Monday, 8 February 2016

The Measure of Success

In response to this.

I came back from my grandmother's funeral in Scotland, rather earlier than I wanted. Before I even got on the plane to go, I got a phone call.

"JL, I'm sorry to disturb you, but we've had the call from Ofsted and they're coming Monday and Tuesday. I've been asked to call you to find out if there's any chance you can come back early."

I travelled back Monday night, feeling like a traitor to my family, especially my grandad.

Tuesday morning, period 1, and the most challenging class of children the school had to offer: The inspector walks in. I had the lesson plan, the 'learning file' with all the data, the objectives on the board. He stayed 30 minutes. He went. If there's a set number of times your heart's going to beat in your lifetime, that half hour will have knocked two or three hours off at the other end.


"How do you think it went?"

"Well, I know Rhys wasn't engaged. You'll have seen from the learning file that I've tried everything and I'm still struggling with him. At least he wasn't disruptive today, and he actually seemed attentive. Joe called out a couple of times, but it was relevant to the lesson and ..."

He stopped me. He proceeded to read his notes to me. Four pages of them. It wasn't until the fourth page that it dawned on me what he was saying. He told me he thought the lesson was outstanding, that it was the best evidence of language acquisition he'd seen in 41 school inspections he'd carried out. That he ...

He stopped again. I was crying. (How proud my gran would've been.) He asked why. I explained. He was appalled. He told me he'd been directed to my lesson by SLT, when evidently they ought to have done the opposite to protect me. I didn't care at that point. I was walking on air.

Later it dawned on me that the very same managers who consistently rated me 'poor' or 'satisfactory' were directing Ofsted inspectors to my lessons. Not just once, but every single time. If you don't know what Special Measures is like, you get HMI monitoring inspections at least once per term. We were in Special Measures four years. Every inspection, it was my lesson period 1 on the first day, no matter what subject I taught.

A week later in our team meeting, the Head of Department congratulates everyone and gives me a special mention for the excellent feedback SLT received about my teaching. All of the school's 'Coaching Team' are in my department, the very same who repeatedly tell me how poor I am.

"So JL, it would be really good to see your lesson plan for that lesson."

"Ummm... Well, you can, but you won't find what made it good on the lesson plan."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, it wasn't about the learning activities, really. It was about the rapport."

"You mean the differentiation?"

"No. I did that. There's support and challenge for each activity on the plan, but that's not what he was interested in. It was about more than the lesson. It was about... Rapport, y'know"

"You mean the way you got the lesson started and linked to prior learning?"

"No. He missed the starter, but the kids were referring to prior learning in the lesson. As I say, I don't think it was about that, though. I think it was about... Rapport."

"Maybe you can explain to us what you mean by rapport?"

"Well, I care about them, and they care back. Most of the time they have me ripping my hair out, but they know I care, and when they know I'm being judged, they rally round. I was amazed at how much they remembered and had taken on, to be honest."

"So how do you measure that care, JL? Do you use student surveys? Questionnaires?"

"Measure? No. I give it out and I don't count it back in. I call home. I speak to them in the corridors and in the playground. I ask them about their lives and their families. I remember stuff, and I'm always there when they need me. There was no expectation it would ever come back to me, and they knew that."

"You give stuff out? Like resources? Rewards?"

"Only when they really need it or have really deserved it, but that's not what I meant."

"Maybe we haven't got time for it in this meeting, JL, but it would be great if you could still email us the lesson plan for that lesson."


I can't help but think that given the time, they'd have got together a research project to fire me and another teacher hurtling in opposite directions through the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in the hope that by fragmenting the matter of the thing, they might find the God Particle, The Higgs Boson of teaching, what gives teaching mass and makes it matter.

They never got the time. And they never did fire me, down a tunnel or otherwise.

I left.

It's taken all the willpower I have to fight back from that and to stay in the profession. I've long since stopped looking for the Boson. That way lie only black holes and 'spooky action at a distance'. I get that it's important to measure and to parcel out and to make sense of things out there in the world, but it's also important to remember that we have an inner world without which the outer world can make no sense.

That doesn't make for great politics, but it does make for great teaching.


  1. Replies
    1. Sue,
      I don't think I'd have the courage to write if it weren't in part for the bravery and honesty of your blog.
      So thank you right back.

  2. You'd love vertical tutoring!

    1. The idea was floated and I endorsed it, but it was abandoned as 'unnecessary tinkering', if you'll believe that.
      You're right, though, I'd love to work in a school that does it.

  3. Every great teacher does that, putting love out there without expectation of a 'trackable' return. Thanks for writing so eloquently about this.

  4. You're right. For me, to simply copy the good classroom practice of a great teacher without appreciating everything else they do, or worse, to manage a classroom based on toolkits in books, is at best to denigrate our professionalism, and at worse to become automatons dependent upon the work of others to facilitate the right behaviours in class. It is to sacrifice culture, community, and citizenship in favour of consumption, compliance, and coercion.
    Thank you for reading, and for your comment. (And sorry to let my succinct blog down by ranting here!)

  5. Terrific read - thank you. Authentic rapport is so nebulous and hard to quantify, so those who try to make everything fit into a system can't cope. Most teachers understand that teaching and learning are relational. You obviously do, so well done.

  6. Thank you, Deborah. Funny you should mention 'fitting into a system'. I referred to a poem tonight in a conversation about another topic, which has that as its refrain. It's called 'Quit Stalling. Call In Stalin', by Adrian Mitchell. It's funny and scary in equal measures. Look it out if you don't know it. :)

  7. Hi J-L, thanks for sharing, the bitter sweet thing about being right in the face of so mch seemingly willful incompetence and then being used as a blind for the inspectors. Still smarts but you were right and the inspectors are rarely so easily hoodwinked as the strategy presumes.

    1. Quite so, Ian. I'm an advocate of Ofsted and a vociferous critic of school leaders who use 'Ofsted wants' as the justification for their policies. More damage has been done to the profession through that rhetorical device in than has ever been done by Ofsted. I accept it has its faults too, but I believe our deprofessionalisation is the cause of our subjection to its framework, unable as we are to embrace it meaningfully as strong partners in the improvement of educational standards.
      It's lovely to hear from you, by the way. I often miss your ability to cut through to the heart of things.

  8. Bitter sweet words JL, but I am so pleased it hasn't distorted your entire view of education and that the profession hasn't lost you. My greatest act in my last year in education (after 33 years) was walking out of my job as a coach. Sadly, the then school leaders had made the role personally degrading and completely hypocritical.

    1. Coaching can so easily be distroted to suit the political objectives of a leadership team. I've heard one coaching department I know of called 'The Culling Team' by members of staff at that school. It is an ignominious position to be in professionally, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

      I can see why you might feel that walking out on that was your greatest act. That the system has led you to feel that way is a testament to how broken it is, because we both know that our greatest act is always to give children power and direction in their lives, and I'm sure you did that countless times in 33 years.

  9. A great blog, thank you for writing.


Thanks for engaging. I aim to respond to all the feedback I get because that's why I write: To share ideas.