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'Teachers need to end their bunkered solitude and collaborate'

By engaging in meaningful collaboration, teachers can overcome their isolation and rediscover their own excitement, writes Andrew Otty

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By engaging in meaningful collaboration, teachers can overcome their isolation and rediscover their own excitement, writes Andrew Otty

One of the many joys of teaching is the opportunity to work with an ensemble of colleagues who can enthuse you with their energy, support you with their knowledge, or challenge you with their insights. But it’s easy to become isolated if you don’t feel part of the team. Six months ago, I embarked upon an Education and Training Foundation-backed project to improve teaching and learning in functional skills. Owing to my college’s large apprenticeship offering, we had over 30 different teachers delivering functional skills English across multiple sites. Most reported high levels of enjoyment, confidence, and familiarity with the curriculum, but none were working collaboratively or felt equipped to meaningfully evaluate their own practice. Many had never met each other before.

As I’ve become more familiar with the Japanese "lesson study" model of collaboration between teachers, I’m increasingly despairing of the bunkered solitude in which we British teachers often find ourselves. In the few snatches of time you get to speak face to face with your colleagues over a cuppa, the last thing you want is to be the one to suggest using that time to plan together. If you’re struggling with a specific area of practice like motivating students, developing learner confidence, or using feedback effectively, it’s hard to convey your context between mouthfuls of much-needed cake and the result is that you receive well-meaning but generalised advice that won’t really help you out.

Meaningful reflection

For the "Func it Up" project, I wanted to facilitate meaningful reflection, evaluation, and collaboration. To start with, we created a bank of videos of functional skills lesson episodes. It’s easier to reflect on your own practice once you’ve had a chance to discuss and evaluate others. I made a video of myself delivering a deliberately-awful lesson, primarily intended as a humorous ice-breaker for the project. It turned out to be useful for much more than that: It helped us to agree ground rules for giving peer feedback. No matter how weak the lesson, just telling the teacher “It was dreadful” through spasms of laughter isn’t going to help anyone. Some teachers recognised things in my spoof that they bravely admitted to doing when they knew they weren’t teaching at their best, such as focussing more on learning objectives than on learning. It also offered great insights for me personally when, liberated by the idea that I’d done this specifically to draw critical feedback, teachers highlighted poor aspects of my delivery that hadn’t actually been deliberate. I am now very, very conscious of my body language! The quality of the conversations that were then prompted by the genuinely good video episodes was a humbling reminder of the depth to which experienced teachers understand good practice. Sometimes we just need a reminder to apply that understanding to what we’re doing ourselves.

'A sense of team'

The other key success of the project was in appointing a small number of teachers to act as functional skills mentors. These weren’t necessarily those who saw themselves as advanced practitioners (although in my opinion, they all are), but they were the keenest to develop a sense of team and a culture of sharing. Their approaches to developing collaborative practice were not prescribed. Some opened their classroom doors and their resource files to model openness and generosity. Others used informal chats over a coffee to almost-stealthily establish a habit of talking about learning. One or two offered themselves as a shoulder to cry on and found themselves making new friends.

Once we started talking about our teaching, many examples of great practice were uncovered. One teacher had noted what her students planned to do over half term, and when they returned after the break she gave each a personalised postcard modelling a number of writing features and incorporating numerous typos for them to identify and correct. Another teacher working with catering students supported their use of reader pens not just in English, but in the kitchen too for labels, ingredients, and recipes, dramatically improving their confidence. For me, one of the most memorable moments of the project was a demonstration of how a sack full of mysterious and amusingly-shaped objects could help to elicit high-quality verbal responses from students.

Opportunity to connect

I can’t take much credit for the extent of the change that’s occurred and the new team culture that’s been created, as it seems that simply providing an opportunity and mandate for teachers to connect has done wonders. Our external quality assurer, visiting on one of our "Func Fest" days, called it “the best collaboration I’ve seen”. We’re working with another innovative college that’s keen to implement this model, and that extension of the project will further develop the sense of a functional skills community.

The project title, "Func it Up", is of course tongue in cheek and there are only so many times I can play Uptown Funk on loop at events before the joke wears thin, but I do think the name reflects what we’re trying to achieve. Functional skills teachers often work in isolation, or teach it as a minority subject, and in the worst cases, it’s seen as a necessary evil to be endured. "Func it Up" is about reinvigorating the teaching and using the cumulative enthusiasm of a team to allow practitioners to rediscover their own excitement. I’ve already seen the effect of this in the classroom and one of the most exceptionally supportive and personalised lessons I’ve ever observed was in functional skills English this year.

Teachers are expert and efficient communicators. It wouldn’t take much to provide us with the timetable space and formal structures to make collaboration an embedded expectation. It would, I believe, transform the profession.

 Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets @Education720

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