What 3 things would you do to help a teacher improve?


If there was no OfSTED, no league tables, no SLT… just you and your class. What would you choose to do to make it GREAT?

Do that anyway…

Tom Sherrington

Every teacher needs to improve. Not because they’re not good enough but because they can be even better.

Dylan Wiliam

It’s been said before but, I think, bears repeating: Ofsted have a lot to answer for. No one wants failing schools going unchecked but the medicine is often worse than the cure. I spent the morning at a lovely primary school who have just been ‘done’. And they really do feel they’ve been done. They had gotten rid of all the blue on their RAISE Online and felt secure in claiming they were providing a good standard of education, especially after a local authority monitoring visit had told them exactly that a few weeks earlier.

What went wrong? The head teacher is candid about having ‘a couple’ of teachers whose performance sometimes leaves a little to be desired. As luck would have it, a trip had been arranged for day 1 in which most of the strongest teachers were out of school, leaving less accomplished colleagues as the only option for inspectors to visit. The head was advised to get his deputy to cover one colleague’s class on the first day of the visit but decided that this would wrong. Instead he would rely on demonstrating that he knew his data, his staff and his students and had made appropriate provision. Naively perhaps. Whether this decision had any bearing on the judgement is of course impossible to know. But what is clear is that after day 1 of the inspection, the lead inspector was not happy about the quality of teaching. This despite the achievement and attainment of the students.

Now, I’ve argued many times previously that learning cannot be directly observed and if assumptions made in classroom observations contradict results and the evidence of progress over time in books then they’re not worth the mental vacuum in which they’re formed. In this case, the head believes the inspectors had to ‘reinterpret’ the data in order to fit the ‘evidence’ of their observations. It all came down to one group of students making 14% less progress over 3 levels than is expected nationally. The head argued that this 14% was in fact two students. Two students with very well documented histories and very special needs. Surely 2 students can’t be statistically valid? Yeah, right.

Anyway. I wasn’t there and am only hearing the whines and complaints of the injured party. The inspection team have long since galloped off firing their six shooters exuberantly in the air. History is written by the victors and the draft inspection report has just arrived. There it was in black and white: the school ‘requires improvement’. The headteacher is left in an impossible position. He believes he presides over a good school. He believes in the school enough to send his own children there. And he believes that Ofsted’s judgement of his school is, not to put too fine a point on it, wrong.  But holding true to your values in the face of public castigation is horrendously difficult. How do you improve in the face of condemnation, misinformation and personal prejudice?

We were discussing how I might be able to work with teachers in order to help them improve. I subscribe to the view that anyone can improve as long as they want to. He put me on the spot and asked me what 3 things I would do. The short version of my answer is to be the exact opposite of Ofsted. But here’s my 3 step process with a bit more flesh on the bones:

1) Find out what teachers are good at and start from there. Zoë Elder wrote an interesting post a few months back called Even Better If we focussed on What Went Well - the idea is basically that feedback to teachers is usually focussed on what could be improved rather than what was good. Or at least, that’s what we hear:

Image taken from http://fullonlearning.com/2013/05/27/even-better-if-we-specifically-focused-on-what-went-well/

Image taken from http://fullonlearning.com/2013/05/27/even-better-if-we-specifically-focused-on-what-went-well/

To avoid this she argues that we could focus on expanding the good bits or, as Dan Heath  might have it, growing the bright spots.

So, what if instead of focussing on what teachers are getting wrong we invested time in improving what they are already good at? It’s hard to hear that you’re failing. And it’s hard to improve if you’re focussed on what you’re bad at. But we all enjoy talking about our passions and most people are prepared to spend time on what they enjoy. That would be my starting point: get to know the teacher, find out what they’re good at and work out how to do more of it.

