Original thinkers? We don't want your sort

14th March 2014 at 00:00
A box-ticking approach to lesson observation disregards expertise and crushes individuality in the name of improving standards

Mrs Swan has been teaching for a very long time. Her classroom is flawless, filled with smart wall displays and neatly piled exercise books - a powerful juxtaposition to the horrors of classrooms elsewhere in the school, those that are held together by chewing gum and smell like mouldy sports kits. She teaches with grace and authority; the years of knowledge and experience radiate from her, giving her an air of credibility that few teachers truly possess.

But recently, Mrs Swan has been having rather a hard time of it. The pressures of increased monitoring and more unreasonable demands for unrealistic data are starting to show on her face and in the way she walks. Late nights in her classroom and long, stressful meetings have dimmed a light that used to shine brightly within her. Her hair is brushed into a neat, tight bun, giving her face a stretched, more youthful look, but her eyes are shadowed and her expression far darker than it used to be.

"It makes me feel very ill at ease," she tells me. "I think they are trying to get rid of me. I'm old and very expensive. No disrespect, but you are younger, more energetic and, frankly, cheaper, so you don't know what it's like. They want me to go: that's why they are piling on the pressure and making me more concerned about my teaching style. I'm sure they are trying to make me think I'm no good."

I don't know how to respond. I shake my head, protesting vehemently: I have never met a teacher I respect more. "They can't possibly want to get rid of you," I insist. Even the craziest despot must know and value the importance of their best asset. I try to reassure her, but she brushes aside my comments.

Confiding in me further, Mrs Swan tells me of an observation she had last week. It didn't go well. Like me, she is very cynical about the entire process, questioning how we can ever be judged on 30 minutes of teaching and acutely aware of the fact that everyone is simply jumping through hoops instead of demonstrating what they typically do. In spite of this, she is a follower of the Church of the Easy Life and always opts to do as she is told. Every sane teacher knows that if they teach as they normally do when being observed, they will be graded poorly and forced to accept supposedly "supportive" measures that do no such thing.

Mrs Swan set out to play the usual game on the morning of her most recent observation, but persistent insomnia and family issues meant that sadly she was not on top form. And so, even with all the gimmicks she could muster, she managed to get only an "inadequate" grading.

She wasn't bothered about the grading itself: "It's meaningless," she pointed out. But it's a label that will follow her around the school like a shadow until she either improves on it or retires, although in her heart she knows it's utter nonsense.

`All they want is gimmicks'

I sense Mrs Swan's frustration as she frantically collects worksheets from desks and rushes around her classroom. It begins to pour out of her and all I can do is listen: "The problem I have with it is that I am willing to learn. I am happy to admit that I'm not the world's best teacher and that I can always get better.

"Yet they patronise me and tell me that I need to improve because I didn't tick their frigging boxes on their frigging clipboards. There is only one way they want me to teach and that's their way. They insist on all the things that don't come naturally to me, things that aren't part of my teaching repertoire. I've tried to adapt to all the changes over the years but I've come to realise that it isn't gimmicks and group work that get results, it's knowing your stuff and having good relationships with the kids. That's it. That's all that matters.

"You can't tell them that you prefer to teach differently or that, in your experience, it is better to employ one teaching style over another. That doesn't matter to them. All they want is gimmicks. All they want is inspector-friendly nonsense."

Mrs Swan finally sits down and takes a deep breath. She looks at me and smiles. I smile back, unable to think of anything to add to her insightful diatribe. Later that night, I reflect on her words and I can finally articulate what it is about the observation culture that I mistrust so much.

The negative impact that observations have on a teacher's morale is enormous and unjustifiable. It doesn't matter how many times the senior leadership team or the schools inspectorate say that they are "judging the lesson, not the teacher", it is incredibly difficult not to see a bad grade as a slight on your ability. To imply that Mrs Swan's preference for one particular teaching style and distaste for another makes her a less competent teacher is to discredit the years of experience that have helped her to hone and craft her practice.

Mrs Swan has dedicated her life to becoming the best teacher she can possibly be. She has committed herself to the teaching profession, to pedagogy and to her students. And yet she is punished for not conforming to a prescriptive set of criteria that supposedly constitute "outstanding" teaching.

Still she carries on. When they come in and observe her and tell her she's no good, she takes it on the chin and just keeps going. When the classroom door is closed and it's just her alone with her students, she puts aside all the politics, all the game-playing and all the worrying about management. Instead, she does everything she can to ensure that she gives her students the best education possible, doing what feels most comfortable and what her years of experience tell her works.

Tessa Matthews is a pseudonym. Names and circumstances have been changed to preserve anonymity

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today