linked to statistical data derived from exam performance. None of these time consuming methods of tracking seemed to be making a clear difference to teacher efficacy, certainly at the College, whilst also adding layers of stress, in turn undermining staff happiness.

We have worked intensively since the start of the year to change that perception. When I became Principal, I was utterly convinced of the need for a timetabled CPD session, something the College had never had before. This has now been rescheduled to Wednesday afternoons to provide maximum productivity, and arranged to dovetail with a programme of staff wellbeing which enables time for a break: to unwind in the company of fellow staff; to destress in the College environment; to find time to reflect and converse with like-minded individuals during a busy working week.

Ensuring that this time is used well requires focus, and this has taken the form of a new staff-student charter. The aforementioned student leadership team were consulted on creating ‘the seven aspects of excellent teaching at Ealing’ - a document set up to accompany directions for students in which to inform their pursuit of the highest effort grades for our tracking system, Months Marks. They identified some thought provoking criteria based around the following guidelines: the highest levels of subject knowledge and planning; enthusiasm and interest in the classroom; effective communication and a positive approach; providing an active, engaging and relevant experience; regular questioning and interactivity within a lesson; a balanced workload for success; and marking and feedback to aid improvement.

This is measured each half term. Not in an observation, or a work scrutiny, or in a learning walk, but in a full and frank survey carried out by the learners in each class. They grade according to what they feel the performance of the member of staff amounts to, and, crucially, supply comments praising, where pertinent, or respectfully offering areas for development. This approach allows the students to consider whether they feel they are being supported to their liking, and enables teachers to receive candid feedback in a direct manner. This approach obviously requires an incredibly high level of trust between staff and students - and this is something which the College prides itself on.

Not all feedback will be valuable, and staff will have to be selective regarding how they identify areas for improvement, but I feel that such an approach can bring out the quickest and most effective ‘bounce’ in their performance. The key to such an approach is to link it to appraisal in a way which empowers staff to make the best of it - not to be judged by it, but to use the information to seek new ways in which to fulfil their potential so that students have a better chance of fulfilling theirs. The approach is a low-stakes by high yield one, and a key aspect of our appraisal policy is that the classroom based target for every teacher in the College is to ‘utilise the findings of the surveys within the staff-student charter to identify and implement improvements within a self-led project.’ I want staff to feel empowered to find the best way to work on the areas which they feel need most attention. The use of a Swivl camera to ‘observe’ themselves and then discuss this with fellow colleagues will make finding the answers less pressured and more effective. I envisage a Monday Night Football style post-match analysis, but focusing on teaching and learning rather than offside traps, VAR or tactical blunders.

This approach - placing a greater emphasis on student voice to inform how our teachers develop as a starting point - is a unique one in terms of my prior experience of how it is organised. It ensures that a key College priority from last year remains embedded. However, this is also a fairly risky strategy: less secure teachers could take comments personally; less engaged students could see it as a chance to undermine staff efforts; insufficient levels of focus and review could lead to confused self-led projects. 

But I want staff here to be empowered to find their own way - and I want students here to help them identify that path. The emphasis will not be on passing judgement or on finding fault, but rather it will be on locating the areas which would most benefit for attention. It requires staff to ‘put themselves out there’ and show courage - but little was ever achieved without such an approach.

Since he walked the length of the Nile, I’ve followed the inspirational exploits of modern day explorer Levison Wood. He has accomplished some incredible feats beyond even his journey following the longest river in the world: walking the length of the Himalayan mountain range; hiking from Mexico to Columbia; following a 650-mile migration of elephants across Botswana. He also talks a great deal of sense, particularly around the importance of pushing and challenging oneself to greater heights. I am in full agreement with his assertion that “Without risk, there is no growth or reward. It’s time we stopped worrying about what can go wrong and started concentrating on what can go right. Because risks are part of life, and essential for us to develop and learn.”

We also have to be prepared to work through the hesitancy such scrutiny brings. Trepidation can come from all sides - one student told me that he felt awkward explaining his thoughts as he didn’t want to offend staff - but if advancement is the result, then the awkwardness of the situation will quickly be forgotten. The bigger picture must be kept in mind. 

A Chinese proverb details such a quandary: “He who deliberates fully before taking a step will spend his entire life on one leg.” I want the College, and everyone connected with it, to move forward, apace, single mindedly in pursuit of progress. Taking such measures in inviting transparency of communication between staff and students in an environment of trust is a key aspect of that.

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