'Lesson observation is no way to nurture teachers'

Does lesson observation mean we're on the side of students? No, it means we're on the back of teachers, writes JL Dutaut

JL Dutaut

lesson observation

Humans – in particular, successful ones – have a tendency to overestimate nature and downplay nurture in shaping who they are. As teachers, we are (naturally?) reticent to fall into that trap, and rightly so. But, given our ongoing recruitment and retention crisis, how much of our learned behaviour is at play in making education an unattractive prospect and an unsustainable career

This year, the equivalent of 35,645 full-time teachers have left the profession for reasons other than retirement. One hundred a day, every single day. With Ofsted turning the screw on school leaders to reduce teacher workload, we can expect to see our practices change, but what of our environment?

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Practices are learned, and they can be unlearned. If environments are not conducive to that, they can be changed. Norms are simply choices we repeatedly make, and schools, after all, are contrived environments. Wanting and not yet knowing how to change things is hard, but it isn’t even the first step. First, we have to be convinced we need to change, and we tend to be resistant until we are compelled.

Grading lessons

Take, for example, classroom observation. It’s a long time since Ofsted stopped the practice of grading lessons. Nevertheless, many school leaders continue to do it. Here, system leaders could learn something from the logistics problem of “the last mile”. Getting a container ship from the Chinese city of Shenzhen to Felixstowe is quite easy, but getting your Amazon parcel from the local distribution centre to your front door is comparatively much harder. So with policy, too.

Part of the problem is that Ofsted modelled grading lessons for a long time. The inspectorate taught the profession to do it. Admitting it was wrong was hard, but changing its ways was easy. 

Unfortunately, convincing the rest of us to follow suit is almost impossible, because Ofsted is not set up to compel anyone to do anything. As true as it is that when they say “Boo!” everybody jumps, they never tell anyone to jump. That is a nurtured response. 

As a result, Ofsted grading lessons easily becomes a model for everyone to copy, but Ofsted no longer grading lessons has very little motivational power, especially for those who have never experienced another way of doing things. The power of Ofsted compels us, and grading lesson observations remains a comforting exercise for those whose next judgement day could make or break their school and their career.

Rewarding the advantaged

A lot of condescension goes on in leadership circles about this. “You’re still grading lesson observations? That is sooooo last framework, darling!” This is a breathtaking denial of an environment that nurtures inequality by rewarding the already advantaged. Consider the privilege involved in denying the most vulnerable whatever protection they would cling to in order to survive potentially catastrophic climate change. 

It isn’t even like Ofsted has stopped observing lessons altogether. Indeed, few people seem to have even imagined that might be possible. It is the “natural” way we nurture teachers. Even the most progressive school leaders I know don’t consider not observing lessons. Instead, they see value in getting teachers to observe others as “professional development”. 

In an environment characterised by surveillance, the humane thing seems to be to subvert the surveillance structure, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It only normalises the environment more effectively and more fully. Surveillance becomes entirely naturalised because it is internalised. Teachers watch their own performance on video to fulfil the promise of true reflective practice. Companies sell schools bodycams to monitor behaviour.

Nurture and luck

A lot of thought, albeit little action, has gone into the workload crisis, much of it focused on reducing the number of tasks in order to free up time. This is an impoverished, technocratic way to look at the problem. It fails to value practices and practitioners alike. Worse, it leaves their environment untouched. 

This naturalisation of the environment and nurturisation of teachers is only half the story – the half that sustains a dysfunctional status quo. It fosters school and system leaders’ self-belief in their place at the top and downplays the environmental factors that led there: the schools they’ve worked in, who they’ve worked with, how their values chimed with the people who promoted them. Their luck. 

The best leaders I’ve worked with see their positions as the result of nurture and luck, and say so. The most challenging acknowledge only their mentors, if they even do that. They see their position as a result of their efforts and innate qualities, and tend to abuse it. Most leaders exist in a continuum between the two, where they feel safe, but you need only imagine a hard-working, aspirational teacher working in an environment that doesn’t recognise her talent to realise the terrible error of this line of thinking.

“It didn’t do me any harm” is no kind of excuse for perpetuating practices. Observing lessons does nothing to improve “quality of education” beyond short-term, marginal gains. It’s more likely to impair it in the long term by creating a toxic environment. 

Helping out

Our instinct here may be to draw on the experience of “bringing teachers on”, and no doubt we have, but to what extent have we brought on the ones who were most adaptable to the environments we created? How many teachers have we not brought on and what or who do we hold responsible for that?

And what does observing lessons say about us? Does it say we have privileged knowledge? No. Only that we have privilege. Does it say we are committed to improvement? Only our own. Does it say we are on the side of the students? Quite the opposite. It says we are on the back of their teacher.

What if we didn’t observe lessons and spent the time helping out instead? What if we joined students as learners, asked questions, had conversations with teachers in front of them? What if we had as much commitment to learning from teachers as we expect them to have of themselves and each other? What if we had headteachers again, instead of diaphanous “leaders” and inscrutable “executives”?

What kind of environment might we contrive that way? My money is on a sustainable one. It seems a reasonable first step on that arduous last mile.

JL Dutaut is co-editor of Flip the System UK: a teachers' manifesto (Routledge) and tweets @dutaut. He is currently on a career break from teaching to research school accountability systems around the world. He hasn't found one he likes yet, and he doesn't think you would either

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