This is the first of a new series of mini-posts sharing the work I have been doing in developing teaching and learning, through a weekly forum and bulletin, observation and feedback.
If feedback be the food of love, verbalise on…
So ignoring the tenuous Shakespeare reference, I’ve been scribbling down some ideas on how to develop verbal feedback. It’s my teaching and learning forum topic of the week.
In all the observations I carry out, there is a striking difference between the teacher that nails it year in and year out in terms of outcomes for students. This is the teacher who understands how to orchestrate the best verbal feedback. The teacher who gives feedback like their life depends on it. The teacher who can turn the feedback into molten gold.
I call this kind of teacher the ‘Drill Down’ teacher. They take a response and drill down into the core of it. You can tell when you watch the Drill Down teacher that they have heard the student response and these questions are going through their heads:
- Is it correct?
- How correct is it?
- How might it be more correct?
- What’s the flaw?
- What’s missing?
- What’s the misconception?
- How can I show them without just telling them?
- What do they need to be able to do?
- What are the stages of this learning?
Bear in mind I’m not talking here about quick-fire recall questions here. When students give a opinion or process response, that’s the pivot moment that tilts to stagnation or to progress. Learning is most visible in these moments.
What kind of verbal feedback do you give? How do you get even better at it? The Verbal Feedback Audit attached here is useful for you as an individual to review your practice, or as a tool for development of groups of teachers. I’ll be combining it with filmed practice from an experienced teacher, asking less experienced teachers to analyse the ways in which effective feedback is given.
“It takes two flints to make a fire.” –-Louisa May Alcott
You think you’re pretty good at your job, right? At Teach Meet London, I spoke about whether great teachers are born or made. I don’t have an answer; I want to ask the question to get people thinking about teaching and professional qualities that lead to outstanding outcomes for students. In my Teaching and Learning sessions, I want staff to consider how their professional qualities make them great – and I want them to be specific.
There are times when I will find myself seeing the qualities I have listed in people and I will be overwhelmed by how grateful I am to have them on my side. But, as with any job, I have been in situations where teams have become dysfunctional. One can use as many leadership models as one likes to analyse their staff – a team is only as strong as its weakest link. It takes individuals to step up and demonstrate professional qualities. If I was hiring a member of staff, I’d want to see the qualities I’ve listed because those are the qualities I want in myself. It’s no good as a leader writing a person specification that does not tie in with my own values.
Speaking of person specs – how many times have you seen the same qualities flagged up as essential? Organisations pilfer person and job specs, particularly in schools and end up being less than specific about the qualities they want in their teams. I’d like to actually see the list below on a person spec. At least it would be clear and precise. I want to poke out my own eyeballs when I see person specs that outline a requirement for a ‘good sense of humour’. The last thing I want on my team is someone who needs to be told how to do every part of their job, but does a stunning impression of Donald Trump in kindergarten.
The list below isn’t purely a wish list for the ideal team or team member, it’s a reminder to myself of all I want to be. I don’t think anyone can be all of the things below, all of the time – but it’s worth sharing with your teams to see whether they can remind themselves at intervals that the following qualities and professional skills make a team hum positively. And it’s worth having somewhere so you can remind yourself as a leader what you want to be as part of the team you are part of.
- Resilient – reflects on failure and self-motivates to move on
- Intuitive – senses when others are struggling and steps in
- Empathetic – is able to see the work environment from another’s perspective
- Pitches in – doesn’t need to be asked
- Optimistic – comes in with a smile and keeps shoulders up and head up
- Constructively critical – can spot where errors might be made and flags up
- Solutions focused – finds the problem and suggests the solution
- Determined – for students and the rest of the team
- Productive – often underrated – can get a lot done in the time given
- Anticipates problems – and finds ways around them before making mistakes
- Intellectual – you don’t have to be a genius, just someone who ponders, reads and knows their stuff
- Precise and careful – someone who proofreads, checks and double checks
- Independent – doesn’t need their hand holding beyond the start of a role
- Organised – plans, schedules, lists – throws them out – does it all again
When a team gets to the point where these qualities are not evident – or certainly not evident in the majority of team members, the only possible result is underperformance. And more pertinently, for education professionals, the result is good people leaving. Workload is intense, the external pressures on staff can make or break people – but in my experience as a school leader, what makes people leave is other people. That could be a member of Senior Leadership who forgets that they are part of the department team, whether they like it or not; it could be a staff member who doesn’t pull their weight, whose lack of enthusiasm for the job leads to tension and resentment; it could be that the middle leader isn’t precise and careful enough.
