Creative Teacher Support

Creative, practical support and discussion for classroom teachers everywhere


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Beware the Crocodiles

Why are monitor lizards called monitor lizards?

… some monitors rear up on to their hind legs to ‘monitor’ their surroundings.

I’m not an idiot. At least I think I’m not an idiot. Popular thought and psychology would say that that doesn’t mean I’m not an idiot. But something that’s puzzling me at the moment is the fact that I have been unaware for some time now that teachers are feckless, work shy fops. No really, they are. They need to be monitored in order to get them to do anything. Me included.

Public persona doesn’t help I suppose. I do enjoy a good teacher headline and the recent accusations of Marxism and being “enemies of promise” are a delicious dessert to my previous favourites. “Teachers should quit extremist unions”, “Teachers forced to cheat” and my personal favourite, “Fern Britton Not Happy With Mountains of Homework”. You know things are bad when you’ve upset education expert Fern.

Tail Wags the DogWith so many aspects of education, the tail soundly wags the dog. This is particularly true where monitoring is concerned. Not evaluation, I’m happy with that, it’s monitoring that is the partner that no one wants to talk to over dinner. It has, recently, been described to me as “checking teachers are doing what they’re supposed to”. A worrying statement. And one that assumes a deficit model in relation to teachers and their practice. We need to be checked up on to ensure we’re doing what we’re supposed to as opposed to finding out where the effective practice is and enhancing it, spreading it, the old “grass fire” analogy. Instead, what we have is an elaborate strategy designed to prove that we are working. No really, really working.

I must point out that I don’t believe everyone does mark enough. I also believe that there are colleagues who mark too much. Both camps need to be provided with targets to ensure that they meet somewhere in the middle. I get the fact that “gap” studies are necessary and, at times, illuminating, but the observer effect of monitoring is all too often a nudge in the wrong direction.

I recently refused access to a set of books and students I was teaching for a monitoring visit. Admittedly a risky strategy but one designed to point out where the flaws in the process exist. This class was the same class that had been monitored the previous time it had been carried out. The structure of the monitoring, in the midst of everything else colleagues are being asked to do, means that they fit it in when they are free. The nature of timetables means the same people are free at the same time that colleagues are teaching the same classes. Essentially, if I was clever, I could mark only one set of books and be happily monitored for the rest of the year. I did no monitoring this time round, no one has asked me for it. Monitoring is carried out differently in almost every department, if it happens at all and appears on the calendar three times in deftly timetabled succession, meaning that teachers, aiming to please, ensure that books are marked up to date for monitoring. This monitoring works on the basis of a contract with parents and not even contracts with children or students. The contract, unspoken as it is, should be with the learning and the child or student. I’m much more of a subscriber to the position that once marking has been done then students have to take action to remedy or at least work towards their targets – somewhere between David Didau’s consideration that “marking is planning” or @headguruteacher’s thoughts around exercise books becoming more like a journal.

Impact of Monitoring Cartoon

Teachers shouldn’t be marking because they are being monitored and, moreover, those monitoring should be able to determine the fact that a book not marked studiously up to the date of the monitoring visit does not necessarily mean that the teacher is not doing their best. In the skewed priorities of schools, some books or work just has to wait longer than others. My Y13s will tend to get priority, followed probably in reverse chronological order, the reasoning too obvious to go into here. There is also the meandering policy of individual departments towards periodic assessment, where a book may have lain dormant whilst an (inner gasp) APP assessment or some such nightmare has been completed and marked and worked on ad infinitum. Teachers though, like Jurassic Park, “will always find a way” and the explosion of “verbal feedback given” stickers, stamps and post-its is a reaction squarely to the culture of monitoring. (When perhaps colleagues’ initial reasons were grounded in the research that considers the powerful nature of feedback.)

The fact remains that we work within a system that wants everything to exist at once. We should mark and plan in relation to what we find whilst also providing schemes of work that can be so prescribed that they can exist on a website for parents to see. It’s a conflicting set of systems that, without appropriate leadership of these areas, we maybe even shouldn’t fight.

I’ve written before about the importance that I see in Learning Walks and fact that I disagree with unions and a lot of other colleagues in the way that I think they should be carried out. Learning Walks, as a system of monitoring, get directly to the core of what we want to monitor, the “received curriculum”, or what is alive in the mind of our students. I know that’s not particularly tangible so I also subscribe to the approach of “pure” AfL where marking isn’t over until students have had the opportunity to work on targets or action points that they have been given.

“All teachers give pupils clear feedback which identifies next steps and provides opportunities in lessons for pupils to discuss and act upon the feedback.”

AfL & APP Quality Standards

Monitoring should consider how often this approach is employed whilst also considering the fact that sometimes we simply have to “check” that work is being done or has been done. In which case, “tick and flick” is wholly appropriate.

I can’t completely do this justice, but a blog I have learned a lot from is that of Hayley Thompson (@HThompson) a fabulous AST Science teacher who I didn’t get the chance to see at Pedagoo London but who writes in great detail about the work she has done around effective marking and dialogue and the power of the green pen. I can recommend her blog wholeheartedly: www.educatingmatters.wordpress.com.

I know I don’t offer a great deal of support to do this better. The only suggestion I can make beyond reviewing approaches to marking, feedback, assessment and monitoring is that you don’t allow the tail to continue to wag this particular dog. If a monitoring visit is due don’t mark your books unless it fits into your usual scheme and timetable for doing this. We’re better than the thought that, when someone opens an exercise book we hear a distant voice saying, “these exercise books are being monitored to ensure a quality experience”. We know when we need to mark and, moreover, we know when we can mark.