'When did you last sit down for an hour, in work, to think about how or what you teach?'

Unlike their counterparts in Japan, who spend 200 hours less in front of a class every year, the UK's teachers have little time to reflect and improve upon on their practice, writes one history teacher

Tom Rogers

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When was the last time you sat down for an hour, in work, and thought about the way you were teaching and why you were teaching that way?

When was the last time, in work, you sat down and read a subject-related book for an hour, just to expand your subject knowledge?

When was the last time you watched someone else teach? Not for some policy prerequisite, but just for the sake of watching and learning?

These are activities are intrinsic to the work of the teacher. Yet, at the moment, they rarely happen in the UK. The problem is time. The reason is workload. The causes have been documented well enough.

Education in itself is intellectual, requiring higher order thinking, both of the recipient and the provider. It was revealed last week that Secondary school teachers in England teach for, on average, 200 more hours over a school year than their equivalents in Japan. These are hours that would be spent thinking, pondering, and wondering.

Interest in professional development within the profession has never been higher among British teachers. You only have to look at the number of teachers on Twitter who share what they are reading at the moment to know that the desire to reflect on and improve one’s practice has never been higher. However, the time to actually do so has never been more restricted.

There has been a misconception that always doing something leads to greater productivity. This may well be the case in big business. But education is different. Education is not simply making as many products as possible and selling as many of them as possible. The “product” of learning requires great “pre-thought” and plenty of reflection too.

The idea that classroom teaching is teaching needs challenging. Teaching is merely the cherry on the cake of (hopefully) a cycle of reflection and planning and a gradual building of subject knowledge and pedagogical options over time.

In other countries, such as Japan and Finland, this process is built into day-to-day school timetabling. And the Pisa rankings for countries that do make time for reflection seem to reflect a view that teachers are not replaceable commodities but long-term investments. Find a good teacher, develop the teacher over five to 10 years and give them the time in between to fill in their own gaps.

In the UK, it’s more like: “Here’s a classroom, here’s the kids, now do your job”. The impact of this philosophy is hard to measure, but it’s certain that the UK has one of the least experienced professional teaching bodies in the world, with only Chile, Belgium and Singapore having more teachers under the age of 30 plying their trade, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey (Talis).

The average experience of a UK teacher is about 12 years. This figure, one that is already worrying, will probably get lower in light of these unprecedentedly tough times. It also hides the fact that many excellent classroom teachers are immediately propelled into leadership positions in which they do less teaching anyway.  Teachers with all the attributes to do well simply aren’t given the time, space and faith to get better. The government's continued response to this has been that “more teachers are entering the profession than ever before”.

But that statement echoes the point of this article – the moment someone is thrust in front of a class is not the moment they become an effective teacher.

During the first placement of my PGCE back in 2007, I started on a 25 per cent timetable and built up to 50 per cent. We had to file detailed lesson plans and write a reflection on every lesson we taught during that first placement.

Although the paper trail seemed onerous at the time, this exercise proved incredibly useful for me further down the line as I’d identified things that worked, and that didn’t, through long hours of introspection. It did make me a better teacher, in the long term.

As well as that, we had plenty of meetings with our university and school mentors. These days, in the era where new teachers hit the ground running and then, well, keep running, it’s rare that teachers are given the time to reflect on their art.

There is a tendency to think that if a teacher isn’t in the classroom teaching, other activities simply aren’t as valuable. The “product” isn’t as substantive.

This is wrong and a belief built upon the premise that the more a teacher can cram into the students, the more chance they will pass an exam. The government is obsessed with the numbers of teachers. But, surely, one experienced and effective teacher kept in the classroom for 20 years is much better for children than four teachers who each quit within the first five years before they have really found their feet.

All this has led to many talented teachers giving up a day’s work and going part-time to get this time back.

But when teachers themselves have to take matters into their own hands and take a paycut to secure their own professional development, you know that teaching is seen more as a supervisory role than as a professional one. This short-termism is not only having repercussions on teacher recruitment and retention now, but it will also have unseen repercussions in 10, 20 and 30 years down the line when today’s generation of children have spent much of their education taught by bit-part or unqualified teachers.

Time is of the essence, but teachers in the UK don’t have enough of it.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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