When I came to Michaela Community School, in Wembley, north-west London, I was looking to develop subject knowledge and it was one of the reasons I had originally applied to join as a maths teacher.
What I didn’t expect when I joined was that I would have to undertake a huge change in mindset – because in my first term I did not plan any lessons. I did not plan the homework or classroom resources that tested the pupils’ knowledge. I just taught.
You may be thinking, "How?"
The answer lies in the fact that at Michaela, the heads of department are seen as curriculum designers. [Head of maths] Bodil Isaksen wrote and planned the textbook for each topic I taught. Her priority was for me to have strong subject knowledge in the subject I was teaching.
After a term, I was amazed by how much maths knowledge the kids had retained. It, of course, came down to how hard the kids have worked, but it also came down to consistently good teaching. Yet this was only possible because I had not planned anything. My focus has been on developing my subject knowledge and teaching the kids, not writing three-page lesson plans, or making resources that would have been of sub-standard quality anyway because I do not have the expert knowledge of my HoD.
Six months ago, I read Kris Boulton’s piece in TES, but only now does his point resonate with me. Inexperienced teachers should not be planning lessons or resources: my subject knowledge is not to the quality of my experienced HoDs. At Michaela, developing our subject knowledge is our HoD’s number one priority for the teachers they manage. By reducing to a minimum the planning requirements, inexeperienced teachers are given the freedom to focus on this.
Some teachers may feel that they do not have any autonomy if they cannot plan the lessons that they then go on to teach. I felt this way initially but, after my first term, I realised that to ensure that kids were getting consistently good lessons, I couldn’t be planning as well as teaching. The knowledge and the manner in which lessons are delivered has to be standardised. It has to be organised and structured in a way to ensure children develop a clear and accurate understanding of what is being taught.
Given that Bodil had already taught the curriculum to the current Year 8 last year, she knew how best to teach her curriculum. It also ensured that the quality of education between different year groups is as equal as possible, despite both year groups having been taught by different teachers. This meant that all three maths teachers in the school were teaching consistent content even though the range of experience varies enormously.
In explaining this strategy, my head Katharine Birbalsingh mentioned an excellent analogy that Daisy Christodoulou, head of education at the academy chain Ark, has previously deployed: you wouldn’t want doctors to be practising different medical treatments in their own autonomous way – how would you ensure that each patient is receiving a good quality of medical treatment? Why would you want teachers planning resources with an insufficient amount of subject knowledge and teaching pupils with the resources they have planned: that would result in an inconsistency in the quality of education provided. Can you see the elephant in the room?
During my first two teacher training years, I was writing 27 separate lesson plans with resources and powerpoints; I created a section of a scheme of work in the first year with an average level of subject knowledge, and then, in my second year, I had developed my subject knowledge even further. In my second year, when I was teaching my Year 10s, I spent half of my summer beforehand developing my subject knowledge to ensure that they were getting the best education possible from me – as I did for my other classes.
After reteaching myself concepts such as complete the square, surds, fractional indicies etc, I realised that I had to restructure and sequence the existing scheme of work. I wouldn’t have known to do this in my first year of teaching because my subject knowledge was sub-standard. The scary fact was that I wasn’t held to account in developing my subject knowledge to the degree necessary.
I can wholeheartedly say that I work at a school where developing subject knowledge is put in place, where teachers have the time and space to develop their subject knowledge and, at the same time, teachers are held to account for it. It reassures HoDs that their team are focused on developing their subject knowledge and that all pupils are receiving good teaching from the resources created by the HoD. This ensures that all classes within different year groups are receiving consistently good lessons. My subject knowledge has developed beyond my imagination because of the time that I have had to teach instead of plan. And I believe that the results will follow.
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