This blog was written by Charlie Washawski, a freelance leadership coach and trainer. It is one of the articles in our National Teacher Enquiry Network February half term newsletter (sign up here).

Charlie WarshawskiOur schools are learning environments for all – not just for students. A typical school year will see students in class for over 1100 hours. By contrast, teachers are expected to focus on their own learning for between 20 and 30 hours a year – roughly half an hour a week. The contrast between these two sets of numbers speaks for itself.

A question that is often asked is whether there is a love of learning in our schools. The key question is whether there is a love of learning amongst the teaching fraternity. Without this, it is incredibly hard to engender such passion amongst the student body.

It is not surprising that learning, professional development and reflection slip down the agenda for some teachers. Operational demands, the quest for increasing student attainment and the ever elusive outstanding grade means that the priority is on doing, and not on reflecting. Of course, the paradox is that the more we reflect, the better outcomes we are able to achieve for our students.

What is meant here by professional development? Not only the statutory learning that schools are good at undertaking: exam board regulations; new legislation and guidelines. But also the skills development that helps teachers become more adept in their classrooms, manage relationships more effectively, and become the person who has a positive long term influence on their students. The language of “soft skills” infers their lack of importance – which needs challenging. Better to call them “essential skills”, after all students will not learn from us unless we demonstrate high levels of interpersonal skill and self awareness.

How can schools help colleagues with this often overlooked, yet vital aspect of our behaviours? Clearly, we are a long way from following the model of Google and others, giving employees a day a week for their own projects and activities. Yet there are several things that we can do – and these are the key recommendations:

Mentors for all

Many teachers have mentors at transitional points in their career, as NQTs or when taking on new responsibilities. These relationships often end as the teacher becomes established in the new role. Best practice shows that we benefit from opportunities to reflect and develop ourselves at every stage in our careers. Assign everyone a mentor, ensure that the mentor is well trained, and make sure that the mentor has no direct management interest in the mentee. In this way, an open, non judgemental and impartial mentoring relationship will develop.

Make performance management meaningful and well delivered

A 2012 survey amongst teachers showed that, at best, performance management was a tick box exercise, and at worst is an experience of being controlled or coerced. Good performance management will allow teachers to develop themselves, for the benefit of the school and of themselves as professionals. To do this, annual appraisals, target setting and the like has to be a supportive and collaborative process, allowing the teacher to identify their own strengths and developmental areas in safety. This is the moment when the teacher can reflect on their progress, reconnect with their vocational passion and make plans for their own long term development – not just ask to go on a couple of courses. Appraisers need to be well trained, and skilled enough to help the teacher in their self reflection. Gone can be the days of whole school targets appearing on everyone’s annual appraisal – targets that are meaningless for some, unattainable for others. An individual, personalised approach is the way forward.

Encouragement of self awareness and self reflection

Over the last 20 years, there has been an increasing tendency in the workplace for all of us to emulate politicians, i.e. to talk up our successes and deny any shortcomings. Not only is this disingenuous, it doesn’t help anyone move forward – neither student nor teacher. School leaders can change this approach by changing the culture. Teachers can be encouraged to discuss the areas of their practice that they want to improve without fear of judgement. Lesson observations – a contentious issue with the new PM regulations – need to be presented as a fundamental learning tool, not as a competency judgement. Let teachers video themselves teaching, then watch their own performance and come to their own conclusions. From these small steps, a genuine spirit of self reflection and development will embed itself into the school’s culture.

Sharing good practice – in  a helpful way

A teacher that I know, who happens to be quite introverted, told me of their frustration at the constant parading of outstanding colleagues’ activities and lessons, with the message “do it like them, and you too will be outstanding”. It is hard, and also quite disempowering to think that a personality change is the only thing that will turn us into better teachers.

By all means share best practice, from outstanding practitioners and especially from those in the leadership team who spend less time in the classroom than they used to. Don’t focus on the tasks or the delivery, which may be difficult for colleagues to emulate. Instead, focus on the environment created and the outcomes achieved. Our softly spoken colleagues can deliver lessons full of energy, enthusiasm, movement, fun, without having to jump up and down themselves.

What underpins all of the above is our great need for status to be respected and acknowledged. The latest science (see Your brain at work, by David Rock), shows that a perceived attack on our status will have the same physical reactions as an attack on our body. It is this alone that will provoke defensive and negative reactions in ourselves and our colleagues. Changing the environment, reducing threats to status and encouraging openness and self reflection, will see big results and a more positive learning environment for teacher and student alike.

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