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Learning from Colleagues

By Alan Peters,

24 Jan 2020

By learning from colleagues, and sharing experience with them, everybody wins.  We become better teachers.  We learn new tips and strategies.  Our concerns are aired in a threat free environment.  Best of all, our students will receive better tuition. Such a regime is understandable, but short sighted.

But how to achieve this utopia? The best training surely comes by learning from colleagues.  They understand our setting – after all, they work in the same place.  They know our classes.  They know us.  They are familiar with the senior leadership of the school.

Indeed, we should encourage learning from colleagues. The young people enter, we greet them, and we close the door.  For the next forty, fifty, sixty minutes it is us and them.  The same for three quarters of the day; break time is spent grabbing a coffee and queuing for the photocopier; lunch is taken in our classroom, marking and offering support to struggling class members. At the end of the day, tired, we spend a couple of hours marking and preparing then, unable to face 8C’s books, we pile them up and head to the car park.  Our interaction with adults and colleagues is limited to a discussion of who gets the last custard cream while we wait our turn with the teapot. Change of Culture To promote learning from colleagues, the culture that allows for this needs to be embedded.  The school should be a collaborative rather than competitive working environment; the views of the NQT are as worthwhile as the five year climber and the veteran, sitting on the seat they have occupied for twenty years, cup of Bovril in break time hand.  We all have much to offer, and plenty to share.  But mutual respect is required. Really, that culture can only come from the top.  Respect, inclusion, communication emerge from the Head and Governors down.  I once worked in a school were the staff were told all that it was possible to share.  The head trusted that information would be treated sensitively, discretely and professionally.

It was.  Another institution worked on the principal of sharing nothing.  Confronted with a question, senior management would state ‘There are things you don’t know,’ and stop the discussion with an arrogant nod.  Thus semi accurate information was shared like an infectious virus. Peer to Peer Appraisal Many schools employ this system these days.  When it works, it is a powerful tool in helping us to learn from our colleagues.  Appraisal must lead to results, or it is regarded by all as a waste of time.  However, having a requirement to watch another’s lesson and discuss their career plans helps the appraiser as much as the appraisee.  I always felt that, as an inspector, there was more to learn than to give.  ISI, the inspection regime used by many independent schools is a case in point, as it is peer led.  Unfortunately, it has become a bit of a shoulder slapping, old boys’ network, but in the early days there was a genuine value in sharing feedback with a peer. Time for A Coffee Good schools create the situation whereby teachers have time for a coffee.  They recognise that the break increases productivity and also allows staff to share ideas and concerns.  Of course, this is informal, but the best learning from colleagues often occurs in such a situation.  Yet even if our school has a leadership team that expects every hour of the day to be spent with children, or preparing for being with them, then teachers will still benefit from taking a break.  Sometimes, a bit of bolshiness goes a long way.  Hint.  The sort of leadership team that expects teachers to work nonstop is the one that convinces itself that it works hard, when the truth is more likely that it works inefficiently. Staff Led Inset I can remember one good INSET session…over thirty years of teaching.  As an English teacher, I learned something about encouraging expression and, along with the remainder of the staff, the lecturer (the writer and former teacher, Gervase Phinn) kept us very entertained.  Recalling a second good session is hard. But the best training is surely to allow the couple of days before term begins (are they still called Baker Days?) for an information sharing full staff meeting, some small departmental or group meetings of peers and plenty of time to get ready for the term ahead.  That way, we get the most from meetings without becoming increasingly frustrated by not being able to get on with the work we need to do. Another handy use of time is to have colleagues, on a rotation, deliver a short training session of practical tips that work for them.  This is more formal than a staff room chat, but short enough and sufficiently varied that, over time, teachers can gather a myriad of practical suggestions to improve their own teaching. Building An Atmosphere of Success and Positivity Most staff rooms have them, sometimes in abundance.  These are the teachers who know it all, at least all that matters (they say).  They are unwilling to share their vast knowledge, preferring to cast disparaging remarks on those who seek to bring about change. Such an attitude often results from their own insecurity.  Just as the overbearing newcomer will often cover their own uncertainties beneath an exterior of brashness. But the best schools create an atmosphere of mutual encouragement, where asking is seen as a strength, not a weakness.  In these schools sharing is for the common good and not just a chance to get somebody else to do our work.

Despite the demands of the job, everyone is happier and both more confident and informed.  We are better equipped both in terms of the quality of our teaching and in gaining the support we all, from time to time, require. Such an atmosphere mostly comes from the top, but classroom teachers can also play their part.  Just as Mr Smith’s grumpiness is as likely to be a result of no longer being able to keep 10D on track as just a character trait, then the unapproachable Head is probably littered with his or her own insecurities.  Both have, in their way, much to offer.  When support for the head, or Mr Smith, is seen as being a positive move rather than toadying, then the ethos within a school becomes better for all. Teaching is tough enough, the simplest way to make it easier is to learn from our colleagues.