With a new half term about to swing into action – one that requires teams to be the best versions of themselves – I’m going to pin this up on my wall at work and give myself a daily reminder of the qualities I want to display. And then I think it is important to hold people to account – not in having these qualities instantly – but to hold people to account for working towards them. That’s professional development and quite often we forget as leaders that we have to develop the whole professional, not just their hard skills, knowledge and the mechanics of how they do their job. We owe it to the education sector, in any case. We need to develop good people. We want good people to stay.
I toyed with the idea of calling this post ‘How to Wind up a Fierce Woman’ but a) that’s clickbait for trolls and b) I didn’t want to be wholly responsible for my female colleagues being on the sharp end of well-meaning advice from people who take things too literally. So I settled for something a little less likely to cause ructions between the male and female of the species.
The advice I outline here comes from a range of sources: male, female, internet and child. I think the fact it comes from such a wide range of the human spectrum shows that something is ingrained in our consciousness about being female in the teaching profession. I stress that the advice I have received from actual human beings, as opposed to advice from the uncontrollable behemoth that is Google, has always been well-intentioned and drawn from kindness. But, as the well-known saying goes: “The best advice is this: Don’t take advice and don’t give advice.” (Quote attributed to everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Chaka Zulu – who knows, right? It’s the Internet!)
No Advice More Important Than This
It started on a fairly sunny day in September when I walked into school for the first time as a fully-fledged, almost functional and not-at-all scared adult embarking on my unqualified year as a teacher. My mentor, grizzled and fierce (actually fierce, rather than F.I.E.R.C.E), told me in no uncertain terms that she was about to give me the best advice she had ever been given in her own career. Clearly, I was about to receive manna from the Gods. She pursed her lips and appraised me in that way people do when they think you’ll do. “No bellies, boobs or bums,” she said. And that was that. I had been told. I looked at the male NQT next to me and he gave me an embarrassed half-smile. I wanted to pat his arm and tell him that the advice wasn’t meant for him. Then I spent the next year wearing polo necks and loose-fitting trousers, despite working in a 1960s-built comprehensive school building without air-conditioning.
Avoid Death By Shrillness
Training can be joyful, especially when lunch is provided and it is more than a foil tray of stale sandwiches and some sad looking grapes (if anyone knows why we get grapes at every training event, please do let me know. It’s bothering me). In my early days as a qualified teaching professional, I attended many training events and quite frankly, not enough of these training courses understood my thing about the sandwiches and the grapes. What they did manage to do was provide me, a relatively anxious person, with a complex about the pitch of my voice. Because, as all women are told when they start to teach: all children hate shrillness and if your voice remotely resembles a tin-whistle on steroids, you will fail in the classroom. I can’t remember how many times I heard that a deeper voice, the human equivalent to the humble double bass, a dulcet baritone in fact, would instantly mean that children of all genders would respond to the transmission of my instructions quicker than you can say Pavarotti.
In any case, I became hyper-conscious that my authority rested on the concealing of an inherently female characteristic – the higher pitch of my voice. Anyone who has met me will tell you that I sound pretty average as far as pitch goes, but that didn’t stop me attempting to lower my tone by an octave or two. I had to stop deliberately lowering my voice because I kept only remembering to change the pitch half way through sentences and the kids pointed out that it sounded like my voice was breaking.
