I recently joined in a Twitter discussion about observations, started by Rosie Graham
Observations can be quite controversial in education. When carried out effectively they can be great for professional development, but I don’t think there’s a teacher alive who hasn’t had a negative experience relating to an observation.
I’m still a little resentful about an observation where I was given a grade 2 instead of a 1 because I didn’t use a computer (this was at the turn of the century when we had an Acorn A3000 gathering dust on a large trolley in the classroom). When I asked the observer, my boss, how it would have enhanced the lesson, he couldn’t tell me. When I pointed out that my computer was broken and I’d been asking for months to have it repaired, he shrugged sheepishly. The observation sheet had a “use of ICT” box, and I hadn’t ticked it. So I was “Very Good”, as a 2 was in those days, on a scale of 1-7, but I wasn’t “Excellent”. I still didn’t get my computer fixed. Those things stick with you. I also personally know many people who have had much more traumatic experiences than my trivial annoyance, I know wonderful teachers who have had their careers damaged by people who should have known better. It’s no wonder some people’s hearts start to beat a little faster when someone mentions “drop-ins”, “learning walks” and “observations”.
Which brings me to Magpie mornings, which I discussed in the thread. To give some context, the idea came to me the morning after an Ofsted inspection (Good with much Outstanding teaching). We had been on quite a journey together, with the school identified by the LA as causing formal concern as I took up my post as Headteacher. After a lot of hard work, we’d built up a team of very skilled teachers, so much so that prior to the Ofsted inspection the LA took us out of formal concerns and started to send staff from other schools to observe best practice teaching. It occurred to me, while I was in the shower that morning, that teachers from miles away were observing the excellent practice in our classrooms, but that a colleague in the classroom next door might never see it. That seemed a bit of a waste of talent.
Thus, the idea of a “Magpie Morning” was born. A lot of the groundwork had been done, we were all very used to being observed at this point, anyone who has been in a school labeled inadequate or causing formal concern will tell you that you quickly get used to having lots of people wandering in and out of your lessons. But what if they weren’t observing in the usual sense of the word, but coming in to steal excellent ideas? I would teach the class of the “Magpie” teacher for the morning and they would be free to wander the school to visit any classroom and “steal” ideas from their colleagues.
There would be no formal feedback, but if teachers wanted to chat about their lessons afterward then the magpie teacher would make some time to do that with the teachers they had visited. No one was to report any lessons that bombed (come on, who hasn’t had one of those?), and what happened in the classroom stayed between the “magpie” and the teacher unless it was a safeguarding issue. We needed to be able to trust each other. The mornings would be scheduled so that everyone would know that someone was wandering, there shouldn’t be any surprises.
I put this idea to the SLT that morning and after an initial, “Ruth, can’t you just enjoy the fact we’ve got Ofsted out of the way and stop thinking of new ideas” response, we had a meeting with staff to talk about how it might work. This was hugely important and the reason for writing this blog. It’s impossible to convey everything in 240 characters on Twitter so here’s my advice if you’re thinking about putting this into place:
- Be very clear about the purpose of this- it’s to share good practice, not to feedback on areas for improvement for the teacher. If the teacher wants to discuss the lesson and ask for any advice as to how it may be improved, then that’s ok. But it’s not the magpie’s job to offer unsolicited advice.
- It is absolutely NOT a formal observation. This is about sharing ideas and developing a culture of openness. On no account should there be any grading or any feedback on what was seen in class to senior leaders or subject leaders. The only exception being if something is a safeguarding issue.
- Magpie mornings should not replace observations, they serve a different purpose entirely, and are a valid and useful part of school improvement. (That might be another blog).
- Be consistent and clear with the schedule. No one should be surprised that someone wanders into their room. Everyone should know when magpie mornings are happening.
- If a member of staff is having a hard time (maybe with settling a pupil or is struggling with other issues) they should feel able to ask not to be visited if it’s going to cause them extra stress or disruption.
- Wherever possible leaders should try to cover the magpie’s class themselves, this is really helpful as a leader, because you get to know the children and the class dynamics really well and when you’re having conversations about individual children you can relate them to your own experience of working with the child in class.
- Don’t try to do this too often! If you’re going to cover the class, be realistic about the schedule, you’ll still have to fit in all your other work. Also, consider the impact of too many magpies, if you’re not careful it could feel like a revolving door for teachers.
- Have a meeting with everyone involved to discuss potential pitfalls and concerns, this needs to be a positive experience, not another thing that staff feel is imposed upon them. Talk about why you want to do it and listen to people’s concerns.
- Think about how you organise magpie cover- I always preferred to be told the lesson objectives and then plan my own lessons based on the unit of work, but some teachers might prefer to leave very specific plans. What you don’t want to do is create more work for the magpie teacher! Discuss what everyone would prefer. In the end, some teachers left me plans, others left me the objectives and I planned.
When we first set this up we agreed to trial it and reflect after a term so that we could change anything that wasn’t working. We started out with a recording sheet (not to be shared) which was basically 3 boxes to note ideas down that the magpie might try in their classroom. Ideas such as classroom organisation, behaviour management techniques (these were particularly useful for teachers who would be working with the same children the following year), display, or teaching ideas. Eventually, the recording sheet disappeared. I think we needed the structure at the beginning but as this became part of our everyday practice people felt they no longer needed them.
What's the impact?
I can only speak from my own experience. But it definitely created a more collegiate approach and a culture of openness. I also think it kept me grounded as a head, a regular teaching commitment in each classroom showed that I could still walk the walk, but also reminded me of the realities of everyday teaching. KS2 teachers told me they found it useful to see where children start out in Nursery, Reception and KS1 and Infant teachers said that it was helpful to see KS2 expectations in action, and also to see the children they’d taught doing so well. It definitely led to a more consistent approach and it was particularly useful for teachers who knew that there were some children with additional needs coming into their classes in the future, to see how their needs were currently being met. I felt that there was greater professional respect and understanding for teachers in other key stages. But perhaps the best thing for me was overhearing the professional conversations the approach sparked. At the end of the day wandering into the staffroom hearing teachers having a chat about what they’d seen in each other’s classrooms was just brilliant.
Like anything, done well it can be empowering and executed badly I would imagine it could be disastrous. For me, the key would be to discuss why you want to do it and listen to people’s concerns. If you do decide to give it a go, let me know how it goes.