Shape the Wheel, Don’t Remake It

by Lee Sanders

In my 24 years as an educator, there have always been new trends – something that we must follow, that will change the way students learn. We completely change systems, reshape our language and decry prior practices as antiquated. However, after all these years, it is my experience that these initiatives often do not produce the impacts that were intended. They have some benefits but do not produce enough to justify the work that was put in to facilitate the change. Each year I choose to focus on two things – the quality of teaching (and learning) and exceptional pastoral care and for this article, I want to concentrate on my greatest passion – making teaching the best it can be. I haven’t created a new method but have taken elements from what I believe is good practice to shape a teacher support model that is generating impact and helping our school to move forward. That journey and the steps that you can follow are here to provoke your thinking as we concentrate on our core process in a school. There are 3 steps that I would like to explain:

Step 1: Getting the Right Person to Lead.

The first thing that I did was to create a Director of Teacher Development (DTD) – a role that combines instructional coaching with professional learning, a member of SLT that can help adapt our policies to suit the context, so we provide the right environment for success. Not everyone can do this role, and they need to fit with your vision of how teaching should be. Alignment here is crucial as you are giving a large responsibility, including how you as a Principal will be perceived by the community, to the person you select. I am lucky to have a highly experienced and intelligent teacher on staff who was perfect for the role. She has a tenacity that means that follow-up always happens and it is this consistency that is vital for success. 

Step 2: Creating the Teacher Development Model.

In our model, we created several layers to support our teachers. The first was the co-construction a set of non-negotiables. We broke our non-negotiables into four areas: Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment and Routines. Each of these had simple bullet points of expectations that should be present in each lesson. These expectations were shared with the staff and HODs were asked to walk through classrooms and lessons to check that these were present.  These non-negotiables set clear boundaries for our staff to work within.
The second phase was that we wanted to trial a process that would really initiate change. My experience of walkthroughs and lesson observations is that they rarely produce consistent change, but rather are a better way of putting on a show for when the observation arrives. Therefore, I tasked the DTD to find a way forward and she came back with the idea of using Trust-Based Observations (TBO) by Craig Randall. This was presented at SLT with a summary of how the main ideas could be applied to our context. Each member of SLT was asked to dedicate 1 hour per week to TBO with a small group of teachers so we could increase our visibility and impact. The differences between TBO and traditional walkthroughs/observations are:

  1. The initial meeting with your TBO teachers. You talk with them honestly and ask them what they want to improve. You give agency to them. The area needs to be general so that you can almost see it in every class.
  2. You go and observe a lesson, but this is unannounced. The teacher has to prepare no extra materials and the class should be facilitated as it would normally be if you were not there. 
  3. You give honest feedback and discuss how things can be improved. Questioning is key here, and if staff can reflect well, they can gain a great deal. 
  4. You don’t record anything formally. We only require the date of the observation. The meeting date doesn’t need to be recorded as we require it within one working day. From that meeting – revised or new areas are set. 

