Saturday, 18 May 2013

Under the microscope

This year it seems like I have been observed within an inch of my teaching life.  It has not been an easy process or one full of much joy.  There has been a great deal of tears and much soul searching.  This week I received a 'Good' observation after a succession of 'Requires Improvement', so this blog shall take you on the journey I had to get there. 

Last academic year I received my first ever 'Outstanding' with my wonderful Year 13s teaching Hamlet for the first time. 

I am shattered so there maybe grammatical errors present, so advanced apologies to any readers and especially Year 6 teachers who have had to put their pupils through THAT test this week. 

December 2012: The 'Deatheaters' one:

I was just at the end of my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy session when I looked at my phone to put in our new appointment. A text from a colleague read 'We have had the call'.  I very nearly had a panic attack, which I wish was some kind of dramatic embellishment, but it is not.  I went home, feeling nauseous and planned my lessons for Wednesday. 

Period 1, Year 7, top set. The English Inspector and the deputy rolled in and I did my best to do my best.  The lesson was typical of what we had been doing using the 'Read/Write Inc' materials with a bit of tweaking to try and tick the relevant Ofsted boxes.  The pupils were exceptionally well behaved, including the three naughtiest boys in the year group.  The lesson was well structured and well organised, the pupils were clearly used to the routine of the lesson and got on with peer marking spellings and work as usual.  They stayed a good 20 minutes, so a judgement was inevitable. 

The judgement was a grade 3, 'Requires Improvement'.  I was disappointed but too exhausted for histrionics. I didn't really get any feedback.

Some perspective: Many of us who saw ourselves as good, competent, hard-working teachers came out of this visit with a grade 3. This was across the board from classroom bodies such as I, to Middle Leaders and SLT.

The school was placed in the upper band of Category 4 and what follows is VERY much a product of working in the environment that that process has created. 

February 2013: The first CPD one.

Year 8, Period 2. Introducing Poetry SoW.  Here I was still very much in the grip of The Black Dog combined with anxiety levels that were unnatural and barely controllable.  The lesson was very much based on @JamesTheo's idea for introducing poetry using SOLO and the premise of 'How would you explain poetry to Heston Blumenthal?'  

My Head of Faculty walked in with a member of SLT. I did not know that that SLT member was going to observe me.  The anxiety levels cranked up. 

Once again the class were beautifully co-operative, including those pupils who are normally permanently on report.  But there was too much content.  The 'SOLO Taxonomy Explained Using Lego' video from Youtube took a little longer than I thought, thus affecting the pace of the lesson. 

The judgement was a Grade 3 'Requires Improvement'.  Here I was far more disappointed, not least due to the way in which the feedback was given.  It began with the, 'How do you think it went?' question, and being very much negative in my thinking, and relentlessly self-critical, I picked out the flaws in the lesson. 

This lead to feeback delivery being in the tone of a doctor delivering news of a terminal illness, and was relentlessly critical for what seemed like forever, to the extent I stopped the conversation demanding some positives.  I practically bit the SLT members's head off I was so angry.   I then spent a good hour in a different SLT member's office sobbing, and sobbing, and sobbing. 

I got in touch with our HT about how the feedback was given and that the delivery was not appropriate (to someone with The Black Dog very much in residence), helpful or useful. She was kind enough to find me the next morning in the English office to discuss it with me, told me NOT to do another observation this half term and concentrate on getting better.  (She was aware of my dealings with The Black Dog). I have a great deal of respect for how she deals with her staff, how fair and above board she is. 

March 2013: The Interview One

Later on that term I had applied for an English teacher post at @JohnTomestt and @HuntingEnglish's school in York.  It was more of a case of, 'could I fill out the application form with confidence' and 'How do I write that cover letter' thing again. The lovely @deadshelley, via Twitter and emails, held my hand through the process and did so much proof reading and checking the man deserves a crate of wine.  I did get the call for interview on a Tuesday, the interview was Friday that same week.  Up cranked the anxiety levels. 

I had gone all foolish and brave and planned a lesson around slow writing, which I had read on @LearningSpy's blog.  It was immensely foolish as I had not even taught this to any of my own classes.  It was rigorously planned but ill thought out. I was trying to tick so many bloody boxes it was more of a scatter gun approach to lesson planning. 

Matters were not helped by the fact that I had, via reading both @JohnTomsett and @HuntingEnglish's blogposts, placed them in very high esteem, I was (still am) in awe of them both that that too had put me under immense pressure on interview day, utterly wracked with self-doubt of my worthiness. 

