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19 April 2021

The Monday Briefing: I (Don't) Want To Hold Your Hand

The Monday Briefing: I (Dont) Want To Hold Your Hand

In the week before the Easter break, I was part of a panel holding interviews with two tremendous candidates for a teaching post. Staff turnover, in recent years, is low at the College with only one member of staff having moved in the summer of 2020. We expect similar levels of retention this year. It’s always good to welcome new members of staff to the team, however: new teachers bring new ideas; they add a sense of freshness to the College and with it impetus. Both applicants came armed with extensive lesson plans and a range of well-compiled resources for their lessons. Seeing these detailed documents instantly took me back to the early years of my teaching career, and having to fill in exhaustive sheets explaining the multitude of lesson objectives and learning styles I was going to deliver, as best I could, to the students under my tutelage.

I was raised as a teacher who was told that every lesson needed to be in three parts (starter, main and plenary), had to be extensively differentiated to the top, middle and bottom cohorts of learners by objective (all, most, some) and by task. I also had to ensure that parts of the lesson catered for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners. Throw in expectations that literacy and numeracy skills should be sharpened somewhere in the all action performance, and then accompany it with a colour coded seating plan intricately explaining where each student fits into the masterpiece, and the implicit expectation that this should happen every lesson, and a teacher could be confused with a magician. One can understand why many leave the profession in the first few years - this momentous undertaking does not even consider the behavioural issues which often derail such planning, and the pile of marking which comes from it. An excellently written article written by Ross Morrison McGill reveals the scale of the changing landscape of expectations entitled ‘25 Years of Teaching Fads and Bad Educational Science’. Learning your craft as a first year or newly qualified teacher is far from easy. Initiatives and strategies busily vie for attention of the panicked rookie.

At the College, I have made it clear to all staff that I would hate them to feel ‘straightjacketed’ by these expectations. American novelist Edith Wharton famously said that ‘monotony is the mother of all the deadly sins’, and I’d have to agree. Such rigidity can sap creativity, and leave someone previously enamored with the job soon despising it. Such a regimented plan for lesson delivery, I have no doubt, leads not only to bored staff, but also to bored children, who surely can’t be excited on such a diet of overwhelming stodge and predictability. Far more vital in enthusing students is teacher freedom and confidence in their abilities to get their message across. Yes - guidelines should be in place, but they must be few, and, critically, student focused in their deployment. The College embeds such guidelines clearly and concisely to avoid such overcrowding within lessons, and ‘hand holding’ staff to ensure they follow an ‘airfix’ kit approach will never be part of that.

We ask four simple questions of staff:

Are students being exposed to the right levels of challenge within their lessons?

Are students taking ownership of their own progress, independently striving for improvement?

Is there sufficient dialogue in the learning relationship, both verbal and within marking?

Is engagement clearly abundant, with all learners participating in the class?

We’re happy to support this strategy, not simply because we are part of Bellevue Education, from which it was introduced, but as it makes absolute sense for all learners in all lessons, from key stage one to key stage five. It embeds a thirst for learning and growth, empowerment, confidence, transparency and ambition, where effort is rewarded and improvement celebrated.

In line with the appetite for a simple approach, I saw a superb tweet thread created by Richard Spencer, an Executive Principal with Cambridge Meridian Academies Trust. Setting out his key findings from ten years of leading teaching and learning. Finding a way to concentrate his guidance, he explained an extremely useful guide for managing the academic practices of a school. Summarised below, I was pleased to reflect on them with Ealing Independent College in mind. There are always areas to develop, but they will continue to inspire how we approach teaching and learning at the College:

- Encourage staff to prioritise the development of subject knowledge, whilst extolling the virtues of working together to share best practice in delivering it.

- Whole school priorities are an excellent driver of improvement, in bringing the team together to reach shared goals.

-  Empower staff to take on additional responsibilities, which enhance and showcase their skills and energies.

- Base all teaching and learning development through student eyes, discussing with them what they feel is aiding their development most.

-  Gimmicks and one-off insets rarely make a long-term difference. Focus more on the regular and consistent implementation of shared strategies.

- Work to embed trust and collaboration at the heart of everything - from appraisal targets to sharing expertise and offering advice.

-  Accept that nothing is perfect and that mistakes happen. Bad lessons and mistakes should be discussed in a climate of candour, with improvement always remaining the focus.

- Coaching, where highly effective, leads to improvement for everyone involved as long as it is transparent and based on trust.

- Inclusion should never be an after-thought - it should be everyone’s responsibility to build bridges and support learners, finding the best ways to support particular needs.

- Share everything you can - and show that your agency makes a real difference. Be rightly proud to show when hard work pays off.

In many ways, the last point helps to explain why I am such a keen blogger when it comes to the College. I am very proud of what we do. I know that I work in a special place, with special students and special colleagues. I know that the whole community, under my leadership, is at the beginning of our journey which has a long way to go, but it brings me genuine excitement to have conviction that we are on the right path. Time and perseverance will build on the promising progress made so far.  

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