Trainers who can't suck eggs

27th August 2004 at 01:00
Has David Brent of TV's The Office been training our trainers?

His alter ego Ricky Gervais was once lead singer with a New Romantic band, but was the comedian ever a college lecturer? The hit series could have been inspired by some of the staff development sessions I have been subjected to.

Take the sessions I attended while teaching at a college in Kent on lesson planning, inclusive learning and observation. They aimed to help prepare us for the forthcoming inspection. The college hired a lecturer from a local university to deliver the sessions. I know she was called Sue because she had it written on a sticky label on her blouse and kept looking down at it, as if to remind herself.

The wisdom she imparted was that our classes are comprised of students who are varied and diverse and so we need to adapt to their needs. I would have thought any teacher who has taught for more than one or two terms without realising this fact should consider a different profession.

I've heard the same complaint from colleagues again and again over the years: the tone of staff developers is often patronising, and few people seem to feel they have learned anything. A common source of outrage is the experience of being "staff developed" by an "expert" who does not or cannot practice what heshe preaches. Sue's lesson plan was appallingly over-ambitious, taking no account of her target audience and including highly unrealistic time limits. Her underpinning theoretical knowledge seemed weak - several people reported challenging her on points she could not defend with any authority. She was inflexible, failing to respond to the group's true needs. Her delivery was monotonous and she had annoying body language.

Sadly Sue was not an isolated incompetent - she symbolises all that is insane about staff development, the endless, sometimes well-meaning, but often cynical, consultants hired by colleges so they can tick a box to prove they've invested in developing their staff. The only difference between Sue and David Brent was that she did not claim to be a "chilled-out entertainer". My point is that she was - along with many others at different times and in different institutions - someone who was employed by the college to teach us something, to push our knowledge and expertise further, to demonstrate good practice as well as paying lip-service to it.

I am not against staff development. In fact, I welcome it and feel it is crucial on every level (and for every level). I am currently studying an Open University literature course to hone my subject knowledge and remind myself what it is like to be a student. I also regularly work as an examiner, mostly to gain an insight into what the examination board requires so I can pass this knowledge on to my team and my students. I consider both these undertakings to be staff development.

Most teachers I know are deeply self-critical and examine their own delivery and outcomes constantly. In fact, having worked in several different employment arenas, I can honestly say that I've rarely met a bunch of employees so doubtful of their own ability and so undervaluing of their own skills. This self-criticism is what makes a teacher excellent, in my view. Obviously, as we grow older and more experienced, we all have a tendency at times to be complacent. I've been teaching for over a decade and I sometimes feel rather proud of myself when I consider how much better I am now than I was when I started. But I soon get over it. I realise that we have to be constantly open to new challenges and new opportunities to learn. This is what keeps us enthusiastic and engaged, and what maintains and improves upon our standards. True staff development goes on all the time. Colleges are full of gifted lecturers who constantly re-evaluate their performance and are prepared to do additional courses to improve their provision. So, rather than paying academics with little hands-on experience of ground-level FE college life, why can't those among senior managers who are perceived as being good practitioners themselves give us some demonstrations of good lessons and what we should be aiming for not only during inspections but in our daily work? Go on - I dare you...!

Louise Wilford is a further education lecturer and writer.Send Viewpoints and Letters to FE Focus letters page, TES Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London EC1 1BX

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