Without putting too fine a point on it, the lesson was a total and utter train wreck.  I knew it was going badly, but panic and anxiety had such a vice like grip on my cognitive abilities I was rendered impotent.  Unable to act or retrieve it.  I wanted to bolt out of that classroom, cry and then vomit into a nearby receptacle. 

Grading? Bloody awful.  All credit to @HuntingEnglish and his second, because their feedback was exactly as Ron Berger would have wished it: Kind, fair and specific. The best part of Alex Quigly's advice was "You have many great ideas, they just don't all belong in one lesson. Simplify, simplify, simplify". 

I told them I would not have put myself through to the afternoon interviews based on what they saw.  I was embarrassed but they were kind.  I left un-traumatised but exhausted and that evening I 'powered down' much like HAL at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was utterly spent. 

The Second CPD one. 16th May 2013

Year 13, AQA Language and Literature class. 5 pupils, 2 of whom have sporadic attendance.  They are great and I could discuss the observation openly with them and spent the prior lessons nailing the structure of the learning, the content and the assessment of 'progress' so that the foundations had been laid for the observation well before the lesson plan was written.  Thanks to @LearningSpy for his Pedagoo London presentation 'Anatomy of an Outstanding Lesson' where I used the old 'Iceberg' principle make sure all I had done before observation day was relevant, purposeful and there was clear progression BEFORE that lesson. 

So, here's the lesson plan:

Yr 13
No. of students
No. of G&T
Ability range
No. with statements
No. of EAL
No. with IEP
No. of FSM
No. of LAC
NB: This lesson plan is for ALL 3 lessons, not just the observed one.

Learning intention - where are we going?
To be able to compare and contrast the linguistic features
of a transcript and a literary conversation
We can question the exam question
We can plan and organise our ideas, evidence and interpretations of the texts
We can meet the higher mark band criteria for Section B
Success criteria – how will we know when we've got there?
ALL Will have a clear understanding of the demands of the mark scheme; assessed their progress and attainment against SOLO taxonomy and the markscheme; identified and analysed the linguistic features in each text; composed a range of lower and higher order questions; selected apt evidence to support their thinking
MOST As above, with hypothetical thinking in evidence
SOME As above, with hypothetical and theorising in evidence in their work

Identified intervention students

B_____ and C_____have poor attendance. Work missed is emailed to them at home, paper resources provided via 6th form office. Literacy mat to be used in lesson.
A______ will be absent due to an exam – lesson to be emailed.

Hook (engagement)

Familiarise students with the Section B mark-scheme via a card sort.
Align with SOLO taxonomy
Use it to assess previous pupil’s work and provide advice for improvement.
Differentiation strategies/Use of other adults in the room

SOLO Taxonomy
Direct teacher intervention
Setting the scene

Pupils provided with Word clouds based on our source texts for the lesson
12 mins spent looking for semantic fields and relevant language features in the word cloud

Can they work out who has word cloud based on a transcript?
Who as one based on a literary conversation?
What MIGHT be the thematic connection between the two texts? (Medical)
Justify decisions to peers – must refer to evidence in Wordle to do so.

Check progress using SOLO taxonomy and referring back to mark scheme, where next?

Literacy mat or connectives and linguistic terms to be provided in lesson.

Direct teacher intervention in lesson
Activate (main learning activities)

Needs to be pacey as in exam this needs to be done at speed.

Pupils are then provided with the sources texts:
Creature Comforts ‘Pets at the Vets’ transcript
An extract from Burrough’s ‘The Naked Lunch’
Can listen to each text, pupils ‘SOLO’ the text using SOLO taxonomy guidance sheet.
One pair focus on the first half of each text, the other pair the second half.
Allocated time to deconstruct text, then feedback and peer teach.

Check progression using SOLO taxonomy – link back to mark scheme. How do we move to the next stage?
Now they have the basis of textual knowledge to respond to an exam Q. Exam 1 will be on A5 which they glue to A3.
Keeping in same allocated pairs and roles, pupils use the question grid to compose questions that will a) deconstruct the exam Q b) construct a range of questions, leading to higher order questions ergo higher order responses (Extended abstract)

Annotate adding examples from text and transcript to A3 sheet, using ‘SOLOing the text guidance’ to assess own progress

SOLO progress check

Paired work, (or a 3 and a 2) for pupil peer support.

