Education: Open doors, shared ideas

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST time Jeanne Shentall invited her headteacher into the classroom to appraise how she taught 30 six-year-olds, she stage-managed the lesson down to the last paperclip. The second time, she asked the head to look at children and tasks that she knew were giving her trouble. Next time, Mrs Shentall says, she wants her appraiser to come into her classroom completely unannounced, whenever she likes, to offer honest observations and

advice.

Every teacher in England and Wales must now be formally appraised, including classroom observation, on a cycle of four years. By next summer, half should have undergone their first classroom observation and appraisal; the other half are due to have done so by summer 1995.

Trepidation in staff rooms is considerable. Appraisal has been linked in public discussion with performance-related pay and with getting rid of bad teachers.

Ministerial advisers have visited Arkansas in the United States where an appraisal team offers massive retraining to under-performing teachers. And even though the Government is now publicly committed to a form of appraisal that offers teachers professional development without crude sticks and carrots, teachers are not in the habit of undergoing scrutiny.

'People here felt very anxious at the beginning,' recalls Liz Bandy, Mrs Shentall's appraiser and head of Gothic Mede Lower School in Arlesey, Bedfordshire. 'Teachers do feel threatened when they first open their classroom doors,' she says.

This week, however, four years after the school joined Bedfordshire's pilot appraisal scheme, the eight teachers responsible for 220 five- to nine-year-olds plunged into their third round of formal appraisal interviews with apparently unbounded enthusiasm.

The appraisal cycle begins with teacher and appraiser agreeing which aspects of the former's work will be examined. At Gothic Mede the first two cycles covered classroom teaching; the present one looks at non-classroom work: how each teacher takes assemblies, deals with parents and shares subject expertise with colleagues.

Appraiser and teacher collect evidence, including the appraiser's observations, over several months. Then comes the formal interview, which follows an agreed agenda including the teacher's strengths and weaknesses, career hopes and specific targets to achieve by the next appraisal.

'For two hours you can focus on that one person's practice, and they know it's going to be confidential, and absolutely everything is discussed,' says Mrs Bandy.

Mrs Shentall volunteered for scrutiny of her 'wet play' classroom area, the self-reliance of her six-year-olds, her responsibilities for parent helpers throughout the school, and her responsibility for children with special needs.

The evidence presented at her appraisal interviews included not only her own report on the work with parents and special needs children, but also the guide for parent helpers which she has written and Mrs Bandy's observations that children in the 'messy' area were wasting time.

It also included a rather unusual map: 'I drew a plan of Jeanne's classroom, including all the children and the furniture, and then plotted where they went and what equipment they got,' explained Mrs Bandy. The idea was to see if the room was organised effectively to allow children to get scissors, maths cards or whatever they needed without having to interrupt children involved with the teacher. 'What we found out was that the room was perfectly well organised. It was just that some children don't care if they can get everything they need - they want the reassurance of working with the teacher.'

Mrs Shentall reorganised her timetable so a parent was able to supervise the 'wet' area, and shared her findings about classroom organisation with other members of staff. Mrs Bandy points to that spreading of expertise as one of the main benefits of appraisal: 'Very early on, people started saying, 'Do you mind if I tell so-and-so about the way you organise the maths in your room, because I think it would really help them?' It's the same with resources: when I first came to this school some teachers had wonderful resources and some had appalling resources. Now the staff come together as a whole and discuss what's needed and people agree.'

One teacher drew up an action plan on discipline following trouble with a group of disruptive children and, since then, behaviour problems at Gothic Mede have fallen dramatically. And two 'articled' trainee teachers have joined the staff, after another teacher expressed interest in becoming a trainees' mentor.

Reception classes have been reorganised because observation revealed that children who started school at different times of the year were ignoring each other. The first-aid boxes have been restocked after the teacher responsible included them in her appraisal targets.

'There's a feeling of team growth throughout the school,' says Doreen Ponting, the deputy head. 'The talk in the staffroom has become much more professional: whereas before we would be talking about shopping or what we were doing outside, now we find ourselves talking about what someone's been studying, or an observation we have had, or children we were observing.

'In the past the classroom door has been shut. If someone started off with bad training or a bad role model, they simply carried on with it because they never saw anything else. Now the doors are open and you just can't help learning.'

(Photograph omitted)

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