Great Teachers are Made, Not Born

It’s very popular in schools today to talk about ‘lifelong learning’ and its desirability in our pupils. We are meant to take approaches in teaching and learning that help students to develop the skills, the desire and the willingness to take responsibility for their own learning. We want them to see learning as a “pull” process, not a “push” process. We don’t want children to passively wait for us to put knowledge in to them – to do school TO them. Instead, we want their curiosity, their willingness to take knowledge from wherever they think is appropriate, based upon the skill of discernment towards sources.

Who need to be the ‘lead lifelong learners’? The teachers. As education leaders we need to be very clear – this is unlikely to just simply happen by chance, certainly on the levels and frequency we need to influence children directly or indirectly. So, ways to get teachers on a long term journey of learning and to get it outwardly visible to children should be critical parts of our focus. Commitment to invest time in learning is almost always an additional commitment over and above the standard work that a teacher does (teaching time load etc.), not something you’re going to pay people extra for and not something you can really chastise a teacher for not doing. So, it’s critical that these teachers be;
a) engaged with their work,
b) motivated and positive in their outlook,
c) believing that investing effort in their own learning will be acknowledged and recognised by the school/ organisation,
d) seeing commitment to learning as one of the factors applied when considering who gets promoted/ leadership opportunities, and
e) inspired by a positive mission and vision for what the school seeks to achieve that makes them feel confident that commitment to more learning is a reasonable expectation.

The Economist published an interesting article last year entitled – How to Make a Good Teacher: What Matters in Schools is Teachers. Fortunately, Teaching Can be Taught
(Click on the link above to read the article)

It concerned me that the article failed to give due importance to these leadership related factors or the link between teachers learning and striving to improve and the need for children to develop as lifelong learners.

Other concerns were that the article so easily accepts a starting assumption that ‘grades and scores’ achieved by children are the measure of effective teaching. In such circumstances, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that many teachers become motivated to teach to the tests. If others are going to judge them on the basis of children’s test results, then they will do what it takes to have the children produce the highest possible test results.

There was one issue that the article gets right. This is an acknowledgement that within any school, overall good or poor, there will be pockets of excellence and pockets of mediocrity. Thus, for a parent or a pupil there is a degree of chance in whether they are the recipients of great teaching or not depending on which teacher teaches them, however good the school overall. I continue to feel that other industries and especially service industries would not consider this to be an acceptable compromise – that the experience of different customers can be so very different in standards depending on the individual they interact with. I believe that education has to continue to shift to acceptance that schools and leadership have the right to determine standard expectations – to define what are the ‘givens’ and to expect that teachers will commit to strive to achieve that level of standardisation as a minimum.

Next, the commitment to support the teacher’s learning and skills development to achieve those standard minimums should belong to both the school and the teacher. I get concerned at the frequency in schools and teacher culture where there is a perception that the only party paying (financially or in time) for teachers’ attendance at training or learning events, or conferences, should always be at the cost of the school.

The article touches upon the issue that is often discussed – how are the ‘best’ candidates attracted in to the profession of teaching? This is ironic as it really goes against the title and key directions of the article. If we believe that teaching can be learned and teachers are developed rather than born, then where the candidates come from should be less of an issue. This reminds me of a personal experience. When I was at Shri Ram, we took the management contract to manage a school in the Maldives under a public-private partnership with the Maldives government, known as Ghyasuddin International School. When i went to visit, i met many teachers already working in the school whose own education may have not gone much beyond higher secondary. They were very nervous and apprehensive that the new management would simply replace them with imported teachers from India. I set out to strongly get across to them that if they were willing to put in the effort, commitment and flexibility to learn what we wanted them to learn to teach to the standards that we were looking for, they had no reason to fear.

I recently met the Principal of that school and was very happy to learn that so many of those teachers are still in the school, having been transformed in their teaching and standards through a shared and common commitment to invest time and effort in learning.

My final thought on the article – I agree wholeheartedly with the writer’s belief that openness to feedback is a key part of what enables a teacher to grow, to learn and raise their game continuously. Of course, it goes without saying that you can never be too good – every teacher must believe that there is always something in their skills toolkit that they can make better.

Feedback in the Professional Learning Environment

The best schools are communities of learners, with the school Head fulfilling the role of ‘Head Learner’. The learning done by educators needs to be on a number of levels and benefits from being visible and transparent (students who see their teacher as a learner develop healthier, more positive attitudes to their own learning).