Their questions are evaluated using SOLO taxonomy and re-drafted or edited accordingly

Check progress using SOLO taxonomy, refer to mark scheme

Q: Will their plan enable them to meet the higher mark bands? How might it be improved still? Use Mark scheme cards from start of lesson.
Connectives and linguistic terms placemat

Spoken Language glossary provided
Learn to learn opportunities

SOLO taxonomy used explicitly in lesson so pupils can evaluate progress and understand WHY they are where they are, then ‘feed forward’ to improve

Home Learning
Revise work on Grice and Lakoff add Qs and annotations to essay plan
Ready for use as a mock exam next week

Cross Curricular opportunities
Literacy mats provided in the lesson
Glossary of spoken language terms also provided
‘Unstuck’ table

Health & Safety


 If you are interested in the lessson resources, please feel free to DM me your email address and you can have them and plunder at will.  An idea just occurred to me for the English Shared Dropbox: a folder for 'Successful Lesson Observation Plans and resources'  - useful CPD, surely?

 The Feedback:

I walked into the observer's office feeling a bit nauseous.  I sat down, palms sweating. Straight away she told me it was a 2. I flopped back in the chair, almost breathless with relief. 

Positives: Good planning and structure, well resourced, excellent subject knowledge; my unique teaching style (well, I took that as a positive); the content of the lessons was very high level as was the work the pupils had produced; with good questionning. They could see they were making at least good progress and that their results would be good.  They looked through the pupils work and could see regular use of the SOLO taxonomy so this was not atypical, but typical of how these lovely girls had been taught. The best comment for me was about the great relationship I have with the pupils.

Criticisms:  I talk too much - to the pupils, to the observers, to myself (that was purely down to nerves), I should not really have been slurping coffee while discussing the learning with the pupils, (a fair point re. professionalism.  Think my thermos mug of coffee was some kind of security thing); that even if I'm thinking it, I really shouldn't say, 'Bloody hell, look at the time.' when the lesson is getting near its end.  (I've never, ever said that before in an observed or un-observed lesson, nerves aided and abetted that numpty moment there). All of which can easily be dealt with. I say that but nerves are a BIG problem for me, always have been! 

Now, what's even better is what my girls emailed me before and after the lesson observation. One was in an art exam so would be absent but she emailed:

"Good luck and don't worry too much, you're a great teacher.

love from


After the observation I emailed the girls with my Grade and the feedback I received. Here's what a couple responded with:

"That's a bit silly, we're all 18 it's not as if we've never heard the word bloody before! Well done though :D x"


"Well done miss :) and if it's any consolation I think your lessons are great :)
(not brown nosing there either)"

That is why I love being their teacher.  They are my judge and jury more so than an inspector or an internal observer. Note how THEY choose to use the word, 'great'. To them,  'outstanding' seems to be a meaningless adjective to describe a teacher or the teaching.

The aftermath of no longer being 'mediocre': a zombie like state of only barely there lucidity. 

It has been a hard won victory.  The process? Vampiric in its demands on your mind, body and soul.  

There are many folk on twitter who, either indirectly, or directly have carried me through this scrutiny.  Thank you for your blogs, tweets, time and patience.  I salute you all.


  1. Gwen. What a brave and inspiring post this is. Keep at it... the judgements you make of yourself are the ones that matter. If you think the lesson has been really will have been. You're such a reflective teacher...that's the big part of the battle won. Lesson observation shouldn't be like this....and that is something I will think long and hard about. Tom

  2. Gwen, I really admire your honesty and willingness to tell all to allow others to learn from your experiences. Methinks anyone applying to schools with the likes of John T and Hunting English would be nervous wrecks as well 8-) But at least you tried because you wanted to work with them, possibly at what you felt was a higher level of expertise etc. Lots of us wouldn't even have applied, having written ourselves off beforehand so kudos to you for pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. (I really must stop using so many cliches!) I'm going to copy this to the members of my Learning and Teaching Group with a request to think hard about how to make their feedback in observations far more Kind Fair and Specific. Too often feedback form these visits is either non-existent, often irrelevant and next to useless. I once had feedback that was - great lesson, all engaged and working hard and great learning. Why didn't you link the (English media- symbolism of colours in films such as Jaws etc) lesson to the use of colours in Art and Design thus making InterDisciplinary Learning?.....errr... 8-) You can't win them all! Thanks for this.

  3. Hi Tom and David, thank you both for your wonderful comments. I am a tad weepy, almost speechless, but not quite. I hugely appreciate what you have both said.

  4. Powerful and brave account, i agree with the comments above. Every school /teacher / slt should read this because feedback is absolutely key. As a teacher being observed, good feedback is what you deserve at the basic level.

    Thank you for sharing, i will share this with my colleagues as it's a great reminder of why we should be always reviewing and improving our observation process for the good of our teachers.