Partners in pedagogy

13th May 2005 at 01:00
Contemplating your first move? You can improve your CV by working with other schools. Caroline Roberts reports

The end of your induction year is in sight, or perhaps you've got a couple of years under your belt, and you're starting to feel as though you have established yourself. You've developed a range of teaching strategies, sussed out which ones work with your classes, and you're sticking to them.

But what happens when it's time to move on and you're suddenly working in a new school that may require very different approaches? Starting your second job can feel as though you've been thrown in at the deep end.

A group of newly qualified teachers from two very different west London schools were given a chance to test the waters when they participated in a partnership project that involved visiting each other's schools to plan together and team-teach a series of lessons.

Moya O'Donnell, head of English at Ellen Wilkinson school for girls in Ealing, who set up the project, believes that newly qualified teachers need to be exposed to different pupil populations and methods of working before their teaching strategies become entrenched.

"On average, new teachers tend to stay in their first jobs for two or three years. That can be long enough to get a bit too comfortable, so moving schools can be quite a culture shock," she says.

"Observing other teachers in their own school isn't enough, especially for NQTs like ours, completing their induction in a single-sex school. I wanted them to have as broad an experience as possible."

When she heard that Queens Park, a mixed school in neighbouring Brent, also had three newly qualified English teachers, she proposed a link between the two departments. The teachers involved felt that planning together made the experience more meaningful as it gave them time to identify areas they wanted to focus on. It also helped highlight the differences between the schools.

"The phrase 'That would never work at our school' came up more than once and it certainly made us more aware of how much gender, environment and pupil mix was influencing our teaching," says Louise Elstone of Ellen Wilkinson.

For Sam Wyborn, another newly qualified teacher at Ellen Wilkinson, the experience was particularly valuable. "I did both my training placements in single-sex schools so it was good for me to experience the different dynamic of a mixed classroom. I worked with Year 9 which is the age when they're starting to flirt and be more concerned about looking cool in front of the opposite sex, something that doesn't arise at our school," she says.

"I learnt a lot from the way my teaching partner used careful grouping to keep everyone on task. I particularly liked her strategy of putting name cards on tables before the beginning of the lesson which saved a lot of time and fuss. And now at least I have some experience of mixed-sex teaching to mention at interviews."

For Chris Moore of Queens Park, seeing how strategies worked in a different setting gave him the confidence to try them out in his own classroom. "I'd been keen to use more group work and drama activities as part of my English lessons but was apprehensive about things getting out of control," he says.

"Fortunately, one of the Ellen Wilkinson NQTs was confident in handling drama work and helped me set up some interesting and enjoyable lessons with my bright but rather lively Year 9. I went on to try them with my Year 10 and, as a result, they've produced some of the best speaking and listening activities I could have hoped for."

Extended collaborative projects are in keeping with general trends in continuing professional developmental: many schools are moving away from undertaking one-day courses as they provide insufficient time to do anything developmental. However, Ms O'Donnell concedes that setting them up requires a lot more thought: "The summer term is definitely the best time as not only have the new teachers had a chance to find their feet but also exam classes have left.

"You do need to start thinking about it much earlier though. It's important to pair up with a very different school, but don't forget practical considerations. Although Queens Park isn't far, I hadn't taken account of the fact that it's awkward to get to using public transport and, of course, not many new teachers have their own cars."

Despite time spent negotiating the London transport system, the teachers found the exchange more rewarding than just popping in to observe the odd lesson. And it's not just for those in their induction year.

"It could be even more useful when you've been teaching for several years as it would refresh your ideas and strategies once you're more confidently established in the job," says Mr Moore.

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