Sunday, 24 November 2013

Can I be that little bit better at......helping teachers yearn for the vast and endless sea?

Last month I was very honored to be asked to kick off the evening at #TMCowes.  I love events like this as it brings together like minded individuals who want to improve and make a difference.  My talk on the night was about how we as individuals can make a difference to our own teaching.  Intertwined with that was how we can go back to our schools and help others make the steps they need to improve.  As teachers we work within a larger organisation, and as a member of that, we have the responsibility and the ability to make things better.  So, my chat (which goes off on many tangents) on the evening was titled 'Can we we be that little bit better at helping teachers yearn for the vast and endless sea'?

To begin with....

During the end of my second year of teaching, there was a job position made available for an expanding team within our school which sole purpose was to work with our AST and develop teaching and learning.  As you can guess, I went for the job which was being described as a 'Learning Innovator'.  The position was a dream job for me at the time and gave me a real opportunity to have an impact in the quality of teaching with colleagues.  The interview process was brilliant and involved an open presentation section in front of all of the other candidates and the selection panel made up of three middle leaders.  The presentations were excellent and as all predictable stories go, I was last up.  If I am honest, I was very hesitant because I had just seen what everyone else had said and as you would expect, doubted if what I had to say could match the quality already demonstrated.  I gave it a good go and a number of minutes later, finished my vision and waited for the panel to pose questions.  Would they quiz me about my strategic planning, the roll out of my ideas, the way I would monitor its impact?  There was the usual pause before the then head of RE, known for her straight talking, simply looked at me and said "Bloomin' heck Dave, you'd make a bloody good used car salesman!"  And with that I embarked on a journey with an amazing team to develop teaching and learning.  

Now, before this fairy-tale story goes on, the job has made me learn a lot of things.  I have found out over the years that ideas can't be forced onto people.  I've learnt that what seems like a great idea might not actually be one.  Sometimes what we want to embed doesn't actually impact other teachers so it doesn't become embedded.  What I presented at my interview was a prime example of this, and something I will embarrassingly divulge later.  My point is this, doing the job for a number of years taught me something that I didn't know it would at the start.  It taught me that if we want people to drive teaching and learning whole school, the idea of one person with a one size fits all model, doesn't always work.  Yes we need whole school improvement and consistency, but proposing a strategy needs everyone to be involved, to have ownership and to feel that the process is of value to the teaching and learning in their classroom.  Teachers are smart and no amount of 'used car salesman' qualities can ever convince them to do something they know won't work for them. 

So over the years my thoughts about teaching and learning have changed numerous times.  We all do it and it's a natural process.  I've read, I've discussed, I've researched, I've made up my mind, I've changed my mind (repeating this process over and over again).  The last two years have been a particular turning point and the engagement with social media in the form of Twitter has meant that I have instant access to support, research, experience, debate and ideas.  There are days where my head is spinning with thoughts about teaching but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Experience allows me to filter the wheat from the chaff.  I love the profession and want to be the best I can be.  Not for pride or status, but to make a difference and have an impact with the young minds I work with.

But there are days when the million other things that we have to deal with can cause us to feel we aren’t doing our job as well as we could.  Occasionally the endless deadlines and paperwork mean sometimes thinking about lessons and improving teaching takes a back seat.  At these times teachers probably don’t need criticism about their teaching or ideas to be imposed.  Many of us are reflective enough to know things aren’t good enough.  Instead they need systems or mechanisms in place to support them.  Personally I am skilled enough to know when my lessons aren’t up to scratch.  And like other teachers at these times, I need to know that I can be better.

Now I understand that sometimes a stronger intervention needs to be taken with some staff.  Sometimes these colleagues are unable to analyse areas that they need to improve on.  But as a whole school focus, whatever systems or CPD programmes we put in place, we need to encourage all teachers to focus on being that little bit better.  Can we create that culture among staff to themselves become growth learners who are striving to improve?

So ‘what’ have I learnt that might help others?

