NQT Lesson Swap: Removing the Crutches

As a species, the NQT is a self-critical beast. She will admit to falling behind in her marking, or to not quite mastering differentiation for the EAL child. She may experience problems with behaviour management and, without shame, copiously fill out incident reports and referrals for detention. But, on the whole, while all other props may fall away, they will cling on to that reliable handhold: their subject knowledge.

So what might happen when the handhold is less firm, the crutch unsteady?

For some time now I have taken an enquiry approach to NQT induction at my school. Over 3-5 week cycles I set up a question or theme (it might be AfL, or independent learning) with an introductory ‘input’ session; the NQTs then spend some of their reduced timetable allocation watching others for these skills, or consciously planning their own lessons to try out a pedagogical technique. Finally they blog the results of their enquiries so that their colleagues and others can comment.

Subject Knowledge Venn Diagram

We started with a fairly classic definition of subject knowledge. My English teacher, linguist, Health and Social Care specialist and geographers are all happy with what they know about their subjects, and are becoming more secure with how to prepare their students for how to succeed. They can swot away questions about Dickens and volcanoes with aplomb. Subject knowledge? They have it sorted.

But just how significant is this to their overall effectiveness as a teacher? What is left of them in front of a class, when they are stripped of the atlases and bilingual dictionaries that they carry in their heads? Dropped into the alien environment of someone else’s subject, how well would they cope?

NQT induction programmes (indeed, pretty much most professional development) concentrate on the wider teacher attributes and pedagogies such as behaviour management, marking and feedback, differentiation and the like. Mine too. The theory goes that, by improving in these areas, any teacher can be effective. More than most in the profession, NQTs are supremely conscious of this, as they hoover up advice from colleagues and submit themselves to observation feedback. My NQTs are as keen as the next, so I wanted to know how far they could rely on those ‘non-subject’ skills, if they were teaching outside their own discipline.

So my English teacher, linguist, Health and Social Care specialist and geographers swapped their lessons – just one – and blogged their findings.

Ali Tan is a geography teacher, just hopped off a plane from Canada. She took on Health and Social Care for her enquiry. “Would you still consider yourself as a qualified teacher without deep subject content? My geographical knowledge was thrown out the window the minute I walked inside Room AP1. What can I possibly say to these prospective students about the learning objective: to explain the physical and psychological changes which may be associated with ageing? No longer can I talk about facts, diagrams, and maps on one-child policy, on battle of biosphere, and on volcanoes! It is now about being able to discuss how can we as citizens help an elderly person maintain their self-esteem.”

She found the experience unsettling. She handled the discussion, relying on her common sense, but she found herself counting down the minutes to the end of the lesson. “My reality is we live in a society instilled with the idea that teachers should know more than students. Isn’t that what makes confident and competent teachers in the first place?” And yet, she found the students engaged, happy to answer questions and to offer suggestions to fill in the gaps in her own knowledge.

mnoursite made the reverse swap, from Health and Social to Geography. “Being able to effectively plan and teach well structured lessons, differentiation, AFL, strong behavior management, creating a positive climate for learning, that’s just a few to name. However, I do think that the securer you are in your subject knowledge, the clearer you are of how you expect the students to progress.”

She was impressed by the students’ awareness of China’s one-child policy, and with their ability to answer questions orally. Her own questioning skills were on display, but she quickly noticed that her own shallow grasp of the subject prevented her from probing them more deeply. She could manage them well enough, but she could not challenge them much.

agiacopazzi swapped his French class for a Geography one. He had earlier spent a year as a cover supervisor, teaching mainly MFL and History, so he was more confident than the others that he could cope with the unfamiliar.

“As the lesson progressed I enjoyed the experience more and more”

He felt the students were very well behaved, and that they were able to discuss the topic (trans-national corporations) fully. He got feedback telling him that his questioning had promoted deeper discussion. As the students were able to reach a conclusion, he felt that he had moved their understanding on.

There is no doubt, from this short enquiry, that subject knowledge does make a difference to a teacher’s competence. They are more confident, they can probe more deeply with their questioning, they can set their expectations higher for their students. But on its own it is not enough. Skills of questioning, of managing behaviour and of structuring learning can come from a different place. So, even without the crutches, a good teacher can walk confidently.

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Don’t waste time observing!

There were only about 8 in the class, including normally very rowdy boys and a couple of near-mute girls. Ruth, the Senco, was teaching them PSE, or something similar. I had been having problems controlling behaviour, and it had been gently suggested to me that I might observe Ruth. I was in my first year of teaching, but this was after the days of ‘probation’ and before the days of ‘NQT induction’, so whatever programme I had was ad hoc at best.

