Should teachers go it alone or share across the department?

5th October 2018 at 00:00
Pooling resources and teaching the same thing as your secondary colleagues does not make you any less autonomous – it simply makes life easier and your work more effective, argues Katherine Burrows

Two years ago, I moved schools and changed departments. And it completely changed the way I worked.

At my previous school, all schemes of work were shared freely in a central area and topics were taught simultaneously across the department.

My new department could not have been more different: we were in silos, our classrooms were our own, and our teaching choices and resources were our own, too.

My current department is now moving much more towards a unified system, especially for GCSE, with text and topic choices being dictated by the head of department. But this approach has been met with some resistance from colleagues who are used to having more freedom to teach as they wish.

Having experienced both ends of the spectrum, I am very much in favour of sharing. Here’s why.

1. Collaboration ends isolation

Teaching the same topics as the rest of your department encourages collaboration and communication with colleagues. Despite being surrounded by pupils all day, teaching can be an isolating experience if you don’t get opportunities to discuss the work with other adults. If you are sharing your resources, then this is much more likely to happen.

2. It helps less-experienced staff

A collective and transparent approach can also assist less-experienced colleagues to deliver lessons of a higher quality. Newly qualified teachers, non-subject specialists and supply teachers can use a “plug and play” approach, whereby their Year 11 class will, in theory, get a similar lesson to everyone else in the school. From my experience as a trainee and NQT, the one-hour meeting I had with my mentor was not enough to plan an entire week’s worth of lessons. Having the shared-resource area gave me the confidence to develop my own lessons based on what was already there.

3. Sharing eases workload

Another huge advantage of teaching the same thing is that it saves enormous amounts of time. As we all know, most teachers are starved of time to plan properly, and there is nothing worse than that exhausted feeling at the end of a full teaching day when you can’t, for the life of you, think what to do with your Year 9s’ first period tomorrow.

Popping in to your colleague’s classroom for a brief chat or checking the shared area will help you to at least have a starting point for your lesson, which you can then adapt appropriately. If you are teaching the same thing, then planning time can be reduced considerably, as teachers are not all sitting in adjacent classrooms doing very similar work.

4. It ensures consistency

From a head of department’s point of view, if your team is teaching different topics to different classes, it can prove to be an administrative nightmare: mocks and coursework are more difficult to moderate, separate exam papers have to be written for each class and revision sessions are impossible to facilitate properly. Likewise, my experience of teenagers (especially those at a fee-paying school) is that they like to feel they are getting the same experience as the rest of their peers. If everyone is using the same resources, then they will.

Ensuring consistency across a department also makes analysis of results easier for feeding back to the senior leadership team and can make a head of department more confident in their team’s work.

5. It improves resources

Finally, I would argue that having a core set of shared resources means that, eventually, the quality of resources becomes better. Perfecting and refining existing resources is a more efficient use of everyone’s time than continually creating mediocre new ones from scratch. Having a wide selection of paper and digital resources allows teachers to select the most appropriate ones, while still following the same framework as everyone else.

 

Some might argue that, in teaching, one gets micromanaged and inspected enough already; having the freedom to teach as you like has to be one of the few remaining professional privileges. My response would be that sharing is actually more liberating than teaching something different from everyone else.

Even within a shared system, no two lessons are going to be the same owing to the differing needs and the dynamics within the classroom. Having the same starting point as the person in the adjacent classroom will give you the confidence to teach your lesson in your own style, which is, ultimately, a freeing experience.

One might argue that the “plug and play” method makes for lazy teaching, especially if the teacher in question has been around a while and repeats the same lessons year after year. My personal experience is that, with exam boards and national curriculums changing as frequently as they do, teachers are pretty consistently having to rewrite shared resources anyway so can’t get too stuck in their ways.

“I don’t understand other people’s slides!” I also hear you protest. And my answer to this would be that, if you don’t understand something, go and ask the author to clarify what they meant. If you do so, you are encouraging collaboration and interaction with your fellow teachers, as you work together to hone and improve everyone’s resources.

In my view, the best departments have shared resources that ensure consistency. But the success of this approach will depend on the sensitivity and professional guidance of that department’s head. Those who offer clear reasons for topic choices – or even give colleagues the chance to help decide on the topics themselves – will end up with happy and fulfilled teachers and pupils.

Katherine Burrows is an English teacher at Abingdon School in Oxfordshire

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