Friday, 5 September 2014

Reflective teacher - 30 day blogging challenge, day 5

Today's challenge asks you to post a picture of your classroom, and discuss what you see and don't see, that you'd like to.

I wondered about missing this one out, as I don't have my own classroom, or actually a permanent place of work - and also, these days a lot of teaching and work I do is on-line.  (I could post a picture of my office at home, but you really don't want to see that).  The same is actually true for most of the teachers I know these days; erosions of physical space due to cost-cutting, and changing work practices and patterns makes having your very own space unlikely. This made me question 'are physical classrooms that important?' but I really believe that they are; as Nancy Kline says 'Place matters because it says back to you that YOU matter.'

At the start of a new term I've noticed lots of school teachers sharing pictures of their classrooms (shared or not) on Twitter, and they really are things of beauty.  Design and intelligence about use of space and the impact on learning has moved on enormously and the rooms are bright, clean, informal and welcoming.  I would certainly feel that I mattered in places like that. The presence of light especially seems to a big impact on how people feel, and how able they are to concentrate and take in information.  The beautiful big windows in the classrooms at Northern College (usually open with the blinds up) seem to open up my mind too, and let new thoughts in.

I don't have much influence over where I teach, although I do try to reorganise the room layout whenever I can (often to people's annoyance).  During my time as a trainer at the Council, I had a sudden lightbulb moment when I realised how much an impact the spaces chosen for councillors and officers to 'learn' in actually had.  Most of the sessions were held in Committee Rooms - formal spaces, more appropriate for the cut and thrust of political meetings than relaxed discussion and group working.  People would naturally slip back into their Council roles in places like that - the physical barriers of static tables, microphones and heavy chairs also made teaching practically very difficult.  I'm not sure what those places said to us.  Not 'you matter', but 'process matters, tradition matters, the status quo matters'.  Once I realised this I did my best to find alternatives, settling finally on the Members' Lounge - a rather antiquated room with easy chairs, plush carpet and the air of an old people's home.  This room didn't particularly say ' you matter', either but it did say 'sit together; relax; talk; be comfortable.'  I would like to think that as a result of running sessions in here the quality of the thinking and discussion went up, although it isn't easy to quantify.

Although there isn't always much you can do to influence the spaces you're given, there are little things you can do (as well as rearranging the furniture) once you're in there that can help.  Getting light and air in are vital. Using posters, flipcharts, a welcome picture on the door (thank you @teachnorthern for getting me to see the importance of this), water on the tables, coloured post-its dotted around to brighten things up. Once students create their own work of course you can use this on the walls, too.

What do the places you teach in say to your students, and to you?  And what can you do to make them say 'you matter?'

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Reflective teacher - 30 day blogging challenge, day 4

Today's question is a classic - 'What do you love most about teaching?'

I've been mulling this one over and it helps me to compare what, in my mind I do now - 'teaching' with what I did a few years ago - 'training'. Training people was generally about achieving the aims of the organisation. It was great if workers enjoyed it, and grew and developed along the way, but ultimately the needs of the company had to be met. Increased productivity, fewer absences, and lower staff turnover was generally the name of the game - where I worked, anyway.

If you look at the government's agenda around the education of adults, I would suggest that these aims are broadly similar. Jobs teaching functional skills and 'employability' are everywhere, and I teach these things myself. So if I'm doing similar kind of work, why do things feel different for me now? Why do I enjoy it so much more and how come I'm more creative than I've been at any other point in my career?

The truth lies in the word 'Teacher'. Simply by calling myself this I have opened a world of possibly for myself and my students, and it is mainly about growth. Training feels limiting and functional (you 'train' a dog). In 'teaching' there is the wriggle room to do things differently, be truly inclusive, consider the individual, question things, reflect and grow, be yourself. As a teacher I allow myself the freedom to write, make connections on Twitter, continue to read (though I don't have to). Of course there will be many trainers who do all this too, and more, but I do think that we are often limited (or conversely, emancipated) by the words we select to describe and identify ourselves.  What connotations do the words you choose to use about yourself have, and are they limiting?

There is also, in teaching, a respect for self-development that I haven't found elsewhere (not shared and respected by all of course). It's about professionalism, but something more than that - especially if, like we do, you teach for a social purpose, believing that education really can change lives, communities, and the world. Importantly, this all starts with the teacher and the faith that we can be the best we can be, if we are prepared to work at it and want it enough.

My thoughts have rambled a bit here, but I think what I'm essentially trying to say is that teaching for me is believing in the capacity within every person and ourselves as teachers to grow and develop.  It's about questioning, and looking at things in new and liberating ways.  The very process of spending 20 minutes or so thinking this through and writing about it - and the pleasure I've taken from it -  sums all this up for me, in a 'meta' kind of way :)

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The reflective teacher - 30 day blogging challenge, day 3

Today's question theme is observation - choose one area of practice that you want to improve on.

