Great initiatives can sometimes meet with frustrating resistance and in this article about introducing a programme of formal student to teacher feedback in the classroom Kirsten Parker describes how this battle was won by using a simple consultation process to understand the perception of people she needed to get onside.
Back in 2009 I was given the brief by my Headteacher to set up a project where students observed and fed back to teachers on their learning in the classrooms. I was an aspiring school leader at the time this project was part of my NCSL course, Leadership Pathways, designed to provide teachers with the opportunity to experience a senior leadership role.
As a leadership learning experience for me, it was ideal. Unquestionably it would be contentious, teachers were already fed up with the perception of a constant MOT style observation experience and they were also generally unable to see any real motivational benefit from the wider performance management process. It seemed highly unlikely the ‘opportunity’ to have students commenting (or ‘judging’ was almost certainly a more likely concern) on their lessons with the inevitable negative, disaffected evidence damming any possibility of a pay rise would be received with open arms! This was going to be a big challenge.
I started with researching similar projects in other schools; what had worked, important outcomes and also essential learning points. I shared all this with the target student team but I also needed to understand the context in which I was working. If the staff were scared, why? Could I change my colleagues’ perceptions for the better? What would the project mean to them and how could it change the culture of our school? Could the project have a positive impact on teaching and learning?
While the student team were busy identifying what learning looked like in lessons, I needed to know what the staff’s initial perceptions of the project was. I started with a briefing session to introduce the project in a staff meeting, explaining why I was doing it and pointing out the potential for a positive impact on learning. I explained that I would be issuing a questionnaire, the results of which I would use to guide the process. Long before the results were in though, I received some very direct feedback from the staffroom, one teacher in particular who claimed to be speaking on behalf of others.
Let’s called her Mrs A. She was sure that allowing students to comment on their teachers’ performance was a slippery slope to ruin. She expressed concerns that students with vendettas would have a direct line to the head teacher which would be used against us. She named various students with challenging behaviour as examples of just how wrong things could go and questioned the sense of allowing such individuals the opportunity to directly affect our pay.
I admit I hadn’t expected such a tirade but I had got what I needed: an apparently clear understanding of what my colleagues thought of my project. My project could be over before it has begun. I asked her to complete the questionnaire anyway and to prompt those other teachers on whose behalf she was speaking to do the same. So when I finally came to reviewing the completed questionnaires (and the response rate was high at about 75%) I was surprised to find little evidence of Mrs. A’s fear or negativity, some enthusiasm and plenty of constructive questions and interest. I was reassured by this support but realised I still needed to address the very real anxieties that Mrs A had raised.
The next steps – influential consultation
If I could get Mrs A on side, she might use her position to positively influence the rest of the staffroom for me and this could be very useful if the project hit some difficulties. I arranged to meet with her in a neutral space (the library was free) and talked her through what I hoped the next stages of the project to be. I had given plenty of time to thinking about how I would respond to her initial comments and I had also tried to predict how the conversation would go today, so I was ready for anything.
Like all teachers, Mrs A is a dedicated professional with the students’ interests at heart and once we had explored her anxieties she was more prepared to listen and to accept the important principles. Talking things through with her I could now see how I could use the issues behind her resistance to make the proposal a far better project. In fact many of these points had come through the questionnaire responses but giving Mrs A her own individual time really seemed to win her round. This felt like an important victory.
The first point was actually pretty straightforward. I needed a show the staff team there was a project plan that would address and allay any lingering fears, many were understandable, others were myths. But it was the communication that was crucial with the opportunity for open answering of questions.
This I was able to do in the next staff meeting. No, this was not part of the performance management process. No, not all students would be involved as observers, only a few would be trained. Individual feedback would be confidential to the teacher. It would be voluntary – only staff who wanted to would have their lessons observed. At this point, I was asking for volunteers. I was again surprised and a little bit thrilled to find that I had lots, most fabulously of all, Mrs A included. It felt this time like a revolution!
And this next stage was how I planned to tackle the second issue raised by the questionnaire evaluation: what had I failed to discover that I felt I still needed to know? After each student observation took place, the participant teacher would complete a separate questionnaire. The results of this round would help me to finalise the pilot project and therefore giving teachers a crucial tangible input into the final model which we implemented.
The outcomes of the project
A year on and it was time to evaluate the pilot. Student observation of lessons was becoming embedded into the culture of the school. Staff could call on the team if they had a group they were struggling with, or when looking at the impact of a change of practice. The students involved were benefitting by understanding the teaching and learning process and their own role within it. The rest of the school was beginning to see that the student voice was being heard. Not all teachers were volunteering to take part, but we maintained the iterative approach and used constructive criticism as a part of the quality assurance system.
My learning outcomes
1. Take time to research the context. I thought I knew how my colleagues would respond, but I didn’t. I also anticipated a negative response, based on the loudest person in the staffroom and this too was inaccurate. Carefully questioning all those involved helped me to understand the context I was working in and enabled me to…
2. Predict and plan. Now I knew what I was dealing with I was able to take time to consider and predict issues before they arose and then plan appropriate responses and actions. This proactivity saved time and stress too
3. Use a sales pitch. The responses I planned always cast the project in a positive light for the stakeholder, specifically outlining what the benefits would be for them. I tried to ensure that they were incentivised as I wanted them to buy into the project as much as possible in order to ensure its success
4. Target key opposition. Mrs A had generously identified herself as the staffroom spokesperson and so getting her onside was really useful in influencing the mood of some of the more cynical colleagues.
5. Adapt. I was prepared to listen and learn from what my colleagues had to say. I was openly flexible in my approach which meant that they felt (and were) involved and that I was able to benefit from their considerable wisdom. The result of this was that the project was designed to suit the needs of all involved, not just to match a personal vision of my own.
The time taken to engage staff in the process has, in my opinion, ensured the legacy of the project – it is still running today. I left the school three years later and today, more than six years after it started, the project is still running.
Kirsten Parker (BA Hons, PGCE) has been teaching in secondary school for over 20 years, specialising in AFL, student voice and is developing ideas around coaching in education.
Questions for thought
- When implementing important changes do you consider the clear, intended benefits from the start?
- How do you ensure you have the key people on board with the proposals and their commitment is maintained throughout?
- 3. How will you handle any unanticipated resistance? Can you turn the resistance to a positive effect by exploring the reasons for resistance further and identifying ways you can use the views to improve your proposals?