Improve staff morale by ending the search for ‘the’ silver bullet

lightbulb-1024There is no one silver bullet… there are many and we all have some. SSAT Senior Education Lead Corinne Settle explains…

I love a new teaching and learning idea, it can inspire and excite me to try something new in my classroom. However, I also know that it gives me, at times, false hope. As the dreary winter weather sets in and the new academic year is well under way, I cannot help but hope that I can be better and find that bit of magic that will make a difference to my students’ lives (and grades!)

Hope is important, as is inspiration and excitement, but they can also be a distraction to what really matters.

How many ‘new initiatives’ have you seen? How many new initiatives have you seen that are old ones with a new name? Once you have been around the block a few times (I show my age) you will have seen some ideas revisited several times.

Are we addicted to the next new thing, that silver bullet? Have we created a culture of false hope were we are always hoping that the next new idea to hit the scene will be the one thing that makes ‘the’ difference? Does this then lead to disappointment as we shift onto the next new thing? This leaves teachers feeling frustrated and just not good enough. We could now trudge down the route of rolling our eyeballs and looking unimpressed.

Stop! No!

But wait, isn’t there a reason why some ideas keep coming around – isn’t it because they are great ideas and they work? There have been many ideas that should be binned, eg Brain Gym. The pseudoscience behind the idea has been proven to be quite simply made up. However, distracting students, getting them moving and making sure they are fully hydrated are most definitely not bad ideas.

Great teachers take ideas and make them concrete. They try them out, adapt, reflect on and modify them. The end result is an effective strategy that becomes part of their practice, because they know it works. They have asked students for feedback and have talked their thinking through with colleagues. The best teachers I have ever met are always looking for something even better. They have a drawer full of silver bullets that are personal to them.

“Everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere”
Dylan Wiliam

What works for you? What are your silver bullets?

Let teachers find their own silver bullets, and add them to the armoury they already have. Give teachers the time, space and dispensation to share these. What is one teacher’s well-worn and faithful silver bullet is a fresh idea for another. We are often fearful of sharing ideas in case they are ‘old’ or not innovative enough.

As a senior leader, I admit jumping on a bandwagon or two… it’s that excitement, that hope… back away from that shiny silver bullet! I have learnt to stop feeding my addiction. I have learnt to focus on what matters and not be swayed by the current, most fashionable research with shiny, smooth headline figures. For every teacher there should be three key pillars: knowledge, collaboration and learning. Taking fresh ideas on both old and new practices, sharing this knowledge through collaborative opportunities and learning from them.

What schools, teachers and learners need is consistency – a consistency of approach, as otherwise we wear out staff with initiative overload. When we aim for consistency of approach, language, opportunity, development etc, we engage the staff in the learning conversations and drive consistency in teaching and learning. There needs to be a continuous rhythm to our learning, rather than skipping from track to track. We know that this is key with our students; we need to model it with teacher learning too.

As the DfE Standards for Professional Development state, professional developments should be sustained over time. The TDT report Developing Great Teaching finds that to be effective in producing profound, lasting change, professional development interventions had to be prolonged. The most effective professional development lasted at least two terms – more usually a year (or longer). The most ambitious and successful schools I work with focus on a single focus over two-three years.

Through the two-year Embedding Formative Assessment project and the use of teacher learning communities (TLCs) I have seen teachers flourish, gain confidence and get excited about doing what matters – being even better.
The process behind the TLCs here is key (Wiliam, 2006):

  • Choice – If teachers are to develop their practice in the way that will make the most difference to their students, they will need choice, because for most teachers, only they know what aspects of their practice will be most productive to develop.
  • Flexibility – Teachers need the flexibility to be able to adapt the techniques with which they are presented to fit their own classroom context. Encouraging teachers to adopt practices that they then incorporate into their routine teaching is a way of getting them to act their way into a new way of thinking.
  • Small steps – Teacher change is genuinely difficult, because high-level performance in a domain as complex as teaching requires automatising a large proportion of the things teachers do. We have to accept that teacher learning is slow; they need to ’feel’ their way when trying out new ideas. We need to recognise that this is going to be hugely challenging and will require accountability and support.
  • Accountability – All teachers need to improve their practice, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better. For that reason, we believe that it is entirely appropriate for teachers to be held accountable for making improvements in their practice. This is the purpose of the personal action plan.
  • Support – The central idea is the creation of structures that provide support while making teachers accountable for developing their practice.

“The techniques are not new to me, or things that I did not know before. The biggest success however has been getting used to embedding them and making them part of my everyday classroom practice. Also, it has opened up a great dialogue between myself and other teachers and has allowed me to learn from their experiences.”
Teacher at The Milton Keynes Academy

Questions for the trainer

As a TEEP trainer, using a framework that draws together research on what makes effective teaching and learning, I am often asked similar questions.

1. The age of research: “2006? That’s a bit old isn’t it?” When no one disagrees with research, no one does any more research to disprove it and they don’t waste their time proving the same thing again.

2. “It’s not ‘new’ is it?“ Does it have to be? Some would say yes. But I have learnt that the judgement between ‘old’ and ‘new’ is a very personal thing. Fresh ideas are just that, something that you haven’t come across before. Just because someone else has been doing it for years doesn’t make it any less useful or exciting.

3. “We have done AfL before.” Although we all like a good tick-list and the satisfaction of completion, teaching just isn’t one. Dylan Wiliam says this so much better than I do here.

The TEEP framework’s individual components are not new. This is because they are built on evidence and on 14 years of experience, reflection and refinement by teachers. The programme models the importance of knowledge, from research and collaboration, but also the role of teachers as learners.

Through the SSAT Lead Practitioner programme, teachers unpack the things they do as second nature, their silver bullets. Supported by the questions in the Lead Practitioner Framework, teachers can gain justifiable pride in their increasing expertise, and celebrate it. These techniques and habits can then be shared with colleagues, which in turn helps to inspire and reignite the passion for teaching in others.

Find out more about the SSAT Lead Practitioner programme.

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