There is a widespread perception that the new Common Inspection Framework (2015) has raised the bar for standards in T&L. Colleagues in the FE sector are mentioning the fact that in many cases, an old framework grade 2 lesson will now be graded 3, due to the greater attention to the learner and learning and the more robust focus on whether improvement work is having an impact on achievement. Consequently, in some colleges there are higher numbers of teachers being graded 3 or 4 this year.
Mentoring or coaching staff in this position can be a challenging process, due to the attitudes and opinions below. It is sensitive work and requires a wide-ranging skill set and thoughtful, sensitive approach from the coach/mentor.
Attitudes and opinions
- Teachers can feel that they should not have been given the grade 3 or 4 because they dispute the comments from the observer and their judgment on what happened in the lesson
- Some people feel the person who observed them was not an appropriate observer as they did not have a related teaching background
- Teachers who have previously gained a grade 2 or 1 react to the implication that somehow they have somehow “deteriorated” as a practitioner since their last observation
- Some people dispute the validity of the whole observation process, feeling it cannot accurately represent their practice
- Others feel that the standard expected was just unreasonably high and that it was not realistic to demand this from teachers
The situation is an emotive one and it is easy to empathise with the teachers’ reaction, when you consider the complexities of graded observation cycles. Coaches and mentors often note these reactions and behaviours:
Reactions and Behaviours
- Teachers are resentful, angry or outraged and want to get it out of their systems: ” It wasn’t fair… I don’t accept the feedback…..that observer wasn’t able to judge me fairly as he had no idea about my subject area“
- Teachers can be demoralised and deflated and show a low level of confidence in their own teaching “I did really badly in that lesson…. I think I just messed up all my questioning as I felt so distracted and stressed”
- Teachers can be quietly resistant to the whole development process after observation: “Yes, that does sound like a good idea to try” while secretly having no engagement with the conversation and no intention of changing anything
- Teachers can be open to the process and see it as a developmental opportunity: “Actually, that has been an issue for me and I’d like to work on it…”
Pointers and tips for coaches and mentors
For coaches and mentors who are supporting staff in these difficult situations, it can be helpful to:
- Stay focused on the fact that you are supporting the teacher and trying to develop their practice, be it in relation to the points on the feedback form but also more broadly and deeply. Don’t reduce your work to a tick box exercise on the areas for development that are written down; try to engage the teacher in an honest discussion about areas that challenge them and their learners. Make this a real opportunity for reflective dialogue and growth for the teacher and respect them as a professional, with resources and skills to bring to this process.
- Stay away from judging the observer and getting involved with the teacher’s (possibly justified!) rants about the unfairness of the feedback. You weren’t there and so you can’t judge what happened in the lesson. If the written feedback report is very vague or too general, you may need more info from the observer and it is useful to be clear on whether you need to go through the Quality Manager or to the observer directly for this. If the teacher totally disputes the grade, signpost the process of challenging it formally as this is not your role
- Give the teacher space to let off steam as when a teacher feels furious about the grade, it can take several meetings for them to be able to focus on a developmental conversation. Sometimes the coach needs to just listen, show empathy without stoking the fire, and then re-iterate their role in the process. Watch for the energy change or language shift that shows it might be a good time to re-direct the conversation onto developmental topics.
- Be careful about wanting to solve it all for them and flooding them with suggestions and materials, because you feel sympathetic and want to help! Your role is to encourage reflection, extend thinking and application, encourage experimentation, reduce blocks and enable the teacher to think their way through the process in their own way. If you clone yourself by providing lesson plans and handouts, there is a real danger of little development for that teacher and the risk of them performing unnaturally in the re-observation, as it is not their stuff or their style! When you prepare for your coaching session, spend some time on thinking up some meaty questions to help them think deeply. Plan the wording, to get them really clear before the session.
- Try to find real areas of interest for that teacher early on so they can own the sessions and start to feel more invested in the process. Sometimes a quick peer observation (i.e. you watch them teach and they watch you teach) is a good way to build trust and start a real conversation about learning.
- Ensure you are clear on what you should be noting down in your coaching sessions and where and who will see these written minutes as confidentiality is key to trust building. Check this with your leader.
- Realise that in some cases people are not ready or willing to engage in this process with you or anyone. This can mean they are evasive, miss meetings, block communication with you. If this happens, talk quickly to your coaching leader for confidential advice, as it often needs to be addressed by the coaching leader or manager instead of the coach.
- Watch other more experienced coaches leading a session with a coachee. You can learn a lot from their choices within the situation, in terms of what to say and what to ask and what they choose to ignore.