Sometimes there are moments when your brain just shuts down – or at least mine does.
No matter how you approach a class or a topic, you somehow can’t make the progress you want to make, and the frustration begins to build. You consult the books, look back through your CPD notes, but all to no avail.
For me, this is the time when I would head to the staffroom. This is not only because of the lure of the caffeine hit or a sugary treat promising to help ease my aching brain, but also because I know the answer may well lie there, in the collective minds of my colleagues.
Informal CPD opportunities, arising from staffroom chats, have often been the making of me – and not only when I thought I was at the end of my tether. These chats are even more important at the moment, as we all learn new skills and approaches, and embrace remote learning.
Still being able to have discussions – on retrieval, about the use of anecdotes to support the understanding of abstract concepts, or about how to approach individual students or groups – is essential to not only our teaching but also to our wellbeing.
CPD: The importance of talking to teacher colleagues
I have often watched with glee as maths teachers have huddled around an algebraic puzzle while clutching their sandwiches, or the English team have debate which Shakespeare play best encapsulates the problems of modern life, sharing a socially distanced packed lunch.
Colleagues from across the school are a gold mine of educational knowledge, and it would be foolish of me to risk missing out on that sharing. The pastoral team and support staff often have insights on a student that I would never have access to without them.
I have often been tempted to arrive in the staffroom clutching a notebook or a tape recorder, in order to ensure that I don't miss anything. We may not have a staffroom to arrive in right now, but keeping these lines of communication open is particularly crucial in the current climate. We need to share information about students in an ever-changing situation, so that we know how best to support them in their learning and development.
These micro-conversations around teaching and learning and pastoral issues have also saved me mounds of work and prompted my thinking, leading me to a useful resource or approach or stripping away hours of lesson design by cutting to the chase.
I have sat through hours of CPD delivered in a formal setting, and it was rare for something to come even close to this level of detail. The other benefit is that things are fully contextualised, as my colleagues know me, my classes and my students.
Not only have these interactions provided me with practical advice and theoretical challenges, but they have also proven invaluable to my wellbeing. A case of a problem shared is a problem halved – but it’s not just that. It is a case of knowing that we are connected to each other, as part of that broader team and vision.
Feeling part of something bigger
Regardless of our roles or ideologies, we all have the same overarching desire to improve the experiences and chances of our students in the big wide world. And those day-to-day interactions remind us of that. Every conversation focused on teaching and learning and care for our students reinforces those key messages, and allows us to consider where we fit into the big picture.
Those continual reminders are important in making us feel part of something bigger, and that we really want to be on this journey. This is challenging right now, but time to allow colleagues to catch up needs to be found and protected. Even a quick five-minute Zoom catch-up – no matter how much you may be loath to spend more time at a screen – could help you feel connected to your team and to the bigger picture.
Informal chats – whether or not they’re directly related to work – as well as quick emails or a wave on a WhatsApp group can make all the difference to how someone is feeling. And they can open up a discussion into practical ways to improve teaching and learning, and even lessen workload.
I am a firm believer that we need to embrace the opportunities those informal conversations offer us. They can place a new sense of “continuous” into our continuous professional development. They can provide the nudge we need to try something new. And they can reassure us sometimes that we are on the right lines, even when the lingering memory of that last tough class might be telling us otherwise.
This is why it saddens me to hear of schools without either staffrooms or time for staff to come together, even for a fleeting few moments. Dismissing that informal CPD opportunity – or not taking the time to foster it – might mean missing out not only on a chance to learn but also on a chance to be part of that bigger picture.
Of course, I know there are times when staff quite rightly ban work talk from the table, just so they can take time to remember that there is more to life than the classroom – but often even these conversations drift back to the topic in hand: teaching and learning.
So grab yourself a coffee and share a biscuit or two with that team around you – whether virtually or (eventually) face to face – and wait and see what treasures emerge.
Zoe Enser is lead English adviser for Kent. She tweets @greeborunner