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Platform: Many hands make light work

Teaching can be a very lonely job. Apart from the early days of student training and those who have the opportunity to team-teach, many teachers (particularly those in smaller departments) rarely have the opportunity to share their work with other teachers and to learn from each other. The role of the principal teacher is crucial in building up and maintaining support mechanisms for staff, providing regular opportunities for discussion of practice and the sharing of ideas. But, how do we really know how we are performing behind the closed doors of our classrooms?

Within our own department we tackled this very question. How could we obtain an objective view of our own teaching in a way which was not threatening to staff? Fundamenta l to any approach is the issue of trust and respect for others. In opening up our classroom doors we are placing ourselves in a vulnerable position - one in which our practice can be questioned and our value-systems judged.

For this reason, the means by which any evaluation of practice should be carried out, the criteria upon which it should be judged and the means of evaluating and disseminating the results were discussed openly and agreed at a departmental meeting.

First, we decided that we did not want to adopt a top-down approach, the most common approach to monitoring and appraisal. We considered that we could all learn from each other and we adopted a circular model - each member of the department would observe one other member of staff and be observed in turn. The least experienced member of staff was to observe myself, the principal teacher, and I in turn would observe another more experienced colleague. We were assisted in this process by an undertaking by the senior management team to provide cover for such activities to take place.

The next decision we made was that we did not want someone sitting at the back with a clipboard taking notes on the lesson to be observed. We considered it much more beneficial for the "observer" to actively take part in the lesson, perhaps assisting with the organisation of the lesson or working with a group of pupils. We then identified an area of practice in which we considered it would be beneficial to examine our teacher approach - a performing lesson for first-year classes. As principal teacher I considered the process of discussion leading to the identification of appropriate performance indicators to be a very important factor in raising awareness of the issues and we therefore devoted considerable time to identifying for ourselves the factors which we considered to be important in evaluating the lesson.

These factors ranged across creating the right ethos for effective learning to take place; principles of effective teaching and learning (developing responsibility through providing choice, meeting individual needs, building upon and reinforcing previous learning); and issues of class management (recording pupil progress). Those factors which were tackled particularly well would be rated as plus and those which were considered to be weak as minus. In each case, if an area was highlighted as being either a particular strength or weakness a brief comment was to be made.

We considered it crucial that we should be supportive of each other in this process and this was the underlying principle both during observation and also in reporting back. From a personal perspective, I considered that I gained a greater insight from participating within the lesson which I was observing than I would have done if simply observing. The criteria helped me to focus my observation in a meaningful way and I found the experience worthwhile and enjoyable.

The session during which we all reported back was very relaxed and, yes, surprisingly enjoyable. The discussion was wide-ranging and led to some in-depth discussion of our basic philosophies and approaches and we all considered that we had arrived at a better understanding of each other and had begun to look at our teaching from a fresh angle. I would like to think that we all took a little from each other to bring to our teaching, to the benefit of our classes.

This is one of many approaches which we adopt to monitor and evaluate our performance, ranging from the evaluation of examination and test results, pupil and parent questionnaires and focused discussion at departmental meetings leading to action points which feed into the departmental development plan.

If I were to summarise what we considered to be the advantages of the above approach and, perhaps, those aspects of it which differ from more traditional approaches to monitoring of staff performance, I would cite the following: staff within the department have a sense of control and ownership - it is their scheme, not something which is being imposed upon them no matter how good the intentions; it is not top-down. There is a sense in which everyone is valued - we can all learn from each other; it has the support of senior management and fits in with the overall philosophy of the school to encourage self-evaluation; the process is just as valuable as the end-product (or perhaps even more so) as the discussions involved in deciding upon criteria and in the final evaluation help to raise understanding of the factors inherent in effective learning and teaching; if the basis principles of trust and mutual respect underlie the approach, then it can help build upon relationships and help the department to function more effectively as a team or unit.

This is one of many different approaches to try to improve practice. If we have learned anything from it, it is to realise that monitoring need not be a threatening experience and we can put the ghosts of the "crit" lesson to rest.

Joan Mowat is principal teacher of music at Woodfarm High School, East Renfrewshire.

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