Teacher isolation: three steps to improve collaboration and retention

The classroom can become a lonely place, and one that teachers are leaving at alarming rates. But according to Cumbrian teacher Lisa Pettifer, there are simple ways for schools to combat the problem

Simon Lock

How To Combat Teacher Isolation

The life of a teacher can be an isolated one. Even in a school with more than 100 staff, behind the classroom door you are often on your own with your students for the vast majority of the day. So, how can we encourage more teacher interaction?

The solutions seem simple: get teachers to collaborate with other schools within their multi-academy trust or local area, and send them to conferences or on training courses. But with timetables and budgets stretched to breaking point, coordinating time out of class and finding the money for offsite training is increasingly difficult.

And so, teachers across the UK are suffering from a lack of interaction, with three in five education staff recently admitting to feeling lonely, a factor the Department for Education (DfE) has linked to retention issues.

A collaboration crisis

Damian Hinds recently listed teacher wellbeing as a key part of his recruitment and retention strategy, but what can schools do now to keep their best staff on the job?

Lisa Pettifer is an English teacher in Cumbria, five miles from Scotland, and knows how it feels to be cut off.

“It’s really difficult for us to get to conferences and things when you take into account the time, the cost of travel and the availability,” she says. “It’s also really difficult to get people to come up to us. The lack of opportunity that comes from that doesn’t just affect the kids, it affects the staff as well.”

Rethink your idea of CPD

But isolation isn’t a problem confined to rural schools. Pettifer says that all schools have the power to combat the problem, with continuing professional development (CPD) as one way that leaders can make a stand.  

“In a previous school, they took a very brow-beating approach to CPD,” she says. “Everybody sat and looked at a screen, got talked at and then sent away again. It didn’t feel like there was any dialogue and it didn’t feel like there was any development.

“There are much more collaborative ways to deliver CPD, but there’s a lack of information and there’s a lack of research literacy. If a school or a teacher isn’t very forward-thinking, or outward-looking, you end up becoming stagnant.”

Rather than sending staff on costly offsite training, Pettifer says that allowing teachers to collaborate with colleagues and learn from each other can have a huge impact.

“Two out of the last three schools I’ve been in have had really effective networking happening within the school,” she says, “where people who are working on similar themes will work together on certain projects and topics.”

Reach out to the social network

For geographically isolated teachers like Pettifer, social networks can also be hugely important. There are pros and cons to entering those online spaces, but many teachers find them a welcome source of support, information and interaction.  

“Social media, especially Twitter, is really invaluable for me,” Pettifer says. “It has led to all sorts of really great opportunities and allowed me to contact the wider world, despite the isolation here.”

Where she would previously have suffered from a lack of information in Cumbria, Pettifer says Twitter has kept her in the loop when it comes to events and opportunities in her region.

“News will permeate from Twitter to a colleague, to another colleague who’s not on Twitter, and then to someone else. It's definitely a catalyst for an increase in awareness.”

Make communication great again

Collaboration can be especially hard in terms of classroom practice, however. Unlike in an office environment, there is often nobody to bounce ideas off or ask for advice.

But technology can help, with tools such as video call software, instant messaging and file sharing giving teachers the opportunities to communicate when leaving their classroom isn’t an option.

“The use of technology for this type of thing is happening more and more,” Pettifer continues. “I’ll do Skype calls with people and exam boards are better at doing webinars.

“At one of my previous schools, we just had a departmental WhatsApp group, and that was easy for things that didn’t seem formal enough to be going through official email. It’s useful because it’s at your fingertips all the time.

“We also use a cloud space to share resources with students and within our department with each other.”


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