Professional learning Part One

Why should school leaders prioritise professional learning at this time – not only for their colleagues, but for themselves?

On 1st July 2020, I was pleased to deliver a keynote on this subject at the Teacher Development Trust online conference.  This Part One post is the text of my session.  In Part Two I include some of the comments and suggestions which came from the 50 delegates – thank you to them all.

“In recent months, schools, teachers and leaders at all levels, including governors, have inevitably had to focus on the operational, as they’ve reacted to the changing landscape and coped with the challenges of closing schools; navigating remote learning and pastoral care while still accommodating the children of keyworkers and learners who require specific support; then starting to reopen schools and planning for increasing numbers of students attending in the coming months, perhaps adopting a ‘hybrid’ model within which they educate simultaneously those who are physically present alongside students who are accessing the learning online.  All the difficult decisions and demanding changes have been managed within an intense broader context where students, their families, teaching and support staff, leaders and governors will inevitably have experienced fear, anxiety, anger and frustration – among other strong and potentially destabilising emotions.

Given all this, I find it hugely impressive and incredibly humbling to recognise how the education community has stepped up with respect to developing, supporting and caring for pupils, building relationships with families and bolstering and valuing their staff.  I have been especially aware of how leadership has been tested, and of how so many leaders across our education system have really shown what they are capable of.  Several of the leaders I connect with have told me that, although this has been such a tough year, they have felt very proud of their schools and of their teams and that it has, in fact, been a privilege to lead within school communities at this time.

I’ve also been aware that the schools that seem to have coped most successfully have been those where the leadership was strong and principled to begin with – where leaders have demonstrated, and clearly communicated, the values which underpin their actions and their decisions, and this includes skilful, supportive governance.

These organisations have had to learn, adjust, adapt as fresh information has come in – often at speed and, sometimes, the ground has shifted under their feet.  But these leaders have kept showing up, faced their responsibilities and done the difficult work.  They will have made mistakes, I’m sure – how could we avoid that in these extraordinary times? – but they have learnt from any mistakes and they have proved that they are nimble, flexible, thoughtful and balanced, despite the pressure they have been under. Leadership has, it seems to me, never been more critical.

I’ve been especially mindful of the role of Middle Leaders in this – curricular and pastoral Middle Leaders who have had particular responsibility for co-ordinating the work of their teams as they manage online learning, and remote care and support for children and families.  These Middle Leaders haven’t had all the answers – no one has had all the answers – and they haven’t been the only ones doing all the work, but they have filtered, facilitated, collaborated and overseen the work of their teams.  They have ensured that the learning, ideas and resources of their individual team members have been shared and used as effectively and productively as possible. They have drawn together the efforts of all those they lead within their specific domains, supporting and constructively challenging in order to ensure that the students for whom they are responsible get the best possible provision, academic and pastoral.   I know that strong Senior Leaders and heads have appreciated and encouraged their Middle Leaders, supporting and constructively challenging in their turn.

In the process, everyone has learnt a huge amount.  Quickly.  The pace of change has been reflected in the pace with which we have learnt, adapted and shared.  There have been many opportunities to touch base with others, to exchange opinions and ideas and to use the experience of others to help us to move forward in our own learning.  But the focus has tended to be operational and in some ways, inevitably, reactive.  “How do we manage this?  How do we make that happen – safely?  How do we keep the wheels oiled so that we’re moving forward?  How do we do the best job we possibly can in such difficult circumstances?”  The question I’m addressing today is how does more formal, structured, professional learning fit into this.  What is its main purpose now – for all of us?

When I think back to mid March, I can remember some of the assumptions I made then.  Some of you may well have shared these assumptions.

I assumed that we would probably not be teaching pupils in schools before September.  But I realise now that I also assumed that by the start of the autumn term we would have emerged on the other side of this and that we would be returning to some kind of normality and familiar routines.  When I rubbed out all my summer term commitments in my 80s style filofax I erased work commitments, social engagements, holidays.  But when I got to the autumn term, I hesitated and I can remember thinking – let’s wait and see.  Maybe that conference will go ahead in October.  Maybe I will be able to deliver that face-to-face training in November.  It’s six/seven/eight months away, after all.

