Action Planning and Other Headaches

So I do a lot of coaching / mentoring / general supporting of teachers in my job. It’s usually a simple enough process: you get someone referred for support, you sit down with them, and then you come up with some things for them to try, which they try, and you basically guide them through some sort of reflection and adaptation process afterwards.

It’s almost always been a loaded process, with things at stake for the person you are supporting – particularly as it is usually linked to the lesson observation/quality assurance systems of an institution. I’ve had more than one new mentee break down in tears, and very often those first meetings you tend to be more of a counsellor, managing not only sadness, but also anger and frustration. This is especially true when the observer has made a pig’s ear of the feedback process, or when the observee has got the wrong end of the stick. Even at the best of times, the first conversation after an observation that went south is around picking apart the observation feedback and triangulating it with the teacher’s perception of the lesson and the lesson plan and resources. This is mostly fine, of course – it can be quite an illuminating process, allowing you and the observee to work out what the actual issues are, i.e. what applied to that lesson, and what is a more systemic, consistent issue with the teaching.

Observers are part of the problem. Now, before anyone starts getting shirty or defensive, every anecdote that follows is a fictionalised amalgam of experiences and general statements: but if you have ever done any of this, then shame on you. Observers are human, of course, and observing human interactions, and while they have training, they are rarely fully objective social scientists, if such a thing exists. But this means that things go wrong, sometimes badly so. One of the worst things I’ve seen an observer do is carry out a high stakes observation, for example where a job or a course pass is potentially at stake, then go to do the feedback without having decided what the outcome of the observation is. So the feedback implies that the lesson wasn’t to the standard expected, and that there is a cause for concern but the person providing the feedback never actually says explicitly that this is the case, and neither does the observer explicitly say that there are consequences. Yes, I know the observee might be able to work it out, but unless they are told in no uncertain terms what is going to happen now, then you have left a dangling thread of hope. Maybe I’ve just about made it? When that person finally comes to meet you as mentor, they have so much frustration, even outright anger, you might as well just call off the first meeting and take them to the pub and let them rant.

There are other, lesser crimes, as well. As a mentor, you and the observee need to know exactly what the problems were and what the specific required actions are. Now, I’m sure that many observers out there will insist that they are absolutely clear about this in their feedback, and will be sure when they finish the conversation that the observee has a clear idea what they need to do. And you know, that may even be true. But even if the spoken feedback is crystal clear, a shining example of precision and concision, eloquently and efficiently passed on, and extensive notes have clearly been taken by the observee, I still want to see your comments written down. It’s not you, you understand, it’s us. I’ve been observed enough times to know that when I get verbal feedback I only really take on the bits I want to hear, the bits I understand and want to work on, and the bits which are difficult, or boring, or which challenge my beliefs and prejudices tend to be quickly forgotten, if remembered at all. Yet it might be the forgotten thing that is crucial, but which remains at the back of your mind until you see the written comments.

My other big bugbear is the focus of the feedback. An observer will often be asked to identify recommended areas for improvement from the feedback. This is a great idea, as it will clarify what it is that the observee needs to do to improve, and perhaps even offer some suggestions as to actions they can take. That said, however, these areas need to be accurately and appropriately identified. areas for improvement that lack focus or specificity, for example, or, and this I’ve seen far too often, do not focus on the learning in the lesson observed, and are entirely based on supporting paperwork. If an observer tells their observee that they only need to improve their marking/feedback, the tracking documentation and the way they write differentiation on the lesson plan, even though none of these things had an impact on the lesson observed, then this raises all sorts of challenges. Because really, what is a teacher supposed to do with this? What am I supposed to do with this as a mentor? It’s a thirty minute job to share some marking strategies, another 20 to help them update their tracker, and ten minutes to show them the box on the form. Simple, easy, and, in the case of the last two, pretty fucking useless. If the differentiation in the lesson was good for the students, and they were all stretched and challenged, then who actually cares if/where/how it is written on a lesson plan? So what if the tracker is a bit shonky: if it’s a problem because of exam requirements, say, then sure, it might need work, but that is a management problem, and almost certainly nothing to do with the lesson observed. Even the marking thing is simply a quick share, and a check up, but these are all things that can, and should, be dealt with through other forms of audit and standardisation, like sampling of marked work, and not through a lesson observation focussed on classroom learning.

