It’s 2007. I’ve been in school since 7am ‘setting up.’ My stage is set.  Propped precariously against the wall are the trees I created last weekend made of coat hangers, tissue paper, and cardboard. I’ve wedged the football net, with leaf shaped green tissue paper, centre stage for my audience to walk through. Despite what it might seem, this is not the morning of a play debut; it’s worse. It’s the morning of my first lesson observation as an NQT- my first “real” teaching debut!

It’s been quite the build up. Yesterday, I had to beg the Head of PE to lend me the football net. He initially refused because he needed it for his football lesson! My response to this was complete devastation because my observation would be a DISASTER if I didn’t have a floor that emulated a magical forest. Clearly, he knew that an NQT on the edge, the day before an observation, needed to be handled with care. He relented and said I could have the net; he’d use some cones as a makeshift goal and even offered to bring the net up to my classroom after school. When he arrived, I was on my hands and knees laminating pictures of characters. He looked like he felt sorry for me…it took me a few years before I realised why.

Abby Bayford's blog image of a Letter to my NQT self

I decided to ‘do my lesson’ on an introduction to Á Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’d read somewhere that “Outstanding” lessons showed that the children knew nothing at the beginning and lots at the end with the recommendation that I plan an observation on introducing a new topic to show “rapid progress.” I do hope the author of this advice has since retired.

We hadn’t actually finished writing our autobiographies as a class. But, my RQT friend advised me that being observed when the students spend the hour writing independently was career suicide! The autobiographies could wait. I told the class to reserve a blank page in their exercise book and we’d return to their autobiography away from the watchful eye of my observer. The class actually sighed. A boy at the front muttered under his breath, “well that’s stupid.” I pretended not to hear him. Not because I was employing a non-confrontational behaviour management strategy, but because I didn’t have a plausible comeback that would suggest this course of action was anything other than stupid. I comforted myself that we could go back to normal once this was all over.

Next, I placed a chair inside the stock cupboard in my classroom ready for Oberon, King of Fairies. My PGCE friend had recently had a hugely successful observation where she’d been told she gave the children the “wow factor.”  I’d never been told I’d given the children the “wow factor”. In true Boxer from Animal Farm fashion, I decided in that moment “I will work harder” and get this wow factor. So, I somehow managed to persuade one of the teachers, who had a PPA when I was being observed, to hide inside my classroom cupboard dressed as Oberon, and leap out when I knocked my desk three times shouting “This is thy negligence. Still thou mistakest!”  I often wonder why he agreed to be complicit in such lunacy. Like the PE teacher, I think he felt sorry for me. If only someone had been honest with me.

An honest letter to my NQT Self

Dear Abby,

You will observe many lessons throughout your NQT year. This is  exciting and overwhelming in equal measure. At times you’ll sit in awe and wonder at their effortless craftmanship. The lessons might look seamless and the students might seem as if they’re just ‘doing it’ but this is never the case. There are huge amounts of cognitive effort that go into an effective lesson that you cannot possibly see. What lies beyond the superficial seeing, is that these teachers are reflecting on how they taught this topic last time; the misconceptions that arose; the tweaks they must make and the explanations that must be clearer than last time. They are constantly accessing a library of memories made up of successes and failures to tweak their course of action. But it takes time and multiple experiences to build this library so be kind to yourself.

Abby Bayford's blog image of a Letter to my NQT self

As an NQT, invest your time in asking questions to get inside teachers’ thinking that will open the door into the library they have built. Conscious choices teachers make cannot be simply ‘seen’ by watching learning in action. Focus less on what they’re doing and more on why they’re doing it. These types of conversations will nourish your teaching insights. Highly effective teaching is the by product of constantly trialling things out; experiencing success and failure and learning from it. This process never stops for us as teachers. Schools are full of people who are generous with their thinking; they will happily explain their “how” and “why”. Every school has them. Every school needs them. Find them and learn as much as you can from them.

Whilst seeking out these teachers, you’ll need to take note of the ‘Pedagogy Formula Creators!’ (PFCs). You’ll be able to spot them a mile off. These are often the well-meaning teachers who will tell you that your lesson will be successful if you do X,Y,Z, inadvertently prescribing a pedagogy formula. Some of their favourite phrases are “try a card sort.” “Incorporate some drama to keep them engaged.” One of the most damaging behaviours of a ‘Pedagogy Formula Creator’ (PFC) is their belief that observations are an intrusion to the ebb and flow of learning. They will encourage you to unnecessarily expedite the learning sequence to reach a more aesthetically pleasing stage of learning. Their advice will be issued with cautionary tales of disastrous lesson observations and a heads-up: “they love to see lessons that…”

You’re going to encounter these pushy pedagogy types as you progress through your teaching career. Although much of this advice may be well intended, it can be inhibiting, encouraging an obsession with the superficial and visible “what” of the lesson as opposed to the “how” and “why.”

As such, seek out the many teachers who will share their insights instead and when you do encounter a PFC, peddling pedagogy to please the observer, please say: “This is thy negligence. Still thou mistakest!”  

Some questions that will help us to explore teacher insights

  • What were the most important learning moments in this lesson that I should be aware of?
  • Can you help me understand how this lesson fits into what came before and what will come after?
  • Is there anything you’ve done differently teaching this topic this time? Why?
  • What options did you have available to you in teaching this lesson? Can you tell me about some of the options you dismissed and why?
  • Can you share with me your reflections on the next steps in learning?

Abby Bayford

Director of Institute, ATT