Sunday, 27 January 2013

OFSTED 'Outstanding'... who me? Never!

Observations can be one of the most stressful experiences in a teachers job. As an NQT and well into the first couple of years of teaching, observations were the stuff of nightmares for me. Cold sweats and waking up in the middle of the night were not unusual. I would dread them for weeks in advance. My heart rate would increase every time someone talked about them. A serious case of shaky hands would come on as the schedule for the team's observations arrived on my desk. The nerves were crippling. The thought of getting it all wrong was at the centre of this fear. I had not seen many other teachers teach at the time, and although I had excellent training during my PGCE at The Institute of Education, there was just so much to take in. I felt completely alone - it was daunting.

I was no natural:
I never felt like I was one of those young teachers that could just go into the classroom and 'wing it' with a smile and a story.  My first PGCE observation was a catastrophe. Blind panic meant that I could not remember most of it and I ran out of lesson material half way through the hour! I ended the lesson a quivering mess, wanting to cry. I have now been graded 'outstanding' in observations six times in a row, including once under the new OFSTED framework by OFSTED themselves. I was even mentioned in the school's OFSTED report as an example of 'outstanding' teaching. A stark contrast to the confused nervous wreck I was when first being observed.

I am one of life's grafters. When I began teaching I was most certainly not naturally comfortable while being observed, but I keep getting better and learning from every experience. I work hard at becoming good at whatever I do and really enjoy that process. I am a good student now, much better than when I was actually at school, let me tell you! I hope I never stop learning from all the people I work with at all levels of the profession.

Becoming a magpie:
The more I made time to work with others, the more my confidence grew in my own teaching abilities. I worked with two great bosses who were very different in their approaches to teaching. I became a sponge and soaked up everything I liked about both of these great teachers. I gained so much from working with them. I began to explore their creative approaches to lessons. I observed and trialled their techniques with difficult students, watching the subtleties of psychology you need to employ with the huge variety of young people we deal with day in and day out.

Hard graft and collaborative learning:
I benefitted greatly from working with the long chain of PGCE students that came through the department. Helping them become better and observing them frequently really helped me reflect on my own teaching. Team-teaching with a wonderful Teach First teacher was a great experience too, planning and delivering lessons where we really tried to teach as a team and discuss our approaches in detail. As my experience grew so did my confidence in my own abilities. I have been lucky enough to have had bosses who have supported me in taking part in some excellent training, from the 'New to Middle Leadership' course to 'Teaching Leaders' and everything in between. And I read, boy did I read.  I read all the teaching and learning books I could get my hands on.  Experience and training together have built my confidence enough to take risks and experiment in my teaching, whether in an observation or not. Observations are still daunting now but only because I want to do my best, not because I don't know what the observer is looking for.

The elusive 'outstanding':
A teacher friend of mine, from many moons ago, asked for some advice to help her prepare for a mock-OFSTED that her school was conducting. It got me thinking about how to show progress and what makes an outstanding lesson. After thinking about all the outstanding, and the not so outstanding, lessons I have taught and observed in my time, I passed the tips below to her - she got that elusive 'outstanding' in her lesson observation, well deserved I'm sure.  Now let me be clear, in no way am I saying you should change the way you teach for observations. I believe everyday teaching need not differ from observation lessons, you just need to make certain things clearer to the observer. Often this clarity actually helps the students learn better too.

Top tips for showing progress:
1. A skills based lesson objective - makes it easier to show they have moved on. You could have levelled lesson objectives that they choose from at the start. All from the same skill but climbing up the grades. Discuss this process with the kids.
2. A starter that tests the lesson objective skill. In order to show where they are at the start of the lesson. This makes it much easier to show progress to the you, students and the observer.
3. Mini plenaries intermittently, highlighted to kids and reminding them how well they are doing, refocusing them on the objective and planning for further progress. These should be clearly pointed out on lesson plan. Mini plenaries do not need to be a massive break in the lesson a simple Q and A session or mini whiteboards or thumbs up, middle or down - something like that. Bringing it back to the lesson objective skill in some way.
4. A clear plenary allows the teacher to clearly see who has moved on and who needs more help. This should form the basis of planning for the next lesson.

General advice for observations:
1, Smile and greet the observer. They are not the enemy, they are there to see how wonderful you and the class are.  Relish the opportunity to shine.
2. Make sure your lesson plan is clear and highlights what you want them to notice. Not too wordy though!  They don't need your life history.
3. Have a class profile with their grades on available for the observer.  Make it clear and simple.
4. Seating plan, have your grouped for learning? Show how on the paper plan.
5. Enjoy the lesson, smile and show your positive relationship with the class. Be yourself.
6. Don't cram too much in to the lesson, keep it focused and simple but still challenging.
7. High expectations all the time. Very important.
8. Not too much teacher talk, get them discussing and working too.
9. Make it fun if you can.
10. Show a real enthusiasm for what you are teaching, it is infectious.

I'm no more of an expert that any other member of a Senior Leadership team that has seen hundreds of lessons, but I know these tips work.  I hope they are useful.

Good luck with your next observation.


  1. Nice. I very sensible and no B'S. I like it.

  2. I think that it is so important to acknowledge that Ofsted 'Outstanding' is not something that just happens and that, quite often, it represents a bit of a journey. I agree that becoming a discerning magpie is a great idea and that there is no shame in sorting through everyone else's pedagogic toolboxes to find ideas that interest and work for you.

    Great blog!

  3. Great Blog!
    Completely agree that the more you self-reflect and observe other great teachers, the more chance you have of improving your practice. Have you heard of IRIS Connect?