Teachers don’t come out of a box labelled ‘Teacher’. We take a long journey, some longer than others, but still a journey. For many of us it begins with school and with the way in which we were taught ourselves. Either we were lucky enough to have some inspirational teachers who nudged and encouraged us along paths that were new and challenging to us. Or alternatively we had terrible, terrifying experiences that gave us clear ideas about how not to do things and therefore made us think that if we were a teacher we would definitely do things differently.
Next came our degree. Some, lucky enough to know what they wanted to do from early on combined an interest in a particular area with an educational underpinning. The rest of us had a specialism that had become our particular beloved subject. If you work with sixth formers or spent any time with school leavers you’ll know that not all pick their degree subjects out of a deeply held passion for that subject. So it would be interesting to poll colleagues to see just how passionate they were when they came to take their subject. Hopefully, hugely. You come to the end of the degree and do you think, ‘hooray, now I can go and do my teacher training’? Some must do. I’ll be brutally honest, genuinely I wasn’t that sure at all when it came to considering teacher training. A friend working at a university told me to give it a go and if it didn’t work out I would come out of the year with a great qualification. He was right and I was wrong. It was a great move to make, fantastic even.
So now the teacher training. Boy, have we heard some opinions about teacher training of late. I have heard lots of teachers dismiss their PGCE year as inconsequential. I think I must have gone to a really good course with great lecturers (let’s give them a plug – Exeter!) and yes my lecturers were pretty special – including Terence Copley and Ted Wragg, but I definitely think I learnt a lot. If nothing else I thought a lot about things, about what to do if they misbehave, about writing a scheme of work, about how to teach history by building trenches out of tables and chairs (in the days when you had a second subject). I also learnt how hard it was to prepare a million lessons, evaluate them and produce amazing resources every single night. During teaching practices I would meet up at the weekend with a fellow student teacher for soup and bread (financial resources were so limited) and we would encourage each other and commiserate over the latest lesson disasters, ‘oh you had a child faint in your lesson? I can better than, I had a girl cut her hand‘. If nothing else it was practice and people very quickly told us when we did something wrong.
As a senior leader I have been privileged to be able to mentor PGCE trainee teachers through their QTS year. Far from being a waste of a year, it was great to have time to sit and discuss lots of different aspects of teaching, pedagogy and strategies. It’s really tough for PGCE trainee teachers, especially those trying to work a 90% timetable, as their levels of paperwork are huge. Being observed by tough criteria is challenging and I think the process of target setting and checking is a continual process of development. Once you get though the PGCE year there is now the NQT year. I’m so old I didn’t have to do that. It’s quite a frustrating year in some ways if anyone attempts to make it a simple repeat of what has gone before. My last NQT and I kept coming back to the word ‘bespoke’ about what we were trying to achieve. However, I think, depending on the circumstances it is like the process of starting with stabilisers and then taking them off the bike. Someone is there for the few wobbles and occasional crash, but otherwise you’re heading out on your own.
So then you’re on your own. Hopefully, with supportive colleagues, you are still nurtured and encouraged. So how does development continue at this point? Well there has been a lot of flack recently about training away days, but I always liked the space they gave me mentally to listen to an alternative perspective. Even if the trainer did not inspire, it was a different viewpoint or even a reassurance that you’re not doing a bad job. I also ended up organising a national conference for about 200 delegates myself for a few years, and with a small team, we worked for months and months to prepare everything. Ridiculously hard to put on a day for a decent rate that teachers really enjoyed. I know that they are not as fashionable these days, but I still think they are really useful, often because it is an opportunity to tackle a new topic or learn about a new development, but then I would say that.
What has crept up on me is the rise of the Teach Meet – a wondrous phenomenon of the sharing of good practice. Something that senior leadership teams ideally should have been encouraging throughout. I think Teachmeets are amazing events, not least because it is a chance for teachers to get a pat on the back. If they get positive feedback then it is affirming and pushes you on that you’re doing a good job. It’s basically like a lesson observation without the children, which is where for me it’s limitation lies. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing negative about a Teachmeet, but if possible (and there’s the rub) I think lesson observations are better. Not only do you see the amazing teaching idea and all right it’s only one teacher and one lesson, but you see the interaction, the evolution and adaption of the idea which is ultimately what it is all about. So, personally I think the more you are able to observe lessons, the better, that certainly makes it possible to continue to develop professionally.
As a professional I believe that to continue to develop I want to learn from someone who has studied more than me. It means I read some of the amazing academic texts that are have been published. My understanding of teaching has been transformed through reading giants such as Fullan, De Bono, Holt, Grint, Robinson and Cowley. A school I worked in was forward thinking enough to run extended internal INSET with fantastic experienced leaders that challenged me and opened up whole new worlds of academic study that inspired me to do a Masters degree. For me, that is continuing to develop professionally. If I think about teaching an A level class, I would share peer essays for them to think about potential mistakes, or to understand parallel examples, but I wouldn’t teach a new topic with them. I would encourage students to lead revision seminars to ensure their understanding was correct and to help them understand through teaching, but I wouldn’t ask them to teach a new topic.
We can gain a huge amount from sharing good practice amongst peers, but our learning is about pushing forward, about recognising that there is always more to understand. There is so much more I want to learn on my horizon. I thought it was quite sad when I saw someone on Twitter say that they didn’t know a teacher who had ever read an academic educational journal and then make use of it in the classroom. Through twitter we have access to some amazing articles now and sometimes an article from an incredibly different context can inspire new ideas. I remember coming up with a new curriculum idea after reading about the schools in a tiny fishing town in Newfoundland. That’s an amazing thing about professional development, it creeps up on you when you least expect it. I have been lucky enough to be able to deliver INSET in some schools. I love delivering INSET, not because I can’t teach, or have failed as a teacher, but because I am passionate about communicating ideas and being part of that process that gives teachers head space to continue to develop professionally. So the learning journey continues, it’s an education accumulator. We should always share good practice, but let’s not be afraid of the idea of an expert. There’s already too much ‘us and them’ in education, let’s not make learning from academic educational experts as part of CPD another example of it.
“In order to be a teacher you’ve got to be a student first”
Gary L Francione