It was great to see so many of you in the webinars. Once again, I think its evidence that so many teachers are incredibly committed to what they do, and want to learn more about themselves and how they can help their students learn.
The webinar was a whistle stop tour of short, simple and shareable development activities, from which rose some interesting questions. I hope I can answer them here in a helpful way.
A number of you wanted to know more about professional development in a context where you work alone – perhaps as an online teacher.
“It would be useful to have some hints and tips for individual teachers who perhaps work on freelance basis and don’t have interaction with colleagues.”
“Can you possibly share with us your view on individual teachers’ development, please? I’m mostly working from home, so I’m the only worker in my little, yet cosy company. I also learn best on my own, the same goes for my professional reflections. Is it always about interacting with colleagues?”
Although it’s true that working alongside teaching colleagues offers a deep reservoir of easily accessible professional ideas and support, it’s perfectly possible to engage in developmental activities on our own. We looked at a number of activities which provide a framework of descriptive experiences, followed by exploratory questions designed to support reflection. These can all provide the basis for an individual to examine their own practice too. Whether in dialogue with another or on our own, a key step is the actual articulation of our thoughts. In a conversation, we do this through speaking. If we are on our own then writing down our recollections, questions and ideas become the most normal way of recording. This articulation stage is important as it forces us to codify, categorise, and order our sometimes muddled thoughts. It makes inconsistencies more visible. Patterns become more identifiable. This is especially the case if we write down our responses to the reflection questions on a regular basis over a set period. Then, by returning to them and reading them together, this can often reveal things about our understandings that we simply don’t see in the normal daily rush.
Writing in this way – to ourselves – can feel odd at first. I’ve found the best way to do this is to use a computer, just type without looking at the screen or bothering about syntax, punctuation or spelling. Just a stream of consciousness. Then I come back the next day and read it through. It’s often quite surprising what I discover. By the way, one possible side effect of this is stress relief. If I’m worried about a lesson I’ve done, or an issue at work, then writing about it in this way can sometimes clear it from my mind. I can ‘get it off my chest’.
A useful writer on this topic is Jenny Moon. Her book ‘A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning’ is straightforward, accessible, and packed full of ideas and activities to help.
As for the classroom-based activities, why not observe yourself? If you work online, simply record the lesson (with the permission of your student) using screen capture software and then watch again using the observation activities we explored in the webinar. This is powerful. I can personally testify to the usefulness of this, as I will be watching the recording of this webinar to identify all the times I go ‘off script’ in an attempt to get better control of my timings.
Finally, there is the point that it’s actually hard to be alone these days. There are many professional online communities – especially in education. I belong to the Oxford Teachers’ Club which is open to everyone who has attended an Oxford Teachers’ Academy course. There are over 250 members who chat away on the Facebook site. Other universal sites, such as LinkedIn have discussion groups with very active participants. IATEFL has a variety of special interest groups who tweet and chat online – perhaps the Teacher Development SIG might be of interest (https://tdsig.org).
What if you have colleagues who observe just to criticize?
This is unfortunately something I have encountered a great deal. Perhaps the first question is why does this happen? Perhaps they’re simply repeating their experiences of being observed. Perhaps they feel that they are being helpful, and helping us to learn from our mistakes. In my experience this is the most common approach that observers take. The ‘I will point out what you can do better’ method. It has its place, of course, but if this is the only use of an observation it can become very negative.
One way of engaging with this is to use focused observations, rather than a general one. Have specific questions, and therefore data that you ask your colleague to record, and then in the post-observation discussion have some questions ready to guide the conversation. This changes the role of the observer to recorder – and away from judge.
I know one teacher who asked if she could record the post-observation conversations, and then analysed the amount of critical comments and shared her findings with the colleagues. This was highly effective in showing them the impact of their approaches.
Observation and the subsequent discussion is a competence that needs to be learned. I can be a great classroom teacher, but not have very developed observation skills. It doesn’t necessarily mean I want to criticise. It might be that that I don’t know any other way. This brings me on to the last question.
Are there any useful books that you would recommend for conducting observations?
Yes. ‘Classroom Observation Tasks’ by Ruth Wajnryb is an excellent resource. It looks at seven different aspects of the classroom experience and has five focused observation activities for each, along with exploratory frameworks for reflection afterwards. If you do a different one each week, you’ll have a full academic year of observation tasks without repeating yourself. Then do it again the following year and see what’s changed.
Why not buy a copy for your critical colleague as a birthday present?
Looking forward to seeing you all again on a webinar soon!