2) My next step is based on the belief that we learn more from observing others than we do by being observed. Typically, schools ‘support’ teachers by scrutinising their performance ever more closely. This strikes me as unlikely to result in anything much expect making people ill. We need a certain amount of stress to keep us on our toe but too much stress is counter productive. Instead, I’d rather observe with the teacher I’m supporting. We can then talk about what we’ve seen, how children appear to be making progress and discuss how our expectations have been confounded by the complexity of learning.

It might also be worth focussing on the teacher’s identified strengths. How can what they’ve seen help them improve what they’re already good at?

3) And if all this sounds a bit too touchy-feely, my third step would be to give teachers really difficult things to do. One of my fundamental disagreements with many teachers is that they consider it their job to be to make work easy. This is, I think, completely wrong-headed. Our job is make work hard and to get students to make mistakes. If we make mistakes we can learn from them. Mistakes become normalised and we’re more confident in taking risks. It’s easy to succeed if the bar is set low. Success holds little savour if everyone can achieve it at the first attempt. If we have high expectations then it must follow that students will fail to meet them. Our job is not to lower the bar but to help students deal with the frustration of not being able to get over it. Yet.

And the same holds true, I think, for teachers. Anyone can improve over the short term with masses of one to one attention and support. I tend to think that for all the fear and confusion around Ofsted they actually set the bar pretty low. Hoping children learn exclusively through the medium of big paper and board markers is certainly setting the bar perilously low. Much better to, for instance, work on improving teacher talk than minimising it. The harder it is to achieve success, the more valuable it is. This might seem counter intuitive, and is certainly provocative, but I’m pretty sure that we are only likely to change when we encounter things which startle us out of received (and sometimes very sloppy) wisdom.

At that point the head was required to tell someone off for something and called it a day. We’ve agreed that I’ll come back to do some training and coaching in the new year and I’m very much looking forward to seeing whether I’m right. In the meantime, please let me know where you think I’ve gone wrong and do feel free to provide some refinements to my suggestions.

44 Responses to What 3 things would you do to help a teacher improve?

  1. I certainly think that there is a lot of teacher/headteacher frustration and unhappiness when judged in an unfair and arguably flawed way – for example, with a statistical method which is truly harsh such as a ‘percentages’ statistic where a high percentage amounts to the results of very few pupils.

    The ‘weight’ of judgement can also be very disproportionate in terms of seriousness – for example, when a short snapshot observation of a few lessons (and often not complete lessons) results in a damning judgement of the teachers’ whole practice or of the school overall. Then, the school’s reputation, status and future hangs on snapshot judgements – sometimes disregarding what the statistics actually say – a no win situation then and, once again, arguably unfair.

    If advisors/inspectors do not give teachers a proper opportunity to talk about their general classroom management and subject management – and pupil management – then that is also very frustrating and unfair. Thus, sheer brevity of observation and engagement with the school can lead to a disproportionately hard, or skewed, judgement.

    Then, there is no mechanism for ‘upwards evaluation’ where teachers and/or headteachers have an opportunity (a transparent and fair system) to give their feedback on the advisory/inspectorial process. Such an upwards evaluation process in all good faith may well include teachers/headteachers saying the judgement was ‘fair enough’ and they welcome the feedback – or that they suggest the judgement was ‘unfair’ or ‘inaccurate’ because… – and then give their feedback from the school’s perspective. Thus – in the existing system we arguably have inequality rather than a two-way professional development process.

    My job includes ‘consultancy’ involving observations and inevitably this means I observe both weak and flawed practice – and good practice – but also good practice which could still be improved through increased subject knowledge, understanding and technique.

    I find teachers who are very open and passionate to know what to do better or differently – very open-minded, warm-hearted and willing to improve their practice. I find other teachers who ‘use their professional judgement for their children’ but this may mean, inadvertently, that their expectations are too low, that their practices move so far from their original training and programme design, that there is underachievement despite a well-meaning and hard-working teacher!