To Get A Job, You Have to Smell Like a Man
When I decided to try my hand at some of the leadership malarky I had been diligently reading about (I dare you to shout “teacher’s pet” – I’m over that now), I was invited to several interviews. The word ‘several’ indicates quite clearly that I did not get the first promotion I went for. What does a Naughties twenty-something do when they need advice and they are too ashamed-slash-proud to ask their work colleagues? Ask the Internet! A quick google search using the term ‘job interview tips for women’ is like falling into a rabbit hole lined entirely with pages from Cosmopolitan. Ladies, if you are looking up golden nuggets to help you through an interview process, try not expect anything more than advice on the clothes you should (a mid-heel apparently) and should not wear (shock, horror: do not wear cargo pants). God forbid you might want advice on anything else. So, on reviewing my wardrobe and referring almost exclusively to dubious advice websites for women seeking promotion, I came to the honest conclusion that my wardrobe was both traditional and conservative (see: No Advice More Important Than This). There was one piece of advice that baffled me which, oddly enough, did not prevent me from following it.
Women are more likely to get a job if they smell like a man. Of course, if it is on the internet, it must be true, even if it does sound like a headline from The Metro. Cue testing of my collection of half used bottles of perfume the night before my interview to see which one smells more ‘musky’. I hate the fact I even wrote that word but it is the word the article used. A higher musk content smells more masculine and therefore, when you walk into an interview room and work out where the chair is without withering into a musk-wafting heap on the floor, the interview panel will take one sniff and be fooled into thinking, lo, this is not a woman with her own skills and intellect, but a man! And you will be hired forthwith.
I didn’t get that job the next day. Something about lack of preparation, said the nice lady on the phone and I nearly told her that I had spent three hours spraying myself and washing it off to do a dry run of perfume-trickery.
Don’t Be So Emotional, Dear.
Fast forward a few years and I have managed to wheedle myself into a senior leadership position. I thought I was past the whole rubbish-advice-because-I’m-just-a-girl. I had been fighting a running battle with some Year 10 boys on taking their trays in the dining hall. Said Year 10 boys had decided that this was a hilarious game to play with the newbie SLT member and would pile their trays up in the middle of the table, wait until I had turned my head and then bolt for the door. One day, in the midst of my lunch duty, I moved faster than they did and managed to speak to one of them. He did surly well and walked away from me. I caught up with him later and gave him an extensive telling off that included the possible consequences of not taking his tray (no tray = detention = wasted time = failure in all GCSE subjects = no college/university = no income = no significant other = lonely forever all because of a tray). Okay, so not all of that, but close.
A well-meaning colleague and this time, definitely male, colleague sidled up to me and said the immortal words and a smirk: “have you calmed down yet?” I responded with surprise, because, yes, I was surprised. I had been feeling quite chipper. He then explained that he’d seen me shouting earlier and decided to stay away from me until I had simmered down. “You know, they respond much better when you are less emotional,” he continued.
I wish I could say that this is advice he gave to all those new to the post, but a withering part of me down in my soul knows that is not true. The implication that my highly-strung emotional female self had escalated the situation stung like cheap tequila.
But this time, because I am in my mid-thirties, so the teaching equivalent of an aged steak, I did not change a thing. I have learned my lesson over the years and learned to accept that the way I choose to present myself as a woman in teaching is no one’s business but my own (and now yours, reader). I no longer wear polo necks, I speak in my normal voice without worry and my perfume is just the right side of musky because I like it that way. If I succeed in teaching, it is not despite the fact I am a woman. It might have something to do with the fact I work quite hard and I’m still a big ol’ swot who wants to be the best at everything I do. That might just be it.
In November 2014, Tristram Hunt warned of the impending catastrophe in teacher recruitment. In an article in The Guardian, he pointed out the shortfall in meeting the targets for teachers entering the profession – an article that can be read here. In March 2015, Mary Bousted of the ATL commented publicly on the numbers of teachers leaving the profession. In April 2015, The Independent ran this article highlighting again the potential for crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. We have been talking about a crisis on teacher recruitment for a while now. Whereas once, it was passing conversation – odd drops in the number of applicants for once popular posts, gentle musings even, combined with a sense of optimism that things would pick up – perhaps it was a funny time time of year to be recruiting, perhaps people were just staying put – now, it seems that educators are staring with alarm at a growing hole in the teaching profession. A growing hole in the shape of thousands of teachers we need, who just don’t appear to exist. Only a few days ago, this appeared in the TES by Ann Mroz, highlighting again Nicky Morgan’s toughest challenge. Getting teachers into the profession and getting them to stay.
