Building a Happy School – PART 1: Marking, Planning & Admin

It is a question I am asked all of the time.  I get asked to go to conferences and speak about it and I get a number of DMs every week about it.

How do you create a ‘happy school’?
How do you manage well being at your school?

Like building a culture of trust, there isn’t some-thing I do.  It is the culmination of a number of factors, all of which seem quite simple on the surface (even very common sense) but are complicated.  One of my good friends, Jeff Chung, had a great saying: simple is complicated.

I had seen a tweet earlier in the day that said something like ‘the best thing that HTs could do for well being is let teachers take PPA where they like.’  While I found myself in agreement, I couldn’t help but think that wouldn’t solve the challenges that many of our colleagues face – the challenges that have them heaving out of our schools in record numbers.  So I tried to expand on the sentiment of the tweet I had seen, concisely, in true Twitter fashion. But simple is complicated.

This blog will focus on Agency, Marking, Planning & Admin.
This series will focus on the content of the tweet below (and maybe a bit more)

well being tweet

Agency at Three Bridges is about supported and developed decisional capital.  This means that teachers have much greater power to make decisions that impact their day, time and instructional practice.  And while this is not a blanket  ‘do whatever you want, whenever you want’, it could appear that way. That is the danger of Twitter. Providing agency as a leaders means doing 1000 much less notable things, some consistently and others here and there

We spent time (and continue to spend!) becoming researchers and reflectors, with a lot of time each term dedicated to collaborative improvement and balanced, research-informed, practice-based improvement.  We have taken what was once quite informal professional learning and made it more explicit and formal.  As an example, when marking drastically reduced at the school in 2014, it wasn’t overnight (even though I thought it was absolutely ridiculous!).  It was a thoughtful and measured process involving all teachers.
We looked at why we were marking – which was because we wanted to give pupils feedback about their work.
We looked at feedback as a construct and identified other ways of giving feedback (oracy as an underpinning instructional strategy, oral formative feedback approaches, ‘verbal feedback’, etc).
We trialed strategies in class and fed our findings back to the whole team.  We supported each other and gave each other space to try new things, make mistakes, learn and grow.
We collectively decided what was working best and changed the policy together.
We use approaches like Lesson Study to review and refine our original findings.

What we didn’t do was say ‘we don’t like marking’ and then stop doing it.  Nor did I say ‘do we want to mark?’ and get blasted with an overwhelming NO and then stop doing it.  We didn’t jump on a #nomoremarking bandwagon. It required balance.  It required nuance. It required building our collective capacity for instructional design and effective practice.  This takes time.

When we looked at planning, this was an issue (and is in most schools) primarily because there was no shared belief or understanding of the instructional program in any subject/discipline.  It was every person for themselves. How do we teach writing/reading/maths/geography – how do we teach ANYTHING here?? No coherent answer.  When this is the case, someone needs to have a belief or understanding (right or wrong) and scrutinize/monitor/observe everyone else to that standard. The simple (yet complicated) solution here is: make the instructional program clear to everyone.  The even better solution is: design the instructional program together. Once this has happened, checking people’s planning becomes redundant. You can focus more on learners and learning and the impact that your instructional program is having on individual children, groups of children, cohorts, etc. People can ‘plan’ however they want – in a proforma or on a pub napkin.  It doesn’t matter as long as it works for them. And what’s even better is that the planning becomes less the task of writing down sequences of learning and actually becomes discussion and thought about learners.

Cutting down on the admin teachers have to do started with assessment and curriculum. This was a balance of asking ‘what is necessary/important’ and ‘what can be made more efficient without reducing an essential: quality, communication, information’.  I started by comparing the old curriculum (the national literacy and numeracy documents) and the new 2014 national curriculum. They are wildly different from a teacher’s perspective.  The old one prescribed everything.  The new one just told you what they needed to be able to do by the end.  As a teacher, I would have been very overwhelmed with a feeling of ‘how do I fit this all in?!’.  So I designed a spreadsheet that allows teachers to map this out quickly and coherently. Yes – I had to teach myself how to use excel beyond numbers in boxes – but it was well worth the investment for the school.  And it wasn’t rocket science.  When it got too tough or time consuming, I went on Upwork (a site where you can find really smart people looking for work with specific database skills) and sourced someone to do the rest.  In a nutshell said ‘this is what I want it to do’ and they did it.

assessment screen 1milica

I build in time for teachers to map out their curricula on the first days of school.  This relieves any sense of ‘how do I fit it in’ and it doubles as our assessment document that self-generates parent reports.  So win-win-win. Time saving. Information giving. Parent reporting.

assessment 2


parent sheet

This process probably takes an hour in September to map out the curriculum, and about 20-30 mins a halfterm to assign the 1, 2 or 3 to the child against the curriculum strands. The parent report self generates (so no time) and the assessment sheet is pre-populated from their curriculum map.  What used to take us full days in each halfterm and lotsof time before and after school (and during instructional time!!), now takes minutes in PPA.  We get more information than before. And it only gets entered in to one place. Just took some outside-the-box thinking. There is also a sheet that sits in the background that generates larger, group data.

All of this – the changes to marking, planning and admin – started with the underlying beliefs that:
teachers want to be incredible
this is a time consuming job
that learning is the work
and I want to buffer the teachers from any possible distraction to their deep and meaningful work with children.
Simples. But complicated 😉



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