Mark. Plan. Teach by @TeacherToolkit (Ross Morrison McGill): A reflection

Disclaimer: I was selected in a Twitter competition to receive a free, signed copy of ‘Mark. Plan. Teach.’ I would have bought a copy of my own if I hadn’t been.

Having come quite late to the Edu-Twitter sphere, I had little knowledge of Ross Morrison McGill AKA @TeacherToolkit and his work until an overworked member of SLT sent staff McGill’s ‘5 minute Lesson Plan’ a few days before formal lesson observations were to begin. This template was intended to replace the three-page formal lesson plan for observations that had previously reigned supreme at the school.  Now, before I get stuck into McGill’s book, indulge me while I provide a bit of personal context, which I think helps to frame how I have approached this review.

The series of performance-management related lesson observations in question were perhaps an interesting case-study in why books like McGill’s are particularly timely and important. In line with the latest advice not to grade individual lessons, we were told that lessons would not be graded. The criteria used to assess teachers in lesson observations were new (I think the second or third different criteria to be implemented within an 18 month period). This new criteria replaced the label ‘outstanding’ with ‘inspirational’. The 5-Minute Lesson Plan template was sent to us with no CPD, further explanation, nor guidance on what was being looked for (other than McGill’s own PowerPoint), and after the observations had been completed, line-managers were asked to send SLT an ‘indicative grade’ for the lessons observed. No explanation or elaboration for the reasoning behind this was provided to staff. Needless to say, I spent an awful lot longer than 5 minutes planning that lesson.

This was partly because, in a previous observation last academic year, I had been graded Good (under different criteria) in a lesson that had been formally observed, causing me to become so upset that I burst into tears in front of this same Senior Leader. He then told me that I am an outstanding teacher, and that he would hope his children were taught by me. High praise indeed, but conflicting for one of the 33% of women in this country who has been diagnosed with a mental illness (a figure McGill points to in his book and that I will elaborate on in a later post).

I don’t write this to take a dig at the senior leader in question. In fact, he’s someone who has mentored me and who I respect a lot as a manager, but he is operating within a system that is full of contradictions about what it wants from teachers (and senior leaders), and one that places intense pressure and causes a lot of stress in a remarkably large workforce. And this is the backdrop to McGill’s book, and to the way I approached reading it.

McGill’s book is aimed at ‘every teacher’ and ‘every leader of learning and teaching’  and probably also every politician, MAT CEO and Ofsted Inspector, too (McGill, 2018 p.xxiii). This is a book I would hand to any PGCE or NQT I might mentor, and probably also (in a generous mood) might give to SLT as a Christmas present. Suffice to say, I largely agree with what McGill has to say. The book is split, predictably, into three sections: ‘Mark’, ‘Plan’ and ‘Teach’, which mirror the teaching and assessment cycle. While McGill has designed the book in such a way that it could be dipped in an out of, with practicable ‘idea snapshots’ throughout, I suggest reading the book cover-to-cover. Mark. Plan. Teach. presents the collected wisdom of McGill’s 20+ years in education, along with explanations of his evidence-base and helpful explainers on psychology from Dr Tim O’Brien.

The book has a number of themes that particularly appealed to me that run through it:

  • The importance of context and taking this into account when selecting strategies and judging teachers/schools
  • Encouraging the use of verbal feedback to promote progress
  • The habits of mind and practice that effective teachers develop
  • The importance of flexibility and adaptability in school contexts
  • Reflective practice
  • The importance of wellbeing for both teachers and students
  • The importance of consistency across teachers within a school

To an experienced teacher, I hope that none of McGill’s advice is groundbreaking or surprising. What I primarily enjoyed about the book was the clarity and structure of it. It reinforced many of my own long-held beliefs and attitudes about good teaching and it is accessible to the point that my husband, who is not a teacher, picked it up to flick through it, we could immediately engage in conversation about McGill’s arguments. McGill writes with passion and a heart-felt sincerity that makes you wish more senior leaders were like him. His openness and self-reflection, as well as his acknowledgment of the people who have influenced his practice provides a model for teachers and leaders alike.

