Part of the challenge of being new in a school is that so much is unfamiliar and has to be learnt – and one of its great joys is, well, exactly the same thing!
In a bid to get to know the School – in 360 degrees, as it were – I have spent many fascinating hours in my first term talking to colleagues about their journey to where they are now at Northampton High, asking them what they love about the School – and what they would change. I have also had interesting times, over tea and biscuits, conversing with students in U5 and the Sixth Form about an enormous range of topics, ranging from the meaning of dreams to terrorism. (I look forward to picking up with the younger girls, starting with L5 in the Spring Term.)
To get ‘under the bonnet’ and view the workings of the teaching and learning engine, there is really no substitute for getting into the classroom and, with that in mind, I gave myself the chance, on the first Wednesday in December, to spend a whole day visiting lessons. The emphasis was on immersing myself in the experience of pupils, from U3 to Sixth Form, rather than scrutinising or analysing the lessons I saw. This meant that I could stay for twenty minutes or leave after two (as I did, for example, when I found a 6.2 class doing a timed essay in class).
I made a point of carrying with me neither paper nor pen, thus ensuring that any impressions I took away with me remained fluid and suggestive. Colleagues were aware of my intention to visit lessons on that day but, otherwise, were forewarned only by my face in the doorway. I hope (and trust) that no demonstration lessons were laid on that day.
What impressions, then, did I take away from my experience of ‘life in a day’ – a day which began with U3 Art and ended, eighteen classes later, with an A Level discussion about sport conducted entirely in French?
The first was that learning is extraordinarily stimulating – and, hence, very tiring. Admittedly, I spent time in just over twice as many different lessons as any pupil could be expected to sample in an average day but the sheer number and range of new things entering my head made me look with fresh eyes at the U3s, who leave school at day’s end with a bag full of homework looking listless or else over-excited, especially in the first weeks of the school year.
The second is to be reminded just how much – physically, emotionally as well as intellectually – goes into teaching good lessons. The stereotype of the teacher standing serenely in front of the board (just google ‘teacher’ in images or clipart and you will see what I mean) could not be further from the mark. Virtually all the teachers I saw must have chalked up some miles in a week as they paced the room, weaving among the desks or equipment. All the faculties are deployed; eyes and ears are trained to sense whether anyone has lost the thread or fallen behind, the voice is a vital tool for setting the tone while the face can signal encouragement or dismay with just a fleeting glance that is intended for one pair of eyes only.
To watch the same Maths lesson being taught to two different sets is an object lesson in the power of subtle variations in pace, style and vocabulary to meet the learners where they are. The Chemistry teacher must be comfortable with the prospect of the class of twelve-year-olds setting fire to things just as the Drama teacher must be prepared for some raw emotions to come out when directing a role play about Victor Hugo’s Underworld, where the inhabitants are called upon to explain why they are damned.
In teaching, nothing can happen on autopilot and nothing can be taken for granted; for every ladder of progress, where an idea works like a dream, there is the snake of regression, where it feels as if all your skills and experience have deserted you. That, and the fact that the teacher is a human being working at any one time with ten or twenty other human beings, each with a brain and heart beating to slightly different rhythms, is what makes it such an emotional job.
Every lesson I observed was informed by specialist subject knowledge that was not available to me as an educated layperson and underpinned by a form of conceptual scaffolding, whether that was the design inspiration of the ceramicist Elizabeth Shriver or a practical method for identifying the functions of the different features of a leaf, that allowed the raw knowledge to be transformed into a meaningful learning experience. I observed a veritable panorama of techniques – demonstration and discussion, questioning and quizzes, role plays and races, exposition and enquiry-based learning. It is good to be reminded that teaching is an art and a craft.
Finally, I stepped back from specifics to reflect on the act of observing itself. It will be obvious from everything I have said that I gained an enormous amount from the experience of observing, coming away with a number of new ideas which I could apply to my own teaching and gaining a better understanding of the dynamics at play within individual year groups and classes.
Equally importantly, though, I am convinced that the teachers whose classes I observed also gained from the experience, even though they may not have been overjoyed at the prospect of my coming. The key here is that I came as a witnessnot as a judge. Staying for twenty minutes at most, there was no possibility that I would be tempted to form a judgement of the lesson and I made it clear that this was not part of my intention.
The benefits of being witnessed are easily over-simplified. Assuming that the ‘Hawthorne effect’ is at work, we may say, cynically, that people do better because they try harder when they know they are being watched (though even this generalisation ignores the fact that the pupils, also reacting to scrutiny, can become less responsive in the lesson and, hence, the lesson flows less well than it would do ‘normally’).
What is less often recognised but equally true – and arguably more relevant – is that people feel better about what they do for the fact that someone is watching them do it. The colleagues I spent time with that day were keen for me to see what the girls were doing and the girls, in turn, were genuinely relaxed and responsive. I was able to see for myself what I had heard about so often in my conversations with the students I had met in my tea parties through the term – that the relationships between the girls and the teachers are exceptionally warm, making for a stimulating but also nurturing atmosphere. This special quality – easy to witness but hard to measure – is the hallmark of the learning culture of the School. Who could wish for a better?
Dr Helen Stringer