So back to my own experience.  When I was an NQT I had a fantastic mentor.  There were times when we never saw eye to eye but I was always encouraged to take control of my development.  At the right times I had her experience shared with me so that I could make the steps forward.  Other times I was given opportunities to go forward and seek answers for myself.  I never had a method or idea forced upon me.  I wasn’t told ‘you have to teach this way!”  Of course I had examples and ideas shared, but the process she took allowed me to develop into a reflective practitioner and skilled me up to analyse what I did.  As an NQT mentor now, I try to follow a similar process.  It’s not simply telling NQT’s what to do, but showing them how to reflect, analyse, improve and move forward.  We need to instil that innate culture early on in their career so that they continue for years to come.  Only then can we hope that 10 years down the line they are still demonstrating that growth mind-set to continue to go forward and improve.

My NQT year also shared with the best piece of advice I have ever had if I want to continue to keep improving: “Stay away from the vampires in the staffroom.  They’ll suck the life out of you”.  Now we all know individuals (not just in teaching) who have to put a negative spin on everything and are reluctant to involve in change.  And for years I would stay away from them in order to keep myself positive and keen to improve.  But it is these people that we need to encourage.  We need to make them see that the daylight isn’t such a bad thing.  Instead of categorising them and avoiding them, we need to be bringing them back to the core purpose of teaching and help them find that spark again.  Their opinions and arguments actually help make whatever policy or strategy that is being rolled out stronger.  Listen to them and then challenge them to respond.  It may take time, it might be tough, there may even need to be difficult discussions, but getting all staff to regain that infectious bug of teaching and learning is a crucial thing.

Why is it though that teaching & learning and our own development can stutter or take a back seat?  Well there are numerous things that happen that just seem to get in the way.  It seems as teachers we get beaten by a lot of sticks.  There can be weeks or months when the constant data trawls, target setting, paperwork and so on seems endless.  Time for T&L seems to be eaten up in an instant.  Now I understand the importance of these and how many are non-negotiable in schools.  But I truly believe that we shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the stick, but instead we should be looking at what sticks.  We should be focusing on the students and investigating methods that help learning stick with them.  Time doesn’t seem readily available on occasions, but the importance of reading, researching, collaborating and practicing methods are essential if we are to drive T&L up.  If we are to drive whole school teaching and learning with every teacher, things need to give and more time needs to be allocated to what really matters.

Teaching and learning can also be influenced by things outside of our school walls.  Unfortunately there are these guys.  Ofsted.  I rarely talk about them.  Their influence and effect on numerous teachers (including myself) have made very competent individuals do things they wouldn’t normally do.  The biggest worry though is what Alistair Smith talked about at #TLAB13.  He said that there is something much worse than Ofsted and I tend to agree.  He labelled this monster the ‘Ofsted whisperers’.  Filtering back to schools and talked about in staffrooms are the various myths about what the big ‘O’ are looking for.  These have many teachers scrambling for their lesson plans and adding things that are never usually there.  The myths change the way teachers teach and all of a sudden our focus isn’t what the students need, but instead is what ‘they’ might want to see.  This is where we need to be brave and remember what our job is.  We need to focus on the T&L that works for the students we teach, in our lessons, for the subjects we know so much about.  We need to be conscious that we don’t become tick box robots, influenced by the whisperers, but instead be confident enough to do the right thing for those in front of us.

