Academy puts teachers in the driver's seat of their PD
Sir Thomas Wharton Academy
Doncaster – “It makes me proud that those staff that walk through the door consistently want the best for the students that come to this academy. […] There’s no top down: it’s something that staff genuinely have a desire to do. We create the time for them to do it; we give them the tools to do it, and that’s why I believe that the school is rapidly improving and going from strength to strength.”
Matt McDonald, Principal, Sir Thomas Wharton Academy
In recent interviews with some of their staff members, we certainly got the same impression. One of STWA’s Early Career Teachers (ECT), Lauren, stated that her childhood teacher was the main motivation for her to get into teaching: “She was really inspiring and you could just tell that she genuinely cared about her students and wanted them to do well; I want to do the same thing for the students that I’m now teaching.” Since joining Sir Thomas Wharton Academy in September, Lauren highlighted the “really welcoming and supportive culture” where colleagues can always seek feedback from each other; Lauren believes that IRIS Connect is a “massive part” of that.
But how was this welcoming and supportive culture created?
Let’s start at the beginning…
Building a culture of collaboration
In 2009, just out of his QTS, Matt McDonald came across a little stand showcasing video technology (IRIS Connect) at a TeachMeet. Fascinated by the concept, his school bought into the technology and the journey began: “It’s followed me and been part of my career and journey within education ever since.”
Ten years later, in 2019, Matt joined the leadership team at Sir Thomas Wharton Academy and brought the IRIS Connect system with him. Anna Richardson, Assistant Principal at the academy remembers what their professional development approach looked like before that: “We would regularly drop in to lessons, but we struggled to ‘close the gap’ to support colleagues to make sustained changes. It was often difficult to arrange for teachers to have time off timetable to observe each other to ‘see’ the changes that they needed to implement in their own lessons.
This all changed when Matt McDonald arrived – he was keen for the T&L strategies to have a tangible impact – IRIS Connect allowed us to do that by showing improvement in specific areas over time.”
She goes on, “when we first introduced IRIS Connect here, we were in the middle of creating an open door culture, trying to get colleagues to welcome others into their classroom and start that culture of collaboration. IRIS Connect felt like quite a natural step as part of what we were trying to achieve. Nonetheless, it definitely brought elements of apprehension for colleagues – ‘what’s this camera in the back of my room?’ But I think emphasising the privacy of the platform and the power that colleagues had over their own reflections, was really vital to ensuring that colleagues understood the very premise of what it was all about, putting teachers in control.”
“Video technology has massively enhanced our professional development package. If we’re asking colleagues to deliver a certain T&L strategy, we’re not only able to tell colleagues what to do, but also show them exactly what it looks like in our context, with our students. It’s so much more powerful than just telling them.
The next step is where the momentum really grows as colleagues are able to use IRIS Connect to record their lessons, ask for feedback and share best practice: its really empowering and impactful when embedding particular strategies because teachers can see not only their own peers delivering the strategy, but also the students buying into it as well. Through this cohesive package of support, the teaching and learning strategy takes on a life of its own, it becomes something that we’re all talking about and doing, it becomes a part of our culture, not just professional learning.”
Matt confirms: “We all know about the amount of time IRIS Connect saves, the cost implications and the advantages of being able to share reflections within the academy and with other Trust academies that are thirty minutes down the road. Beyond the practical gains, the most important gain that transcends anything else is the culture that IRIS Connect helps you create within an academy.”
Using video reflections to improve at all levels
What became apparent when interviewing different members of their staff, was how deeply ingrained their genuine desire for constant improvement is across the board.
Teaching assistants (TA), early career teachers (ECT), experienced teachers, mentors, leaders – it seems so normal how everyone is constantly reflecting on their practice and collaborating with each other to become the best they can be for students they serve.
Brad Dobson, Teacher of Music, looks at the big picture: “Why would you not want to improve? If you’re better, if you’re consistently improving, if you’re at the top of your game, then that’s going to have a positive impact on the students, and then they’re constantly improving and they’re going to be at the top of their game.”
Naturally, we were wondering about specific benefits they’ve been able to see in their classrooms because of that.
“We use IRIS Connect at all levels, not just teachers or early career teachers but also leaders and very experienced teachers: we want those really experienced teachers to be able to capture the best practice, to be able to share how it’s done at the highest level. But we also know that everybody can improve; it doesn’t matter what level you’re at, there’s always something that can be improved or something that can be refined, or a new strategy that can be developed or refined. So, at every level, there is something for a colleague in the academy to be able to use IRIS Connect to really get something from it.”
Specific use cases in the academy
Improving student attainment
Felicity Allen, KS3 Coordinator for English and Transition Manager for Literacy, mentioned IRIS Connect has been “really useful to look at student attainment and investment in their learning. It illuminates all corners in the classroom that you might not have such a close focus on in the midst of a lesson: you can look at the class as a whole and identify where a student isn’t investing in their work or isn’t following or listening to your instructions and dig deeper into how you’re going to make it better next time like moving your seating plan around, targeting that one student who maybe isn’t getting things right a hundred percent of the time. You might have even noticed that they need more support with their writing or their reading. Using IRIS Connect, you’re empowered to make those changes in order for those children to thrive in your learning environment and achieve the grades that reflect their full potential.”
Modifying and trialling different teaching strategies
Brad has found IRIS Connect to be a powerful tool to notice and change even small things, like his posture, but uses it to study students as well: “What makes them tick, what disengages and what engages them from a subject point of view but also from a pastoral point of view. It’s so powerful to know how students respond to your teaching, allowing you to modify or try different strategies.”
