Down the half-full glass of happiness;Effective teaching and learning;Conference;Making the Connection;Preview

15th May 1998 at 01:00
When a head couldn't find anyone to talk on the psychology of teaching, he did it himself. Julie Morrice reports

Earnock High School in Hamilton takes learning seriously for teachers as well as pupils. Staff development here is not a makeweight issue, but absolutely central to the way the school operates and to how teachers feel about their jobs.

"It has always been a happy school," says Cathy Chaddock, who joined the staff in 1979 and is now principal teacher of history and modern studies, "and that has a lot to do with the fact that mistakes are seen as learning experiences."

Learning never stops. It is significant that both Chaddock and headteacher Bob Murdoch, as longserving and senior members of staff, show themselves to be highly receptive to new ideas and influences.

Aline MacKenzie, who recently joined Earnock as a probationer after supply teaching in 10 or 11 different schools, sums it up: "In a lot of schools you are made to feel, 'You're just out of college, you don't know anything', but here it's more a case of 'You're just out of college, you can give us some fresh ideas'. It really is a case of the glass is half-full, not half-empty."

Bob Murdoch has been head at Earnock for 13 years, but he traces the school's concentration on staff development to a time about six years ago when, he recalls, "Standard grade arrived at all schools in large vans full of worksheets".

The change to S-grade with its worksheet-based teaching method sharpened Murdoch's feeling that "it was time to revisit the psychology of teaching: not how to use that worksheet or video, but to focus more on the fundamentals of what is going on in classrooms".

Casting about for someone to give his staff in-service training on the subject, Murdoch found not only that the education officers and colleges of education were unable to do it, but that they felt it was not what people wanted.

"There was an attitude that the last time we heard anything about that was at college, and it was a lot of nonsense then," he said. So Murdoch did it himself, presenting what he describes as a mixture of personal experience and "mild psychology", reflecting on his own learning and teaching.

Six years on, the senior management team at Earnock can point to a carefully-organised system of in-service training; an "inspirational" staff manual (the head of classics at the school admits to reading it in bed whenever she's feeling fed up) which lays out the philosophy and collective experience of the school; and an internal organisation which puts staff support and cross-curricular communication at the top of the agenda.

The result, say the members of the team, is a working environment where staff feel supported and valued, and where the professionalism of teachers is constantly being explored and developed.

The striking thing about the management team is the quiet confidence with which they talk about what the school wants and needs. At first it may seem a little arrogant to be talking for the whole school in this way, and then it emerges that their assertions are based on careful, long-term questioning and involvement of both staff and pupils.

Earnock has about 1,100 pupils and 85 teachers, but good communication seems to have generated the kind of team ethos normally associated with much smaller organisations.

Senior teachers, instead of finding themselves bogged down in extra administration, are given cross-curricular responsibilities, acting as whole-school advisers on, for example, support for learning.

This seems to have broken down departmental barriers, and all the teachers I spoke to enthused about the support and sharing of ideas which goes on across the school. Moreover, the traditional division between guidance and subject heads has been bridged: Murdoch emphasises that the overview of the school available to guidance staff is an important facet of what the school is trying to achieve.

Karen Wilson worked for a year on supply at Earnock, then moved to a job at a different school for two years, was "desperate to get back" and is now a senior teacher at Earnock. "At the other school, my department were changing the history course, and I said, if you want to improve it, why not ask the kids how to do it? They looked at me as if a Martian had landed from outer space," she said.

At Earnock, pupils are consulted on practically all aspects of their schooling. The staff manual asserts boldly that teachers should be "giving pupils every opportunity to share in the management and understanding of their learning", and pupil surveys have shaped everything from the way homework is structured to the arrangements for transfer from primary to secondary school.

"They are now very good at giving us information," says Murdoch. Accustomed to the idea that their thoughts are valued, pupils are relaxed and responsible about giving their views on the school.

There is an organic balance to the set-up, with pupil surveys providing the raw material for in-service days within a department, which may then feed into the whole school through the open channels between departments. "Here, there's a focus to in-service," says Cathy Chaddock. "Our INSET tends to focus on the nitty-gritty of teaching."

Karen Wilson chips in: "In other schools when you split into workshop groups at an in-service, you get people saying, 'What on earth am I doing this for?', but I don't think I've ever heard that here."

Earnock has a staff development co-ordinator who aims to get the most out of training, both for an individual teacher and for the school as a whole.

"You should see the looks on people's faces when they come back from an in-service with a gem of an idea and they know we're waiting to hear it," says Murdoch. "We have a motivated staff. They feel they're driving things, making things happen. They have control of their own profession."

Aline MacKenzie puts it slightly differently: "The school supports you, and then you feel confident enough to support your pupils. It's the best thing about this school."

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