Irrational Irritation

I read this today and it irritated me. I don’t know why. After all, both ofsted and my own college have done away with graded observations, and I live nowhere near the college where this Principal works, so the chances of me ever coming into contact with that process are small for the time being. However, there are plenty of colleges in my local area where grading observations have remained, and for many of the reasons cited in the TES piece, so there is a possibility that one day, in some future world where the FE jobs market is fluid and dynamic, I may end up working in one of those colleges, 

Now, I’ve read the article and my understanding is as follows. The author likes graded observations because a) governors need lesson observation grade profiles to evaluate quality, and b) it acts as a performance benchmark, and helps staff to know where they stand, and to develop. 
You know what I like about that? I like the honesty. I like that the writer has admitted that essentially a set of numbers is a darn sight easier for governors and so on to analyse. I’m rather less than impressed by the claim that they go through it in detail: after all, there is no detail there. It takes all of two seconds to note that 7% of teachers taught a lesson that was a grade three, and that last year it was 6%. That tells nobody anything, and never did, not really. Figures like that can be quickly and easily skewed by a couple of staff changes: teachers X and Y who had an unbroken record of getting 1s leave, and the grade profile will possibly shift down, even though the actual number of people whose lessons got 3s or 4s has in fact gone down. Or you get a number of new, inexperienced teachers start and have a bit of a wobble, but you know what, very few people arrive in this job as brilliant. There is plenty to analyse, in fact, more to analyse if you take away the grade. No grade means that managers reporting to governors have a lot more solid evidence to hand when it comes to explaining performance. I’m terribly sorry, but if governors can’t read a properly detailed analysis of teaching performance and make sense of it then they shouldn’t be governors. I’m being mean, perhaps: I’ve never yet knowingly met college governors, and who knows, they too may wish to read something for meaningful than a trite grade profile. Numbers make for neat analysis for sure, but they are hardly rigorous. As I think I’ve said before, the process is unrepresentative. If this was a research study into teaching practices and performance the whole thing would be thrown out because the sample size, 1 hour in 800, is simply not a fair sample of anyone’s performance in any context. 
The second point irks me more. Partly because it’s partially right on benchmarking. I’ve been a teacher in FE for eleven years now, and you know what, every single graded observation feedback session was spent waiting for that grade. So, yes, actually, you did know where you stood. But the danger was that all you really worried about was the grade “What do I need to do to improve? Who cares, I’m safe for another year.” What you ended up with was an invasive process which was done to you, not with you, and most certainly not for you. The reaction was defensiveness and attempts to game the system. Development takes a back seat: if you get a grade one or two for your lesson then you are free to coast for the next year or so. Quality may be monitored but it isn’t necessarily improved. And if you work where 80% or more get a grade 2 or 1, then that’s the vast majority of an institution’s staff who are under no pressure or particular encouragement to improve.
The author is simultaneously introducing developmental observations and walkthrough observations. Good; no, fantastic, even. But I’d be willing to bet three beers next Friday that these haven’t been universally welcomed. Instead of being seen as the fantastically supportive developmental processes they could be, developmental observations run a high risk of being seen as yet another imposition by The Management. Take away the graded observation bit, however, and (another three beers?) developmental obs and similar interventions will go down a whole lot better. Don’t get me wrong, mind you. Sure, there are teachers out there who see their classroom as a sacred closed box into which no other should tread, regardless of the nature of the observation, but I wonder if an “open classroom” policy would be much more quickly and effectively achieved by removing the punitive grading of observations. 
It’s taken me several days to work out what annoyed me about the article, and the decision of a college at which I will likely never work to continue with graded observations. I think it’s because I’m looking forward to my observation process this year, and looking forward to being able to have a discussion about the lesson during which I will actually be able to focus on the feedback, and that it will be a process which is done with me and for me, rather than to me. 


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