Quality Assured?

You may or may not agree that unqualified teachers should be allowed to teach in schools but I’m happy that that would not occur in Scotland. As far as I am aware, every teacher must have a Postgraduate Certificate in Education and be registered with the GTCS to even get a look in. I may be wrong there but I do not think so. However, it is not as simple as that. Merely having the qualification does not guarantee competence to teach. It should do though, right? What it does do is ensure that before entering the classroom a teacher will have a base line of skills, knowledge and, dare I say it, commitment.

But is that enough? Are our Initial Teacher Training courses in Scotland strong enough to ensure we are producing quality teachers into the profession? Well, I think they are now but it certainly was not always the case. Fifteen years ago I entered the classroom without a clue about some of things I would have to experience. Classroom and behaviour management; managing workload; dealing with parents. Not a clue.

With this in mind, I rushed to watch the recent BBC3 documentary series  on Teach First with predictable prejudice, having already made up my mind that these ‘Toffs’ would be destined for a fall. What I witnessed was something entirely predictable in a different way. Of course they failed – probably on a daily basis- in exactly the same way as I did every day of my teaching placements and beyond. I empathised with their tears, their sleepless nights, their maddening frustrations; their lack of preparedness. How could I not? What I noticed, more alarmingly for me, was that they experienced the same difficulties after six weeks training as I had after nine months. They were no better or worse.

In my time, it became de rigeur to say that teaching college was a waste of time and everything we learned we learned in the classroom. My nine months did not prepare me. There was little academic reading, as far as I can recall, little discussion of classroom practice. That may be just my poor memory though. My involvement with Strathclyde Uni now, however, informs me that things have change greatly. Primary students are immersed in theory and practice, and secondary students – with whom I have much contact – are better prepared than ever before. I would even go so far as to say I envy them.

A teaching qualification is, of course, essential. There. I said it. Absolutely essential. To argue against that is absurd. But what is more absurd is not ensuring that a teaching qualification is worth something: is difficult to achieve: is steeped in academic rigour as well as supported classroom practice. In Teaching Scotland’s Future Graham Donaldson made some ambitious suggestions about the future of Teacher Training in Scotland. He sees the value in ‘Teach First’: ‘routes of this nature could complement more established routes into the profession.’ (P.26) He suggests that Masters study should be embedded into the Initial Teacher Education qualification and added to to as each year passed. His vision is one I share completely.

It is ludicrous to allow unqualified teachers into a classroom. They may turn out to be effective teachers but we not only insult the profession by allowing that to happen, we miss a trick in not taking that individual’s strengths and adding to them through formal training early on. If someone will be a great teacher in a year then they should be expected to commit to that by undertaking the training. But we must make the training worthwhile. Otherwise, it’s just treading water and wasting time and talent.

The Tyranny of the Working Group

I’m not sure if you would ever call it pressure but, when you start a new school, or even when you begin a new term in August, there is an expectation that you join a Working Group. That group might have a whole school responsibility; it may focus on one aspect of Learning and Teaching, or many aspects; it may even be something that you, wait for it, are genuinely interested in taking forward in your school. However, in  my experience, the early session enthusiasm you display at the start of these groups doesn’t always last. Why is that? What are Working Groups really for?

In reality, working ‘collaboratively’ with colleagues can cause more friction and stress than it relieves and doesn’t often achieve intended aims. External forces are probably the real culprits here. Lack of time to meet appropriately, imposed agendas from management or local authority, a lack of trust in fellow group members? Perhaps. Getting to the point where you have forgotten why you even bothered to volunteer in the first place might also be true. The problem with formal collaboration, it seems, might be that it is almost impossible in a school context. Yet acknowledging that doesn’t make things better. We still try it. Every year.

I reread some of Andy Hargreaves’ work on collaboration recently. ‘Changing Teachers, Changing Times’ is twenty years old now but it seems that much of what he was saying about collaboration and collegiality still rings true today. Contrived ways of working are rarely successful  as they fail to take into account the individual strengths of teachers. We obsess over outcomes of Working Groups rather than focusing on the process of allowing teachers to work together towards what should be the goal: teacher improvement, not a set of resources to be handed on. Twenty years on, I don’t think we are getting that message.

I’ve come to the conclusion that much of the development work I’ve done over the years has been a waste of time. As both a silent member of a Working Group, unable to implement any of my own ideas, to a leader of a group unable to inspire others, I have learned to keep my mouth shut at opportune times. It appears to me that most development workI undertake is destined to fail unless I recognise that I have a weakness in that specific area and that I am committed to improving. I must recognise that weakness myself, and not by someone else, and undertake my own research, not reliant on anyone else. If I am unconvinced by the goal of collaborative development work then it will be a waste of my valuable time.

As Hargreaves says though, ‘much of the way teachers work together is almost unnoticed, brief yet informal encounters.’ (Hargreaves, p.195) My collaboration comes in the form of staffroom chats, informal corridor meetings, shared ideas on Twitter. The outcomes are often unknown or uncertain but I learn how others are attempting similar ideas and delivering similar lessons. I am trying to free myself from the tyranny of the Working Group. That freedom allows me to collaborate in a far more effective way. ‘There is no such thing as ‘real’ or ‘true’ collaboration or collegiality,’ said Andy Hargreaves, twenty years ago. I’m not so sure but we need to think very carefully about what it means first.

