Why you can't teach teachers the same way as children

The teaching of teachers demands specialised approaches, creativity and lots of trust, says Joyce Matthews

Adult education: How to teach teachers

I was a terrible leader of teacher professional development when I started as advisory teacher for PE in Newcastle in 2001. I didn’t know it for a long time, though.

I’d moved from head of department straight into the role. I’d taught at a range of schools, with pupils from five to 18, and had a specialist degree. It never crossed my mind that I couldn’t "teach" teachers.

In fact, I really couldn’t.


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The only training I’d had was in pedagogy. Surely adults were just larger children? I never thought adults might be different from children, that I might have to adjust my teaching.

So, I did what I’d experienced other leaders of teacher professional development do. I organised twilights, sat teachers in pupils’ chairs, told them content I thought they needed to know. Or, if they were very lucky, I’d share some of my teaching successes or give a demonstration lesson.

Adult education: how to teach teachers

I thought I was pretty good. They did, too; they liked the coffee and cake and shiny goodies I handed out. And the shallow learning.

I had an answer for every question; I knew what to do in any situation and I was an expert in my field. The only thing these highly qualified and experienced professionals had to do was to sit and be entertained – no creativity or thinking required. I was convinced I was empowering them with my fantastic performances and agility with equipment.

It wasn’t until I began to see the same faces coming back to my courses, year after year, that I twigged that something might be wrong.

"If I’m doing my job well, why are these teachers coming back? What don’t they know? What is it I haven’t told them?"

It wasn’t about the content, though; everything I’d told them they could read in the accompanying book or resources given out free with each course. 

It turns out it was my good intentions that were subconsciously disempowering them. Little did I realise that everything I did and said had a presupposition behind it, based on a deficit model of teaching and a lack of awareness or understanding of their unique situations and experiences.

I believed teachers had to be "filled up" with my ideas, my solutions, my prescriptions. Even though I know how dangerous sharing prescriptions is in real life.

I wasn’t trusting them to formulate remedies for themselves; I enjoyed telling them the answers. I was trying to sculpt teachers into me rather than helping them to grow their confidence and competence to be more of themselves.

That’s when I started to learn about the theory and practice of andragogy – or teaching adult learners. Since then I’ve been on a mission to change the way professional development for teachers is led, to make it more respectful, more time and cost-effective, more creative, honest and sustainable.

I want to make sure it’s designed in an appropriate way for the right reasons and facilitated by well-trained leaders – because more than anything, I don’t want you to unwittingly make the mistakes I did.

Joyce Matthews is based in Scotland and works with teachers on professional development through her School Leader Facilitator programme. She also works with government agencies, charities, schools and education businesses in China, Japan, Malta, Zambia, Canada, Brunei and other parts of the UK

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