We're the worst students

15th November 2013 at 00:00

I looked up and two of them were passing notes to each other and giggling. At least three of them had checked their phones. One right at the back looked as though he might be asleep, and a gentle snore a moment later confirmed it. Another had a magazine open in front of her and was doing a bad job at pretending not to read. One talented artist feverishly sketched a comic book character while others doodled feebly. I noticed nail filing, fidgeting and glazing over as I scanned the room. No, this wasn't a Year 11 revision class: it was a group of teachers at a continuing professional development session.

Why do secondary teachers make such bad students? You'd think that we, more than most, would know how gratifying it is to have bright, eager faces turned towards us. You'd think that after years of envisioning the ideal student, we might at least replicate that ideal. It seems not.

Perhaps it's the role reversal we object to. After all, we are used to being in charge. A colleague told me the other day that during a workshop he'd once led, he'd had to give a slap on the wrist to a teacher reading a newspaper. The reprimanded teacher stated that he wasn't in Year 9 and stormed out, only to return minutes later and sit, arms folded, refusing to participate.

CPD on the first days back after a holiday quickly descends into off-task conversations. Long sessions after school are prone to half-hearted, resentful participation. Off-site development and guest speakers fare slightly better thanks to novelty value, but the very people you would expect to see modelling the traits of a "good student" mirror every type of behaviour you see in your average classroom.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Consider what we have been exposed to over the years in the name of professional development: death by PowerPoint (being read to from all those slides when we are quite literate); irrelevant activities such as juggling; great gimmicks - I mean "strategies" - that cannot be realistically used in the classroom; or sometimes someone just talks constantly for 20 minutes. Teachers can be forgiven for thinking that it is a complete waste of time, especially when they have about a million other things that urgently need to be done.

Might then the real lesson in group CPD sessions be that if you don't like listening to someone go on for ages about something you see as irrelevant and uninteresting, then perhaps you had better not subject your own students to a similar experience?

For the past year or so, I have given regular presentations on supporting literacy. I stand up in front of my colleagues on first days back when they'd rather be preparing lessons, and after school when they'd rather go home.

And I try, I do, just as I do for my students, to make it relevant, engaging, useful and interesting. I try to make it interactive and varied, but you know what? I've learned that within any group of people, be they students or teachers, an unknown quantity of variables is constantly at play.

No matter how hard you try, you simply cannot please all the people all the time.

Ellie Ward teaches English at a high school in a small coastal town in Western Australia.

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