And then there is the ‘bandwagon’.  There are times when new ideas sweep into the profession and take the classroom by storm.  Some are absolutely fantastic and have a huge impact on learning.  Some are distorted, slimmed down or misinterpreted and lose their power.  And there are those which have no effect or benefit to learning at all.  A number of times, we as teachers become too focused on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of a method.  When time isn’t always readily available to really scrutinise something new, we simply want to find out how to use it before adding it to our repertoire.  I have been on both sides of this conundrum.  During my presentation (which I talked about earlier) I inadvertently launched learning styles on our whole school.  I will say no more!  Over the last few years I have also trialled numerous approaches and methods in my classroom.  Both as you will guess each had mixed successes.  What I have learnt though is not to be on the bandwagon.  Instead I aim to become the man, who in the picture, is stood on the tracks beside the train.  This man in my opinion assesses the ‘why’ of a method before using it.  If we are to engage all staff, especially those who need it the most, we need to not just throw the ‘what’ and ‘how’ their way.  We don’t need to bamboozle or muddle teaching with numerous gimmicks and strategies.  Instead we need to either explain the ‘why’ to them (the benefit, impact, potential) or skill them up to do this analysis themselves.  Simplify the teaching and use what works.

This year I have been privileged to have heard a number of inspirational teachers speak at conferences.  At #pedagoolondon, the amazing Kev Bartle talked about bringing on the ‘Trojan Mice’.  This speech constantly goes through my head and has had such a powerful influence on my thinking.  Explaining it here won’t do it justice, but one thing he talked about was how little ideas, driven from the bottom up (our classrooms) can grow and become a powerful driver in whole school teaching and learning.  His speech empowers teachers to go ‘guerrilla’ and try things.  He encourages the sharing and collaboration of ideas.  It recognises that teachers are professional enough to choose methods that work for students, rather than having ideas forced upon them.  This can be a powerful message to engage those colleagues who need support.  By challenging them to trial and investigate ideas themselves, or collaborating them with others, we can take that small step to bring T&L back to the forefront of their thinking.

There have also been calls to ‘reclaim your classroom’ from some quarters.  Now I don’t picture scenes from Le Miserable with barricades and revolutions.  Although I agree that we should be given the responsibility to take ownership of our development, I don’t think things are as bad as that.  What I do agree with in this call is that we need to focus on what works well for us and our students.  If teaching and learning is the number one thing for a teacher, can we set up systems that free up time for teachers to focus on it?  Reclaiming your classroom to me is releasing the shackles that may be the reason that some feel held back.  It’s about giving individuals the autonomy to focus on what works best for them and the students in their subject.  I know I may be repeating this point but I really think this ideology can be a great thing if structures and systems are in place to support it.

And this is one of the reasons why in October this year we ran #TLT13.  The Teachmeet movement and various teacher led conferences give people the chance to meet and discuss pedagogy.  Many are out of school hours and not directed time but so many are well attended.  Teachers look to focus on things that matter to them, taking away what they need and having discussions that will help them move their practice forward.  As a colleague of mine said after #TLT13, “It’s helped me fall back in love with my craft”.  And that’s simply what it’s about.  But can we create this spark within schools and with all teachers?

Why though?

The big question though is why?  Why should we be so concerned with continually getting better?  Why should we do anything different?  Why should we be trying to be that little bit better?  And when we feel ready, why should we go out and help our colleagues.  Well because you are reading this or you heard this speech at #TMCowes, you yourself are probably already on a journey of improvement.  You are already actively engaging in moving your practice forward.  By doing so and monitoring the impact of it, you are benefiting the students you teach.  You are playing your part in improving teaching and learning and know your school, its departments and teachers better than anyone outside of its walls.

Now when I was growing up I never thought about being a teacher.  I was inspired by many, but it never crossed my mind as a potential career choice.  My main sport which I played for years on end was Basketball.  My hero was Michael Jordan.  We would stay up late into the night to catch live games and see coverage of the NBA play offs.  The best job in the world in my eyes at an early age was being a professional Basketball player.  Something happened during college that made me completely change courses and rethink my career.  Now as a teacher, I look back and think it would have been nice to fulfill my dream, but I genuinely believe I have the best job in the world.  I think that as a teacher we work with amazing people and shape the lives of others.  We do this job because we love working with young minds and guiding them through their education.  I now no longer want to be a Basketball player.  Instead I want to be the Michael Jordan of teaching.  This is a guy who had set backs, had responsibility, had failures, had successes, had days of continual practice and days of victory.  His ability to learn and develop from every situation is something I try in some small way to emulate.  It's this mentality that we need to develop across the school.