Hargreaves, Andy (1994) Changing Teachers, Changing Times. Teachers Work and Culture in the Post Modern Age (Cassell, London)

A Wee Post About Making Things Difficult

IMG_0140So, once again, exam season is upon us. The course has been covered, all texts studied and we’re ready to rock ‘n’ roll. Yes? Well, no, not exactly. In the Higher English exam, pupils will have to sit a Close Reading (Comprehension) paper for one hour and forty five minutes and write two Critical Essays on Literature in ninety minutes. It’s a grueling challenge but one which is achievable if they are prepared and have worked hard.  The spanner in the works is always the question which throws them, of course, and, for some, the indecision that that causes eats up much of their valuable time.

In this, the last week of teaching – I will see them for three days after Easter; just enough time for some last minute revision – I’ve been making things hard for them. Inadvertently in one case. The previous week they had sat the last controlled assessment I would give them. I corrected the Close Reading paper over the weekend and returned them on Tuesday. What I hadn’t accounted for was that, in my weekend exhaustion, I had corrected incorrectly. Where l had given marks to one pupil on a bright and cheerful Saturday morning, I had thought a similar but differently worded answer insufficient on a tired and ominous Sunday evening. Gulp.

However, instead of blushing and making my excuses; doing the right thing and giving the marks and getting on with it, I did what any self-respecting teacher might do to get out of a corner. I said to both who had spotted the problem: “Why do you think I gave a mark to this one and not that one? What is it about the language which might have made me do that?’ The old switcheroo.

What happened was really impressive. It became a whole class discussion with me on the fringes. Why is the teacher wrong here? They started debating the language used in each and how, perhaps, the answer should have been worded differently. They soon moved on to other examples and it took up the whole lesson. Really deep discussion about how they should be presenting answers in the exam took place. They still came to the conclusion that I was wrong, incidentally, but it was a great lesson.

The problem with the Critical Essay paper is that the questions, while usually general enough to always fit with texts studied, are unseen and that throws a lot of pupils. Having studied ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, ‘Hamlet’ and some poetry, how can they be sure what will come up? They can’t, of course. This week I trawled through all of the past papers to find seemingly impossible, or at least surprising, questions which they could answer; questions which didn’t seem to fit what we’d studied.

So we discussed how Shakespeare’s use of contrast between two characters was important to our understanding of one of them, instead of revenge or turning point. We discussed a play which explores the theme of love in difficult circumstances. We discussed how Holden Caulfield was affected by death and the effect of conflict in the novel. We discussed the cruelty of human nature in Salinger’s novel. Nothing completely impossible but certainly a departure from the topics we had discussed during our study of the literature and a different way of looking at what we knew about the texts.

Again, the discussions were deep and meaningful; they debated each point; dismissing some and confirming others. They leafed through the texts looking for evidence to argue their case. A superb lesson with limited intervention from me until the end.

Perhaps we do our pupils a disservice by making things too straightforward for them as they approach exams. Preparing them for the unexpected might be they way to calm those nerves, especially for the ones with a tendency to panic. This week I’ve been making things hard for them. Fingers crossed that they can produce the goods on the day.

Looking Over the Shoulders of Giants

It may well be an urban myth but an old quotation from John Lennon has been floating about my head recently. “Do you think Ringo is the best drummer in the world?’ “Ringo? He’s not even the best drummer in The Beatles.’ I sometimes get carried away by the nice comments I receive about my blog and my ideas on teaching. And, no, I’m not suggesting I’m the best teacher in the world. Not in my school. Not in my department. Not at my end of the corridor. It’s just that blogging – and the reflection that that involves – often leads you to believing your own hype.

I can’t underestimate enough how much blogging has changed my professional life. Somewhat embarrassingly at times, I’m invited to speak to people about teaching and education in general and expected to have a view on many things. That’s okay. It’s not going to my head. Quite the opposite actually. Rather than building my part up I have realised that I am, in many ways, very ordinary as an educator.

I work with some incredible teachers, often unrecognised, by themselves as much as anyone. An untapped reservoir of talent? I can say quite confidently that none of them are anywhere near Twitter or ever bother with any form of educational research. They inspire children every day; they teach wonderful lessons and achieve incredible results with even the most challenging of students. I see it regularly and look on enviously at times. They know nothing of my blogging or Twitter experiences; they don’t need to. But if social media connections had such an effect on me, what might happen if already great teachers began to connect?

What could we achieve if we got them on to a platform where many more could hear their voices? If they engaged more with research and, in fact, took the lead in collaboration on a whole school basis? What if more of them blogged about their experiences so we could learn from them and share their ideas?  Would they flourish in that environment, pushing them to even greater heights as educators? Perhaps the small drop in the ocean that is Social media might explode into something truly paradigm changing.

Perhaps not. Perhaps they wouldn’t be the same. Perhaps what makes them so effective and innovative in the classroom is the uncluttered freedom from the chaotic miasma that is the world of the online educator  and their plethora of strategies and ideas. I have a Delicious account with hundreds of links I don’t know what to do with. Why would I subject anyone to that, especially an already great teacher? I often envy the clarity and focus of the teachers next door: their instinctively great lessons and originality.  It is something to which I aspire and to which, ironically, I turned to Twitter to find.

I came to blogging to look for a voice in education and I found it. I speak about education with confidence and enjoy writing about it too. On Twitter I’ve connected with great people. But for sheer brilliance in teaching I need only to walk out of my classroom and watch. Watch and learn. And strive to be like them.