Teaching Teachers – Just remember number 4.

In the last eight or nine years I have spent a fair amount of time not just teaching students but also training and developing staff, and for a short while that is pretty much the whole job. Except there’s a bit of a problem with the word training because really, what I have been, and will be doing is teaching. I say this because we tend to dress up this sort of explicit teacher development activity with a phrasing which suggests a degree of parity between those being developed and those doing the developing. So we talk about “trainee teachers” not “learner-teachers”, and we say “teacher trainers”, not, well, just “teachers”.

But this is just semantics, right? Different labels to take account of the change in perceived power relationships, but actually what happens in those settings is more or less the same: as a “trainer” and as a “teacher” you have some people  in the room with you who want to /are supposed to learn something, and it’s your job to make that happen in some way. The problem with the labelling as training is that this acts as a justification for taking a “do as I say, not as I do” mindset. Thus you get one size fits all activities about differentiation, workshops on what teachers already know about stretch and challenge, straight powerpoint presentations on engaging students with varied activities, assessment for learning sessions which completely fail to assess anything about the attendees, or sessions on digital technology which don’t actually make time for attendees to use said technology.

So what follows are the things I try to remember when I am planning training for teachers.  I make no claims to being a great trainer, indeed, I make no claims to being a great teacher, but I know that these are the ideas that have informed most of the training I’ve run, although many of these are also reactions to memories of bad training I’ve had to sit through. You never know, it might be useful.

Rule 1: Demonstrate as well as explain. Sometimes referred to as “loop input” you essentially teach a new strategy by using that strategy. This is about credibility and nothing gives your ideas credibility than an open demonstration of belief in that idea. After all, if you think it’s so great, then why aren’t you using it?

Rule 2: Challenge and Differentiate. I learned this the hard way after running sessions which managed to exclude both the really inexperienced teachers and the very inexperienced teachers, thus only really being of use to two or three people. Think about who you are training and try to find out / predict what they might already know.

Rule 3: Use the teachers. This is by far the easiest way to include the challenge and differentiation needed. If they are working teachers, ask them to contribute what they know as a starting point. Include things for all the teachers, and try not to use your experienced teachers only as resources for less experienced teachers. Use that experience, by all means, but remember they would like to get something from the session too.

Rule 4: Be Practical. Actually this should be the first one, the biggy, the humdinger. If you are running any kind of staff development activity, be it a ten minute micro-training session at the end of a staff meeting, or a full hour of CPD activity, the things you tell people about have to be useful. It simply doesn’t matter how passionate you feel about the training, nor how important it is that all staff are aware of the retention and achievement data which is such an integral part of your managerial role. Neither does it matter about the legal requirements of whichever random government policy it is now best practice to embed. What you need to do to make your staff training activity work is make sure it includes something which teachers can take away and use in their daily practice. If it doesn’t you might as well stick your PowerPoint slides in an email so they can find it when they need it.

Rule 5: Be realistic about your expectations. No matter how dedicated the teacher, it’s a big ask for them to take on a bunch of different ideas or methods from a training session. Aim for just one or two, but present the teachers with lots of things to choose from. That way you are not only being practical, but also allowing teachers to pick and choose ideas is much more likely to meet their needs.

Rule 6: Proofread. This isn’t just because you’ll look unprofessional if you have errors on your slides and handouts, however important that is. A howling typo on the first page of your presentation, for example, can give that crotchety, arms-crossed, know-it-all-but-actually-doesn’t old geezer a whole load of ammunition to justify disrupting the session.  I know it should go without saying, but it’s easily done.

Rule 7a: Teach with integrity. One of the perennial agonies of the teacher-trainer/developer is the requirement that you have to sometimes deliver training on a theme you don’t always entirely believe in. (I could come up with a list, but if I say “SMART targets”, that should be enough. I’m pretty sure people have stopped asking me to do training on that one). Sure, it’s not necessarily a good plan to come out with this during the session, but rather use your … disaffection… to inform your session plan. What would you say if someone was trying to tell you about this idea, and what could a trainer say that would make you feel better?

Rule 7b: Be honest – you can’t be an endless wellspring of new ideas – if you steal an idea, acknowledge it, and refer the teachers to the original source. There’s no shame in that – after all, as an ESOL teacher, you didn’t make up the rules of grammar, did you, and you’re quite happy to share them.

Rule 8: Go easy on the handouts. Most teachers have a clear-out every year or so, and in that clear-out will go a big pile of PowerPoint printouts from training sessions. Yours will probably go into the big recycling bin in the sky, so think really carefully about what you put in. Thinking back to your expectations – if you have given that teacher one or two new ideas to try, and they have tried them successfully, then the chances are they won’t need to re-read your handouts. I’ve trimmed down hand outs to a single sheet for a lot of training I’ve led – “something I’ll definitely try…. something I might try… something I could share…” that sort of thing. You can always share presentations and links via email after the event.

Rule 9: Follow up. This isn’t always possible, for example if you are delivering something at a conference or somewhere you don’t usually work. However, if you can follow it up, do so. Even ten minutes of colleagues talking in groups about the strategies you shared at a staff meeting can be enough to either provoke reflections and adaptations, or simply to prompt the odd one or two into trying it.

Rule 10: Get feedback. This may include negative comments, especially if you’ve forgotten the stuff about making sure it’s practical and useful. You will, I assure you, only focus on the negative feedback, and this is OK – learn from anything you can learn from, and ignore all the stuff about how hot/cold the room was, the lack of time to put the ideas into place, the lack of coffee, whatever. Remember as well that some people will grouse whatever, especially if they’ve been told to come.  Do look at the good things people say about it. If you like, put some structure on your feedback, and ask people to circle words – how many people circled “informative” or “useful” or “a good use of my time”? Remember that 16/20 positives is pretty good going, especially if the negatives are about things beyond your control.

Rule 11: Relax and enjoy the ride. Teachers are teachers, and most of them understand how it feels to be new at something. If you’re nervous, think of the session as if it were a lesson and the attendees are your students. The nerves will vanish after a few minutes anyway, and your teacher instincts will kick in.

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In essence, then, plan for a training session like you would any kind of lesson; except the rewards can have a much more immediate and obvious impact. As with any learning, it’s always terrific when someone comes up and tells you they tried something you suggested, and it worked for them, or you happen to overhear your name when someone is discussing how a lesson went (“I tried…., like Sam said, and it was great.”) You might hear from their line manager about how a teacher tried something which was really good, and you know it was your session when the idea came up. Perhaps a teacher heard an idea from you, tried it in class, embedded it in their practice and then their observer (who wasn’t at the training) comes up to you and say how amazing this idea was. That, in fact, is the best. Not just because you have passed on a great idea, and improved that teacher’s practice, or whatever, but also because they have taken that idea and made it their own.

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