David Weston is the Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust. This piece originally appeared in November’s Sec Ed NQT SpecialThis is one of the articles in the TDT December Newsletter (sign up here).

To become an outstanding teacher you need to prioritise your own learning. It’s very easy to exhaust yourself by putting ever more energy in to keeping the proverbial hamster wheel spinning, but sometimes you need to step away from the ever-present piles of planning and marking and give yourself some time to grow.

1. Become friends with the data

Use the marks and grades you are collecting to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes a question-by-question analysis of a test can give you a fantastic idea of where your teaching still needs some work. Don’t leave this until the end of a topic; gather some information during the teaching process to give you pointers for where you need to get support from a trusted colleague.

“Data” doesn’t just mean numeric scores, of course. It also includes any information you’re gathering such as behaviour and attendance. If you can keep a very brief journal to record honest reflections from lessons (as soon after you finish as possible) then this can also form a superb source to help you reflect.

2. Get the behaviour right

Don’t let anyone fool you in to thinking that good behaviour is purely a function of engaging lessons. Behaviour management is just as much about high expectations, good relationships and, vitally, simple techniques applied consistently with solid support from senior colleagues. Make sure you are 100% clear on the school behaviour systems and avenues for support from more senior colleagues.

Improving practice in this area can be tough as the point when you really need support – in the heat of the moment – is the hardest to get it. Great ways to get feedback and support in behaviour management are:

  • Observe the practice of more experienced, trusted colleagues and ask them to observe yours and give you feedback.
  • Video your lesson (with permission from senior leadership) and watch it back yourself, or – even better – with a trusted colleague. Talk them through what you think is happening and let them help you get better at spotting issues earlier. Some schools may have dedicated classrooms or video hardware (e.g. IRIS Connect) to help do this.
  • Take difficult situations you’ve encountered and try and ‘role-play’ an improved response with guidance from a more experienced colleague. This will help you gain confidence when the situation occurs again.

3. Question everything, make time to read

Schools are filled with assumptions about how young people learn and behave, as well as what ‘outstanding’ teaching looks like. Not all of these are necessarily as up to date as they could be so make sure you read around and challenge your own views all the time. The Echo Chamber (http://educationechochamber.wordpress.com/) is a superb blog that brings together some of the top teacher bloggers with a real range of views, professional reflection and research-based practice. A real gem of a site.

Joining Twitter is also an absolute must as there is a huge community of teachers there who share problems and ideas, debate best practices and share research. To begin with you might like to ‘lurk’ – i.e., watch what is being said without posting anything yourself. Be careful about your school’s rules regarding social media – you may need to remain anonymous. The usual warnings about social media apply here – don’t say anything you wouldn’t want broadcast to all of your students, their parents and your colleagues in a newspaper! Sam Freedman has a good starter list of people to follow here: http://samfreedman1.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/75-education-people-you-should-follow.html

4. Outstanding teachers do it in groups

Teaching is, far too often, a solitary activity. Get together a group of fellow enthusiasts and try and make time at least once a fortnight to discuss your reflections on teaching. A great approach is to form a ‘journal club’. Identify one or two blogs, book chapters or academic papers and make sure you all read them before the meeting then debate and discuss. Make sure you spend time discussing the quality of the evidence behind it – was any research carried out effectively, do the findings stand up to scrutiny, is it valid to apply any findings more widely, has the author taken a balanced view?

Another vital activity for every teacher is joint planning of lessons. This process should include discussion of:

  • What are the learning outcomes you are trying to achieve?
  • What are the starting points of your students? What previous learning needs to be recalled and reinforced before you begin?
  • What common learning issues and/or misconceptions need to be addressed?
  • How are you going to most efficiently and effectively assess the starting points, the progress being made and the end points?

If you have the time then, for each activity planned, predict the reactions of two or three key students. Try and watch the lesson together or record it on video to watch it back and see how your predictions matched the reality. This is a great starting point for debate, reflection and learning. Your school can get support for this approach (aka Lesson Study) through the National Teacher Enquiry Network: http://TDTrust.org/NTEN

This is one of the articles in the TDT December Newsletter