Community of practice

Useful: teacher development days

At some point or another you will attend some form of staff development as a teacher. Some of this will be mandatory, uninspiring crud (pretty much anything which is policy driven and/or delivered online). Some of it will be uninspiring crud delivered through the time honoured medium of PowerPoint and poor attempts at humour and carefully sycophantic laughter. And some of it, very probably the smallest amount, will actually have a positive impact on your classroom practice. Some of the more experienced teachers out there may sneer at this, particularly after a long career of being droned at by SLT, or worse, a highly paid consultant, but I promise you it is out there, and it does happen. 
I’m one of the lucky ones. We regularly organise internal, department specific training based on aggregated observation feedback, suggestions from staff, and the occasionally “just for the sheer hell of it”. And these sessions are, by and large, well received with positive feedback. They also have impact: genuine, measurable impact as teachers go out and put some of the ideas into practice: if it wasn’t useful, it would be ignored, but it isn’t. 
So why do these things work? It’s easy to knock holes in standardised training: after all, “standardised” is pretty much a synonym for “one size fits all”. However, our departmental training works because of a number of factors.
For one, it’s almost always practical. Sure, there has to be a bit of information giving, but we’re lucky in having a department head who recognises that this needs to be kept short and to the point: we find out what we need to find out. There sometimes has to be standardisation of assessment or exam practices, but again, while not perhaps the most thrilling of activities, it’s still important and, crucially, useful. This is the crucial word: useful. For staff training to work it must be based around practical, useful stuff: more often than not, something which working teachers can take away and use, possibly in the next teaching week. Take our most recent event, for example: an introduction from the Head of Department, followed by three short, informative and useful sessions on pace and teacher talk, on assessment for learning and on stretch and challenge. Each of the sessions had something useful, whether those things were on your areas for development or not: a nifty PowerPoint task, ideas for planned and on the fly differentiation, whatever, all useful.  

It worked as well because while some of the impetus and content was top down, there was no sense of hierarchy. Ideas were shared by workshop leaders, of course, but there was a strong element of professional respect: of teachers sharing with pride but also recognising that the people you are sharing with are at least as good and as professional a teacher as you. 

There is also a sense of equality of content: rarely is there the imposition of “best practice” from above but rather just “what do you think will work?” Sometimes you simply had confirmation that your ideas are ok, other times you had new ideas or new twists on old ideas. 

This is a leadership issue: these events are generally conceived and developed by managers who are also teachers, rather than managers who are ex-teachers (if you have given up day to day teaching to become a manager, you are an ex-teacher. You have, after all, ceased to teach. You are pushing up the pedagogical daisies). 

The knock on effect of the focus on usefulness and equality is that the teachers involved want, by and large, to be there. Imagine, in teaching terms, you have students who want to be there, who want to get something from the session, and expect to get something from the session, and this is what is achieved. People come, and people learn. 

Trainers, consultants and the rest all too often forget that they are dealing with learning: somehow all the pedagogical principles that you get hauled over the coals for forgetting are conveniently abandoned. Ideas like being meaningful, having purpose, being relevant, valuable and, of course useful all get abandoned by the lazy trainer with a PowerPoint and a tacky YouTube video. If you want stuff development days to work, f you want to effect change and improvement, then you cannot afford to be a lazy teacher. You must make what you have to say have value, be applicable, be useful. And if you can’t do that you shouldn’t be telling other people how to teach, let alone observing them. 

You are not alone

It sometimes feels like you are very much on your own as a teacher. You know, even though you are teaching a whole bunch of people, there is a divide of sorts in the room between “you the teacher” and “them the students”. That divide is always going to be there because you have different roles and different responsibilities in that classroom space. So it can seem a bit of a lonely calling, even though this is, of course, one of the pleasures of the job. After all, significant chunks of the day you are left to do your own thing with little supervision and lots of freedom. Nevertheless, at pinch points, particular stressed times, you feel the need to be, well, not alone. Those times when that student is ranting at you about some random college diktat that you don’t really understand yourself; when that class of 16-18s is totally going off on one, spiralling irretrievably out of control; when the internet connection goes down in the middle of a class entirely predicated on the use of the web; when you walk into class and the students say “we did that yesterday with the other teacher”; when the meticulously planned activity for which you had such high hopes as a surefire winner takes three seconds and bombs horribly; or when that fateful email pops up in your inbox announcing the imminent arrival of graded observation. Right at those times, it feels like it is just you, and you alone.

It is also at these times that it is easiest to forget that teachers are part of a community. The cry is more often “What can Ido about this?” rather than “who can help me with this?”

There is the immediate community of your staff room, into which, if you are lucky, you can run during a class and someone will be able to give you that quick fix solution: some wise or merely convenient soul who says “try this” and who saves the day. Sometimes you mention that you are struggling with something or other, and you get enough ideas or suggestions to solve that problem ten times over. I get it that not all staff rooms are like this, and where this hasn’t been the case the community of teachers is weaker and the quality and confidence inevitably reduced. When we talk shop in social settings, this is all part of that community, sometimes sharing ideas, but more often than not simply a kind of communal psychic hug. Then there are the wider settings, Twitter, Facebook, all those things, social networks forming an extension of the staff room, up to and including the hugging. You can call it a PLN, but I call it hugs.

It’s not all lovey love-ins, mind you. I’ve worked with various people with whom I have had some fairly profound differences of opinion and approach, and this has been nothing but productive. We have had quite vocal arguments at times, but always with a sense of respect, knowing that however bonkers we think each other to be, we are all doing the best we can for out learners. My opinions and approaches have been challenged, as have theirs, and my practices, and I hope theirs, have developed for the better as a result. Challenge is important: it makes you question your practices, clarify them, or reject them. This is all good.

If we get it right our classroom practice is the tip of this huge iceberg of support. From our initial trainers to our current colleagues, to that random teacher from the other side of the world, they all inform our practices on a day to day basis. As a result, out teaching practice is an amalgam of our ideas and those of others. We are alone, yes, but we are all alone together.

You can put that last sentence on a cat poster if you like….