Even as the last inspector left the building, there was barely time for a celebratory glass of champers before the usual suspects brought the gloom, and began jabbering on about how it wouldn’t be long before the next inspection. You know the types: they dread every Monday (imagine dreading that proportion of your life), meet new strategies with an eye roll and struggle to muster the enthusiasm to say cheerio at the end of a day.
Yet that inspection (under Ofsted in England, although I now work in Scotland), along with every other inspection I’ve been part of, ended extremely well for the school. We felt we were good, and so did the inspectors.
As teachers, we like to be in charge and we’re used to being the judge, rather than the judged. It’s no surprise, then, that being scrutinised and observed makes us feel uncomfortable. Sometimes, though (as we tell our students on a daily basis) being pushed out of your comfort zone is when you surprise yourself and achieve your best. Perhaps we need to turn the process on its head: what can I learn from this experience to make me a better teacher? What do I feel proud of achieving during this inspection? Or, simply, what would I tell a student who was fearful or stressed in the run-up to an assessment?
There is no point in fearing inspectors. All we achieve is to make monsters out of them. We build a caricature, an opponent. In doing so, we sabotage our own practice by creating an insurmountable challenge. Becoming anxious about something that hasn’t happened or might not happen is counter-productive, isn’t it? Admittedly, it’s not easy to control adrenaline, but the mastery of emotional responses is generally a trait that teachers possess. Think of when a child threatens to throw a chair across the room, or when a student has an allergic reaction. We cope well in those situations, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing the job.
There seems to be a real lack of respect for inspectors. Are these previous school leaders really so lacking in expertise and good judgement that whenever they find a weakness they are wrong? Do they really have no clue what they’re talking about? Are they completely out of touch? I’m not so sure.
I once overheard a colleague complaining that her observed lesson didn't impress. The students had been writing an essay for the duration of the period. They did what she told them and were silent throughout the process. What more did the inspection team want? Well, a lot, I’d venture. I’d be willing to wager my morning coffee that this experienced teacher knew exactly what the inspectors wanted to see, too, and yet she’d chosen not to “play the game”.
And playing the game is what it’s all about, isn’t it? Having a structured lesson, showing progress over time, setting high expectations. It’s what we do most days, if not every day. Inspectors only see a snapshot, so give them your best. As experienced members of the education profession, they know that the bells and whistles aren’t out every single lesson, but why wouldn’t you want to show off your skills when you’re being observed? It’s not often teachers get a chance to be celebrated, so it makes sense to maximise the opportunity.
Other professions have audits and reviews, and the stakes are often much higher. Maybe it’s time that we made a concerted effort to give inspectors the benefit of the doubt – after all, like us, they’re only doing their job.
Sam Tassiker is a secondary teacher in Scotland