Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Scandal in Academia - On the Observation of Teachers.

"You see, but you do not observe". ( Sherlock Holmes to Doctor Watson "A Scandal in Bohemia". )

This post is occasioned by TEACHERS OR CRISPS? by @HeyMissSmith in which she takes issue with the  pervasive notion that the profession is in need of general improvement and that that is secured through inspectional critical and graded scrutiny by senior teachers and Ofsted. She argues that this is a counter-productive regime born of attitudes and motivations themselves the (real) object for improvement.

My career as a secondary teacher of English for more than three decades from 1969 bears this out in spades. There was (and therefore is) another way.

HMI Inspections.

Once per decade I was inspected by HMI as clear-sighted, empathic, respectful and autonomous as the teachers and institutions they visited. Lesson and whole-school assessments felt negotiated and balanced. These were positive experiences because the inspectors observed in the manner indicated by Holmes's remark to Watson.

Internal Inspections.

All my schools and colleges had a system of annual staff development assessments, which featured (centrally) self-assessment of perceived achievements and needs and classroom visits by the Head or a Deputy. I was never inspected by anyone else. Visits lasted the duration of each lesson and were conducted with patent respect, interest, participation and an open agenda: observe what is really encountered. Feedback discussion supplemented the final report with teacher evaluation of each lesson and an emphasis on the positives observed.

These feedback chats were always valued because most of the matters were dealt with as equal professionals discussing their common art. They could be of surprising practical use: for example, one Head was fascinated by the use of body language in the classroom and observed something I had never been aware of - that I had the slowest blink-rate he'd ever encountered in a teacher. He had discussed this with some students and all agreed that to sit in one of my lessons gave you the uncanny feeling I saw everything that happened...even that I saw what they were thinking. Not so; but I wasn't about to disabuse them!

Other Observations.

1. 1969-71.

I entered the profession in the last year you could with a degree but no teaching qualification. This, automatically, extended probationary status to two years. From Day 1, I taught a full 11-18 timetable. No one ever inspected me in the manner so familiar today. Observation, however, was frequent and took two main forms.

By invitation and request I observed many classes conducted by experienced colleagues. From these I learned all I came to know about classroom management and what I call presence. I offer one example: Desks were typically arranged in five rows of doubles with, therefore , aisles between. I found difficulty communicating effectively with the back rows until I watched my Head of Department (also a Ray) do two very simple things I'd never considered. He spent most of the lesson on his feet (away from the 'protection' of the teacher's desk) either conducting the lesson from the back of the room or (a very strong stance this) at the head of successive aisles, reaching all students under the 'umbrella' of one outstretched, emphatic arm-movement. This I imitated, just as effectively as I replicated the stentorian voice of Dick W... who could (as I still can) silence the whole school queuing for dinner. 

I was left in no doubt that what happened in my own classes was entirely my personal responsibility. This did not mean I was neglected. Classrooms are typically adjacent with thin walls. When discipline irretrievably broke down (and it frequently did) the present problem was dealt with either by the teacher next door or a deputy taking over the lesson for long enough to a) discipline the class and b) demonstrate the art of teaching. My desire to learn was taken for granted and I felt supported but never undermined. Simply, I sensed, that if I did not learn by example, then fight my own demons, I'd not cut it in the long run as a teacher. No one ever suggested visiting to observe because I knew they were doing this in far subtler ways.

For example, I did not fail to observe how frequently Heads of Year and Deputies glanced in through the door window or popped a head in 'for a word' with A or B. Stan M..., a Head of Year, never passed through my lessons in the school library (on his way to collect geology specimens) without adding humour, moral support, educational enrichment and professional comradeship to my work. The message was we were all in it together and we respected the subtle complexities we teachers call 'a lesson'. Teachers like Stan were (are) legion - they have Holmesian powers of observation that take in realities in a moment and act accordingly. I have been proud to  know Heads who have slipped noiselessly into a lesson and sat patiently until they sensed a convenient moment to pursue the (often minor) reason for their visit. 

2. As a Qualified Teacher.

It may raise a sardonic smile in many a 21st Century teacher as I record that a standard sentence on my annual self-assessment was to the effect that, as I considered all my teaching was done on behalf of the Head Teacher (saving him or her from having to teach all classes), my classes were there for the visiting any time the Head wished. An open invitation that, to their credit, I think all my heads and principals took up with enthusiasm. 

Otherwise, within my departments, I was fortunate to work with some colleagues who valued teaching a class together where there was a perceived gain for the students. In the teaching of English many occasions arise where the active contribution of a subject colleague adds freshness, variety and a different perspective. From Year 7 to A level, lessons may be aptly enriched with judicious recourse to the double-act. One example: a prepared full reading of T S Eliot's The Waste Land dramatized for two (teacher) voices and performed for combined A level classes, invited to listen with no text to follow. English teachers are necessarily fluent and highly effective readers and give of themselves in such memorable lessons. Student feedback often noted how much more meaning and impact may thus be rendered evident in a literary text. 

On other occasions, we might request a special appearance from a colleague to act a part in a play or bring their class to discuss a specific topic, such as exam preparation. Variety, professional comradeship, common goals, mutual caring. Everyone (pupils and teachers) learn.

A Final Observation.

 Teachers have ever completely understood their work may always be improved and is a proper subject for inspection. In 1969 as now these tenets underpin a profession that is a humanity and an art. My private analogy has always been with the artist and the apprentice. I would simply ask (with, I believe, Miss Smith): Which would you observe to learn more, artist or apprentice? How best does the apprentice improve: by micro-scrutinizing performance with an abstract checklist of someone's notion of simplistically measurable artistic skills or by encouraging the apprentice to observe the master and mistress as they create? AND, finally, who would have the insensitivity, the patronising stupidity to critique an artist in media res as something unique and self-valuing is being created?                  

My Previous Education Posts.

Let the Forest Judge. 4/2/14   HERE 

Of Decile Bands, Levels, Cabbages & Kings. 18/7/13 HERE

Two Allegories about Education. 10/7/13 HERE 

The Empty Space and the Illusion of the First Time in Teaching. 28/6/13 HERE

An Inspector Calls – My Thoughts on Three Teachers' Blogs. 17/6/13 HERE

Brush Up Your Shakespeare – Set Text 2013 for Department of Education Study. 12/6/13 HERE

The Day That the Rains Came Down – Halcyon Days (for Jenny). 8/6/13 HERE

Learning By Hearts – a Poem to Read, Learn & Inwardly Digest. 7/6/13 HERE

A Fable for Our Times. 3/6/13.  HERE



  1. Thank you for this. I sense there is a better way. Indeed, when I first taught, sixteen years ago it was much better, more supportive, more developmental, less pressurised. We could do extra things easily, we had time. We have strayed so far though. I hope there is a way back.

  2. It is because I believe you are right, Miss Smith, when you speak of sixteen years ago that I feel it may be of value in my retirement to write at times of the way we were, for there are many teaching today who have never breathed a different air.