Reflect and Refine: Growing Passionate Teachers

30 Mar 2018

“If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because we can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve” Dylan William.

What keeps us energised, motivated and enthusiastic in our classrooms? When faced with a new academic year, what inspires us to become better versions of ourselves for our students? At the heart of such questions lies our intrinsic motivation: our ability to find joy and purpose in what we do. Managing to sustain this can be utterly transformative in the classroom, with our energy and passion translating into improved student engagement and, ultimately, achievement. It also means we embrace a mindset for ourselves as professionals that is focused on the ‘continuous’ in ‘continuous professional development’ (CPD): an inquisitive and optimistic desire to improve.

Teacher Stagnation

In our first few years working in teaching there is a significant drive towards engendering improvement. We receive extensive feedback, we are encouraged to read, reflect and write about our practice, and we watch a huge amount of teaching. Our attitude is also important; we are a metaphorical sponge, keen to learn and become the best teacher we can be. Yet, after the NQT year, there is a palpable drop in this structured guidance and, depending on the quality of the school, we are often left to our own devices. While this autonomy is important and liberating, inevitably there is less investment in reflecting on how effectively we are developing as teachers.

In their research on teacher quality, Eric A. Hanushek and Steven G. Rivkin (2006) suggest that teachers can often stop improving after three years:

There appear to be important gains in teaching quality in the first year of experience and smaller gains over the next few career years. However, there is little evidence that improvements continue after the first three years.

There is much that can influence this improvement inertia: both the culture of a school and the quality of, and time afforded to, CPD will be, in part, determining factors. An element of lethargy can also seep in when we have taught for a long time and given so much to the role. We find ourselves so busy with the range of demands imposed on us, that we lose the motivation and desire to build on our knowledge base. Teaching the same content and the same syllabus over and over again inevitably feeds this treadmill thinking and a risk- adverse attitude that places up the shutters in the face of change.

Ultimately, it is our own view of teaching and our ability to improve that will have the most transformative difference in moving beyond the three-year road blocks. There is no easy fix; instead, we need to go on a slow, deliberate path of small steps that will help to improve and energise our teaching. Doing so will help us to reconnect with the initial adrenaline that teaching provided, as we become more reflective and more prone to experimenting again.

Potential not Perfection

There are a dizzying range of skills and elements that influence how effective we are in the classroom. Teaching, as we have seen in the examination of its many layers, is a complex and multi-faceted art. The sheer magnitude of the skills required is perfectly, if not rather intimidatingly, captured by Lee Shulman (2004) in The Wisdom of Practice:

After 30 years of doing such work, I have concluded that classroom teaching is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented. The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster.

What may be seen as (hugely!) daunting can in fact be liberating, with this proving to be yet another example of the varied and exciting nature of teaching as a profession. The scope of detail and learning we can go through also means we can effectively never attain the lofty goal of teaching perfection. Schulman’s philosophy begins to remove the stress and competitive element of teaching and makes the goal of teaching simple: we should all be on a path to becoming one step better than we were before. One way to achieve this is to open up our classroom doors to others.

Observations

‘Observation’ has the potential to set stress cortisones flying for teachers, evoking the arbitrary judgement of a one-off performance management summation of our teaching. Inevitably, given the high stakes pressure, such experiences do not allow us to perform at our best or provide the conditions for us to actively take on feedback. Often, an observation focussed culture leads to a furtive teaching existence, where we hide ourselves away for the majority of the year, receiving little feedback. This insular approach leaves us frustrated, as we repeat our mistakes, and without any clarity about how much more effective we could be. It also, inevitably, leads to high teaching staff turnover: why would we stay in an environment that does not fuel an open desire for improvement? John Tomsett (2015) explores this lack of openness in This Much I Know about Love Over Fear, suggesting that ‘the one thing that destroys the energy of a workplace culture is a climate of fear’.

Removing grades from lesson observations, a thankfully much more widespread practice, is a positive step in the right direction. It ensures that the focus returns to what is actually happening in the classroom, rather than hearing a grade then blindly moving on. The more we are open and transparent about what is happening in our classrooms and actively seek feedback, the less stress we experience about having people watch us. Importantly, it also means we are more likely to present an authentic vision of our daily practice, not striving to meet whatever subjective checklist is fashionable to generate a judgement on us. Instead, we can start to use observations as a collaborative approach to improve our teaching.

