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  • Writer's pictureSimon Brooks

The 95% Dilemma

It’s ‘appraisal’ time at your school.


It’s just a word . . . but a word with the power to send tremors of horror down the collective spines of teachers everywhere.

“It’s time for me to be appraised, again.”

You wait . . . and you wait . . . and you wait . . . and then, the inevitable happens – a member of the Senior Management team sends an email. You feel compelled to reply. And that’s it. The date is set. The time and the place is confirmed. The die is cast . . .

It’s lesson observation time.

You know very well what this means . . . When the time comes, Veronica Smythe-M’Choakumchild - Deputy Principal for Teaching and Learning – will turn up, plant herself at the back of your classroom, sharpen her pencil, and observe your class.

Most likely, she’ll have a piece of paper to fill out. Perhaps there’ll be a place on that form for her to identify what she values in your lesson – that which she finds particularly effective, innovative or noteworthy. And perhaps there’ll be a space somewhere else for her to make suggestions – a space for her own views on how your lesson might be refined and developed.

You feel your heartburn flaring up again.

“OK,” you think. “At least I know when she’s coming . . . so that’s something . . .”

You smile to yourself.

“I shall be ready for her. I shall prepare the perfect lesson . . . the lesson I know she is looking for. The all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza of a learning experience.”

You smile again.

“I will be ready.”

Clearly, I’m writing with my tongue firmly planted in cheek, and with a healthy serving of hyperbole.

But I wonder whether there are any teachers out there who recognise at least some aspects of the story that I have just told. As a teacher myself, I know that I’ve experienced something similar. The feeling that I need to put on that special ‘polished piece’ if my lesson is to be deemed observation-worthy.

Let’s take a moment to unpack what’s going on here. What are the implications of this? I know I’m being observed . . . so I want to do an super-superb job, I really want to represent myself in the best light possible . . . so I make a special effort to do something that will really stand-out, something totally different from the normal ‘stuff’ that happens during the 95% of my teaching time when I’m not being observed.

So what does that say about the 95%-of-the-time stuff. That it’s bad . . . ? That it’s not fit to be observed? That if it were to be witnessed by Veronica Smythe-M’Choakumchild, there’s a good chance that I won’t have a job by the time tomorrow comes around . . .

I think it’s incredibly sad that many teachers feel compelled by appraisal processes to ‘put on’ a special performance which is markedly different to what happens in class, 95%-of-the-time. And if they do feel compelled in this way . . . well, what does that say about the observation process itself? How useful is that process if it fails to take note of what it is that students are experiencing in class, most of the time.

How might we build a culture in schools where teachers feel no such need to put on the grand act?

And let me make this clear. This is not a criticism of the thousands of outstanding educators out there. Rather, it is a criticism of an outmoded system that leads some of these outstanding teachers to conclude that their outstanding practice is not outstanding enough to be the focus of a lesson observation.

What would need to happen in schools for teachers to feel comfortable with the possibility that other teachers, including Senior Leaders, might pop into their lessons at any time?

I believe that it is the 95%-of-the-time stuff that makes teachers outstanding – not the 5%-of-the-time set pieces.

And what might that 95%-of-the-time stuff look like?

Well – I’ll leave that for another blog entry.

But, for the moment, I’ll finish with this. In a culture of thinking, teachers look at that 95%-of-the-time stuff. And they ask themselves this question. How might I make that stuff even richer? How might I create learning opportunities for students that are even more motivating, engaging and thinking-centred? How might I bring learning even more alive for the learners in my care?

Let’s not be afraid of putting the 95 out there to be observed. Let’s not feel that it’s unworthy. It’s the 95 that’s the good stuff.

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