Professional development: Is teacher CPD going back to the future?

Calls for more informal CPD remind this headteacher of professional development in the 1970s

Iain White

Is teacher CPD going back to the future?

I am not as young as I once was, and I’m reminded of this quite often. Most recently, it was when I read Henry Hepburn’s article “How to set teacher CPD free” in Tes Scotland on 15 March. I have been following a series of CPD articles over the last few months with interest, and this one certainly got me thinking as it spoke of a return to CPD that is a little “rough and ready”, more in-house, school-led, improvisational and carried out in small interactive sessions.

You see, I go back to the days before there was such a thing as CPD or even staff development – I started in 1977. School policies were rare then, and there certainly weren’t ones specifically on CPD.

So how did probationers like me learn back then? These were the days when we spent time in the staffroom and we talked. Often, youngsters like me would listen more than talk. We would listen while wise old owls spoke of the classes they had been teaching and how they managed them. They were often great storytellers and many had worked in industry or been in the forces during the Second World War. They had experience, and we benefited from it. Some had trained apprentices when they had been at their trade, before becoming teachers. I was like an apprentice to them and they took pride in passing on their skills and helping me develop. 

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It all started for me even before I had my first job. I did six weeks’ teaching practice at Bellahouston Academy in Glasgow. The headteacher there, Iain McMillan, was very much of the old school. He dressed in a dark blue suit with waistcoat and a pristine white shirt. His tie had the smallest of knots and his collar was perfect. He was very tall and cut an imposing figure.

A handful of students from Jordanhill College of Education were in the school at the time and we all went to his office, once a week, and he spoke to us. He told us stories with messages and learning points running through them, and we were enthralled. Mr McMillan spoke of hard work, rigour, the importance of standards – especially in the teacher’s approach.

What I remember most is his emphasis on the need for respect, but, strangely enough, not the entitlement model that was prevalent amongst many teachers then: he was talking more about respect – earned through your personal performance and humanity. He emphasised the absolutely crucial need to build relationships with the pupils that were positive and led to the development of mutual respect. I remember him saying, “If pupils ask you about your family, talk to them about it.” Because, he reasoned, they will appreciate it and warm to you as a person.

Over the years I have had a number of mentors like Mr McMillan, from whom I have learned, who coached and advised me and who listened to my problems. The assistant head, the principal teacher, the retired director of education – I learned much from them all through informal conversation. I mourn the demise of the staffroom as I knew it and the reduction in opportunities to talk with colleagues. I regret that, as teachers, we now have a working life where too much time is spent staring into a computer screen and not enough is devoted to learning from our colleagues through conversation.

I welcome, then, the return of the informal CPD that described in the Tes Scotland article earlier this month – because I remember this from my formative years. Could it be that we are going back to the future with teacher CPD?

Iain White is principal of Newlands Junior College in Glasgow

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