Teaching is an inherently sociable profession: there are few jobs (outside the entertainment industry) where you are expected to stand in front of hundreds of people each day, where your every move is watched, and your every comment reviewed and discussed. Schools are vast, interconnected webs of relationships, and at the centre of these networks is a teacher.
Given all this, it is surprising that so many educators work in isolation, especially when it comes to the bread-and-butter tasks of their job such as lesson planning and marking. Never before has it been easier to collaborate on schemes of work or create resources for, say, the new GCSE and A-levels. And yet, very often, teachers prefer to be the authors of their own handouts, and go on reinventing ideas every year. Why is this?
For some, creating resources for pupils is a creative act: they enjoy the weekly grappling with ideas or texts, and to some extent it helps them to prepare more effective lessons. But perhaps the most common reason given by teachers for continuing to write their own material is that they want it to be bespoke. And, as the cohort changes either annually or biennially, they feel the need to rewrite what has been used before.
However, it is imperative that schools promote a sharing culture among their staff. They should also certainly not have an expectation that every lesson be planned down to the last minute. Collaborative planning reduces teachers’ workloads and technology can aid this process.
Shared schemes of work
Allocating schemes of work to individual teachers makes sense and saves time, and is innately valuable for professional development. For example, I recently taught a whole Year 9 unit on short stories which was written by another teacher, and she taught a Year 12 scheme of work on Shakespeare written by me. When the timetable allowed we observed each other teach our schemes of work, which in itself provided a valuable – and objective – assessment of the material.
At the end of each week we would meet to talk about how we were going, and the feedback we gave each other strengthened the resources as well as (I hope) making us better teachers. Ultimately, the students benefited because the work they were set had been tested and evaluated.
We used technology to aid the whole process, writing the schemes of work on a collaborative learning platform and storing them in the cloud. A whole variety of easy-to-use, secure programs are available for this kind of working. It doesn’t really matter which one you use as long as everyone knows how it works.
This initiative was scaled up across the whole department and then replicated in other faculties within the school. It worked because the heads of those departments had a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve and a genuine commitment to lessening the workload of their teams. In the past, each teacher would have planned their lessons in isolation, but with leadership and the right technological support, staff could concentrate on delivering the content rather than unnecessarily sourcing that content themselves.
Individual planning is not the point
This is at the heart of the issue. We should focus on our teaching because everything else is secondary. In our school, we also make full use of the many outstanding textbooks currently on the market and use them where appropriate. Increasingly, too, we use social media to exchange ideas and resources with teachers in other schools. In doing so, we not only bring new ideas into our classrooms but we are also liberated from unnecessary and repetitive planning.
In the Department for Education-commissioned independent report ‘Eliminating unnecessary workload around planning and teaching resources’, the first summary point makes it clear that “teachers spend an undue amount of time planning and resourcing lessons”.
Moreover, it is no longer the case that Ofsted requires individual lesson plans during an inspection. The expectation for this level of detailed planning often comes from the school itself, which in turn can have unintentional, and sometimes undesirable, consequences for learning.
What we have to do is unlearn certain behaviours. Enlightened school leaders and leadership teams should adapt to a new educational landscape that, through technology, has made sharing and collaboration easier than ever. By planning together, in pairs or as teams, and with a clear and unapologetic focus on lessening workloads, teachers can increasingly get on with, well, teaching.
David James is deputy head (academic) at Bryanston School in Dorset. He tweets at @drdavidajames
Read more about the government’s policies on reducing teacher workload here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/reducing-teachers-workload/reducing-teachers-workload