No two classrooms are the same. In a big school, you can zigzag down the corridor, dropping into classes at the same year stage, teaching the same lesson and yet everything will feel different. That is the magic of teaching: each teacher and each class is unique. Working together to set the conditions for learning, each classroom is its own little community of students and teacher. Each has its own set of rules and expectations for how things work, what is OK and what is not.
School leaders are well placed to visit these little communities and should be intensely curious about what makes them tick. But, too often, a preconceived idea of what an effective classroom looks like gets in the way.
Wearing a metaphorical (but still clearly visible) pair of shiny “How I Think It Should Be Done” glasses during classroom observations or learning walks is a fast and efficient way for school leaders to stifle high-quality teaching and learning and trample on teacher enthusiasm. And providing a set of specific rules regarding classroom routines and lesson structure may seem like a good way of setting and keeping the bar consistently high, but it is likely to do the opposite.
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Such rules crush creativity and make for a one-size-fits-all culture where thinking about learning becomes obsolete. Why bother spending time exploring how we learn best when there’s a flowchart on the teacher’s desk telling us how we must do it?
Of course, there must be shared standards. Teachers must be clear about how these standards will be maintained to ensure success and be fully on board with the school leader’s broader vision for improvement. But that doesn’t mean all teachers have to be the same. And it certainly doesn’t mean all classrooms should look and feel the same.
From traditional rows of desks with a board at the front all the way through to beanbag zones and kneeling stations, classrooms today can come in all shapes and sizes. What is important is that the conditions are set so that learning and teaching become as effective as possible. And that means giving creative control over to the teacher and pupils. Allowing them the time and space to decide as a community of learners what approaches work best for them and in what setting.
A truly effective school leader embraces this diversity of environment and methodology for what it is: evidence that highly skilled teachers are listening closely and eliciting what works best for their pupils. They will revel in the morning walk round and be inspired, not be terrified by the differences they find. These school leaders pick up ideas in one classroom and casually drop them in another, uniquely placed as they are to see the big picture. In so doing, they pollinate their school with good practice. They are the worker bees, flitting across the meadow, making sure the good stuff gets to where it needs to go.
So be a bee – and let your teachers create the buzz.
Susan Ward is depute headteacher at Kingsland Primary School in Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. She tweets @susanward30