    BUT, I also find that other advisors/inspectors to the schools who may not have the subject specialism give wrong judgements or flawed judgements in that they are not knowledgeable enough about specific programmes and practices. Or, they may know about some programmes and practices and expect to see evidence which are features of different training and rationale. This in itself can lead to a skewed perspective and judgement of observed lessons.

    If this can happen in my particular field, then it can happen in other fields too. This also means teachers may receive very conflicting advice and messages about their provision. Who do they listen to – the most scary person with ‘high stakes’ authority or to the subject specialist? Or do they end up with muddly teaching trying to please everyone through mixed messages, fear, pressure and confusion?

    It’s all so complicated.

    What strikes me forcibly, however, is that I visit schools where there is such a strong will to do their children justice – and yet the morale of the staff is rock-bottom because of the official judgement system. Perhaps it is the high-stakes ‘official’ judgements with punitive consequences or the unfair one-way process of judgement which is at the root of all the stress and heartache and frustration.

    So, lay off the teachers -but of course they need to do justice to their pupils.

    We need transparency, two-way systems for professional development of all concerned, we need attention to detail – we need to establish a system of fairness: – as inspectors can upload official reports in the public domain upon which schools’ reputations and fortunes hang in the balance, then the schools should also be able to publish their findings and comments in the public domain of the inspection process and their schools’ context and development plans.

  2. In conclusion:

    1) Full transparency and fairness in any kind of inspection or observation process
    2) Two-way processes of evaluation and professional development
    3) Improved knowledge and understanding including advisory people and school staff for specific subjects and programmes

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks Debbie

      Yes of course to transparency – surely no one would advocate anything else?
      Two way processes are not always possible but refusing to grade is a good start.
      And seeing as non specialists will never have enough knowledge and understanding, we need to acknowledge that the teacher is the expert and that we should not make assumptions which are not then explored.

  3. mrbenney says:

    Another thought provoking blog. The graphic of www and ebi is very true. However, if I was asked the best way to improve a teacher the best advice I could give would still be get the routines right and don’t fall for temporary gimmicks, particularly for observed lessons. You’re blog on this is still my favourite read of 2013.

  4. 1) give them space & time to learn
    2) focus on one issue at a time
    3) don’t blame them when something goes wrong 

  5. Jill Berry says:

    David – great blog, thank you.

    I read your title, ‘What 3 things..’ and, before I read the blog, I wrote down the three things that I would choose to do (so it was interesting to see some overlap with yours):

    1. Every teacher is good at something and they need to know that their strengths are seen, valued and can be built on. By recognising the positives FIRST we can build confidence and help teachers feel better about themselves.
    2. If teachers know that we see where their strengths are, they are then, in my experience, more receptive to talking about areas that need developing, and you can enter into a dialogue about how this can be done. What can they do themselves to improve? What help/guidance do they need from others?
    3. Lesson observation to LEARN, not to judge. Observe the teacher and give constructive feedback that helps them to move forward. Let the teacher observe others and discuss what they learn/what they can suggest to help whoever they observed move forward. If possible, arrange joint lesson observations where you and they observe together, discuss the lesson and what can be learnt from it by the observed and the observers.

    OK – more than three things, but a three stage process to help teachers improve. Hope it’s helpful.

    • David Didau says:

      Yes, very helpful. Good to know that our thoughts are in alignment. I see you miss out my third point – what do you think about making ‘success’ challenging?

      • Jill Berry says:

        I do agree with your third point, David, but it didn’t immediately spring to mind as one of the three ways I’d try to help a teacher improve. Maybe a strategy for a later stage of the process?

  6. Beccy says:

    Look to management first

    1.Make sure the systems that are in place allow teachers time to focus on the teaching and learning and are achievable.

    2. Create class groups and curriculums and timetables that make the job of teaching achievable.

    Then ask staff to investigate and improve their own practice

    3. Observe with the understanding you are going to support the teacher to make improvements and time will be made available for them to do this. Always give unconditional evidenced praise judgements before constructive criticism.

    Oh that is four things!