But wait, this isn’t one of those evil observers, saintlike teacher moments. Observees can be pretty useless as well. They can have the full monty observation experience: an observer they know and have a lot of respect for, excellent and accurate feedback, a clear set of actions to work on, and yet they still somehow fail completely to grasp what the problem is. This is perhaps because, as we found before, they don’t like what they have to work on: it doesn’t chime with their beliefs or their experiences. Maybe it’s new, maybe it’s a bit different. So it gets sidelined, and one of the jobs of the coach here is to bring that unpopular change into focus. It’s hard, because a teacher’s brain is like an elastic band that keeps pinging back onto the other things, so you do have to work on them, and sometimes sit in with them to make sure they are doing what they say they are.

Then there’s the “I’ve been doing this for years and it’s always been fine” argument. Christ, but that’s a boring one. As an observer and as a mentor, I’ve heard it so many times, and it was boring the first time. Maybe you have been doing it that way for ages, but it doesn’t mean you don’t need to change it.

The companion argument to this is the tedious “I did the same lesson last year and the observer liked it.” Same lesson materials and structure, perhaps, but a there are a stack of other variables. Most crucially, you have a different group of students, who respond differently to other groups. Or maybe you were in a different room. Or it wasn’t raining last year. You’d had curry the night before, not chips. God knows, but it was still a problem and so we have to work on it.

And that’s the other challenge; I can sit down and suggest things. I can demonstrate, invite you to observe me or a colleague doing those things, show videos, all sorts. I’ll summarise it for you in an email or an action plan. But it’s all so much fluff if you don’t try the things out. And try them out properly. Not just once, sulking because that coach bloke told you to do it, and what does he know…. No, you try it and you try it properly: give it a genuine go, and more than once. Anything new isn’t always going to work well first time: but try it a few times, and think about it. You might be worried about capability procedures, or whatever euphemism your institution uses, that may end up with you losing your job, but that should be the thing that spurs you on to engage and reflect and put things into action,

This brings us to the final point: reflection. I know that there are probably people who will disagree with me on this, but, on its own, the act of reflection is not going to change the way you work. I can think about a lesson until the cows have not only come home, but are tucked up in bed and snoring quietly, and it won’t make a difference to the way I work. What it needs is conscious, deliberate action. This goes for the whole process, in fact: unless you make a decision to put changes in place and then actually do it, the whole messy emotional business of being observed and of being mentored is a big waste of time. Willing engagement is no guarantee: I’ve worked with teachers before who make all the right noises, make copious notes, do all the training, and yet somehow fail to then take any of this and turn it into changes in classroom practice. And this isn’t in a passive-aggressive, “doing it to keep them quiet”way but teachers who genuinely seem unable to bridge that gap between feedback and reflection, and genuine change. You do all the right things, and so do they, apart from that one crucial stage of actually doing the things you suggest.

Sadly these are often the cases that bring people close to dismissal: this is not a cosy sector where underperformance gets quietly covered up because “well, he’s so nice with the students, and reliable” but a financially squeezed, pressurised sector where “rapid” often collocates with “improvement”, with scant regard for the realities of professional and organisational development. If you’re on some form of permanent contract, it’s pretty awful, even though you can count on some sort of protection while these processes are happening. However, if you are on a casual or agency type contract, then you quite literally cannot afford to be that person who doesn’t quite manage to change, whether you like it or not.

But this is the onrushing train coming towards you at the end of a long, dark tunnel, and for the vast majority of teachers, myself included, we sometimes dance at the beginning of that tunnel, perhaps even to the point when we can hear the train itself bearing down upon us, at which time we get our act together and manage to jump to safety. The trick, however, is staying safe. Fair enough you get reobserved and it all goes OK, but the reality is that unless you have genuinely managed to make something like permanent change, then next time that observation comes around, you are more than likely going to be coming back down to see me.

This post has focussed so much on observation, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was all there is to supporting teachers. Unfortunately it is often a significant proportion of the work that you end up doing in this role, but it’s great when you get to talk good stuff with people: someone wants to try something off their own back and would like to talk it over. Or perhaps someone wants to run a lesson by you, or you just end up having an off the cuff conversation about good ideas. It would be lovely to have this all the time, but I rather suspect that if this were the case, my job would very quickly cease to exist.


One comment

  1. Sam you didn’t mention that some of these observed issues are false positives. And by some I mean a lot. The MET study, which was an idealised condition, showed horrendous reliability issues with observations.

    The observer is often simply wrong and as a mentor it must be hard for you to tell the difference with nothing more then a report and one side of the conversation. Nethertheless it is still a real possibility. The fact that observers are often not selected due to individual competency in this role but instead because of their managerial role exasberates this issue.

    Worse the more distinctive an individual teachers style becomes (irrespective of it’s effectiveness) the more resistant it becomes to challenge. Not just due to stubbornness or confirmation bias but also due to the carefully considered elements of style and practice that are not easily swapped out.

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