“They’ve done the training, but we haven’t seen the changes we hoped for.”
How many of us have sat in a meeting and heard these sorts of words about our trainees? And while they aren’t surprising, they do make me want to bang my head against the wall and cry.
Learning to teach and developing teacher practice is not a monologic activity. It is about broadcasting a message and then sitting back to watch behaviours, routines and understandings change. And yet, when it comes to staff development, it often feels that this is the default setting.
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I’ve supported teacher development for almost 15 years, and it’s rare to come across a teacher who refuses to develop their practice. I have seen people unwilling to engage in programmes because they cannot see the relevance to them, but this often happens when you get a whole-institution initiative that comes with a three-line whip and standardised approach.
Characterised by lots of arm folding and lip pursing, teachers will generally express concerns about how poorly the initiative fits their practice, and more often than not they are right. Pedagogic practice does – and should – vary between subjects and sometimes, whole-institutional approaches may not work in one or more of these subject areas.
I also see teachers who try but fail to make a new initiative work. These teachers attend the training, often feel inspired by an engaging session but then can’t seem to translate the training into practice. This happens for lots of reasons.
Primarily, the time and understanding required to effectively create new habits or resources isn’t considered part of the training. The training happens in the space with the expert, and all teachers have to do is go back to their classroom, open the PowerPoint presentation or handouts supplied and voila, practice instantly changes. Except it doesn’t.
Teacher training: the importance of support beyond the session
It takes a lot of cognitive effort to redesign and rebuild routines you use in the classroom.
Shedding old habits and gaining new ones is tough – and the world is littered with new year’s resolutions that testify how difficult and challenging this process is. Teachers need support both in the initial training sessions and afterwards.
Focus, too, should be given to the redesign of resources. If the new approach taken is substantially different from the present one, the new resources may not be an easy "fit" with the old. As we have recently seen with lockdown teaching, trying to use existing approaches in new spaces is a real challenge. What is required is time and support to develop and test the new resources – this is often missing from “staff development” days.
In all of this, we need to give consideration to the developmental stage of the teacher themselves. A new teacher may still be learning how to manage their classroom and break down key concepts for their students. Asking them to learn new rules or behaviours on top of this could be problematic and may require them to have significant support to bring in additional considerations into a practice that can feel like juggling 100 balls at once.
A proficient teacher who has a better sense of what works in their classroom, however, may find adapting the new ideas to their classroom a much easier task, and may be more willing to reject those they feel will not fit.
Ultimately, you can’t expect a simple solution to a complex problem to work. Like it or not, teaching is a complex practice because it involves teachers and learners who are massively complex. Knowledge isn't something that happily hops from one head to another like nits.
Teachers are not one homogenous mass any more than the students in front of them are. What they teach and how they teach it will, and should, vary pedagogically.
If we want to see successful teacher development, their learning must be negotiated and planned in the same way as their students’ is – with appropriate time, scaffolding and support all given proper consideration.
Sam Jones is the chair of the steering committee at the Research College Group and founder of FEResearchmeet