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Finding time to develop expertise

Matt Webber, Assistant Headteacher, Richard Challoner School, writes…

‘Experts don’t rise to the occasion, they default to their preparation’

This is a slight distortion of Archilochus’ original quote (and I’m not sure who is responsible for this particular modification). But the idea that expert performance is borne not out of some intangible, mysterious surge towards excellence in the heat of the moment, but instead results from many hours of careful preparation, should resonate with anyone involved in teacher learning and development.

Expertise in teaching, as in any other field, is based on preparation. Not in the sense of poring over a scheme of learning and scribbling in a planner, but preparation in the sense of deliberate practice – the sort which is focused on developing and refining habits that have a positive impact on outcomes.

Except that our preparation – our practising and rehearsing of the act of teaching (and all of its constituent parts) – is not done in a training setting. Even teachers at the very beginning of their career rarely get the luxury of running repeat drills on the equivalent of the athlete’s practice field, or testing out novel modifications in the safe environment of the software programmer’s sandbox. Rather, our practice takes place live in the classroom, every day. Viewed with a despondent resignation, this appears as a problem. But viewed positively, this means we have the opportunity for every lesson we teach to contribute to the cumulative development of our own expertise.

Even teachers at the very beginning of their career rarely get the luxury of running repeat drills on the equivalent of the athlete’s practice field, or testing out novel modifications in the safe environment of the software programmer’s sandbox.

And yet this idea that our everyday practice offers an everyday opportunity for professional learning and development isn’t necessarily widespread, and certainly isn’t fully realised. As I’ve touched on previously and others have explored in more depth, this may be in part down to a lingering (and unhelpful) conception of professional development. This is that CPD is something that happens once or twice a term, when all the staff sit in the hall and listen to someone speak at them.

This idea that our everyday practice offers an everyday opportunity for professional learning and development isn’t necessarily widespread, and certainly isn’t fully realised.

Even if the ideas being thrown at the tired teachers happen to be good ones (which isn’t guaranteed, particularly given the tendency such a format has for encouraging gimmick over developing deep understanding), how much of it sticks? With a particularly charismatic delivery some of it might. But still we have the problem of the disconnect that such a model promotes, encouraging as it does a separation between the idea of teacher learning opportunities and a teacher’s classroom experience.

What’s stopping you?

For those teachers who do recognise the potential richness of the learning opportunity presented by the unfettered access to regular, iterative practice in their own classroom, surely the most frequently cited barrier is time. This is certainly the view most commonly expressed by our staff when surveyed about their perception of the challenges preventing them taking charge of their own professional learning and development.

That view is endorsed by the findings of a report published by the Education Policy Institute in October 2016. One of its three key findings is that long working hours are hindering teachers’ access to CPD. Of 36 jurisdictions, England ranked a lowly 30th in average number of days spent each year on some key forms of CPD. England’s teachers spent an average of four days on certain forms of CPD in the previous year, including courses, observational visits, seminars and in-service training. This is far lower than the average of 10.5 days across all jurisdictions considered.

Workload is a significant barrier to accessing CPD, according to 60% of teachers in England, compared to an average of 49% across all jurisdictions in the study.

So this year at Richard Challoner, we are taking steps to help teachers find time.

Finding time for professional learning and development

Part of helping staff to find the time is helping them to see the need to find time, and this is cultural. As frequently as possible, as both a repeated global message to all staff and as a discussion with individuals, we are reiterating our directive about moderating the workload associated with written feedback. Importantly, this message now nests within a bigger mantra, borrowed from Dylan Wiliam (as so much of our current work is): sometimes we have to stop doing good things in order to do even better things.

As a profession, we are too often consumed with doing the very best for the students in our classes in the here and now – planning lessons, running support sessions, preparing resources, assessing work. We’re saying to staff that we want them to make judicious decisions to, for example, spend an hour on their own learning rather than preparing a resource that, this week, a class can cope without. In doing so, we’re embedding an expectation of continual improvement that encourages staff to consider their impact not just on the students they teach now, but all the students they will teach every day from now onwards.

Encourage staff to consider their impact not just on the students they teach now, but all the students they will teach from now onwards

Supporting the shift in the cultural paradigm are changes to the actual systems that we use to support professional learning and development. Last year, a key focus was on changing the way we use classroom visits and then laying the ground for our new coaching-oriented appraisal process. This year, we have followed the lead of a number of other schools in taking the decision to find time where we can prioritise teacher learning and development within the school day. This certainly bolsters the message to staff in terms of showing that we value the learning of our staff highly, but it also provides a very practical mechanism for bringing staff together outside the framework of our existing twilight and Inset day schedule.

This means that one morning per half term the school day doesn’t start for students until the beginning of period 2, buying us a good hour of uninterrupted time (at the fresh end of the day) for staff to work together in learning communities of 6-8 people. Throw in a few hours-worth of time from the twilight programme and a bit of an Inset day here and there, and these learning communities start looking like the heaviest investment we’ve ever made in a teacher learning and development programme. It is already going a long way to helping people over the hurdle of ‘finding time’.

Using the time

The work that all our teachers are engaged in within these learning communities is underpinned by the ambition for all staff to develop expertise as a result of committing to long-term, iterative development anchored in everyday practice. Across a range of pedagogical areas, individuals and small groups within each learning community are using cycles of inquiry to guide their practice. Each learning community has a piece of core reading that we’ve carefully selected, copies of which have been purchased for our learning & development library and loaned-out for the duration of the year.

Our learning communities have met twice already this year. During the first meeting, each group agreed the collaborative norms which will underpin their work as a group, before then setting about agreeing how best to use the core reading as a stimulus for their work. During the second meeting, these self-regulating groups set about supporting each other with the design of a first round of inquiry, with each teacher making a commitment to the group about what exactly they are going to focus on trying, with which teaching group, and with a clear sense of how they will monitor the impact of their endeavours.

Future twilight sessions will focus on refining our collective understanding of what makes a good inquiry question and looking more closely at the way in which impact might be monitored, while the meetings of the learning communities will continue on their half-termly cycle. We are working towards our ‘Celebration of Inquiry’ next June, when all staff will share their year’s work, but in the meantime we are planning opportunities to share the work of each learning community at our mid-year review (a twilight session next term), as well as recruiting staff to share interesting findings along the way through our 15 Minute Forum.

Reinvigorating our collective professional identity

An unnamed primary school headteacher is quoted in an old NCSL publication as saying that ”research engagement offers the prospect of reinvigorating our collective professional identity and self-esteem.” We’ve been cautious with our use of the word ‘research’, given its (perhaps unjustified but still unhelpful) associations with impenetrable academia and a level of abstraction that can be hard to translate to a classroom context. The inquiry that is the focus of our learning communities is undoubtedly research of the form defined by Lawrence Stenhouse: systematic enquiry made public.

And it is invigorating, to say the least!

  • Teachers are standing by the photocopier talking about the book they’ve read.
  • Teachers are drinking tea on the playground during break duty and discussing deep aspects of their practice.
  • Teachers are sitting eating their lunch and sharing opinions on articles that they’ve shared following the earlier discussion by said photocopier.
  • Teachers are arranging peer observations to support each other with monitoring the impact of a new idea.

As long as we can ward off the fatigue that invariably takes hold as the year draws on, there is a great deal to be excited about…


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