In this, my first blog, I thought I would reflect on how I came to blogging, and in this and later blogs consider some of the ways I see the sharing of ideas and approaches will help inform my practice, and the practice of the teachers in my department.
In ten years of teaching I have seen a great deal of change in the educational landscape, perhaps no more so than of late under the stewardship of the current Secretary of State for Education.
Probably the most significant change, however, is the advent of teachers using social media exchange ideas, views and resources. The proliferation of thoughtful bloggers and Twitter users like @HuntingEnglish, @Learningspy and @realGeoffBarton (all of whom I admire greatly) has probably done more for the CPD of those teachers lucky enough to follow them than any other kind of more traditional INSET. Indeed, in the 10 months or so that I have actively been reading blogs and Twitter feeds, I have learnt a great deal that I might otherwise have missed – from current ideas about good practice to educational research and policy.
I remember how things were very different. In my NQT year, rather unfortunately, my inspiring Head of Department left on maternity leave at Christmas and was not replaced. In a school with challenging behaviour and generally low standards of achievement I was left to my own devices, teaching two year 11 groups without any real accountability or guidance. It was pretty much a case of picking up a set of books you liked and teaching them to the kids. No target grades, no expected progress and intervention still very much an abstract noun.
Fortunately, I think I did ok, and in a perverse kind of way I actually thrived on the autonomy. I enjoyed the sense of responsibility in the midst of adversity, and the ‘in at the deep end approach’ definitely helped me to get to grips with managing poor behaviour and understanding how to design effective lessons. The rest of English team were very supportive, even if there was no distinct leadership. To be honest, I am not too sure how well I would have taken to being coached, or how responsive I would have been to other people’s input into my teaching. It’s shameful, I admit, but nevertheless true.
Much of my flippant attitude was probably shaped by my experiences of CPD, or what often used to pass for INSET at that time: a senior teacher (or worse, an outside speaker) who would proselytize to the staff on any one or more of the following: literacy across the curriculum, behaviour management, Ofsted preparation, mind-mapping, restorative justice, using interactive whiteboards effectively (remember them?), literacy across the curriculum, emotional Intelligence, multiple intelligence and literacy across the curriculum. In short, the planned professional training that I received was poor, and any progress that I made in my teaching was more to do with supportive colleagues, fantastic kids and perhaps my own reflective nature – never feeling like I had done enough!
Now, I’m not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with all or any of the above INSET topics; most of these areas are important drivers of effective learning and pastoral care in any school.
If they are done properly, that is.
I think the problem, or rather my retrospective reading of it, lay in the approach taken, one which I suspect was replicated elsewhere up and down the country – a speaker with an air of knowledge, but more often than not none of the actual substance – who would run through endless slides with lots of pseudo research and pithy quotes. I realise now that many (though perhaps not all) of these speakers were also more often than not passing off material that was not their own: ideas, resources and strategies that they had garnered from external courses, or perhaps filtered down through documentation passed on from central government via the LEA.
I remember on one occasion entering an Assistant Head’s office and being overwhelmed by the amount of folders ranged across the shelves, thick white ones with the yellow and blue insignia to denote the National Strategy. It seemed to me that senior teachers had access to all the information – research, good practice, strategies and resources – whilst us inexperienced teachers, or those without responsibility, were left to receive new ideas and initiatives second hand. We were like worshippers before the Reformation: listening compliantly to the interpretation (and selection) of God’s word from a clergy seemingly much better versed in Latin than us.
SLT and middle leaders were thus the gatekeepers of educational knowledge, whether through their professional experience gleaned from current research, policy findings, Ofsted Survey reports (or whatever they were called then) and good practice. Ordinary class teachers were left out of the conversation, and quite often dictated to, rather than part of the dialogue. A lot of CPD was therefore predicated on the sometimes too narrow range of teachers’ own experiences, or worse on unverifiable and disputable research.
With the advent of blogging and Twitter all that has changed. Teachers – whether those training to be teachers, or others far longer in the tooth – now have access to a wealth of information that can help them improve their understanding and practice of teaching. Teachers, of all ranges of responsibility and levels of experience, are part of the conversation, shaping ideas and often building consensus derived from people who actually know what their talking about: who are teaching in classrooms and working with students on a day to day basis. There is clearly a place for the ‘expert’, and the senior teacher who draws from his or her own experiences to bring an aspect of teaching and learning into sharper focus. This is fine, but it can’t be all.
Blogging and Twitter have forced a seismic change in the way in which schools deliver INSET. The ability for professionals to challenge received wisdom, to get to the source of what they are told and interpret the Word for themselves has signalled the death knell for the day-long INSET day, and the being spoken at approach that was once the norm. Action research groups, innovative Twilight sessions and new ways in which teachers can meet and share (such as Teachmeet) have led to a much-needed overhaul into how we develop ourselves as a profession. It is now much harder for senior leadership teams to be complacent about teacher development, or to trust in the tried and trusted approaches of the past. And rightly so, since professional capital (a phrase borrowed from Andy Hargreaves) is the key driver to raising standards of teaching and learning in education today.
With social media there is no hierarchy. An NQT can freely exchange views with a senior leader, which can only be a good thing for everyone.
Even when there is disagreement, this still seems to me to be extremely productive in helping us reflect on our beliefs and what we do when we teach young people. That is surely the ultimate goal for all of us.