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks Beccy. Your first suggestion is encapsulated in my mantra that the role of school leaders is to strip out every demand on teachers except that they plan, teach and assess great lessons.

      The second point is interesting – can you expand on this? Is this about creating ‘functional’ teaching groups?

      The third point is of course spot on except that I’m unconvinced by the need for praise – evidence shows that praising can often lead us to ignore feedback.

      • Beccy says:

        I teach five subjects, last year I taught seven, I lead on two of those and co-plan one. I work in a department of seven who teach nine subjects. In my opinion this will not enable the man hours needed to plan good lessons and SOL.

        Another example is teaching literacy heavy or indeed numeracy heavy subjects to students where a high proportion have special needs to think about group sizes and class make up as well as available support. Giving staff whole classes not shared classes, it is definitely hard to do time tabling so investing in as much training as possible for your timetablers would seem to be really important. Of course these are all resource dependent.

        My view is it makes sense to address these issues first. Not to be outstretched.

      • Beccy says:

        I absolutely think praise is necessary to many people provided it is specific, I think there is research to back this up but can’t reference it I’m afraid, confidence has to be built and that is based on realising your strengths, not everyone has has the same start in life in this respect.

        • David Didau says:

          Maybe so. Here’s one of the posts I’ve written on praise. See what you think: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/behaviour/praise-counterproductive/

          • Beccy says:

            I think that praising for effort is a good idea, I have always wanted to become a positive practioner, it is tough to achieve this against the demands of the job and the lack of support and praise coming back at you. I envisage and work towards a positive practice which is a practice of praise but only specific and targeted praise. I have tried to build it as a parent as well. I worked as a TA for many years and felt that it was the students who were trying to get the negative attention who won out every time. Indeed in one school celebration of GCSE results I went to these students got all the praise there too. Which is sad when I think of all the kids like my eldest who get their heads down and work hard, boost school results and walk away barely noticed. But mainly I know I function and teach and get better if I get praise and so do my children and my friends. That is my evidence, for many people that is actually enough evidence. After all as a woman I learnt 90% of my skills as a mother through direct observation and reflection, but struggled to keep meeting my kids needs when mine were not being met. There are certainly parallels there in my life as a teacher, which may of course say as much about me as the system.

  7. dinosawesome says:

    1.) Encourage all teachers to talk about what works and what doesn’t – let them discover their own objectives and fit it into their own teaching style. There’s so many ideas out there, both good and bad, but too often teacher autonomy is confused with teacher isolation.

    2.) Fully agree with your point 2 – encourage teachers to observe and analyse what works for other teachers, then try to uncover what it is about it that makes it effective. Observations which aim to evaluate or offer “what I would have done differently” are limited in their usefulness.

    3.) Actively encourage teachers to try new things, but in a sustained manner. It should be something that fits in neatly with the above points.

  8. David Didau says:

    Thanks Dino – I like your first 2 points but am less sure about the 3rd – this might make interesting reading: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/education/should-we-stop-doing-good-things/

    • Matt says:

      Thanks David (by the way, call me Matt)

      I agree to an extent. I was going to add a few caveats to point 3, but thought that might be cheating!

      It’s easy for teachers to develop comfort zones. I can empathise with your move away from ‘charisma teaching’, I’ve gone through something similar myself. However, I do feel that self reflection to that extent is far from universal in the profession.

      So I’ll add the caveats now:

      Firstly there has to be significant outside input. There are many educational myths, and we don’t want teachers more trying brain gym. If external agencies can provide sustained support then this can be avoided to some extent.

      It also has the added benefit of encouraging debate about how effective these techniques are. In fact, just yesterday I was discussing the great lollipop-stick debate with some teachers who have been trialling different ways of distributing questions. They could weigh up the advantages and disadvantages because they’d been consciously reflecting on it.

      Secondly, time has to be allowed. As a CPD leader I operate on the principle that you can’t give without taking something of equal workload away.