As Mroz states, there are distinct and tangible reasons why teachers are in short supply. An increase in demand for places due to population increases could be one huge factor in the need for a greater number of teachers. However, combine that with the spreading thin of current teachers across an explosion of new free schools and academies and the lure of overseas teaching posts (with the almost opiate promise of tax free income and accommodation provided for free against the backdrop of austerity in the UK) and suddenly the maths doesn’t add up. More institutions dilute the pool of teachers we already have.
And then we have the leavers. Those who pack up their whiteboard markers with regret (for I have never met a teacher who left the profession without a wistful thought as to what could have been) and carry their stained coffee cups into the day to do other things. Why would they stay? One can only guess at the damage done to the teaching profession in the last five years by the Apollyonic Gove, dragging the profession through a valley of humiliation. When the rhetoric is against the Blob, when the implication is that teachers are somehow lacking in the desire to improve – why would anyone be attracted into a one-way ticket to flagellation? When the curriculum doesn’t stay still long enough to allow anyone to gather expertise, why would someone choose to place themselves into this educational Charybdis? Even when there is a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of Nicky Morgan, she chooses – on the day before the return to work – to announce her campaign against “coasting” schools. The collective groan from my Twitter timeline cannot be ignored.
Her announcement today is offensive. It implies that teachers and leaders are happy with average. I have never worked with or in a leadership team where I heard the words: “Yes, I think our results will do just fine. Let’s have the same results next year, in fact!” If anything, decent results breed an intense pressure to increase in the following year a percentage pass rate that was hard won in the first place, particularly in inner city schools with challenging intakes.
We know we need more teachers. It is undeniable that greater numbers of teachers are required in English, Maths and Science. In 2003, the Labour government attempted to solve this shortage by introducing the Repayment of Teacher Loans Scheme. It did not last long enough as an incentive and a study by Professor Coe of the University of Durham found that if teachers were leaving due to the pressures of workload and its adverse effect on personal well-being, the financial incentive to stay wasn’t great enough.
I absolutely believe that schools should pay to recruit outstanding teachers, but that can only happen without detrimental effect if there is a steady stream of talented people entering the profession. As a senior leader in an inner city school, I have become increasingly aware of another consequence of the marketisation of education. Now that we have schools able to set their own pay scales, the savvy teacher knows to negotiate. Recruitment in shortage subjects has become an auction-process of staff going to the highest bidder. How does a school, with no stream of private funding, compete with large chains who have salary points and incentives set above and beyond other schools in the local area? Experienced staff come at an absolute premium. Unfortunately, that premium is out of reach for some schools.
And this is another gift of Conservative policy: increased pressure on school budgets. Changes to Post-16 funding, changes to criteria in funding for pupil premium students, a commitment to only ‘maintaining’ year-on year funding overall – in real terms a reduction in per pupil funding – and changes to pension contributions have meant that schools face serious financial challenges. How, in that context, does a school compete to recruit the best teachers and keep them? One solution is in increase in pupil numbers. Do we want schools to be busting at the seams with more students than the building can safely hold? Some school buildings are not fit for the numbers as it is, especially in inner city areas. Catering for more pupils becomes a Sisyphean task – more teachers needed to teach, bigger buildings needed to accommodate, more resources and still, in the heart and soul of this – not enough money.
The end result is not sustainable for a country that wants to compete internationally for educational acclaim. To save money, you recruit (where you can) young, expendable and cheap staff that you can wear out with increased responsibility on top of teaching load. These teachers have a life span of four or five years, which again, is fine and dandy if you have en endless supply of new teachers. But we don’t. And I don’t believe teacher burn out is an acceptable side-effect of poor funding policy.
