Lesson observations: ‘We have to think about what the next step is for that teacher’

Louise Simpson, headteacher at St Paul’s School in Brazil, says taking a different approach to lesson observations has resulted in real benefits for teachers

Like many independent schools located in big bustling cities, our pupils often move around during the course of their education, changing schools and cities as their parents’ jobs change. What is different in an international school like ours though, is that the change might also involve a new country, culture or language.

With the added mix that at any one time a number of students in a class may also be getting to grips with a new curriculum, carrying out valid lesson observations can be somewhat complicated. 

Is the teacher struggling to deliver a great lesson that engages children or is it a recent intake of pupils, new to learning at such a high level in English, that could be holding engagement back?

It’s for these reasons that since I became head at St Paul’s School in Brazil, we have taken a different approach to lesson observations.

Unique criteria

Established in 1926, we were the first South American school to be recognised by the UK government as a British School Overseas. A member of COBIS and HMC, we teach a bicultural and bilingual Anglo-Brazilian curriculum, embracing both cultures and languages. 

For us, the first step in improving lesson observations was developing a unique set of lesson observation proformas that fit our unique situation and also the different types of learning that take place.

A year 9 sports lesson will have a very different set of criteria than an IB lesson which focuses heavily on elements such as collaboration. The observation is much more valid if the observer is looking for the right elements from the word go, so the proformas need to reflect this.

No more grades

I also made a recent decision to move away from grading lessons as I have found that it wasn’t benefiting teachers. I know that there are strong views on both sides of the argument, but for us this was the right move. The reason that I brought in the change is because you can often see excellence in a lesson that overall wasn’t necessarily excellent. You can also see some mediocre practice in a lesson which all together creates an excellent outcome.

Having to mark one lesson as a ‘one’ and one as a ‘two’ does not provide good feedback to staff. What is helpful to staff is that you can always see something positive. We always emphasise what went well in the lesson as well as areas for development.

My view is that even if the lesson is amazing, there is always room for improvement. We have to think about what the next step is for that teacher. If the lesson was brilliant, maybe our feedback would simply be to share the lesson with others.

Two-way dialogue

I have found that lesson observations work best when there’s a two-way dialogue between the teacher and observer. With the online system we use from BlueSky Education, observers can upload feedback straight away. 

In fact, I have often provided feedback before the lesson has even finished. Then staff can respond online and we always offer teachers the opportunity to discuss any feedback in person.

It is important to recognise that there’s no point observing lessons if the information isn’t then used to inform staff development and CPD. We allow staff to highlight any training they think they need and centrally we can see if there are any trends developing or maybe a requirement to invest in training for the whole team. Or if it is a one-off course, the line manager can simply sign off the spend. It means our staff are at the centre of their own development journey.

lesson observations
Simpson made the decision to move away from grading lessons

Whole school approach

This is relevant for all staff too. I was keen to have all departments and levels of seniority – from academic teachers to sports coaches and from senior leaders to teaching support staff, part-time and full-time – involved. After all, opportunities for development are for everyone, whatever their role in the school.

It’s a long way away from when I took on the role of head, when each member of staff had an individual appraisal from the head. With over 200 members of staff, appraising each one on a one-to-one basis meant that many appraisals were being delayed and staff were not always getting the feedback they needed. It was much too time-consuming. 

Each member of staff still deserves a one-to-one talk about their role and their development, but I wanted to have a more devolved system – one which allowed middle leaders to develop their leadership, coaching and mentoring skills and manage their own direct reports. 

I reshaped the leadership structure and put in place an annual appraisal cycle. Now everyone is appraised every year by their line manager, which is a huge improvement. These reviews have also been standardised, with room for flexibility, with everyone identifying objectives and then a training programme implemented which reflects both the individual needs and the needs of the school. 

Planning and delivering CPD

In the last five years, I have made many changes that have had a positive impact on our staff. I have learnt from experience that sustained improvement only happens when you look across the school.

A head’s work is never done though, and my list of things to improve is not yet completed. I would still like to make some more strategic changes to the way we plan and deliver CPD. But in the meantime, this new way of working is making a world of difference to our teachers and support staff – and that’s a great start. 

You might also like: ‘Inspectors were on a tight schedule, but they listened’

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