I think it took a while before the realisation hit me that, not only would we not be out the other side of this and returning to normal routines in September, but that the repercussions of COVID-19 would be very far reaching, and in fact that the whole of next academic year wasn’t going to look like last academic year, in the light of what we have experienced this academic year.  I realised that, for example, it was going to be some time before face-to-face courses and conferences happened.  Does this mean that it will be a long time before structured professional learning events happen?

I don’t think it does.  I certainly hope it doesn’t, because I think as we move forward, teachers and leaders need the space to reflect, to process what they have learnt so far, to consider priorities for the next stage – not just operationally, but strategically.  They also need the support and the sustenance that I think structured professional learning can give them.

Because we have learnt about effective online pedagogy through remote teaching in the last few months, we’re in a strong position to consider how we can best use online platforms for effective, productive professional learning for leaders and teachers.  If we are participants in, rather than hosts of, online learning sessions, such as this conference, that can give us a useful perspective which can also inform the remote teaching we are involved in.

John Tomsett, in the TDT book club session on ‘Putting Staff First’ on 16th June, talked about investing in teacher development, and he said that what we need is to have “really good conversations about the work.”  I think those really good conversations, at all levels, are key to effective professional learning across school communities, including at governor level.  And I also think some structured reflection, prior to, during and following on from those really good conversations, is key.

Consider the following questions:

  1. What are the most important things you have learnt in the last few months about any of the following: a) remote teaching and learning b) remote pastoral care; c) leadership?
  2. The opportunity to reflect on and process your recent learning encourages you to stop and think, to select, to articulate your learning and to share it.  How can you offer other staff the same chances to do this?
  3. Now consider how we move on from reflecting on, processing and sharing within our schools, to sharing more widely and building on the learning.

How do you share learning in your school – within departments or subject groups/years groups/pastoral teams; across the school?

How do you share learning between schools – perhaps within a MAT or other group of schools?  Within organisations such as this one?

What about sharing learning beyond your group of schools/across different MATs?  Across different organisations?

How do you mobilise the learning for the strongest possible effect?  To what extent can the education community work AS a team, as Dylan Wiliam, citing Robert Slavin, has said, for the greatest mutual benefit.  I always remember Alex Quigley’s observation that the answer to the problem you are grappling with may be in the classroom on the other side of the corridor – but we might never know that unless we engineer those “really good conversations” with one another.

In summary, what we have learnt about pedagogy, pastoral support and care, leadership and education in the last four months, what we might do differently as a result, and how we can share this learning for the widest possible benefit?  How can we make the most of what we have learnt?

I read recently a piece by Patrick Ottley-O’Connor where he reframed the KISS acronym and said: What do we KEEP? What do we IMPROVE? What do we START? And what do we STOP? And that resonated when I read this in an article from The Key, actually addressing governors:

‘How to help your school learn lessons from lockdown’

“Challenge school leaders to find those tasks that were abandoned during the lockdown and review them individually to decide if they need to continue in the future. Doing away with just four low-impact tasks of 15 minutes each is an hour eliminated from someone’s workload.”

My final point is this: Without structured reflection and a focus on professional learning we might miss this golden opportunity to do things even better in the future – to develop our staff, to develop ourselves – to do the best we can in our current roles and also perhaps to prepare for future professional opportunities.  Do you have a clearer idea now, than you had at the start of lockdown, which of your Middle Leaders are the heads of the future?  Structured professional learning can help to sustain us and support us to be our best, now and in the years to come.

Recommended reading:

Mark Enser: ‘Five thing I had to learn to be a better remote teacher’, tes May 2020

Shirley Drummond: ‘Joyful June’, head’s blog, June 2020

David Bell: ‘As likely to be wrong as to be right’, Big Education, May 2020

Brian Lightman: ‘What next? Early thoughts triggered by school responses to the coronavirus crisis’, June 2020 (key questions for ‘really good conversations about the work’.)

Final questions:

  1. What are you most proud of when you look back at the last four months?

And consider what you might do/do differently as a result of your reflections, and after reading and considering the suggestions of others.

Thank you for listening.”

See Part Two for the delegates’ reflections on the questions I asked.

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