Post-its and Door Stops: The Culture of Learning Walks at my School

I have been thinking about writing this blog for a while and a bit of an exchange on twitter last week has prompted me to get round to it! SLT learning walks are an emotive issue and one I was struggling to fully explain the senior team I am part of stance’s on in 280 characters!

At my school, our senior team each have 3 or 4 timetabled learning walks over a fortnight. That means, in theory, that one of us should be out on a learning walk during every lesson. In practice, we probably don’t stick to the timetable consistently – but its existence establishes the expectation that we should all be out and about visiting lessons regularly. A doorstop is an essential piece of classroom equipment; there are no closed classroom doors. There is no-one just quietly getting on with being brilliant without that practice being shared and their talent being used, no-one quietly struggling and no-one quietly coasting along being mediocre or, on occasion, poor at their job. Teaching is too important for us to let that happen.

I joined the school when it was recently out of ‘special measures’ and graded as ‘requires improvement’. Five years on it is now graded ‘outstanding’ with a progress 8 score that places it in the top 1% nationally, but the approach to learning walks has not changed; we do them all the time, looking to identify best practice that can be shared, offer support where it is needed and address  areas of serious weakness.  We leave a positive post-it note with the teacher of every lesson we visit and if we see something not quite right – perhaps the behaviour system is not being followed or the lesson doesn’t seem particularly well-planned – we will make a point of visiting again in the next few days (something that wouldn’t necessarily mean anything to the teacher, who is used to SLT being in and out regularly) to identify whether we saw a one-off or something a bit more entrenched that perhaps we need to have a chat with the teacher about.

It’s hard to explain exactly how we have achieved it but I feel confident that teachers do not see these learning walks as threatening.  I teach almost a 50% timetable myself and am treated exactly the same as any teacher; I have enjoyed receiving nice notes, have appreciated the occasional nudge to have a look at an area of my practice that perhaps needs a bit of attention and once, in my first year, gratefully accepted the offer of support I got when it was noticed that, having come from an all-girls school was struggling to adapt my planning for the all-boys classes I was now teaching (my school is two Academies – co-located boys’ and girls’ schools in which the teaching is still largely single-sex).  In the aforementioned twitter exchange today, a few people suggested that staff at my school must be unhappy and experience high-levels of anxiety but I don’t think that is true; our retention rates are high, new teachers often join on the recommendation of friends and ex-colleagues and in the independent, anonymous survey our large MAT does every year, job satisfaction rates are really high.

The way we do it means that we, as a senior team, are talking about teaching and learning all the time.  And we are talking about it in context – about it based around what is actually going on in the classrooms of the school we lead – not in any kind of abstract way. It baffles me how any senior lead for CPD can, for example, make decisions about what a staff’s CPD needs are if they are not seeing what is happening in classrooms. It baffles me how any senior lead for teaching and learning can decide on their strategy and then see whether that strategy is actually being used and crucially, whether it is working if they are not seeing what is happening in classrooms.  It also baffles me how a senior team can successfully introduce and embed any strategy – be it around T&L, curriculum, assessment or behaviour – without looking at it in a multitude of classrooms and having constant conversations with teachers and middle leaders about what they are seeing.  Last year I overhauled marking and feedback at my school and without regular learning walks what would I have done? Some big launch in which I told everyone what I wanted them to do and then six months later do a book scrutiny I suppose. Instead what I did was launch it, then visit lessons all the time, talking to staff about what was happening – “I noticed you did X, have you thought about Y?”-  or leaders –  “So you have asked staff to X; in practice I think they are having difficulty with this element of it, can I help you to rethink it?”  I also identified the common issues around the new policy throughout the school so planned CPD around it.

How many teachers out there despair when some new initiative is launched by their senior team which doesn’t work – and often there is no need for! –  but there is no forum to discuss it, and it just limps on for months, or years, before slowly fading away?  Three years ago I launched a new assessment strategy for key stage 3 – it was to do with rolling down GCSE scores into the lower years and involved a half-termly assessment and a ‘best piece’ of work.  Three months of learning walks and the conversations they prompted with teachers meant I realised quickly that it was, frankly, stupid, and I ditched the whole thing to everyone’s relief, replacing it with something hugely informed by what I had seen in classrooms and heard from teachers.  Two years ago I went into a maths teacher’s classroom and noticed her books hadn’t been marked according to the school’s policy. When I went back to have a chat to her about it later that day she apologised for not following policy but she also explained why she felt written marking was not a particularly effective method of delivering feedback. A year later I spearheaded a complete move away from written marking and it all started with that conversation with that teacher.