The reason so is because of the students and making a difference.  I am all aware that this isn't always the case though.  A few years back in my own teaching I had an arch-nemesis.  A student who I think came into school on the days I taught him, simply to destroy it within 2 minutes.  There are days when teaching and learning probably falls off of our radar and we instead start to self doubt or wondered if there is any point.  There is though.  I had a student who by many was seen as 'off of the rails'.  He would be in the head of years office on a daily basis and that look would appear on teachers faces when his name was mentioned.  I worked hard in my methods to ensure that when I taught him, I provided an opportunity for him to achieve.  In return, this student worked his socks off and engaged with the subject.  He continuously resubmitted work, sought advice and asked for feedback.  When it looked as though he wouldn't do well, he walked away with an A*.  School is about building these relationships.  It's also about sharing the passion for our subject with students.  On those days when things have gone worse than expected, I have seen teachers brush themselves off, look at what they do in lessons, evaluate their approach and come back the next day that little bit better.  I've been there myself many a time.  These teachers make me want to be better and its this development, even on a small day by day scale, that has the impact in lessons with the students we teach.

Jamie Portman kicked off #TLT13 and made me think about the value of school.  His school unfortunately burnt down in 2009.  For 3 months, students at his school were taught in a shared Primary school, a moth-balled Special School, rooms in a Youth Club and office spaces in a local wood yard.  What he learned from the experience was incredible and has stuck in my mind since his speech: 'Buildings don't make a school - the community does'.  What we do on a daily basis probably makes it hard to see this.  We use the same facilities every day and rely on the resources and systems in place.  This situation made every member of staff at Jamie's school have to think on their feet to deliver low energy - high impact T&L methods into these relocated lessons.  The story is inspirational and one we can all learn from.  For me, it points out the fact that when everything else is gone, the teachers (as well as the students, parents.......) are really what matters.  Adapting on a daily basis, reflecting on lessons and actively seeking to be better, in the various situations we face, is inspiring.  Therefore our development and improvement is critical.

We as teachers can also be powerful at creating environments for students to produce great things.  Sometimes we need to take risks to make these things happen.  In 2012, I sat in my front room and was dazzled my the Olympics.  In particular I fell in love with cycling.  Then a very dangerous thing happened.  Knowing that in September my Year 11 GCSE PE class would be moving onto science, technology, ICT, role models, media and sponsorship in sport, I planned out and ran a PBL project.  It was a risky and to some, a stupid thing to do in an exam year.  The project itself was a huge success.  I learnt so much from it and realised that even if I never used PBL again, there were so many elements that will improve my teaching.  What if I hadn't taken the risk?  Would I still be doing the same old thing?  It also brought about one of my career highlights.  During one of the presentations, one of the girls spoke a sentence before breaking into tears in front of a packed audience.  The pressure had got to her.  I ushered her partner to continue the speech and see it through.  Stepping up to the challenge, her friend continued the talk.  Without any signal or signs, the girl who only seconds before felt she couldn't continue, picked up at her next speaking section and delivered a presentation that differed completely to moments before.  Confidence oozed and I was one of the proudest people in that room to see a student overcome a massive challenge and finish what she had started.  Students can do amazing things and it's us that has a huge influence on that.  Worth remembering on days when we feel lost!

The work of Ron Berger and his book 'An Ethic of Excellence' also strikes a note here.  If you have never read the book I would highly recommend it.  If anything is going to reinvigorate you as a teacher, this will.  If you can't wait, I would urge you to see the You Tube clip of Austin's butterfly.  What it does is remind us that with our highly skilled intervention in the classroom, and setting up a culture and ethos with students, we can help them create some truly beautiful work and make a difference to their lives.  We all remember our favorite teachers, and more often than not, it was because they cared enough to make us the best we can be.

