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Charting a course for real professional development

group-huddle-behind-1024matt-webber-250Matt Webber, Assistant Headteacher – Learning & Teaching, Richard Challoner School, writes…

Even if you accept Nick Gibb’s assertions (which is a big ‘if’) that the forces of the free market alone will ensure that salaries are competitive enough to attract the top graduates into our schools, we still have the issue of how we retain staff.

Assuming schools do indeed have the financial resources to compete with other graduate career pathways, the lure of a competitive salary may be enough to land a debt-laden graduate, but it almost certainly won’t be enough to keep them in the net (and nor should it be – surely as a profession we want those joining us to be motivated by more than just money?)

There is a system-wide, collective need for school leaders to take charge – with actions more than words – of raising the regard in which the teaching profession is held by those outside it (and one might hope that our new education secretary will work with rather than against us in this respect).

It is up to school leaders to take charge of raising the regard in which the teaching profession is held by those outside it

There’s no single way in which this is easily done, and it can’t be done overnight. It certainly won’t be done if we rely on slick marketing campaigns. Typically, they offer a rose-tinted picture of how wonderful it feels to be surrounded by smiling, enthusiastic and smartly dressed young people who all sit politely in your classroom, gazing at you adoringly, exercising admirable self-control as you inspire them with your brilliance. I understand the sentiment and, don’t get me wrong, we all love a lightbulb moment.

But pushing these superficial, saccharine depictions of the work a great teacher does will undermine the very message we need most to convey if we want to attract the best people into the job: yes, teaching is a noble profession, but it is not just about being prepared to give of yourself unto others.

What teaching requires

  • It requires many years of deliberate practice to even approach what we might think of as expertise.
  • It demands intellectual rigour just as it demands intellectual agility: a willingness to engage collaboratively with inquiry and research, and to reflect on one’s own impact not only over long periods of time but also in the very heat of the thousands of split-second decisions made every day.
  • It hinges upon an ability to build effective relationships – often over very long periods of time with seemingly little return – with young people (and colleagues) of all sorts.
  • It necessitates an openness to, and engagement with, systems of accountability.

And for all these reasons (and many others) it is challenging, it is stimulating and it is immensely rewarding. For all these reasons (and many others) it should be a profession that attracts our brightest and best graduates. But I guess that this is all a bit trickier to distil down into a catchy hashtag.

Even if we get the message right in the advertising, the experiences of those joining us (and those already in the job, who are perhaps our biggest and most important advert) have to align with the message they are given up front.

We have to be able to keep them on board. We aren’t talking here about periodic financial incentives (hopefully any prospective teacher will have scratched far enough below the surface to realise that not many of them will secure the lucrative salaries suggested in the adverts, at least not anytime soon). Rather, we need to talk about a real commitment to their development: real investments in professional capital.

What leadership of teachers requires

We have to support them in the early years of their career when they are confronted by wave after wave of seemingly insurmountable challenge. Even in our best schools, the workload and pressure can be too much. In our worst schools where, too often, punitive accountability measures, excessive administrative demands and unsupportive leadership styles abound, you have to wonder which parts of the rotting hull are even salvageable. It is no surprise that 40% of those who begin teacher training have jumped from the state school ship [PDF] within five years. Too many who join the profession are overwhelmed before they’ve really learned how to keep their heads above water.

Those that do learn to swim must then be made to surf: for the ones that make it through the first few years, we must stave off the water-treading-plateau [PDF] that typically follows. Looking at how we do so would also go some way to unpicking and responding to the fluctuations[PDF] in commitment, motivation, and sense of identity across different career stages, and the significant impact these characteristics have on teacher effectiveness.

But how do we turn such platitudes into something more concrete? What tangible actions will so enhance and enrich the learning and development of teachers (new recruits and old hands alike) as not only to keep them in the profession, but to convey a message to those outside about what it means to be a professional in the education system?

Peter Drucker’s quote, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’, is popular among the trend-setting edu-bloggers and twitterati, and with good reason. The culture – of the whole system, of individual schools, of teams within schools – is the rock upon which all educational waves crash. Forge the vision, establish the culture, maintain alignment, and the rock will remain strong.

Forge the vision, establish the culture, maintain alignment, and the rock will remain strong

Get any of it wrong, and the rock will continue to erode and crumble. So yes, culture is the key… but you do sort of need a strategy as well.

Not professional development, but professional learning

So what are we doing about it? How are we moving forwards with building a culture of teacher learning and development that professionalises those already on board and conveys a message to those beyond?

At Richard Challoner School, we have a few key priorities. We are continuing our shift from the traditional conception of ‘professional development’ towards one where professional learning – the active, iterative process that requires long-term investment by individuals in specific areas of practice – is the focus. As part of this, we are continuing to develop a pedagogy for this staff learning that says the learning of our staff is just as important as the learning of our students, by creating time for staff to work together in well-resourced, collaborative learning communities.

In this way and in others, we are making sure that staff are ‘part of’ rather than ‘subject to’ our professional learning programme. We’re drawing on expertise at all levels of the school in ways that acknowledge, celebrate and harness the talent in our community, recognising and highlighting existing professionalism.

Identifying and developing this expertise will continue to be supported by our highly developmental approach to lesson observations, where the focus is firmly on ‘improving’, not ‘proving’. This has been a hugely time-consuming programme, but the investment we’re making in our staff is worth it on so many levels.

Alongside this, the coming academic year will see us embedding our new appraisal process. Like observation, this will be rooted in a coaching process to balance accountability and challenge in a way that shifts the dialogue in favour of self-regulation and professional growth.

It certainly feels like we’ve set our course in the right direction and there is a refreshing breeze in the sails…

Matt blogs at Learning and Teaching Magpie, where you can read more about the work going on at Richard Challoner School.

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