Of course sometimes regular learning walks will reveal a problem but my goodness how crucial it is that the team leading a school know it exists so they can address it. Sometimes they are macro: in recent years learning walks have shown us the day-to-day frustration that teachers were experiencing with students not having equipment; we realised that the changes we had made to our curriculum meant there was now a lack of alignment between curriculum and our teaching and learning strategy; we identified an overreliance on exam-style questions and a lack of well-thought out formative assessment.  All of those things have been addressed.  Sometimes they are micro: we have, through learning walks, become aware of teacher who felt intimidated by older male students; a teacher not following our behaviour policy because she didn’t agree with it; a teacher who was brilliant at everything other than questioning!  Again, all of those things were addressed. Teacher one had some coaching. Teacher two got her chance to have her say and then was kindly and firmly told that the policy was not going to change and she needed to follow it. Teacher three was told how great he was but that we wanted to help him get better at questioning and sent off to observe staff who were great at it (and guess how we knew who those teachers were…..?) Sometimes there are difficult conversations but that’s how people get better. That’s how a journey of continuous improvement happens. That’s how the very, very occasional lazy and/or incompetent teacher (because they do exist; we have all met one!) does not get away with it for very long.

Without regular learning walks, how is a teacher’s performance being measured? We have to be realistic – we are public servants being paid by public money performing a role crucial to the communities we serve and, indeed, to our nation so it is vital that there is an element of monitoring of performance. A one-off lesson observation? A set of results at the end of a school year? Most teachers would agree that these are not valid ways to assess them so what is? Regular learning walks mean we can look beyond results and in the past we have addressed a teacher getting great results in year 11 but teaching in such a narrow, examination-focused way that his students were turned off the subject for life and a teacher who, conversely, taught brilliantly but continuously failed to achieve results. Both needed support in different ways. Neither were ‘judged’, just helped to improve, thus improving the experience and GCSE results of their students. The point is, we would not have known what the problems were without regular visits to their classrooms. As for one-off observations, well we can all pull off a firework lesson once a year when our payrise depends on it.  What is harder, and much more effective, is to continuously teach solid, well-planned lessons.  I walked around lessons with a headteacher from another school who was doing one of our termly MAT reviews recently and she said: “the teaching here is not that special. I am surprised you get the results you do” and I thought, ‘but that is just the point – lessons here are not ‘special’ – no-one has pulled something attention-grabbing out of the bag because they knew you were coming’.  Teachers here teach consistently good lessons and I am sure our learning walk culture has helped to encourage that. It is not a ‘special week’ when SLT come in, it is a normal week. So teachers get used to normal weeks every week meaning there is a normal expectation of good, consistent teaching.to

Teachers doors are not just open to SLT. Our open door culture extends to all staff. In the last fortnight I have been visited twice by the Exec Principal, twice by the Principal, once by my Head of Department, once by an external visitor and once by an NQT who had been given a list of people to go and see to look at live feedback.  We all benefit from being seen and getting regular feedback and also from being able to go and see good practice whenever we want.

Of course it’s strange how you can become so steeped in a school’s culture that you forget it is not ‘normal’. A friend of mine, a senior leader at another school, was recently talking to me about the gap between students’ English results and maths results and ruminating on the reasons for it. “Why don’t you take a walk around maths lessons next time year 11 are being taught?” I asked and she looked horrified: “teachers wouldn’t know what I was doing there. They wouldn’t like it,” she said. “But you could feed back to the rest of SLT at your next meeting,” I insisted. “Tell them what you saw and what perhaps needs sorting”. She practically laughed in my face. “I would be told off,” she said. “I would be told maths was nothing to do with me and I had no business walking into lessons of a subject I don’t line manage”. When I asked her whether the line manager of maths was going in regularly to look at lessons he said he doubted it. I just couldn’t believe it and had to remind myself that in my previous school my headteacher, in five years, walked into one of my lessons – other than to do a scheduled observation – approximately zero times. My line manager approximately once.   l am genuinely shocked at some of what I read in my twitter exchange last week; so many teachers just couldn’t believe that the way we do learning walks didn’t lead to stress and unhappiness and that above all, they weren’t based on some sort of shady ulterior motive: ‘but what are you looking for?’ demanded one; ‘why do them every week?’ questioned another; ‘what’s your reasoning for this? Lack of trust’ decided another;  ‘I don’t want feedback. I just want to be left alone’ was the most shocking of all. At first I felt irritated and defensive but after a while I just felt sorry for them. I reflected on how lucky I was to be in a school where teachers, including myself, are restless for improvement despite many being at the top of their game and how those open doors are a metaphor for how outward facing we all are. And as for the idea that there is any lack of trust at my school? Well that couldn’t be more wrong.  Teachers trust SLT to visit their lessons and NOT make judgements. Teachers trust SLT to offer constructive, informed feedback. And SLT trust teachers (which we all are, foremost, too) to show us every day the great teaching our students deserve.  And you know who else trusts us? Our parents and our students. They trust us to be absolutely sure that there is a consistency in the quality of the education we are providing. Children only get one shot.

 

(Oh and to the two tweeters who called our staff ‘poor teachers’, they are not expected to write reports, do any written marking, fill out any sort of ‘monitoring’ paperwork or attend spurious weekly meetings or whole-school CPD sessions.  There are no stressful performance-management lesson observations and no big initiative –launches.  The first day of every term is an INSET day given over to teachers to do what they want with. We just expect them to teach well, all of the time – or for 38 weeks per year!)

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