The quality of the education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.
I have a poster on my wall which states: “The quality of the education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers!” This serves as a daily reminder that the most significant impact on learners is talented and committed teachers.
Since Professional Update in 2014, which included the introduction of the new Professional Standards, engagement in career-long professional learning has been reinforced as an integral aspect of the life of teachers and identified as a route to improved outcomes for learners. The guiding principle is that professional learning stimulates thinking, deepens knowledge and, in turn, informs and improves practice. It is professional learning that will progress, enrich, develop and enhance the quality of learning.
While many teachers have always been highly motivated learners, and already have innate professional curiosity to search for new insights and solutions, not all share this enquiring disposition. For some, the raised expectations of the new Standards represent another hurdle to overcome in an already challenging environment. Expectations upon classroom teachers are higher than ever and the pace of change is unprecedented.
I am reminded regularly by teaching staff that we work in a national context of initiative overload. Everywhere we look there is something new: a policy, a framework, a delivery plan. We are drowning in levels, principles, drivers, pathways, capacities, attributes, indicators, themes, challenge questions and performance outcomes. For many, this added expectation of advanced professional knowledge and pedagogical expertise through professional learning is a step too far.
So, given the importance of professional learning to the development of our profession, it is the role of school leaders to overcome these barriers. The Standards for Leadership and Management state clearly that school leaders should be modelling their commitment to career-long professional learning. By blazing a trail as lead learners, and by mobilising those colleagues who share our passion, we have a better chance of creating an environment where professional learning is the norm.
What we think we know keeps us from learning
A common response from secondary colleagues in recent years to queries about professional learning is: “I have been on understanding standards courses!” While such courses offer necessary support as we navigate the complexities of the new national qualifications, does this type of learning develop an enhanced understanding of pedagogy and in turn transform teachers’ practice? Perhaps making a simple distinction between “what” learning and “why” learning is useful. Both are important but have potentially different outcomes.
Much of the work we do to support new initiatives, policies and exam courses has a functional significance: it teaches us how to deliver. “Why” learning on the other hand fulfils a different purpose: it challenges our assumptions, our beliefs. It encourages us to question not only our pedagogy but our underpinning professional values. The Standards clearly suggest this other category of deeper learning.
An important aspect of this kind of learning is the potential to help us identify the psychological blind spots that we all have – those aspects of who we are as teachers which are hidden from our view. We have all, at some time, defended our practice with: “I have done that for years, it works!” Minds, closed to the possibility that we might be wrong, create barriers to self-improvement. Forcing ourselves to be open-minded enough to accept the possibility of another way of doing things represents genuine reflection.
A systematic approach
A meaningful programme of professional learning will encompass a range of approaches and activities. While any opportunity for dialogue is good, designing a cohesive, systematic programme is more likely to lead to success. When we link all learning to our own school context, teachers are more likely to appreciate the relevance and potential.
Ensuring there are formal structures in place is important. Staff meetings with standing agenda items; twilight sessions devoted to research relevant to a school issue; inset sessions which involve across-school/subject/area group work all contribute to a clear sense of direction. Opportunities for staff to pursue independent study are as valuable as pairs or groups working together. Some opportunities might be informal: a chat over coffee about a teacher’s interests or a conversation over lunch sharing experiences, for example. Even encouraging staff by leaving interesting articles beside pigeon holes and hoping there will be some takers can be a part of the plan!
When professional learning features prominently in the Improvement Plan and teachers’ personal plans link to this through Professional Review and Development (PRD) processes, the structure is in place to create a professional learning culture.
A Teaching and Learning Group is a good way to establish a regular forum for discussion. Even if it’s voluntary or drop-in, this approach distributes the leadership of learning. Such a group can also be an important starting point for wider debate. A useful development might be that the members of the group report back to the wider staff. This approach builds staff capacity, and a celebration of collegiate study also recognises professional learning as worthwhile and valuable.
Most importantly of all, Middle and Senior leaders should lead by example. Our own professional learning should be under scrutiny. Teachers should be able to come to us to ask for reading material or relevant research. If we don’t know, we find out! We should always be able and willing to offer the right prompt, suggest a useful text, be ready to spark debate.
Text in italics is taken from the Professional Standards.