Teaching is a fast-paced profession in which the rate of change can frequently threaten to outstrip the ability of even the most consummate professional to keep up. Every subject has its particular challenges, but, speaking as an English teacher, the current climate is particularly demanding. New specifications, the movement to numeric grades and the consequent necessity to make substantial modifications to Key Stage 3 are weighing heavily on English departments throughout the country. Regardless of which exam board has been selected, confronting new papers requiring new expertise can be an incredibly daunting prospect. As these changes are rolled out across all subjects, the challenge of becoming an expert all over again will be faced by all.
So, what’s the solution? With locking ourselves in the stock cupboard for the next few years out of the question, surely there is something we can do to make the transition both manageable and successful?
Here at Dixons Kings we’ve been trying a range of strategies to help develop a more supportive, collegiate working atmosphere in which problems like those outlined above become a shared endeavour. The introduction of practice has been a particularly successful part of that. In its most straightforward application, practice involves teachers getting up in front of one another and essentially drilling the everyday routines that, when delivered perfectly, help to underpin consistently excellent teaching and learning. Receiving and acting upon peer feedback is a key aspect of practice. After several positive whole-school practice sessions related to the embedding of whole-school routines, our Lead Learners asked Heads of Faculty to adapt practice to our subjects. What followed was an experience that turned out to be enlightening, valuable and, most importantly, supportive.
Each member of the team was given the opening extract from a novel and a rather bewildering question from the new AQA specimen English Language Paper 1 (the structure question). We then spent around 40 minutes planning a lesson, or part of a lesson, approaching the question. A feedback session followed in which we shared our ideas, acted out activities we thought might be helpful and gave each other feedback on what we’d come up with. Negative reactions to this might range from scoffing to offended, but, honestly, it was completely worthwhile. It was more than shared planning or bouncing ideas around: the act of getting up in front of your peers and explaining an idea as you would to a class forces you to confront the tricky explanation, feedback or questioning parts of lessons that are frequently not thought about until the live delivery in front of a class. Significantly, the peer feedback from colleagues offered a crucial opportunity to adapt and improve teaching methods. Think of it this way – everybody knows that the teaching of difficult concepts improves when you have had more experience of teaching that concept. With brand new, difficult concepts being introduced across subjects, surely it makes simple, common sense to practise with our colleagues before we stand up in front of our students.
After this first foray into subject-specific practice, the feedback from the department was overwhelmingly positive. Colleagues who had been daunted by the prospect of it now felt secure with the constructive, non-judgemental environment we’d created. Personally, as a teacher determined to keep improving my skills, I think it is a vital tool to ensure my own development. I can’t wait to do it again. Try it. Ultimately, if everybody in your team has the shared drive to succeed, what could be the downside?