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Spotting the spinach

The not very exciting egg. Photo by cottonbro on

‘What will you do to make sure FGCS continues achieving the excellent outcomes it has been achieving?’

It is a question I was often asked as a new headteacher and though there is sometimes the assumption that our results were achieved in a vacuum, it is still an important question to explore. First of all, consider the following excerpt from Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great’:

Picture an egg just sitting there. No one pays it much attention until, one day, the egg cracks open and out jumps a chicken! All the major magazines and newspapers jump on the event, writing feature stories—“The Transformation of Egg to Chicken!” “The Remarkable Revolution of the Egg!” “Stunning Turnaround at Egg!”—as if the egg had undergone some overnight metamorphosis, radically altering itself into a chicken. But what does it look like from the chicken’s point of view? It’s a completely different story. While the world ignored this dormant-looking egg, the chicken was evolving, growing, developing, incubating. From the chicken’s point of view, cracking the egg is simply one more step in a long chain of steps leading up to that moment—a big step, to be sure, but hardly the radical, single-step transformation it looks like to those watching from outside the egg.

The humdrum of high expectations

FGCS’ transformation was not overnight. It was a constant and often laborious grind from every corner of the school. Getting the basics right. Collaborative planning. Tracking. Following through. Evaluating. Difficult decision making. Persevering in the face of obstacles. Reading and researching. Applying what works in our context. What isn’t in the headlines is all of these things and more. But none of this is headline-worthy. Much like Collins’ egg, it is not anything sensational or romantic. It does not necessarily inspire. It is the humdrum of high expectations.

However, as mentioned, it IS a question worth asking. If we look at the stages of a product’s life cycle – a concept used in marketing or business models – FGCS would sit in the ‘maturity phase’, as a school consistently in the top 50 schools in the country for progress.

Our challenge is to continue at this peak and not succumb to the ‘decline’ phase that so many organisations experience. How will we do this?

The answer for me is simple. We continue to do what we do well, but EVEN BETTER. This is not revolutionary or headline worthy though. Much like the egg analogy, to an outsider, it will appear nothing much is happening, until we see the results.

But in reality, on the ground, it will be a hard slog. And harder still because of all the new extraneous variables that come flying our way, (in the shape of DfE guidance, track and trace, bubbles and so forth). And the temptation will be there to take on the next exciting, headline grabbing initiative, to be convinced by the latest trending ‘research’ or at the other end of the spectrum, simply, to be grateful we’re all back in school and to just ‘get by’.

But we don’t want to grab the next shiny thing or just ‘get by’. We want to remember our core purpose – improving the life chances of our students – and be even better at doing this. Because we can all improve. Not because we’re not good enough. But, to use the words of Dylan William, because we can be even better. So this year, we have set about refining the fundamentals of our practice, in order to be even better.

In essence, what I’d really like to do is hack the product life cycle and establish a loop between the growth and maturity stage. In other words, be in a perpetual state of ‘getting better’.

The Proactive Teacher framework

At FGCS, we use principles of Explicit Direct Instruction, a combination of research informed best classroom practices, as a blueprint for success in our lessons. This year we have taken it a step further and defined the behaviours required to achieve these practices really well. We’ve called it the proactive teacher framework. Because everything is great in theory. But can often fall flat in practice.

We want to define what Paul Brambrick-Santayo refers to in his book ‘Get Better Faster’ as ‘action steps’. What are the behaviours required to achieve better presence / better behaviour management / better questioning / better routines and so on? If we identify the required behaviours and we consciously practise them, over and over again, we will form good habits. It is a simple but powerful formula:

Conscious effort + behaviours = good habits

But we want to go one step further this year. As a school, we already have an open-door culture. Learning walks are a norm across the school and teachers receive feedback on aspects of their lessons via Google forms. Unlike many schools I know, having someone drop into your lesson is not a big deal. It happens all the time. We did away with formal lesson observations a good few years ago and instead we have ongoing informal drop-ins. No more stressing about a one-off scheduled formal observation. No more ‘performing’. We can concentrate on the every day. The feedback we receive now informs our own practice, lets us know what’s going well and identifies training needs on a departmental and whole school level.

But this year at FGCS, we want to get better, faster. To explain this better, I would like you to consider this final analogy. Take a look at the image below. Imagine she’s a teacher. Let’s call her Tracy.

Tracy doesn’t know

Tracy. Just look at her. Blissfully unaware. Tracy will likely go the rest of her day like this. Happy as Larry. Everyone she encounters in her day will notice the spinach in her teeth. If they don’t say anything, she will continue her day like this. She will encounter someone else. They may notice the spinach and also decide not to say anything, perhaps hoping someone else will. And so it will continue. Before long, Tracy has gone the whole day like this. Blissfully unaware.

Now apply this to the classroom. Imagine you have popped into Tracy’s lesson at the start of period 1, Monday morning. She calls for the attention of the whole class as she hastily does something from her computer. The class does not pay attention. You notice her delivery was missing a couple of things that could have made it so much better – in other words, you spot the spinach.

At this point, you could do one of two things:

Option 1: you could jot it down and plan to let her know about it later on when you next get the chance to see Tracy. You have a number of meetings and classes to teach so this will be at the end of the day or tomorrow morning at the latest, you tell yourself. In the meantime, Tracy continues this practice of calling for attention in period 2, period 3, period 4 – all the way to the end of the school day. Her classes don’t really pay attention, just like in period 1. But she has become quite practiced at calling for attention in this manner. It has almost become a habit. A bad one.

When you finally get to Tracy and deliver the feedback, she can’t quite pinpoint which bit of the lesson she did it in. It was a long day. There were worse lessons in between. But she nods and agrees she’ll try the strategies you suggest. If she remembers.

Option 2: You step in and live coach to see Tracy implement better practice in the moment. There are several ways to do this that will not undermine AND see instant improvement in practice (Bambrick-Santayo breaks this down brilliantly). In this scenario, when you notice the class has not paid attention, you discreetly instruct Tracy to stand in a centre point at the front, use a ‘strong’ voice and crane her neck obviously to scan the room as she calls for the attention of the class. She tries these 3 things in that moment and the impact is palpable. Every child is paying attention, immediately. Tracy can feel the success. She can pinpoint what went wrong in her first attempt. She is now able to consciously practise these 3 steps in every lesson thereafter. By the end of the day, she has become quite practiced at calling the class for attention effectively.

It has almost become a habit. A good one.

Spinach spotting and stepping in: creating a culture

Common initial reluctance of live coaching is the same as one’s reluctance to tell a colleague they have spinach in their teeth: embarrassment, awkwardness, not wanting to undermine and so on. (Note, schools implementing unscheduled ongoing learning walks have similar reservations at first).

Culture here is key. For us, we apply the 2 premises of hospital residency that Bambrick-Santayo discusses in his book to our context:

  1. A student’s learning is of the utmost importance

  2. Accelerated development: we want to get better, faster.

So a culture that is built upon these two premises, and one that makes live coaching a norm, will make these initial reservations irrelevant. Spotting spinach and stepping in needs to be regarded nothing more than ordinary team teaching from a student’s perspective. And a move to ‘get better faster’ from the teacher’s perspective. Whatever our teaching experience. Whoever we are. When we do it, it is because we are invested in the students’ learning and each others’ learning. Not because we’re not good enough. But because we can be even better. And this year, at FGCS, we will be even better, faster.

See below-adjusted product life cycle graph. Not to scale.

Here are some slides on this topic from a recent leadership training at FGCS:


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