Observations from peers or others can provide us with concrete, specific and individual guidance about the marginal changes that could have a huge impact on our teaching. It also frees us up to take risks in the classroom, to experiment with different strategies and to receive feedback on those new and energising endeavours. Instead of the climate of fear, we prioritise our discussions about what we are also passionate about: our subjects and how to teach them effectively.

One way to do this is to identify an aspect of our practice that we want to improve, and then ask a colleague to observe a short section of our lesson in which this is the focus. This encourages us to objectively assess our teaching practice and reflect on what we think we should prioritise in our development. It also vital in encouraging the best teaching practices to be shared across the school, and in helping to create an environment where professional conversations about teaching dominate. This philosophy of continuous feedback is embraced by Michaela School:

Every day at Michaela, teachers watch their colleagues teach – five minutes, ten minutes, thirty minutes perhaps. Teachers receive feedback on their practice from every member of staff – teaching fellows, Heads of Department, SLE and admin staff will chip in what they notice. Every teacher will watch and be watched hundreds of times in a year. No grades, no top-down feedback, just teachers, trying to get better at teaching, by looking, learning and receiving extensive feedback (Birbalsingh, 2016).

Modelling

An alternative, and equally worthwhile approach, is to ask a colleague if you could watch a section of their lesson and look at how they approach a particular element of teaching. Watching another teacher is without doubt one of the most energising things we can do; it motivates and inspires us and guides us on different approaches. It reminds us of the core purpose of schools and how we are all powerfully engaged in this mission. It is even more helpful when the observation can be combined with another individual who can assist in pointing out the subtleties and nuances of the teaching that we might miss.

In reality, a huge amount of our teacher persona is an amalgamation of the qualities we have viewed in others. It might be inspiring teachers who have taught us, or those we have observed who have given us a jolt of energy about the possibilities of what our students can achieve in the classroom. We adopt numerous strategies from these individuals, either consciously or unconsciously, and combine our own stamp of character on them. Continuing to build in what we see in others is one way in which we can evolve and improve in our classrooms.

Cross-curricular Observations

Taking the time to open our doors and step into practice that may be beyond our immediate department also allows us to consider learning from a new perspective. It reminds us about the challenges of learning as we piece together how the teacher is approaching a skill.

Watching a lesson outside of our subject area also removes our subject- knowledge fixation; inevitably, when we observe colleagues in our own department, we are considering how they are approaching the subject. We also start to become more nuanced about what we are observing, and this opens up new perspectives about teaching. Again, it illuminates those ‘bright spots’ that Chip and Dan Heath (2011) highlight in Switch: the pockets of inspirational teaching that exist in every school and would otherwise remain hidden.

Dialogue

Schools can become draining when we realise how little time is spent discussing the core business: teaching and learning in our classrooms. Data, admin and workload issues can begin to take over and leave us feeling lacklustre and overwhelmed. We can fall into the time trap that has haunted us throughout this book: adopting the defeatist and ubiquitous narrative that says we don’t have time to speak about teaching.

Instead, being proactive in forging teaching and learning conversations will help to focus us on what we are invested in spending hours on daily. In every school there will be a small army of teachers who are hugely passionate about teaching and learning; however, there needs to be the mechanisms in place to bring these individuals together. Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby (2015) suggest that:

…all great schools have something in common. They are filled to the brim with enthusiastic teachers who enjoy talking about teaching, sharing ideas and finding things out. Similarly they will have leaders who facilitate and encourage this.

The use of initiative and a clear mission is needed to unite these teachers. Many schools now use groups who meet regularly to discuss educational books and research, or teaching and learning teams who are responsible for driving the agenda for teaching across the school. A colleague and I have set up a ‘Teacher Advocates’ group in our school to bring together a range of voices who are passionate about spending time discussing teaching. Each department in the school has their own ‘Advocate’ who is responsible for passing on the findings of the sessions to their departments. Any mechanism that allows for regular meetings to share thinking about how to develop and improve aspects of teaching can plant the seeds of change that could quickly disperse around a school.