      Finally, it has to be on a theme chosen by the teacher (albeit with the external guidance) and has to be free to evolve.

      • Jill Berry says:

        Sorry to butt in but I just have to say how refreshing I find this:

        “As a CPD leader I operate on the principle that you can’t give without taking something of equal workload away.”

        I reckon we should ALL be thinking that way. It’s too easy to get enthused by a great idea and just add it to everything else we were doing before.

  9. kvnmcl says:

    Ensure teachers observe good teaching
    Work on their strengths rather than focus on negative points, build on what works well
    Stop making teachers teach to an SMT degreed formula

    Thanks for this great post David and for the invitation to add to it with our own suggestions.

  10. Colin Goffin says:

    Three things.

    1. Consider what you can do to improve before looking to find reasons to argue with the judgement. Either for lessons or whole school grading. Too many people want to find excuses and make them reasons.
    2. Genuinely look for how you can make a difference. Don’t go for quick fixes, simple tricks or books or courses promising to make you perfect or outstanding. It’s not that simple.
    3. Make the learning explicit, your lessons inclusive and the challenge as high as it can be, and work your socks off to ensure the students get there. You won’t move anyone forward by teaching ‘grade C students’ – as if such a thing exists – grade C work. Do so and you’re contributing to a conspiracy of apathy.

    As Sandy Shaw said ‘nothing comes easy’ This is a beautiful and rewarding job but you have to get in there and make it so.

    • David Didau says:

      Welcome back Colin :)

      1. Well, if we stop grading then it will be a damn sight easier for teachers to act on feedback
      2. Yep. No magic bullets. Not even badly titled books :)
      3. And yes. The subtitle of my new book is ‘making the implicit explicit’ – thought you’d appreciate a plug

  11. sputniksteve says:

    Hi David,
    Great blog post, as ever.

    On Twitter I suggested these three things:

    1) Talk with them and the kids in drop ins/walkabouts. At least act as if you are interested and like them.
    2) Say some nice things. Catch them doing good stuff.
    3) Ask how you can help them.

    But I would very much to add the absolute need to enable staff to observe each other, and to observe SLT teaching. There needs to be an open door ethos.

  12. The issue of the approach of external accreditation as a means of determining the quality of the educational experience for students is something that we wrestle with in Canada.

  13. […] If there was no OfSTED, no league tables, no SLT… just you and your class. What would you choose to do to make it GREAT? Do that anyway… Tom Sherrington It’s been said before but, I think, bears repeating: Ofsted have a lot to answer for.  […]

  14. Bill Moody says:

    What you say about failure is excellent. Failure must have had the worst PR of all time. The sooner we learn not just to accept failure but to welcome it as part of the process, the better.

  15. Liz says:

    Some really interesting ideas and debate. I’d add;
    1. Audit their subject knowledge and their ability to model and then deconstruct really high quality work in their subject area. I teach English and it never ceases to amaze/depress me how often struggling teachers actually just don’t really know what ‘good’ looks like in the work they are teaching and therefore cannot work out and scaffold the steps that students need to go through to produce A* work. I often get teachers to start planning a scheme of work by sitting down and writing an A* example of the ultimate assessed outcome, then working backwards to see what that involves in terms of learning and skills.
    2. Get them to teach one or more lessons without one of their ‘crutches’ – we all have them; powerpoint, sugar paper, the whiteboard, post-it notes, even exercise books. What happens when we have to really concentrate on the learning and not the resources/our ‘tried and tested’ strategies?


  16. @stplearning says:

    Thanks for a thought provoking post. David, your last suggestion, give teachers really difficult things to do, I would be interested to know more of what you have in mind here. I agree that a high level of challenge is essential to progress, but wonder if it is more about providing a framework for teachers to have difficult things to reflect on, and then respond to. That’s to say opportunities to observe, share practices, have constructive critical feedback…all mentioned…but then be able to join some of the dots for themselves, within teams or with further support / coaching as required. Best teaching clearly evolves when teachers are excited, stimulated and believe in the content they are delivering, but some freedom to draw conclusions and approaches (or lists to do) to have ownership is important. There is also something, at least within secondaries, to be addressed regarding teachers having wider insights into other subject content – to be able to join dots once again- to link learning and provoke the creative connecting of knowledge, for staff and students. Thanks again for a great blog, it is of real help with new R&D responsibilities I have taken on.

