Ever since I studied a module for my MA on teacher professional development, I have retained a solid interest in how teachers can improve their practice. Those readers with long memories may recall the first programme that the module engendered: a somewhat optimistic project to help my then colleagues expand their own language knowledge.
That one died a death; as I was coming to realise in the comment underneath the post, the project lacked coherent aims and collective will. I probably could have persevered with it, but I did get the sense that I was teaching them their own language, and that attendance was using up my goodwill credit at a rate of knots.
I did, however, proceed to observe my colleagues more as my responsibilities grew in that job. I can but hope that I was of use to those who I watched teach and gave feedback to – I was still learning how to give that feedback, and it is a very difficult skill to master, given all the sensitivities potentially involved. I like to believe that in one or two cases I could pass on some constructive tips, and in others I delivered one or two uncomfortable truths. But the major difference I noticed, post-observing, was to my own confidence and skill set when I taught my next lesson. I was almost involuntarily using a number of techniques and skills that I had seen being used by the teachers I had observed. In addition to that, I felt an added sense of confidence as a teacher. I now had a better idea of what was a good stage of a lesson and what was not; what helped students and what didn’t really; I had a sort of insight that my own reflection-on-action had not hitherto provided.
Fast forward three years, and I am at a different school. The pedagogical challenges we face are in some ways similar, but in others completely different. As always, the main question is – how can we as teachers deliver the most effective learning? The answers are theoretical and practical.
The problem is that, with experience and particularly after a long term, reference to the theoretical can become tiresome. I know what I am supposed to do. I know how I am supposed to react in that scenario. I know what I should be doing in terms of progress and assessment. But it can all be superseded by that daily grind of classroom management, administration, fatigue and the never-ending quest to engage learners effectively (so that the teacher’s role is reduced). I personally have this issue with one class, and another issue with its own minutiae in a different class. I don’t have the time or energy to peruse four manuals, often of varying quality, to find the answer.
So in a sense, my quest for improvement this time is purely practical. I want to know what other teachers do and how they do it. I want to learn from them. I also, selfishly perhaps, want that burst of confidence from knowing a technique that I use has concrete advantages over my colleague’s methodology in that one micro-situation. When put like this, it does seem very selfish. But if they get the same schadenfreude boost from watching me suffer in any given circumstance, and then they feel good during feedback because they can pass on one of those practical tips, and then I learn from that, who loses out? No one.
I guess what I want is that bad feedback. I read once, and it may be apocryphal, that the boss of a Silicon Valley multinational has hired someone whose job it is, purely, to deliver bad news. Without bad news, the thought process goes, you cannot improve. But it is so hard to get bad news about your teaching. I know that I am always on the lookout for perceived slights against my practice – and ready with a long list of defences in the case of attack. A sure sign of paranoia, a sure sign that deep down, I know something needs some work. Most teachers have this from time to time – a bunker mentality and defensiveness that goes with knowing that not all is going right in the classroom, but the kids are to blame, or the curriculum, or whatever, but it’s not the teacher’s fault. I reject this. I want things to be my fault, so that I can work on them.
In that spirit I am working on a project of general teacher development for the next academic year. It will consist in the first instance of a round of peer observations, during which the focus will be on three points – firstly, what the observee or department think they need to work on; secondly, the requirements of the school and the senior management; and thirdly, the requirements of external inspectors eg Ofsted or ISI. Then, the observee will be given a minimum of 20mins of one-to-one feedback. Finally, any outstanding issues from the observations will be collated and inform the composition of remedial TD sessions, to take place in the winter or spring term. It is hoped that there will be follow-up observations the following term.
I intend to persevere with this project – and I think it has clearer aims and will be of more use than my first attempt. Stay tuned for updates as it progresses in September.