The advantages that we have seen with TBO have been numerous. The credibility and perception of SLT have increased as staff have appreciated the feedback and strive to improve. Student and parent perceptions of lesson quality have increased because they can see more consistency and support. Staff are now more open about areas that they need to develop and they are reflecting with more care in the conversations. There is a feeling of safety which I hope supports their wellbeing too. I view TBOs as our “AFL for pedagogy” which allows teachers to get the feedback and review they need to improve. 
The third phase is our Performance Management (PM) model. We have a traditional model, with a self-reflection at the beginning of the year, followed by a formal observation each semester which provokes reflection mid-year and at the end of the year. There are slight differences between PM and TBOs – PM refers explicitly to our teaching standards and is assessed by their closest line manager – often not a member of SLT but a middle leader. This empowers the Middle Leadership while balancing the time requirement for observations. Middle leaders have much higher teaching loads, and thus, leaving TBOs to SLT and PM to the line managers, we attempt to balance the workload. PMs become our “AoL for pedagogy” i.e. our summative assessment.  These still require “cross-checking” with SLT as is common practice, but you can now see our model has two key aspects that can be applied to almost all teachers at school. 
It is unfortunate but a reality that a very small number of teachers will struggle to meet our non-negotiables or the minimum expectations. We want students to have a consistent and quality learning experience, so it is vital that this is challenged while those teachers are given genuine support.  For this scenario, we have a Teacher Support Plan (TSP) – this is where teachers are allocated a mentor who sets two or three targets and then meets weekly and observes regularly giving direct and targeted feedback. These support plans last half a semester and allow time for staff to demonstrate improvement. At the end of the process, they will be observed by myself to judge that sufficient progress has been made. The outcomes can be teacher removal from the TSP as they have met the standards required, a continuation of the TSP for those who have made progress, but not yet consistently reached the standards, and finally, a decision that we must move on. This is always sad, but often is the best for both the teacher involved and the students as in my experience, both will be unhappy at school. Therefore, in our model, the TSP is our “RTItm for pedagogy”. This means that we visualize our model as follows:

Photograph: The X-teaching model

The X-teaching model is representative of the relationship between the individual and the school. The TSP exists below our non-negotiables as support to meet our expectations. Routines are the base of teaching with the alignment of curriculum, instruction and assessment being represented through the middle of what we do, with instruction being central. This is elevated by our TBO and PM process to achieve success. 

Step 3: Be relentless in its application.

Now that you understand the model, it must be always applied, referred to and reviewed to keep the focus up and for everyone to feel accountable not for the results of the teaching but for the consistent application of the process. 
Each month my DTD reviews the TBOs at SLT. Staff who are behind with observations are challenged and observed trends are explained so we have a picture per department of how the teaching is working. It allows for discussion and shared suggestions when an observer is not sure how they can support their teachers in the TBO process. 
Performance Management happens in the last quarter of a semester, so it feels like a summative assessment. This feedback is shared with the TBO observer so that everyone is aware and can pull in the same direction. The DTD coordinates and checks the progress of PM reviews so everyone is completed before the end of the semester.  
At the end of each semester, we review the entirety of the information we collected – and have a summary of Strengths and Areas for Development created. From this, we edit the internal professional learning programme and revise our processes for semester 2. This creates a continuous improvement cycle which is the way to make consistent incremental gains in pedagogy. Small gains are the way forward, and the feedback from our model so far has increased rates of satisfaction from students and parents. The visibility in classes has improved consistency and we are very pleased with its results. 

In conclusion

The way we shaped our current practices together to make a complete model that makes sense for our context is a key factor to our success. I hope that the explanation of this model illustrates that you don’t have to remake the wheel, just shape the wheel to what you need.


I believe that it will inspire you to focus on what is most important in our role – teaching. We often can get distracted by politics and other issues, but if we can remain relentless in our focus towards teaching, everyone – students, parents, teachers, leaders and governors/ boards will be happier and more content. Teaching should always be our key focus. 

Lee Sanders is the Executive Principal of ISA Wenhua Guangzhou Foreign Language School IB Programme and Deputy Head of the School of the ISA Science City.

To connect with Lee, WeChat: Lee_Sanders, email: sanders_lee@hotmail.com

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In next week’s Leading Your International School Principal’s Blog,  Liam Hammer, Head of School at the International School of Lusaka, writes about ‘How To Reset The Culture In Your International School: A Case Study

2 thoughts on “<strong>Shape the Wheel, Don’t Remake It</strong>”

  1. Knowing you well, Lee, I know how passionate you are about assuring the teaching quality is as good as it can be. Thanks for sharing your approaches, there are some great takeaways here. Being relentless is possible when there is trust, and these elements are central. I also like the link between formal and informal processes. Keep sharing- it is a great blog post. 👍🏼

  2. Thanks Lee for this insightful blog.
    Cultivating a supportive environment and fostering teaching excellence really reflects a commitment to student success and holistic educational outcomes!

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