Whilst some of the learning comes from books, academic resources, training courses, conferences etc. there’s also a vital component that comes from growing self-awareness combined with tapping in to the knowledge and insights of colleagues. This requires a healthy climate for giving and receiving feedback and ‘open’ classrooms.

Traditionally, there was too often a culture of closed classrooms based on the idea that the classroom was the domain of the teacher, private and that school, leaders and peers had no right to intrude or interfere. However, one inevitable consequence of such attitudes was a lack of congruence or consistency of teaching in the school as a whole – each teacher ploughing their own furrow in their own chosen direction. It also meant that teachers weren’t learning from teachers – and that was a shame.

I have seen some awful situations where classroom observation was only carried out by members of the leadership team – and that too by accessing CCTV cameras in the classroom (so the teacher didn’t even know when they were being observed). This has nothing to do with growth, learning or leadership and everything to do with management, control and deep mistrust.

As trust builds between teachers and they get more used to being exposed to the observation of their peers in the classroom, the next significant step if the process is to offer real value is that the observer and the observed have to be both willing and able to engage in an effective process of feedback. Just sitting through 40 minutes of somebody’s class to tell them after, “Everything was nice,” is to do the courageous teacher who wants to learn a great disservice. However, equally, the delivery of feedback in ineffective ways can also leave teachers feeling hurt and disinclined to engage fully in such a process in future.

Therefore, i thought this little short video of ideas from 12 Manage offers a good starting list of perils to avoid in the giving of feedback;

12 Manage – 10 Common Mistakes in Giving Feedback:

The potential benefits are considerable. It's an area where we can all learn and grow, to reach mastery levels. In this way, trust in the process grows, teachers become more ready to open up and engage in two way processes. They also grow in confidence when it comes to revealing that they are learners and can benefit from the process. Win-win all around.

The Value of Teacher Teamwork & Collaboration

An interesting article related to some new research highlighting very strong opinions held by teachers there that the more they collaborate, the better will be the quality of the education received by students.

Metlife Survey of American Teachers

The report highlights that traditionally, time for collaboration is more in primary than secondary education. It comes from America, where typically secondary school teachers have around 22 contact hours per week. This should be lessof an issue here in India, where the teachers in most of the better schools are not handling more than about 16 contact hours per week.

However, it begs some interesting questions;
a) Will teacher collaboration only happen if school management creates organised structures, regimes and processes?
b) To what extent should individual educators be able to argue for independence and autonomy in what happens in their classroom against an institutes desire to have teachers collaborate?
c) To what extent should teachers’ lessons be observed by others?

On this latter point, within TSRS we are increasingly coming to view that there are two different types of scenario where lessons may benefit from being observed. The first kind of observation is one done by a line manager, with a formalised, open and transparent reporting/ feedback process. These are about ensuring that the lessons in the school and the methodologies being adopted are congruent with school mission, values and policies – are we all singingin harmony?

The second type of lesson observation we want to encourage is the type where a peer-colleague as ‘friend’ sits in on lessons and then shares a two way exchange of ideas afterwards which is part of “us becoming the best we can be”. It is considered important that for complete trust these types of observations do not entail any formalised reporting to management.

However, this comes up against a hard reality – there is something in the nature of schools as environments that all too frequently makes teachers very cautious in sharing open, honest feedback about performance. In fact, that goes further – even Principals and line managers shirk away from drawing attention to weak performance out of (misguided) collegiate loyalty. Here’s an example of what I’m referring to;

Denver Post Article

So, here we have a survey where, confidentially, a whole mass of teachers are acknowledging they have colleagues who are doing a sub-standard job, and yet 99% of all teachers get ‘satisfactory’ or better ratings through a performance management system.

Of course, teachers don’t find a problem by and large with sharing frank, open feedback with the children in their classrooms, or their parents. So, why should it be so hard to apply the same standards to each other. Most teachers say they are frank with students because they want them to fulfil their potential – so can’t we do that for our peers too?

The final point that jumped out to me from the Metlife Survey was that only 42% of teachers reckoned that all or most of their students took their responsibility for education seriously, whilst 96% of students reckoned they did. Plainly a big mismatch in expectations and belief about what constitutes taking responsibility. Also, students have long felt the need to ‘pretend’ they don’t really care about academics. However, all too often the ‘devil may care’ image doesn’t match the real, behind the scenes effort they’re putting in – sometimes we need to trust them and recognise ‘the game’.