“Outstanding”, according to lead Ofsted Inspectors

So, I have reached the dizzy height of the most-coveted educational accolade, again–

“Outstanding”!

By a lead Ofsted Inspector. Signed, evidenced and specially commended in feedback to the Leadership Team.

Well, I am not writing this to gloat. Nor am I writing this to offer tips to fellow teachers to emulate. I know fully well that my euphoria can be ephemeral, likely to be obliterated by one negative experience. Instead, I am writing this to reflect my experience of two lessons that were given “Outstanding” ratings by Ofsted Inspectors. I try to recall, in as much detail as I can, what I did in those lessons, and what I thought that might have swayed the Inspectors to give those lessons the top ratings rather than a lesser one.

The latest encounter: context

My most recent encounter with an Ofsted inspector was during our two Review Days before half term. Three serving Ofsted Inspectors were invited by our school to conduct an Ofsted-style inspection, aka, Mocfsted. The process was going to be identical as a real Ofsted inspection. Before the Mocfsted, there is the usual plethora of activities to make sure all the necessary paper work was in place: seating plan, identification of SEN and Pupil Premium students, Minimum Expectation grades, target grades, etc. Anything that can be translated into data to quantify progress had been done so to inform students’ individual targets. Assessment was up-to-date.

It was hard not to be drawn into this paralysing panic.

To me, teaching always comes first. Mocfsted? No exception. I know my students by interacting with them, by marking their work – pupils whom I have taught in the past, pupils whom I have been teaching for the past few years, or pupil whom I have just taken on for the first time. No amount of information on a spreadsheet alone can help me grasp their personalities, temperaments, learning habits, or likes and dislikes.

The two scheduled inspection days were busy days for me. Having two trainee teachers to look after and meetings to attend simply meant that there was not much time for elaborate planning to fulfil Ofsted expectations. Whilst many were making meticulous lesson plans with specially designed resources, I looked at all my groups and planned for the next stage of the teaching sequence. I had no time to plan for a free-standing, safe, Ofsted-proof lessons. I didn’t even have time to consult other teachers in the office and compared notes. With lesson plans in the form of teaching notes saved on the computer and no worksheets, I arrived on both days to teach all my groups.

First Day: First lesson visited by an HMI – Year 7 (set 2)

Library lesson. The librarian was in my year 7 lesson to set up Accelerated Reading for that group for the very first time. Before we decamped down a flight of stairs and went round a couple of corridors and down another flight of stairs to the Learning Resources Centre, there was much sticking and recording information to do. A single HMI arrived in the middle of all this cutting, sticking and asking, answering questions furore. I asked to speak to him on the corridor to explain that there was a visually impaired student in this group, and we did make sure that he could access the set texts in large print. He remained expressionless. As we started to gravitate to the library, the HMI followed us all the way there and stayed with the group. Then he disappeared. I never heard anything from anybody about that lesson.

Second Day: Second lesson visited by 1 HM Lead Inspector and 1 Internal Assessor – Year 9 (set 1)

The learning objectives were “identify”, “explain” and “explore”, with emphasis on independent/original interpretation. We were looking at a passage taken from The Hunger Games and the students were learning to explore the effect of the writer’s use of language. After some initial individual and paired work, I was explaining how I always learned something new every year – – even from the same text – from my students. I was giving an example about Of Mice and Men when the HMI and the Internal Assessor pushed the door open to come in. I acknowledge their presence and went on with my impassioned monologue. My instinct told me to get the students to discuss the passage in groups of four. They could either take notes in their exercise books or on their iPads. I had abandoned the original plan for that part of the lesson. Originally I had planned to dictate my annotations (prepared by my two trainee teachers) for the students to take notes.

All the time, I was aware of the two observers moving around the room, talking to members of that group. The HMI sat down at one point, watching intently and quietly taking notes. It was when I went over to shake his hand and welcome him to my lesson. Other times, I didn’t really know what he was checking. I didn’t hand over my seating plan, nor was I approached for details of the Pupil Premium and SEN students in that group, though I had all the information.

Recalling that lesson, what I could say was that it had a very, very intense, positive and purposeful atmosphere. Ample written clues (including objectives and links with learning activities). I also used the projector to show modelling of discussion notes collated from different groups on the IWB. He was obviously impressed by the quality of learning in that 25-minute observation – to me that’s fair enough, focusing on quality of learning rather than the quality of my admin work.

I was given an official feedback (evidence form) later that day – Quality of Teaching 1; Achievement of Students 1; Behaviour and Safety of Students 1. Strengths: questioning, challenge and pace.

A much earlier encounter over 5 years ago – Year 11 (set 4)

In a similar situation, I was observed in a full 55-minute lesson by one lead Ofsted inspector and my then Head of Department (now a Deputy Principal at another school). I had inherited this group when I started my NQT year. I remember the previous teacher of this group telling me that many in this group needed plenty of support with self-esteem. I wasn’t quite sure whether or not it was a euphemistic comment. I found the group members amiable enough though some of them were difficult to motivate.

I was observed in a lesson when I was teaching Seamus Heaney’s At a Potato Digging. Thinking back, I must have prepared a detailed three-part lesson plan including a timing for each learning activity. I can’t recall all the learning activities now, suffice to say that there must have been plenty of identifying poetic devices and explaining their impact on the poem and on the reader. I do remember however I was explaining to the group the physical strain that manual labour such as digging potatoes could sustain. I demonstrated by showing them a typical punishment that we used to received when I was at school in Taiwan – half squatting with both arms outstretched. “Within minutes,” I explained to the group, fascinated by my tale, “you will begin to feel every sinew in your leg muscles begin to BURN, then your arms, until you have to stand up, kicking your legs about and throwing your arms around to relieve the pain.” I might have made them try it, too. I can’t remember now.

Whatever happened in that lesson, it was judged “Outstanding”. My Head of Department later explained to me that he would have given me a “Good”, but the HMI insisted on an “Outstanding”.

Can I draw any conclusion from these two observations?

Be myself and do what I do best seems to be the underlying characteristic of how I behaved in these two lessons.

In both lessons, I had demonstrated to the HMI that I was completely comfortable and passionate about my subject. In the latest inspection, I wasn’t reading from, or constantly checking with, my lesson plan. There didn’t seem to be any visible “plan” as such. The logic of learning activities was based on a simple principle of learning from doing – in this case discussing. Some may describe such teaching/learning style as dialogic. I must emphasise however, it’s the conviction in my delivery that helped engender an overwhelmingly positive learning atmosphere so palpable that not only it compelled the students to focus on the tasks given and make excellent progress, it also helped lodge its impression firmly in the HMI’s memory.

Whether or not it would have made any difference I don’t know. It’s purely subjunctive. Nevertheless, it has to be noted that on that occasion with my Year 9 group the other week, I changed my plan when the HMI was there. Instead of dictating notes to my students (which I would’ve preferred to do in a “normal” circumstance to try to cover more details), I invited them to discuss in groups. I circled to join their discussions, offer support and guidance, monitor their progress and collate their findings to type up on the computer to be shown on the IWB for all to see. Normally, I would invite a representative from each group to come up to do the typing instead. I now wish I had done so on that occasion.

Maybe, what I can learn from these experiences is that it may well be counter-productive to fret about an impending Ofsted and lose sight of our real strengths in what we do. Trying too hard and too much may just impede on our ability to teach well. We are our best when we can relax and be ourselves. When we are at our best, few would fail to notice.

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About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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