10 essential discussions to have in any teacher team.

Tom Sherrington: Towards the end of last academic year, I wrote a post outlining what might be in a typical school’s development plan:  Here’s your school development plan – no, really, don’t thank me.  All of those ideas are still relevant for next year.  But what about at a departmental level or a year level in primary? Here are 10 discussions that teams should be having – not all at once, obviously, but over time, involving everyone.

1. What’s in the curriculum? Does everyone know the big picture and the details? 

If you’re building a coherent spiral curriculum, you need to know what goes where in time; you need to know which pillars of your curriculum tower are crucial; foundational. You need know how it all fits and why things are where they are.  Not everyone knows – and it’s a mistake to assume they do.  This needs some discussion to create a shared understanding, beyond dishing out the scheme of work and syllabus and assuming that’ll do.

Similarly, how are we doing on the details?  If we’re building a deep knowledge-rich curriculum  then it’s important to explore the details of what should be taught – especially where non-specialists are involved, focusing on the core concepts.  It’s hard to think of a better use of team time – making sure everyone really knows the curriculum in detail.  I meet teachers quite often who haven’t read their GCSE specification themselves, missing out on the wording, the examples, the emphasis given to specifics.

2. What are the parameters for autonomy and collective action? 

At a basic planning level – as well as the level of team ethos – it’s important to establish how the team will function.  Do we do our own thing? Do we stick tightly to an agreed scheme of work? Do we allow the shared drive to fill up with endless versions of powerpoints and worksheets making it ever harder to find the original or best one?  Where in the curriculum is their scope for teachers to go off-piste without risking messing up an element of our carefully planned coherent curriculum?

3. How far do we prescribe the enacted curriculum:  What should be included in typical lesson sequences?

Forget about a rigid lesson formula, but over a series of lessons, are there common elements, features, processes, activities that we all agree should be included? Do we agree what science experiments to do as a class practical and what is a teacher demonstration – or is that up to each person to decide, even though this shapes the enacted curriculum significantly? Do we say poems aloud, chorally, learn complex French sentences in a call-response manner and start maths lessons with five quick recall questions? Or do our own thing…

Whilst being clear that it’s the spirit of any framework that matters, not the letter – not some rigid checklist to take people to task over – we do need some agreement about what lessons in our school, in our year, in our subject look like.  These decisions essentially form the curriculum students actually experience.

4. Are we using sound evidence-based practice in our teaching?  

There so many areas of sound instructional practice that teachers should know about. For example:

How is everyone doing in the team, engaging with these ideas and putting them into practice?  Is there a set of ideas relevant to our subject or year that we all discuss using a shared language?

5. Are we clear on the team focus and each individual’s focus for CPD and deliberate practice.

Every team and everyone in a team should have an agenda for professional learning and deliberate practice.  It could be that there’s a strong collaboratively determined shared agenda so that people can support each other in improving in a specific area; it could be that each person has their own CPD needs to agreed.  The question is whether this is all explicit, agreed and planned.  Planned!  You don’t get better by accident….it needs sustained focus and attention over time.

6. Have we got assessment right, balancing formative and summative information and workload? 

How is the team doing in discussing all the issues related to assessment: the optimum frequency and nature of tightly focused low-stakes formative testing and broader summative tests; the use of cumulative tests; the use of exemplars to model standards; the commitment to using the same tests to facilitate meaningful comparisons between classes and cohorts year on year.  Does everyone know what we mean by ‘making progress’ in the language of our subject?  What do we track in our mark books vs what information is usefully shared centrally?  All of this needs to be explored… otherwise we become slaves to the machine and data loses meaning and value.

7. Are we clear what our first-line interventions are? If  Michael is behind, what do we do about it? 

Regardless of which names come out in flashing lights on the data tracker, do we have a good understanding of the types of interventions that work when students fall behind? Do we have that built into our teaching so it’s not always about extra sessions after school?  What can students practice, re-learn, redraft, re-visit? Do we have resources ready to support them?

8. Have we got a sustainable, effective marking and feedback policy in place? 

Imagine your Headteacher has said – just tell me what you’d like in your marking and feedback policy. Do what you like as long as you can sustain it and it is effective in enabling students to make progress.  What would you do?  Is there a sensible diet of feedback of various forms including marking that works in your area?  Have you taken workload into account? Have you made sure it’s more work for students than for teachers? Have you agreed a protocol for students using lesson time to improve their work? Do you have an agreed language around feedback and marking that everyone understands – eg ‘green penning’, ‘whole class feedback’, ‘deep marking’.  Don’t assume people know..

9. Are we clear on the parameters and processes of quality assurance  – securing high quality outcomes whilst retaining a strongly supportive team culture.? 

What is the role and nature of lesson observations, learning walks, work scrutiny, student voice, data tracking – the menu of QA processes that go on in the team?  Do we all understand their status, how they feed into performance management or professional development… no surprises? Is the spirit right – ie are people being treated as professionals, engaging in work scrutiny collectively? Are people getting helpful developmental feedback; is there an opportunity for a more intense coaching approach; if there a good way to share and learn from each other?

If there is a tight compliance regime in place – do people at least understand the rationale and have a chance to discuss that to secure buy-in?  What are the expected standards for observable routines in lessons and in books?  It all needs to be discussed fully and often.

10. Are we clear on our immediate priorities and the longer term vision for the team? 

With a big and/or busy and ambitious team, there’s always a long agenda;  it’s all too easy to focus on too many things and end up doing none very well or for people to be pulling in different directions choosing what to focus on.  Priorities are priorities – there can’t be too many at any one time and that needs agreement and discussion.   At the same time, every team should have a sense of direction – an idea of what the longer term goals are with curriculum development, assessment planning and so on with some sense of what the milestones will be.

That should keep you busy. I’m sure you’ve got most of it covered!