    • David Didau says:

      What you say is right – increasing autonomy and the assumption that teachers can and will fail better needs to be built into the improvement process. Maybe just joining the dots is setting the bar too low; maybe instead they need to decide what the dots are and where to put them. I’ll try to get round to blogging about this in more detail.

      Thanks, David

  17. Emma Kell says:

    1. Be absolutely honest and objective about the issues – but depersonalise.
    2. Allow them to go through the pain barrier – give them time and space and listen without judgement.
    3. Make sure they know exactly what support is on offer and give them time to accept it.

    Then praise, praise, praise when things start to go right!

  18. Imran says:

    what if a teacher you’ve observed had no ‘www’ ?
    what then? do as Dan Heath suggests in his youtube video above?
    is there a point to cut loose teachers just not cut out for it?

    • David Didau says:

      This is rare. It does happen, but few teachers are appalling. And this isn’t a post about how to sack teachers – that sort of thing is well documented elsewhere. Dylan Wiliam says that we should ask teachers if they can to improve. If they say yes, work with them. If they say no, sack them. This seems as effective a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff as any other.

  19. John Kane says:

    I recently did some work with an international school in Vienna. What struck me was the sense of freedom that teachers not only felt they had, but said they had. No frameworks, no Ofsted, no goal posts (never mind the changing types) and the flexibility that is the IB. So teachers and their students explored learning approaches without hoops and boundaries. Whilst it could be argued that the absence of robust institutionalised approaches might lead to variable standards, teachers were clearly enthused about the theories of learning and not driven necessarily by a “painting by numbers” approach to their craft. I came away with the sense that we must continually professionalise our teachers; we must encourage creative thinking and risk-taking. I was heartened by the apparent change to the Ofsted expectations of how a lesson should be taught, although yet to be convinced that this is finding its way in to inspections. So what would I do to help a teacher improve? Go with your gut. Be brave. Take a risk and do what you do because you love to instil fun and a joy of learning in your classroom, not because someone might be coming in to observe you!

  20. […] If there was no OfSTED, no league tables, no SLT… just you and your class. What would you choose to do to make it GREAT? Do that anyway… Tom Sherrington Every teacher needs to improve.  […]

  21. […] Sherrington, posted over 300 days ago (Twitter: @headguruteacher) via David Didau’s blog on ‘What 3 things would you do to help a teacher improve?’ (Twitter: […]

  22. […] This is by far the most re-tweeted and recycled 140-character message I’ve thrown into the twittersphere.  Every so often, it goes around again for a few more days – including a recent round initiated by @TeacherToolKit, Mr McGill.  I was chuffed to find it quoted at the top of this blog by David Didau. […]

  23. Thanks for an interesting article. I know you have asked for three things to improve teachers but I have just the one idea in mind (apologies if someone else has already covered this in the comments).

    SLT marketing is an area which is absolutely vital. All ideas which derive from the SIP are intended to improve the school. Yet I find there can often (and almost instantaneously) be a critical barrier to new ideas or focuses from teaching staff, despite the motivation being to improve teaching and learning, and ultimately the school.

    Teachers are professionals, and often or not EFV, observations, etc are all just trying to improve things. If the value and necessity of these programmes are properly explained and discussed there is a greater chance the staff will be fully behind them as they see the value. With out an understanding and belief in the purpose, then the change will have resistance, and ultimately the improvement will not follow.

  24. […] What 3 things would you do to help a teacher improve? Questions that matter: method vs practice How can we make classroom observation more effective? […]

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