Back to reality and I understand that with all of the reasons and pep talks that sometimes we can feel very insignificant.  I have been there myself and even wrote an email a few years back to a well known educational writer when I felt lost.  At this time I couldn't make sense of teaching and was frustrated most days with what I was delivering.  In my eyes I was simply not good enough.  In the email I asked numerous questions.  At one point I even asked how to become a 'superteacher'.  The response I got was that I shouldn't be looking for this.  It's a myth and doesn't exist.  We see others do amazing things in public, but rarely do we see this amazing teachers have off days. We all have them and we are all human.  All we can do is focus on making ourselves better through focused development.  Looking back now these are incredibly wise words.  I felt worthless compared to some amazing colleagues, but instead of this holding me back, I learnt that I can only control what I do and need to focus on precisely that.  

If we are going to be better, we can do no worse than listening to the (adapted) Stephen Covey quote and keep the main thing the main thing.  Maybe that should be part of the message we use with all staff.  Forget what doesn't work, forget all of the gimmicks.  Instead strip back all that you do and have the bravery to focus on the main thing.  Focus on how to make yourself that little bit better.  Focus on making the learning in your classroom, and ultimately across school, the best it can be today.  Then plan for tomorrow.

Okay, so how?

Many people have blogged about Professor Dylan Wiliam's keynote speech at the SSAT conference.  The points that he makes are incredibly powerful and sum up much of what I have talked about so far.  In his presentation, Wiliam talked about how to raise the quality of teaching.  He talks about how it takes 10 years for expertise to develop.  Unfortunately, teachers slow, and most teachers stop improving after 2 or 3 years.  We do this, as he says, because in the first few years, teaching as an environment is challenging.  As we grapple with the job, we continue to improve.  As we get comfortable with routines and management of our lessons, we then begin to coast.  He highlights the point again that as individuals we need to spend 10 years deliberately practicing and improving what we do in order to become expert at our job.   But when do we realistically stop?  Have we taken our foot of the gas.  Do we get to the stage where we think that what we do works, so lets just continue to go with the flow?  If so, it is important that we get this message out there.  We need to personally think about the long haul and embark upon this journey.  Once we are on it, we then need to get colleagues on board as well.  Wiliam finishes by saying "If we create a culture where every teacher needs to improve, not because they're not good enough, but because they can be even better, there is no limit in what we can achieve if we support our teachers in the right way".

So how can we go for 10 years?  Well obviously setting goals that far ahead is too vague and very unrealistic.  Instead we can learn from Sir Dave Brailsford and the ethos behind Team GB and Team Sky.  I am sure you are all aware of the now familiar phrase of 'marginal gains'.  Brailsford and the team believe that if he can make 1% improvement with the riders, the equipment, the materials, the facilities and the training, it will collectively have a greater effect in competition.  As teachers we can also learn from this and look to improve our own practice 1% at a time.  Focusing on our planning, then our feedback and then maybe our questioning  to find those improvements can have a profound effect overall on the quality of our lessons.

I have also been lucky enough to attend a GB seminar where the not so familiar term 'compassionately ruthless' is also used by Brailsford.  With each rider, they are asked the following questions and asked to think about what it will take to be the best they can be.  This as a combination can be a structured and manageable way to get teachers to think about their own development.  Its flexibility means that it can also be an excellent addition to coaching as an approach to moving practice forward.

A phrase being used a lot within my school is 'Leadership at all levels'.  The approach by our head is to empower every member of staff to lead practice across the school.  Now this doesn't mean that every member of staff has to rewrite whole school policies and lead INSET.  Instead it focuses on taking responsibility and leading in the classroom, with colleagues, with departments, with students and so on.  The focus is to hone in on what we do and become drivers of it with others.  Now the flexibility of this combined with the empowering nature has seen many colleagues feel they can step up to make improvements, even if it is only in their own classroom.  A simple phrase it may be, but a powerful idea it is.

