Language is important. How an individual or organisation names a contentious phenomenon often goes to the essence of the debate on that issue. ‘Sharing classroom experience’ or ‘classroom observation’ is a case in point.
Few issues (except perhaps behaviour management) raise so many defensive hackles in the teaching profession. The unions (of one of which I’m a 30-plus years member) insist that the sole purpose of observations, except in the cases of probationers and teachers whose competence is being formally questioned, is to identify and disseminate good practice. We’re all in favour of sharing good practice. In seeking to ensure that the best practice in any school or department becomes the norm, peer observations are hugely valuable.
The unions however have an uncompromising opposition to what they characterise as top-down models in which management observe staff, particularly if these observed teaching experiences are graded in any way. It smacks, they say, of appraisal. The unions insist that all teachers who completed full GTC registration are equal in status and no-one may presume to comment critically on their colleague’s teaching competence.
The unions’ approach is flawed. Firstly, headteachers and DHTs may not in every case be superb exemplars of the teaching art. Some are indeed stronger on the administrative or organisational side. The majority of school managers however certainly are high quality teachers, high quality teachers moreover with a range of experience which does indeed make most of them good judges of next steps which classroom teachers, even good classroom teachers, might usefully pursue to improve further their practice.
Secondly, although the primary point of observing lessons may indeed be the identification of good practice, are the unions seriously suggesting that when poor practice is witnessed and identified, it should not be identified, noted and addressed?
Thirdly, what’s wrong with appraisal? Would a single one of us fly in aeroplane if we did not believe that the pilots’ skills were regularly appraised? Would we submit to the knife of a surgeon who was not appraised by his or her seniors?
Finally, as a profession we favour self-evaluation. Every school and every department is expected to evaluate the quality of its teaching. How much more robust might be our resistance to spurious judgements by the HMIs, if we had rigorous, hard evidence which we had generated ourselves by a robust process which included systematic observations?
The sad aspect of this issue is that the new generation of teachers, those who have experienced the post-McCrone probationary system, understand, accept and value the observation system which supported them through their probation and which can continue to improve their teaching skills.
The unions’ position can be seen as both an insult to the enthusiasm and professionalism of that generation but also as an articulation of the weariness and defensiveness of a vociferous minority of older teachers for whom the protection of the mediocre is more important than either the good name of the profession or the quality of the teaching which we offer our learners.
The above article was first published in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland on 3 October 2008.