Katie Ashford is an English teacher in a secondary school in the Midlands, these are her individual views.
The school had been languishing in stage 7 of the Ofsted preparation cycle for a while. SLT were trying to keep everyone on their toes and we were doing our best to maintain standards and to retain the will to live. And then, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in October, we were all finally put out of our misery. We got the call.
Although I’ve only been teaching for two years, this would be my third inspection. Working at a school in special measures means that my familiarity with the inspection process makes it a viable option for the ‘specialist subject’ category should I ever have the opportunity to be a contestant on Mastermind. Despite months of preparation and telling myself that there was no need to sweat it, I was instantly overcome with a consuming sense of foreboding and apprehension. The last two inspections had been hard. Really hard. The first one happened only a few months into my teaching career. I didn’t know what I was doing, the kids didn’t know what I was doing, and I spent hours the night before the inspectors arrived trying to work out how to hide this depressing fact. The toxic combination of fractious worry, too much coffee and increased takeaway consumption meant that by the time the inspectors arrived, I was breathing deeply into a brown paper bag and gripping my chest, willing my heart to continue beating just long enough for me to show oodles of progress in a compelling mini-plenary. ‘Just get through it: you can do this!’ I told myself, rather unconvincingly.
So when I heard this time that we had received ‘the call’, my mind was awash with these awful memories. What if they came in on my worst class? What if I get an ‘inadequate’? What if I forget to read the learning objective out at the start of the lesson? When on earth am I going to find the time to plan 9 Ofsted-friendly lessons? I need to get an ‘outstanding’, but what if I don’t?!
‘All lessons require improvement’
Aside from the hard slog I put myself through during the first two inspections of my career, another reason I found them to be intolerable experiences was the pressure of getting an ‘outstanding’ judgement in my observation. I really thought that if I wasn’t outstanding then I simply wasn’t a good enough teacher and didn’t deserve to be in charge of any classroom (yes, I was a bit dramatic back then). Being outstanding was something I coveted more than anything else; I worked as hard as I possibly could to get it. I used every differentiated, colour coded, kinaesthetic activity I could think of. In one lesson, on poems from different cultures, I dressed up in a sari and played Indian music, greeting the pupils at the door with a nod and a friendly ‘Namaste’. I think my aim was to ‘immerse them in the poem’ or something like that- honestly, I can’t really remember what the rationale was now.
I didn’t get an ‘outstanding’ on either occasion, and was utterly crushed. It felt unfair; I had worked so hard and I really cared about my students, so being told that I ‘require improvement’ was an extremely hard pill to swallow.
This time, I tried to think about it differently. I realised that in coveting the Holy Grail that is an ‘outstanding’ observation grade, I was making the Ofsted experience about me rather than my students. It shouldn’t be that way. Being a teacher is not about being labelled as ‘outstanding’ or otherwise, it’s about the things that we do day in, day out, for our pupils. If I want to be the best teacher that I possible can be, then I have to change how I evaluate my ability to do my job. It isn’t about selecting teaching methods from a specific menu, hoping to impress an inspector and obtain a grade; rather, it is about doing what is right for the kids in the classroom on that day, and every other day of our careers. If we are to be continually striving to provide the best possible education to our students, then we should be thinking about all of the things we do on a daily basis, rather than simply getting the grade we want when a man with a clipboard is in the back of the room. Yes, getting an ‘outstanding’ can make life a lot easier. It brings credibility and the respect of colleagues; it is perceived to be solid evidence that you are good at your job. But in reality, as a great friend of mine recently said: ‘all lessons require improvement’, simply because no lesson is ever perfect.
I felt somewhat liberated and empowered by thinking about it in this way. I didn’t need to change the way that I taught in order to justify my ability teach. Although I knew I wasn’t perfect, I had enough confidence to be able to say to myself that I wasn’t completely useless. I therefore decided that instead of worrying about it and staying up all night planning ‘Ofsted-friendly’ lessons, I would employ my professional judgement and a dash of common sense and just do what I normally do. If this means that I still ‘require improvement’, then fine: I absolutely want to keep improving and developing my practice, and therefore I should not see an inspection as a reason to alter what I do for a day.
Have confidence in what you do
I changed absolutely nothing about any of my lessons on the days Ofsted were in. I stood at the front of the room and talked about Winston Churchill’s ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech, and got the kids to do some practice work on their own and in pairs. The inspector came in when they were all working quietly and I was going round and helping each of them, asking them questions and prompting them to extend their answers.
When he left the room, I didn’t think about how it had gone. I felt proud of myself for having taught a ‘normal’ lesson. I would be interested to hear his feedback, of course, but I didn’t worry about the grading at all.
At lunchtime I went to meet the inspector and to listen to his thoughts on the lesson. He described my pupils as ‘very industrious’, which had me beaming with pride, and he said that they were ‘clearly very used to’ the way that I work. He then added that ‘they made some cracking progress’, and that although it ‘lacked buzz’, he couldn’t fault the learning that was happening.
He gave me an outstanding.
I was obviously pleased, but I haven’t taken it too much to heart. I’m still thinking about how I can be better and improve my practice- there are plenty of things I need to work on.
But if there is any message to take from this, let it be this: you do not have to change the way that you teach to impress an inspector. Have confidence in what you do normally. You don’t need to ‘pull it out of the bag’ when an inspector walks into the room. What we all need to do more of is think more carefully about the things we do every day, and what we need to do to develop our practice in a wider sense.