Taking these steps doesn’t require a revolution in our schools, or for us to take the lead on new agendas. On an individual basis, the more we seek out collaborative learning conversations about how best to approach a topic or how best to hone a particular skill, the more we learn and develop from those aroundus. Such conversations fill us with optimism and hope about what we might be able to achieve in our classrooms. An even better approach is if we can begin to develop a more structured and consistent basis to these conversations by finding a coach.

Coaching 

Paul Bambrick-Santoyo (2012) notes that ‘teachers are like tennis players – they develop most quickly when they receive frequent feedback and opportunities to practice’. Finding an individual who can perform the role of a supportive coach can supercharge our development as teachers.

There is a clear distinction between mentoring and coaching. Any mentoring relationship is based on more informed knowledge or experience, which has at its heart a focus on guiding and instructing another individual. Coaching, on the other hand, is a structured process of learning between a coach and a coachee, which is much more about a relationship of equality. In a coaching relationship there is no element of judgement; it is designed to be developmental and non-judgemental and therefore needs to be distinct from performance management. Indeed, its sole purpose is to unlock the potential of an individual.

It is also important that the dialogue has elements of challenge and probing in order to assist in creating change and growth. With the principle of coaching being a positive relationship, this feedback is much more likely to result in improvements. To return to John Tomsett’s (2015) idea about fear restricting improvement, coaching can make those conversations easier and more productive.

Coaching Models

For coaching to be effective it needs a sense of clarity and purpose; otherwise time can be lost without having any impact on teaching practice. Andy Buck (2017) uses the incremental coaching strategy, stating that:

[Coaching] typically involves a short drop-in to a lesson where the short coaching conversations that follows, ideally that day, elicits the areas of strength and a single area of focus for improvement with some strategies to try.

Teachers then have a week to work on that particular aspect before a return visit. The popular GROW model is also useful to ensure that coaching sessions are strategic, with this providing a framework for conversation.

Goal: setting aims for the session as well as for the long term.

Reality: checking to explore the current situation. Options: and alternative strategies or courses of action. What: is to be done, when, by whom and the will to do it.

The purpose of this is to ensure that the individual being coached is objective in exploring the problem, while the coach acts as a facilitator in assisting them to see the ‘blind spots’ of their problem. Coaching, when it becomes a part of a school’s culture, can have a hugely positive impact on both classroom teaching and staff wellbeing. It requires training, patience and time in order to ensure that it can progressively make a difference.

Reflection

While dialogue, coaching and observations are vital in opening different perspectives and viewpoints about how to approach teaching, there is more than a grain of truth in the famous William Henley poem ‘Invictus’ (2015): ‘I am the captain of my fate/ I am the master of my soul’. What will have a defining influence on giving us control over improvements to our teaching practice is the capacity to reflect and refine what we are doing in the classroom. After all, for the great majority of the school day and week, we find ourselves alone in our classrooms. If we can use this time to learn lessons as we teach, then we learn to be more self-critical and become agents of our own improvement.

Reflection is one means to slow ourselves down and step outside of the repetitive and draining loop of a busy teaching timetable. There is also the reality of how difficult it is to develop an understanding about an aspect of our practice, without investing the time in trying to dilute and crystallise our thinking. To the philosopher Socrates ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. Without a process of reflection and ownership over what we are doing, we are reduced, again, to a cog in a wheel. Embracing change, however, requires discipline, openness and a clear plan.

Find a Format

Finding a way to reflect that works on an individual level is a worthwhile process that may help reflection become more of a habit. The growing popularity of online blogs highlights how useful this medium can be for developing reflective qualities. There are a range of benefits to blogging: it forges a habit of regular reflection and writing, while also enabling teachers to share strategies and ideas. Blogging creates powerful networks that have at their heart both a focus on improving provisions for students in the classroom, and demystifying what happens behind different classroom doors.

It might be, however, that you want to reflect in a more private sphere. Keeping a regular journal or diary to track your experiences in the classroom can be very helpful. As we shall see the next chapter, it can be hugely cathartic and a means by which perspective can be found in the maze of stressful and busy days. The process of reflecting with colleagues in an informal capacity, or with a coach, can also be very helpful if the idea of writing does not appeal to you.

