The Wobbly Path to Teacher Development

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Have a look at the graph above (the reference escapes me, but do comment if you would like to remind me to pop the reference up there). It’s an illustration of two different types of teacher and how they develop. Some teachers develop to a point, then stagnate. Other teachers continually experiment and develop and although (as a result of the experimentation) that performance may dip below a particular standard from time to time, the overall trend is for continual improvement above and beyond that of the stagnated teacher.

Which is better? The official line here is that the better person is the person who improves the most, but this is a line which would like that improvement not to drop or wobble, but to improve and develop in a clear, preferably predictable straight line.

Alas, this is not how it happens. The path to professional development requires experimentation and, as anyone with a basic grasp of science can tell you, one of the points of experimentation is to identify that which doesn’t work. Experiments fail, and are modified, reflected upon, reported upon, and tried again.

So for a practising, developing teacher, what is the practical impact of this? Naturally there has to be some recourse to the standard: after all, we are not dealing with chemicals and micro-organisms but real young people and adults. However, we can’t assume that at the end of any teacher training course the people who pass that course are as full as they can be of the required knowledge and experience! There has to be improvement from that point onwards.

But if that improvement doesn’t, as I think, happen in a straight line, what about if that teacher’s performance is observed as being below that line? Even though their average performance and eventual performance will be better than that, the perpetual focus on the once-a-year snapshot of teaching and learning means that there is every chance that you get observed on a down dip.

So what’s the answer? Do nothing in your observation window which could go wrong? OK, and I’ll admit I’ve done that, especially where there is a lot at stake, but by and large I explore ideas and alternatives in my classroom practice across the year. However, what message does this send to anyone who is not inclined to experiment?

It could be argued that the one lesson, once a year model of classroom observation actively encourages mediocrity. The coaster’s argument, with some logic, is that if they are better playing safe during observation week, then why bother doing anything else? I’m not saying they are right, but rather than necessarily challenge the coaster to improve, the standard model of observation suggests simply that they are better to play safe.

And raising the bar for acceptable performance, as OFSTED did recently, isn’t the answer, either. Coasting can happen at any level of performance. One can coast nicely on the back of a grade 2, or at a grade 1. It doesn’t mean that teacher is innovating, pushing boundaries or exploring alternatives.

The danger with a simple depiction like the graph, of course, is that it suggests that there is a ceiling on development. If I were to redraw the graph I might still lessen the angle of the improvement towards the top to represent the move from big developmental leaps (such as those made by the beginner teacher) to very small, incremental developmental steps, made by the very experienced teacher. There is a gap between what I know (and do) and what there is to know, but it is a lot smaller than it was 13 years ago. That gap is unlikely to ever close, as each group of learners, indeed each lesson I teach, brings countless small (and sometimes large) challenges and changes to my learning as a teacher.

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6 comments

  1. Reblogged this on teachnorthern and commented:
    Instinct and experience tells me that the very best learning potential is a teaching observation, where the feedback is a searching balance of appreciation and challenge. But the model has got to be right…

    1. I agree: arguably the only way to gather any real time knowledge of what happens in the classroom for any purpose is to observe it, although it occurs to me that a lot could be gained from allowing time and space for reflection in a teacher’s timetable and getting proper reflections down, after the manner of a Reflective Journal on a teacher training course.

      If the feedback is right and done well, observation can be a great benefit to teaching. I recently had a week’s gap between getting my observation grade and getting the detailed feedback, in which time I was able to digest the grade (which was fair) and reflect properly on the lesson, so the feedback was much more of a balanced dialogue, using a discussion of the grade as a starting point.

      Alternative models, though, that’s the question, and I should think about that for another post, instead of just lobbing brickbats at the current system!

  2. Performance can go down as well as up. Part of my role is to help people identify the support they should have had when their performance was dropping, and to see what support they need now to improve their performance again. You have to know what someone is doing to give feedback on it, and suggestions for improvement, and this can be a difficulty in some organisations, but it is why the teaching obervations are designed to be evenly spaced through the year.
    Ill health, family problems, disability, relationship difficulties, bad management, so many things can lead to a drop in performance (whatever that is measured as).Early intervention makes a real difference in my experience.

    1. I agree, and the range of factors which can have an impact on performance is as large as you suggest. To plot a teacher’s development on a graph like this is necessarily simplistic – the “wobbly line” may not just wobble, but may just as easily chart a less positive curve than this one.

      I referred to observation: the question I raise is not with observation in principle, but rather the performance management use of observation. I have a role in my organisation which is also about supporting my colleagues in their development, A crucial, and usually initial part of this is to carry out a peer observation, from which stems a professional discussion of what happened. I also think that peer to peer observation, using a model such as teaching squares, where the focus is not on critical or evaluative comments, but rather the identification of what works, or what doesn’t and using the observation of the other as jumping off point for a change in your own practice.

      So, observation is not the issue here, but the use of it to make an assessment of someone’s practice as 1/800th of their teaching year.

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