Developing Strong Performers in an Ungraded Lesson Observation or “What do I do?? There were no areas for development!”

I am doing lots of consultancy right now related to the transition from graded to ungraded, developmental observation cycles in the FE sector and an interesting query has arisen from several different observers.

What happens in an ungraded lesson observation when you don’t see any areas for development/ weaknesses and yet you are expected to focus on a developmental dialogue with the teacher? 

 Some observers have told me they feel concerned about seeming to patronise a competent, skilled colleague who delivered an impressive lesson; some have mentioned that strong performers sometimes felt reluctant to engage in developmental dialogue as they seemed to see the graded observation as a checklist exercise. It simply required a “show pony” lesson, leading to the badge of honour of securing a grade one for another year, but with no further engagement or challenge. In some cases, anecdotal conversations suggest that getting the grade one meant no plan for development was encouraged and the teacher was just invited to ‘share practice’ somehow. Reflection and professional dialogue was not required or followed through in the same way as with a lesson graded three.

For me, every observation can be an opportunity for reflection and development if the mindset of both parties creates this space. Teachers need to see and feel the value of the process for themselves and their learners; observers need to be clear that their prime function in the feedback conversation is to prompt reflection, invite developmental dialogue and encourage the teacher to take ownership of what happens next. This can be a real shift for observers who were used to mainly delivering their assessment of the lesson with a grade, and not focusing their attention so fully on the teachers’ deeper learning from the experience.

More on the issue of mindset within this process here:

So when I see a lesson full of great planning and responsiveness to learners, I know that the feedback conversation could be a fascinating one, as long as I can provide space and opportunity to discuss deeper and broader points about learning for that teacher. Here are some areas I often discuss after a great lesson:

  1. What’s in it for you?

 I am interested to know how else that teacher would have staged the lesson and what the impact might have been, as the way they think about planning can be a thought-provoking topic to discuss. I often ask about what they might have done differently, with the benefit of hindsight, and how that might have created a different but equally great lesson. I ask if there is one aspect of that lesson that they would like to explore further via research as I realise that many impressive teachers have areas that they would like to explore further.

Many experienced teachers, including myself, have skills in working to their own strengths and avoiding what doesn’t suit their style, so an interesting conversation can sometimes be had around “thin ice lessons”, the ones in which you try something new and learn on the spot, dealing with pitfalls and glitches as they happen. I often ask teachers what would have been the higher risk, more experimental version of the lesson I saw.

2. What’s in it for them?

 I discuss with them what worked in the lesson for different learners with different needs, to find out how aware they are of their own strengths in planning and class management. I talk about what impressed me as I watched them teach, in terms of the impacts on learners that I noted. I am constantly reminded how modest many great practitioners are and how unaware of their own strengths they can be.

We discuss whether there were any key learning points from that lesson which could benefit other groups or lessons. We look for transferable learning and extend the conversation into wider reflection on their practice.

I often ask how the strongest learner would have felt in specific stages of the lesson and whether any further stretch could have been provided appropriately.

  1. What next?

 Some strong performers want to develop their role as a coach/mentor with colleagues so it is always worth asking what next for that teacher. Some want to become a manager and the feedback conversation can move into broader aspirational discussions. Sharing practice is not the most appropriate action point for many of these teachers, in my experience, as it does not necessarily develop them. I see many colleges losing good staff because they are not sufficiently aware of the need to provide progression and think about how to manage talent in the organisation. In a developmental feedback conversation, there are opportunities to look out for signals from staff, if the dialogue is deep and open. Recently in such feedback conversations, I have signposted some research to read, a person to link up with on Twitter and someone to visit in another college to gather fresh ideas. The “what next” doesn’t need to come from inside the college – it could well need to come from the wider sector, if growth is to happen for that teacher.

I would be very interested to hear of other ways that you work with strong performers after an ungraded lesson observation.

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