It takes a brave government to step in and deal with the burgeoning issue of teacher recruitment and challenges to education funding. I look at this Conservative government, as I did here in 2011, and I am not sure they are up to that task.
On Tough Young Teachers this week, we witnessed a delightfully awkward Charles negotiate a fine line between tragedy and farce at parents’ evening when attempting to sternly inform a non-English speaking mother of her wayward son’s poor exam performance. Walid, the aforementioned naughty, made it quite clear that his mum did not have a good enough grasp of English to understand the gravity of his poor performance, a fact picked up on by Charles as he walked away at the end of the evening, with the kind of deflated skulk only experienced at the end of a long day – and evening – in January.
The show has struck a chord with teachers at all stages of their careers, because of the universality of the experience of training to be a teacher. When I started teaching, as a Teach First participant in an inner city borough, I brought my own naïveté with me. I grew up in a community where the standing joke about Asian parents was that if you went home with a B grade, they’d smack you with a sandal and demand to know why you didn’t get an A before threatening to ship you off to a boarding school in India. The truth was, when I first started teaching, I thought all parents were like that. But they’re not.
In eleven years of teaching, I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want their child to achieve. Even the most difficult parents show you eventually that they care desperately about the health, happiness and future of their children. Parents who do not speak very much English show, sometimes by their very presence, that they care about their child. It is very rarely indifference that makes it difficult for a teacher to enlist a parent’s support in disciplining their child, or helping them to revise. It is almost always a lack of understanding of how to help, the language barrier, the lack of space at home, a problematic personal experience of schools. Like one frustrated father says on the show: “I don’t know how to help him.”
How poignant, then, when Charles’ mum tells him that he might be the only adult in some of those children’s lives who can make the difference. In her words lie a truth about our society and education system. It is problematic that she is held up in contrast to parents on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. But, she’s right; he can’t give up on the children because they need him to be, in some ways, a substitute parent for his wards – to fill in the gaps left by parents who cannot provide what he can.
It was interesting to see the differing approaches to relationships with students. Meryl, ever the warm hearted idealist, stated that a child’s whole life can be affected by a teacher. Charles’ view was less effusive. There needs to be a degree of separation, he said. “I’m not their father, or their brother.”
All of this brings me back to the phrase ‘in loco parentis’. In 1855, Cheadle Hulme School in Manchester adopted the phrase as its school motto because their student population was made up of orphans. The staff there were literally in the place of the absent parents. However, as teachers in mainstream schools, we are not responsible for orphans – they have parents and we cannot work in isolation from them.
So what do we do when experiencing that sinking feeling at parents’ evening, when you realise that the parent is no more capable of influencing their child’s behaviour than you are? Firstly, resist the urge to speak loudly and slowly if a parent doesn’t speak very much English. Check with children about the language abilities of their parents, speak to other staff and find out before the evening starts. Enlist an interpreter if you can – not the child, as we all know how that can go (“Of course, mum, she’s saying that I’m an excellent student and I don’t need to do homework ever again…!”) An older student who speaks the same language will do the job nicely. Even better if the school has invested in staff who reflect the ethnic make up of the student population and community – interpreting staff are an invaluable asset.
We spend a lot of time as teachers debating as to whether we can be substitute parents, ‘raising’ children in schools that are open all hours. What if we spent some time ‘raising’ parents? This week, I spent an hour helping to teach a group of parents how to speak English. It was a humbling experience as it showed me that I may have to discard some of my frustrations with parents who do not know how to support their children – as their frustration is worse. And it is not just about parents who don’t speak very much English.
Parental engagement and support is absolutely vital in schools for parents of every walk of life – and it is often seen as such a Herculean feat that many schools do not attempt it. When it is committed to, it can change the educational experience of students, staff and parents alike. It’s worth it because everybody wins and parents’ evenings are suddenly less painfully awkward. It’s worth it for that alone!
First published on the Communitas PR Tough Young Teachers blog here