Friday, April 28, 2017

Are we expecting too much too quickly of our teachers?

Over the past few weeks I have spent considerable time thinking about what it must be like to be a teacher in 2017. I think the joy and wonderment that keeps our amazing teachers teaching is still there, but I also sense that there is a deep exhaustion across the sector at all levels of the teaching profession. I think much of this exhaustion has come from under-estimating the enormity of the changes we are currently expecting of the sector, and from the compressed timeframes in which we want this change to occur.

Moving to shared teaching spaces, or Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs) is one example of where I think we might be expecting too much too quickly. Last month I had the privilege of visiting Waitākiri School in Christchurch and having an incredibly insightful conversation with their principal Neil O'Reilly. Neill's Masters thesis was on the key components required to create effective collaborative teaching and learning environments. It was from our conversation and then taking the time to read his thesis, that the enormity of what we are expecting from our teachers and leaders as we transition to ILEs dawned on me.
Let's pause for a moment and think about the changes we are asking a teacher, whose training and experience up to this point has been in a single cell classroom, to make as they transition into a shared teaching environment.

From my classroom to our teaching space - teachers are trained to work with children. This relationship is very different to working with other adults, so the first challenge for teachers moving into a shared teaching space is to learn to work as a teacher with other teachers, and to become comfortable with teaching in front of their peers.

My beliefs to our beliefs - most teachers operate from a very strongly held set of personal beliefs, many of which are formed from their own school experiences. As teachers move into ILEs they need to plan collaboratively and to accept and enact different ways of doing things. I suspect that at times these co-created practices do not align with individual beliefs about what is effective teaching practice. I know from my teaching days how exhausting and soul-destroying I found teaching in a way that did not align with my personal beliefs.

Teacher-directed to self-regulated learning - one of the expected outcomes of moving to an ILE is that the delivery of the curriculum moves from being teacher-directed to one of self-regulated learning. Having multiple adults, and collaborative spaces and structures, enables learners to be more self-regulated, but we must not under-estimate the enormity of the shift we are asking teachers to make in their pedagogical thinking if up until this point the learning in their classroom has been mainly teacher directed.

More structured environments and greater competence and reliance on digital technology - For ILE's to work there is a requirement for effective systems and routines. Neill's research concluded that 'these environments are twice as structured as they were when teachers were teaching in isolation" and that most collaborative teaching spaces use an online platform to manage the complexity. For meany teachers this has meant a significant increase in their digital competence.

I'm not for one moment suggesting that moving to ILEs shouldn't happen. I personally believe that teachers working effectively together achieve far more than teachers working alone. What I am suggesting though is that we need to acknowledge the enormity of the change that is required, and to adjust our expectations accordingly. It is much better to take 3-4 years to completely transition to this new way of teaching than to try to bring about the change in under 12 months and then give up, put the walls back in, and do what we have always done, because it was all too hard. Pat yourself on the back if after 12 months teachers have nailed working together. Don't worry if it takes a couple more years to achieve a self-regulated learning environment. It is far better to take a longer time on the journey than to give up because it is all too hard. And remember to take the parents with you as well.

During the holidays I got chatting to a couple of teachers at the airport. They weren't facing the challenges of transitioning to ILEs. The challenge they were facing was extraordinary numbers of after-school meetings they were expected to attend, in what they saw was a misguided attempt by the management of their school to address student under-achievement. The irony they expressed was that the time they would normally use to plan their teaching was being taken up in meetings passively listening to others telling them how to do their jobs more effectively! They expressed concern that if their students didn't improve then they would be blamed, but their reality was that they now had insufficient time to prepare the learning for their students. What was really sad was that both of these highly experienced teachers were thinking about leaving the profession.

Teacher professional learning and development is critical to improving our schools. Making teachers sit passively in staff meetings being told what to do does not change teacher belief and practice. Teachers need to work through the 'why' of what they are being asked to do. A deep understanding and commitment to the 'why' ensures that a teacher's practice continues to align to their beliefs, which is critical if they are going to be the best teacher they can be.

All of the changes we are currently making across education are important and if done well will result in more students achieving success. My plea is that we implement these changes at a pace and in a way that ensures we arrive at the desired destination with teachers and leaders who are still passionate and energised by what they do. We can do this we just have to be sensible and remember that meaningful change takes time.