I sat at the back of Ruth’s classroom. A couple of the boys were insulting each other, and the girls shared a make-up mirror, but the atmosphere was relaxed and cooperative. Ruth introduced the topic and the kids were immediately engaged. I can’t remember the topic, and I couldn’t see what in particular she did to hook them. I knew enough already to realise that she was working hard and making it look easy: she made sure she addressed comments to each child, especially if she spotted them wavering. But I couldn’t locate whatever magic she had that I didn’t. I concluded that these kids were just ‘good for Ruth’, in a way they were not with me.

It really isn’t easy learning from watching someone else. It strikes me that there are essentially two types of observations going on in schools. The first is where the observer is assessing the teacher. I do a lot of this with PGCE students, NQTs, for appraisal. With younger teachers I won’t usually be putting a grade on the lesson, but they will still demand an evaluative adjective from me, and will still expect me to prescribe a dose of something to make them better. Where the lesson is graded, this can come down to, So how could I have made this outstanding?  The observer in these cases is not really trying to learn anything; they are simply looking for evidence to grade, and a form of words to let their colleague down gently. I exaggerate, but there is no escaping the simple truth: the observer is not the learner.

The second common type of observation is that undertaken by student teachers or NQTs as part of their development programme. There are PGCEs students in schools this week following a schedule of observations, perhaps doing very little else. There are NQTs, instructed by their mentors to use some of their 10% timetable reduction to ‘watch and learn.’ Sometimes they come and observe me. Oftentimes I direct them to someone on a ‘peer observation’ list I keep for the purpose. In they go; out they come. Somewhere a target will have been ‘met’ or a standard ‘addressed’. Everyone is happy, but what ‘learning’, if any, has occurred? I wonder: do we even ask?

Again, I exaggerate: the process is surely never as ho-hum as that. But I still think the question persists: What about the learning?

If we take a step back, and consider what we already know about learning, maybe we can make observation a little more productive. The learners we usually deal with – our students – would not take in very much if we merely expected them to observe us. Very little of our teaching is about being watched, instructing, performing in front of someone sitting anonymously at the back of the room. Rather, we expect learning to be active, and inter-active, with learners usually moving through a taxonomy of applying, analysing and creating in the space of one lesson. Learning also involves a degree of reiteration, practice and gradual perfection. Importantly, we presume learning is best when its objectives are clear and explicit. In sum, learning happens when it is purposeful and progressive.

Now ask: does this kind of learning have a chance of occurring when we put teachers in the back of rooms to watch other teachers? My guess is, not often.

But we do spend an awful lot of time doing it. Oh, the hours! I would be grateful for any replies to this from people who think they have secured good learning from teacher observation. But here I will record a few of the things we do some of the time, but should do more often than we do.

  • Our ‘peer observation’ card lists staff who are willing to be observed. Crucially, they are grouped by area of pedagogical expertise. So, some are happy to be seen doing groupwork, others are whizzes in behaviour management.
  • The same card also lists the staff who are willing to observe others. We realised a little while ago that many teachers stop observing others once they get past induction; likewise, outside of the pressures of appraisal and review, few staff get to try out a teaching strategy and get feedback on it from a sympathetic colleague.
  • Aside from the formal lesson observation forms we use for grading purposes, we have developed half a dozen others which each has a specific focus, e.g. independent learning, literacy, student engagement, behaviour management. Each is structured as a sort of checklist of features that might be seen in a lesson, with space for notes by the observer. The reverse asks the observer to compile 5 learning points; then recompile them after discussing them with a colleague.
  • An integral feature of induction at my school now is NQT Blogging. They have a session where they are introduced to some teaching strategies – two weeks ago our AST and others shared some AfL ideas with them. They then have two to three weeks to observe a colleague, focusing on those strategies, then apply some of this in their own lessons. The NQTs then reconvene as a group to blog their reflections, making sure they each follow each other and post constructive comments.

In these ways, I hope to ensure that observation has a ‘learning objective’ or focus. There is also the chance that it will take the observer-learner through the understanding-applying-analysing-creating phases that we know assist learning. None of this is yet embedded or widespread, and I’m still developing my thinking on it. But, with a little bit of this, I might have made a lot more of my time watching Ruth all those years ago, and those kids might have been ‘good for me’ too.

