Why treading water may be the best thing for a career

It can be easy to feel guilty about not always striving for the next thing, but often we need time to breathe, says Zoe Enser

Zoe Enser

Teaching career: Woman treading water

We live in a world where the idea of moving forward is prevalent. Moving on to the next best thing, moving on with your career, your life, and – most importantly – ensuring that you are not missing out on the new and shiny, has increasingly become the dominant message. 

This is especially true in education. Students are expected to make progress at all times and not only over a term but over a week, a lesson and through every minute of those lessons – progress that can be identified and measured in its most incremental steps. 

Gradually, we are realising that this isn’t really how learning happens. It’s often messier than that, and it often needs time to build, embed and consolidate before moving forward. Sometimes, we even have to move backwards before we can make a further leap forwards. 

But is this something we also recognise about teacher learning and development? Are we still on an improvement treadmill, which runs the risk of pushing people forward at an unsustainable pace, or falling completely off the back of the profession? 

Teaching career: hitting the pause button for a while

Could there be an alternative to this, where we slow the pace or hit the pause button for while – which could lead to better and longer-term improvements?

Personally, I am a big fan of reminding everyone of the “continuous” part of the continuous professional development (CPD) process. It is important that development isn’t a one-off event. It is what happens in the classroom after a session, or some reading or reflection, that really matters when we are thinking about improving teaching and learning

But these improvements can take time. Teachers need opportunities to deliberately practise adding any developments to their day-to-day habits before returning to reflect upon them further and embedding them in the long term. 

Just as with students, teacher learning and development isn’t necessarily linear. The learning process can be different for different people, and sometimes, in our haste, we forget the bespoke element that’s needed. 

If we value what we are developing, we shouldn’t always need to focus on that constant forward momentum. Treading water for a while, so we can focus on one particular aspect of our practice, can be just as important. 

Adding something new doesn't always mean improving

We are often given something new to think about on a daily or weekly basis, and that can mean that our previous developments get lost by the wayside. Adding something new doesn’t always mean improving, especially if we lose something of greater value in the process. 

Maybe this means we need to take more time to allow things to settle. Maybe we really do need to hit pause once in a while, allowing a time when we don’t try to create a new lesson plan or a bring in a new idea, but step off of the treadmill and look at things from a different angle. 

It can be easy to feel guilty about not always striving for that next thing, and development is important for all of us. But perhaps we need to think about the natural rhythms of our learning, too, in order to make the most of them. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean we are plateauing, although this is a well-documented feature in the profession. Instead, it means we are taking time to breathe. Time to refine and sharpen our tools, and time to ensure that what we are embedding into our practice is the right thing before we move forward. 

Not everything needs to be a forward surge in order to bring about improvements, and there could be much to gain by allowing us a guilt-free period of time to not be adding something new.

Not only could this ensure that improvements are much more meaningful but it could also have huge implications for teacher wellbeing. It can be so easy to feel overwhelmed by new initiatives, especially when we have had to adapt so quickly in this past year. 

Teachers are increasingly talking about their own cognitive load and the levels of exhaustion they feel after a full day teaching, followed by a CPD session, planning for the next day and a series of phone calls to parents. If teachers are, instead, encouraged to spend a period of time embedding learning before moving forward, they are likely to be able to expend the energy focusing on these elements more effectively than someone who is constantly racing forward. 

So, perhaps if we want all our gains to be meaningful and sustainable over the longer term, we need to let people have a period where things lay fallow and we take a moment to breathe. This might make for a richer soil in which to plant new ideas in the future, as well as firm roots to sustain those previous gains. 

Zoe Enser is lead English adviser for Kent. She tweets as @greeborunner

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Zoe Enser

Zoe Enser is lead English adviser for Kent. She tweets @greeborunner

Find me on Twitter @greeborunner

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