Sharing real practice
Within their school, but also across the Maltby Learning Trust, Sir Thomas Wharton Academy has set up several groups on the IRIS Connect platform to share best practice. Gina mentions in particular a group where she’s collaborating with other TAs: “If I’m struggling to find the best approach with a class, I can use IRIS Connect to find a reflection of another TA with the class to identify the strategy that they used most effectively with those children. You’ll notice that we also acknowledge successes, for example, sometimes they’ll be a timestamped comment where one of the team has said ‘I really like what you did there’ – this kind of professional support is great to give and receive, and really helps to bond the team around a common goal of being the best that we can for our students.”
Lauren agrees: “It’s really useful to see what other teachers within the academy and in the Trust are doing. As an ECT I’ve now got those visual representations of what my teaching should look like and it gives me something to work towards.” Fliss goes even further: “It’s made me feel very comfortable in my own teaching. I used to be apprehensive about sharing those videos with other members of staff, but actually, rather than shying away from sharing teaching practice, we should all share it and encourage one another because no lesson ever goes perfectly – we’re working with teenagers after all! We can all improve, we can all develop and IRIS Connect is a way of opening yourself up to improvement rather than seeing feedback as a form of criticism.”
Supporting leadership development
At Sir Thomas Wharton Academy, IRIS Connect isn’t only used inside classrooms, but also beyond the classroom as leaders use it to record the delivery of presentations and to reflect on wider communication and behaviour within the school. Matt explains: “We did quite a bit of work on recording reflections of line management, drop-in feedback, professional behaviours and what we want the culture to look like within the academy.” He adds: “It fits absolutely with the culture that we are trying to drive in the academy and it fits with my own leadership vision, values and the leadership of the Trust we want to create.”
Supporting students with special educational needs
Gina, one of the teaching assistants at STWA, gives us some more examples: “We had an individual with ADHD; through the use of IRIS Connect, I was able to notice the need for sensory toys to support him to control his attention span. From there, we’ve been able to trial the sensory toys, assess the impact, share the strategy with parents and embed it as part of his Individual Education Plan.
IRIS Connect also highlights potential undiagnosed needs, for example individuals whose processing time might be shorter or longer than others. I’m then able to adjust my support in the classroom to target and focus more on those students who need it the most.”
Anna confirms the big advantage in particular for dealing with SEN students: “Every SEND student has an individual education plan (IEP) and these are reviewed regularly. Using IRIS Connect we’re able to look at the strategies that are working particularly well for teachers and the strategies that maybe the student isn’t responding to very well. IRIS provides another perspective to help us to review how effectively the IEPs are working for students and for teachers.”
Enabling more effective mentoring
Lauren, an ECT, further highlights the benefits IRIS Connect has had on the relationship with her mentor, stating that it’s brought them closer together: “It’s really good to show Fliss what I’ve been doing in my lessons rather than just talking about it. She’s got that visual representation of how it’s gone and then we can reflect together on it and think about how to do it next time a little bit differently.”
Fliss, who’s mentoring Lauren, further adds: “Our timetables make it difficult for me to drop into all of Lauren’s classes, with IRIS Connect I can watch Lauren with any class, at any given time, using the recordings. We look at the footage together in our mentor meetings and talk about what’s gone really well before coaching through areas to develop next time.”
Enhancing other professional development activities
As a school striving for constant improvement, IRIS Connect also integrates seamlessly with other measures: training sessions are recorded and provided alongside other development materials for colleagues who missed a training session or would like to rewatch it. IRIS Connect is entwined with departmental development plans too as subject leaders use IRIS Connect to indicate milestones for progress.
Anna highlights the approach for their English department: “We have a Fortnightly Focus’ group where every member of the team is challenged to record and share a reflection focused on a specific area for development. For example, we read Quigley’s Closing the Vocabulary Gap together and then gave some of the strategies a go in our lessons before sharing them with each other and giving feedback.”
Continuously working towards their academy’s vision to ‘deliver exceptional learning experiences that enable all young people to thrive in a competitive world and lead successful and fulfilling lives’, their staff have already uploaded over 2,300 video reflections from 2019-2022 and logged into the platform over 9,000 times – clearly demonstrating the value of IRIS Connect, even throughout the pandemic, for delivering these exceptional learning experiences that their young people deserve.
Fliss, who has used IRIS Connect since she was an ECT about four years ago, reflects: “I now have a bank of hundreds of videos from when I first ever started out in my teaching career to where I am now. It’s been really amazing as I’ve been able to watch myself develop over years; it’s been essential to my teaching practice really.”
With so much value generated for the teaching and learning in this school, it almost seems like a nice side-effect that through our video technology they were able to reduce their cover requirements by ca. 50%.
Matt summarises: “The most pleasing thing is that staff buy into IRIS Connect and want to use it. It’s not something they have to use, but something that has grown organically throughout the organisation.”
“The thing I like the most about it is the fact that teachers can choose what they want to share, when they want to share it and who they want to share it with. It’s that total control of the teachers that’s culture shifter for me. We’ve been able to thoroughly embed certain strategies and see them through all the way using IRIS Connect. And now (in 2022) you can walk around this academy and all of those strategies are totally embedded. And that’s been a massive achievement!” – Anna.
We’ll leave you with a last statement of the Principal that we couldn’t have scripted any better ourselves:
"I wouldn't lead an academy without IRIS Connect. For me it's just a non-negotiable."
Would you like to explore the use of IRIS Connect at your school too?