5 Things NQTs can be.

Twitter is bouncing with advice to NQTs right now. If you have found your way to this blog, then you probably already know that. I’d say: read it all. The advice comes from good people, with sensible, practical things to say. But you cannot follow it all. I offer these 5 items as things you can be, not just things you can do.

  1. Don’t be afraid to say No, but learn to say Yes. Many of the most exciting things that will happen to you in teaching will have been suggested by others. Would you like to go on this science trip? How about joining the staff choir? The Year 7 footballers would love you to coach them once a week. If you can agree to do at least some of these things, your working life will be all the more fulfilling. On the other hand, you cannot do everything, and it pays to learn how to turn people down without shutting the door in their face.
  2. Build alliances. This could be counsel from Machiavelli, but you don’t have to be a prince to benefit from this advice. Everyone who works in your school (perhaps even some of your fellow NQTs) has more experience in that setting than you do. You have to assume (and hope) that it matters a great deal to them: in some cases, this is their life’s work. So, don’t criticise another teacher (‘they don’t seem to be able to manage 7A3); don’t diss the displays; don’t complain about the reception in the reception. If you need to vent, you should be mindful of who you let your guard down in front of.
  3. Be constructive – or have a ‘growth’ mindset. This should apply to all your dealings, including the above. Actually, you too have experience, and you have a valid point of view: find the forum where it can be expressed, and offer your ongoing help too. More broadly, this is the attitude you should adopt with all of your students. Those who say they ‘cannot’ do something, get excited on their behalf: you are about to show them that they can! Those who say something is too easy for them, discuss with them how you can differentiate for them too.
  4. Be on time. As with many walks of life (what would I know?) others are depending on you to get your bit done before they can do their bit. Obviously this relates to prompt marking and feedback: your students will learn better if they can attach what you say with what they have done. But it can also govern your relations with office and technical staff. You need to get your requisitions in for your lab technician; if you want your colour copies back, reprographics need your original in three days in advance; if your reports aren’t done on time, you are putting pressure on people further up the chain – those who proof-read, or countersign, or post the things.
  5. Be prepared to work extremely hard. Some well-meaning colleagues will urge you to hold on to your work-life balance. In the main, these are people who have found the shortcuts they can live with, or who have built up a fund of resources they can call upon in a tight planning spot. Look to them, and realise that one day, you too will be able to tell others to spend a little time with yourself. But, in the meantime, this teaching lark is tough: it does take time to get it right, and you should be prepared to put that time in.

From NQT to QT, and fun all the way

I last posted on the leadership of NQTs’ professional development here http://wp.me/p3sH8D-1t ‘Training NQTs the Woodhouse way…not’.

The particular cohort of NQTs I had in mind then are now making their final approaches to the landing strip titled… well, what do we call teachers who are no longer newly qualified? Are they QTs?

Their final task, after all their mini action enquiries, their blogging and their coaching was to produce a ‘CPD Review’. Reluctant as I was to predetermine what they would in the end produce, I set out the merest success criteria: it should describe their learning journey, it should be prepared and presented collaboratively, it should be substantial and it should be fun. I created an audience for them too: their mentors, ASTs, members of SLT, the professional tutor who had seen many of them through their PGCE year and – perhaps most significantly – the succeeding generation of NQTs whose first day at school this would be. Not trusting my own catering acumen, I got the school chef to lay on some fruit and cold drinks. I hope I managed to create something of an occasion for them. Perhaps I should have videoed it – but then again, one of the new NQTs seemed to have his cameraphone out, so I reckon most of it was captured for their grandchildren anyway.

What did their Review consist of? They produced a booklet containing snapshots of post-its their students had written about them: ‘Some up my lessons in one word’, ‘What’s my catchphrase?’, ‘Which was my most memorable lesson?’ They talked about the blogging they had been engaged in all year, how several were reluctant at first but had then been thrilled as their posts got shared with other teachers in the school and even further afield via twitter. They spoke of their Appreciative Enquiries, where they had focused on an area of strength rather than a weakness, and investigated how they could get more out of it. They reflected on their other enquiries, how they had observed colleagues for literacy, AfL and independent learning strategies, and applied these to their own practice. And, hilariously, they reenacted what not to do on your first parents’ evening. (N.B. It’s always a good idea to use that squirty hygienic lotion for your hands, but not such a good idea to display it prominently on the table in front of you!)

Ultimately it is not possible to summarise all you have learned in one evening, but undoubtedly they did convey the effort they had put into their year’s development and, resoundingly, the tremendous fun they had along the way.