The Butterfly Effect is a (chaos) theory that flutters around how small actions can potentially grow with unexpected results.  However, in a school context and used in a structured way, it can be used as an opportunity for staff to take the ideas/practice from their classroom, and spread them among colleagues. As teachers we need to be encouraged to try new things, develop them and reflect.  We need to be encouraged to collaborate and share these ideas with colleagues.  We need to provide an environment where everyone feels they can have an input and contribute.  The beauty of this is that an idea may only resonate with a few staff.  That is perfectly fine.  For those staff their practice has been refined.  The effect also has the potential for ideas to spread further and invigorate many more, some of whom may have been on the fringes of development for a long time.  Are we able to provide a platform or create a culture in our schools where this theory can be implemented?  Involvement, empowerment, autonomy and collaboration in a very simple approach.

But why limit it there?  Discussions about teaching & learning and the collaborative approach to this doesn't have to be restricted to just your own schools.  Social media such as Twitter provides an almost 24/7 full access to debates, discussion, ideas, support and reading.  Showing the impact of its use and dispelling myths can open upon a fantastic resource for personal improvement.  Many teachers may not be as savvy or willing to engage with new technology, so is there a way we can bring Twitter to them?  Many schools share blogs of the week collated from the network or summaries top tips that were shared on it?  Is there a way that we can engage as many teachers as possible with it in a productive way?

Maybe it is up to you to take the responsibility and embed these strategies tomorrow?  Can you be the champion among your fellow teachers to start them on this journey of improvement?  Are you able to set things up?  Are you the first cog in driving that culture of learning with your peers?  Are you able to help them see the 'why' and not just the 'what' and 'how' surrounding teaching methods?

There are many ideas and opportunities that can be low energy but high impact (as Jamie Portman says).  It could be as simple as driving T&L in your own department.  Maybe creating forums like a 'Bring and Buy' where teachers come together to discuss pedagogy?  Anything that can be put in place to get teachers to engage with professional practice and look at ways to be that little bit better.

With all of the great blogs, articles and books out there, can we encourage teachers to engage in further reading?  In my own experience, there is so much quality out there but too few staff grasp this opportunity to further their knowledge.  A huge part of this is simply down to time.  Updating your staff library, showcasing some inspirational educational books, or even creating an in house book club could all be simple to launch.  As part of my role within school to do this very thing, I set up Edssential in an effort to get more colleagues increasing their professional reading.

Or at a larger scale, can we become Phil Jackson (who)?  Jackson is probably the greatest Basketball coach of all time and worked with the immense talent of Micheal Jordan and Kobe Bryant.  His ability to work with others and combine all of the details towards a final target meant he had many successes.  Can we be a leader like he is and use coaching methods to increase discussions and support among staff?  Can we make teaching and learning the number one thing being talked about and coached within your school?

And this comes back to the main point.  Can we firstly be that little bit better in our own teaching, and then secondly, go forward and take as many of our colleagues on a similar journey.  This is where the Trojan Mouse, the 'Reclaim your Classroom', the Butterfly Effect and all the other things I talked about come together.  Can we be the reason why teaching and learning improves?  I believe it's most powerful when it comes from within, and even more powerful when it is fostered through a classroom up approach.

It's not simply good enough anymore to have a one size fits all approach.  Various methods, initiative and strategies from above probably still have their place.  Many monitoring procedures and policies are probably still essential.  But if we want to drive real change, we need to be the ones who go into school tomorrow morning and make the difference.  We need to be the ones who start the process off by embarking on our own journey of improvement.  We need to be the ones who begin the sharing of ideas and collaboration with fellow staff.  We need to be the ones who drag those teachers who have stepped away from improvement along with us.  They are our colleagues and we are a collective group.  Telling them what to do or how to do it is not always what is needed.  Instead we need to help others to want to improve.  We need to be the first step in creating that culture where people 'want' to improve.  Trying to set up those discussions, whether at planned in house events, or even by the photocopier are so important.  As Antoine de Saint Exupery once said, "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders.   Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea".  So there you go.  Can you be that little bit better at helping teachers yearn for the vast and endless sea?

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