School Visits – revisited

Made it to the October break! – so I thought it might be an idea to reflect upon the school visits which are forming such an important (and enjoyable) part of my working week.

I think it’s fair to say that these visits have created something of stir in some schools, with questions being raised about whether or not they are acceptable. I understand such disquiet – particularly as teachers will inevitably link such visits to notions of competency and personal focus. I also think it’s fair to say that most schools have actually appreciated the visits – once they have been concluded – and the fact that I am focusing upon what I said I would.

Hopefully, as trust builds up people will begin to see it for what is is intended to be, i.e:

a personal statement from the Head of Education about how central the learning and teaching and process is to education in East Lothian;
the highlighting of the importance of the connection between teacher intention and learning task;
a learning experience for me which I can use to influence policy and practice across the authority; and
an example to other educational leaders in East Lothian to adopt a similar focus.

So far I’ve visited 3 secondary schools and 10 primary schools and hope to complete the rest of the schools in this cycle before the end of term.

The random selction of which classes I will visit has – I think – been a success – as all too often it’s only those, and such as those, to whom someone such as myself has been directed.  In large schools I’ve adopted an alphabetical approach and just asked the headteacher to send me to the classes of teachers whose surname begins with a certain letter. In other situations I’ve asked to see particular areas of the curriculum such as writing or art. Of course in small schools, such as Dirleton – I watched every teacher!

So what are my reflections?

Firstly, I didn’t realise I had so much to learn about the learning and teaching process. I previously thought I knew what was going on in our schools with my pop in visits and pastoral chats – it’s obvious to me now that without such a classroom focus that visits are virtually meaningless, aside from showing that you care,  maintaining a profile, and gaining an “impression” of what a school is like.

The simple – yet remarkably revealing focus – that I’m taking in classes means that I must remain disciplined (don’t start to let my attention wander onto other areas), self-questioning (don’t let my own preconceptions interfere with what I’m watching) and open to trying to understand what it is the teacher is doing in a broader context (don’t see the task which is happening in that lesson in isolation).

It’s almost as if this period is more of personal learning phase to provide a context which will help me to draw some conclusions about what it is I’m seeing in schools.

One thing has become abundantly clear to me over the last few weeks – we have wonderful teachers in our schools! The creativity, passion and commitment to what they are doing with young people is a common feature of every school I’ve visited. What it has also confirmed for me is that teaching is an incredibly sophisticated skill, with common characteristics, which can be broken down, analysed and learned.

I know there’s a huge mystique surrounding the teaching process, e.g “it’s a craft”, “it’s a personal thing”; “it’s about the personality of the teacher” – but in lesson after lesson I’ve seen teachers having very clear learning intentions and linking them to suitable and challenging tasks – where that happens – without exception – the children are engaged and producing high quality work, whilst the teacher is gaining real job satisfaction.

Over the course of the next few months I hope to be able to develop my insight about what it is about the link between a learning intention and a learning task that leads to effective learning. My hope is that colleagues will continue to help in shaping that understanding and contributing to this dialogue.

Could I take this opportunity to thank every teacher who has allowed me into their classroom – it’s been a privilege.

Oh – I should have mentioned – I don’t think there’s a day that’s gone by when I haven’t used something that I’ve seen in schools in connection with other parts of my job – i.e. budgeting, staffing, policy development, etc. – so in that sense it already having an impact.