There are a few criticisms I might offer, but they are minor. The primary one is McGill’s use of the term ‘Stickability’ – Oxford Dictionary defines this as: ‘(informal) A person’s ability to persevere with something; staying power.’ So in a way, ‘Stickability’ is a personal trait or quality, that we might otherwise call resilience. Really, what I take McGill to mean by this term is ‘memorability’ or perhaps to use a metaphor: resonance. Personally, I prefer the term ‘resonance’ because the vibration implied by the word contains a more accurate depiction of how memory is formed. The idea of amplification, or varying frequency and pitch, appeals to me as a metaphor for the process of memory and learning. This is a personal preference, and perhaps more of a note on style, rather than the actual semantics or overall validity of McGill’s ideas, which I agree with in the case of planning the learning episodes around what it is you want to stick with the students as they walk out the door. I can certainly see this phrase being developed from post-it plenaries or similar!

I have a second, small gripe with a paragraph on mental health, which will elaborate on in my next post.

At a stage in my career when I am changing schools, and moving to teach a very different demographic next academic year, I have been in deep reflection over the past few months about the kind of teacher I am, and if this is the kind of teacher I want to be. Reading Mark. Plan. Teach. has been timely for me as I move forward in this journey. So, what will I take with me from Mark. Plan. Teach.?

Firstly, I have recently discovered that I really enjoy marking student work and providing feedback when I know it is meaningful. I have wasted countless hours marking students’ books for scrutinies, and the students having no opportunity to look back through the work and improve. Ultimately this led to a (short) phase in my teaching career where I basically just stopped marking. I was burned out, and didn’t see the relevance and impact. I was marking more for my HoD and SLT than I was for the students, and the marking policy of the school was so unsustainable that there seemed like no point in even trying. Gratefully, I have passed through this phase. I enjoy marking, and plan for marking: one of the things to take away is that it’s important to plan for what the students will learn and be very clear about how you will assess this learning and provide feedback. You could also be organised and clever about the way you design a scheme of work around your own pinch-points as well. When you want to provide written comments, think about when this is gong to work for you.

Secondly, what really resonated with me was McGill’s comments on the fact that PowerPoint presentations are often conflated with schemes of work. A series of lesson prompts is not a scheme of work. When I arrived in London, I was shocked by the prevalence of PowerPoint and the amount of time teachers spent and expected to spend in making PowerPoint presentations. They do not work. They are not a proxy for learning. Stop. I cannot begin to say how many hours I have wasted adjusting the transparency on background images of WWI trenches, instead of actually thinking about why I was using that image, and what students would learn from it. PowerPoint is sometimes a useful tool if you want to share lots of information with students – it beats writing it up on a whiteboard with your back turned to an unruly class. A Dictogloss is even better.

There are a variety of ideas that McGill outlines that I already do, and will keep on doing (perhaps even more): drawing inspiration from things around me; building a bank of tried and tested ideas you can pull out of a hat at a moment’s notice; using socratic questioning; teaching with story; direct instruction and modelling. I will try out the ‘Yellow Box’ marking strategy, which I think will allow me to be incredibly precise and focused when providing written feedback, and I’d like to adopt a mastery marking approach as well.

Finally, I really want to develop coaching strategies, which he outlines. I’ve been listening to a podcast on coaching in schools recently by Growth Coaching International and I am really drawn to a coaching approach, especially when it comes to mentoring PGCEs and NQTs – something I’m itching to do next year.

In all, Mark. Plan. Teach. is a timely book for me, and I imagine many others. In a background of a new wave of evidence-based teaching and a spotlight on teacher workload and wellbeing, I hope that School Leaders listen to what McGill has to say. I recommend that it should grace the CPD libraries in staff-rooms across the UK.

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