Schedule Time

Regular reflection can be forged by starting a routine. It is best to be realistic and start with something small, such as a ten-minute daily window in which you will pen some thoughts about your day. Doing this for a few weeks will initially be challenging, as you fight the range of other temptations that make up our lives. What it will soon do, however, is become an automatic habit. A few years ago I set myself the goal of writing a reflective diary entry every day for a year; now, it is a habit that is very much embedded in my daily routine.

Identify Questions

It is important to give your reflection some structure and guidance. Identifying core questions and goals that you want to reflect on can help with this aspect. Some example questions are:

1. What aspect of teaching do I want to improve and why?

2. What do I value in the classroom?

3. What makes a positive day in the classroom?

4. What makes a bad day in the classroom?

5. What strategies will I put in place to assist with this? 6. Who will I observe?

In a recent report from Deans for Impact (2016), titled Practice with Purpose, the authors highlight the importance of ‘setting goals that are well-defined, specific and measurable’. This means focusing on a particular aspect of teaching rather than looking at ‘broad, general improvement’. These goals then build upon each other, progressing from simplistic to more sophisticated targets. We then need to actively seek feedback to build on these goals, using short and focused observations to help.

Reflect on the Positives

There is a misconception that we only need to reflect when things have gone wrong, in order to learn from our mistakes. What will help us to feel more optimistic and self-aware, however, is reflecting on areas in which things have gone positively. Mary Myatt (2016b) makes this clear in Hopeful Schools, stating that ‘the bottom line is that we all have much more influence than we think we have’. At times, we need to pause and think carefully about the positive steps we are making, to help us to persevere through the more challenging obstacles. This gives us the internal satisfaction of recognising how we are moving forward.

This will also give us the clarity about what we need to simplify in order to do more of the same positive actions. As Peter Drucker (2008) recommends, ‘follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection, will come even more effective action’.

Research Informed teaching

There is an abundance of conflicting research about teaching and learning: our earlier evaluation of the merits of learning styles being a prime example. It can often be overwhelming to sift through and find what will help us to improve and grow as practitioners. We cannot expect every decision we make in the classroom to be based on evidence. Yet, engaging with research will have a positive impact in our classroom practice, particularly when it is transferable for our own use. A number of schools are now appointing research leads whose responsibility is to provide practical advice to staff about how research could be effectively implemented in the classroom. As Tom Bennett highlights in his report on Research Leads for the Education Development Trust (2016), their value is to ‘create dialogue of challenge where the staff member was forced to revisit their own motivations and evidence base’.

The popularity of both formal and informal conferences, such as ‘Research Ed’, also highlights how important the role of research is for growing and developing as a classroom practitioner. Hundreds of teachers descend upon such events as a means to share good practice and research informed teaching. It is fuelling this reflective and inquisitive desire to learn more about how to best approach aspects of teaching and learning. Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson (2017) highlight in their book on using research in the classroom that ‘effective research is a form of liberation which gives teachers a richer vocabulary with which to navigate the complex language of the classroom’.

As this chapter has hopefully demonstrated, our teaching has the exciting potential to slowly improve over time. The fact that the students we teach can continually expect a more refined and developed version of their teachers to arrive each new academic year is inspiring. As Moliere wrote, ‘the trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit’. However, there is no use in ignoring the most pervasive of teaching emotions that still lurks ominously in the background: namely, stress.

Slow Questions 

  1. What aspect of your teaching would you value more feedback on?
  2. Who have you observed recently that has influenced an aspect of your teaching?
  3. Who has observed you teach and what was the impact of their observation?
  4. Could you designate more time to reflecting on your impact in the classroom? How would you complete this reflection?
  5. What dialogue are you regularly sharing about teaching?
  6. Could you act in a coaching capacity for a colleague? Would you benefit from some coaching?
  7. Could you engage more in research about teaching?

Thanks for reading. This is one of twenty two chapters in ‘Slow Teaching: On finding calm, clarity and impact in the classroom’, published by John Catt Educational, and available from Amazon here. Thank you to Sam at www.schoolwell.co.uk (http://schoolwell.co.uk/slow-teaching-jamie-thom/) and Susan Strachan (https://susansenglish.wordpress.com/2018/03/25/why-i-love-a-review-slow-teaching-by-jamie-thom/) at https://susansenglish.wordpress.com for two very generous initial reviews of the book.

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Jamie Thom

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