This topic is fairly fresh in my mind, having gone through an Ofsted assessment earlier this year.  There are lots of areas I want to improve on if I'm honest.  I'm a reflective person by nature (as this blog testifies) and have the tendency as teachers often do, to be self-critical.  The brilliant Stephen Brookfield's Perfect 10 theory* (about how we focus on the one negative comment in a sea of excellent feedback) is an important reminder about how we should always seek out the positives and keep a sense of perspective.  I really believe that we need to keep in mind the fact that students (particularly adults) enter the classroom with experiences, situations, worries and fears that are a natural part of life, and affect their learning.  As teachers, we can't influence everything, so it is important to maintain a realistic outlook about what we can achieve in the little time we are with them.

This being said, of course we should seek out improvements and constantly work to improve our teaching practice.  I was paralysed with fear when Ofsted came to observe me and while the inspector's comments were positive and helpful, I prefer the relaxed and informal feedback given by critical friends and colleagues. The head teacher John Tomsett (@johntomsett) asks his staff the question 'How can I observe your lesson in a way which best helps you improve your practice?'  This shifts the focus from performance management to productive and constructive feedback, giving the responsibility and ownership of development back to the teacher.  For me, the answer might be 'Can you join in with the group activity on x, as I would like to get a sense of whether the students are really learning effectively?' or 'Can you come at the start of the lesson, as I would appreciate some ideas on how better to open it?' or 'Can you read through the feedback I'm giving student x, as I would like your views on to improve my assessment methods?'   Teachers generally have a good sense of where their practice needs extra work, so why not take advantage of this and help them where they need it most?

I also think that we don't actually observe each other enough.  You can learn so much from seeing other teachers (particularly in your subject specialism). Co-teaching with a colleague provided me with so much learning this year, and one of my aims for the coming term is to do more of this. Observation shouldn't be about fear but about growth - and learning, not just for the observed, but for the observer too.

*Brookfield S, (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Jossey-Bass

The reflective teacher - 30 day blog challenge, day 2

Today's post is about use of technology in education.

One of my frustrations last year was about the reluctance of fellow educators, colleagues and students to engage with the amazing array of free tech out there. The benefits of online personal learning networks and tech for learning are huge, and I struggled to see why people didn't want to take advantage of them.

What I conveniently overlooked was the fact that I used to work in IT and took my confidence in this area completely for granted. I'd be mortified if others were frustrated by my lack of confidence in other areas (of which there are many :) - so one of my aims this year is to be more patient and have empathy - and work harder at helping others to gain confidence and find out what suits them (without doing things for them, of course!)

Personally, I want to achieve the following:

- explore Open Badges further and use them in my practice
- investigate some of the less well-known tools like Feedly and Padlet which the fabulous Ruth (@TheRehn) has told me about
- consider whether the online Community of Praxis network, which works so brilliantly in Teacher Education could work with other groups that I work with, such as elected Members
- continue to bang the drum about the joys of Twitter, Yammer, Google + and other tools as we move into the post-Feltag and an increasingly digital world.

Monday, 1 September 2014

The reflective teacher - 30 day challenge, blog one

The topic for the first of the 30 day blog challenge is to think about goals for this academic year.

This is an interesting one for me, because as a freelancer I'm not used to thinking in terms (geddit?!) of the year actually beginning in September.  However, the pattern of my first self-employed year has certainly been term-based - and I have just survived my first school holiday without being at work (although some on-line work has continued, thankfully).

It's a good opportunity to reflect back on the past year.  It's been a time of massive growth and exploration for me - I've been fortunate to try out lots of different things, some of which I have loved, others not so much.  I've learnt some things that I already knew but didn't want to admit, and some exciting new things too.

I get a sense that the next year is going to be similar in a lot of ways.  There are still a lot of unknowns about what I will be doing, and I am conscious of a real need to 'just go with the flow'.  For someone who likes to rush to the end of things (books, days, bottles :) this is a massive challenge.  I like to know where I will be, what I will be doing, who I will be with.  The opposite is scary but necessary in the role that I have actually chosen to take on.  And it doesn't mean that I can't have aims or set a direction - in fact I definitely should.

So, without being too specific (or SMART - sorry to the students who I keep telling to set aims like this), here are my goals:

1.  To continue with the work I've started around developing cultures of political awareness and constructive political relationships in organisations.  This fits with my related projects around getting women into politics, and the national recognition that change needs to happen following the horrific stories from Rotherham.  There are lots of angles to this - Thinking Environment, Community Philosophy, on-line activism.  But is often unpaid, which leads to goal 2...
2.  Consider and invest in ways to marry up the work I love with a live-able income.  There is no reason why the two things have to be mutually exclusive, but believing that they are has really held me back this year.  Which leads on to goal 3...
3.  Look for part-time work opportunities that allow me some flexibility and stability, plus an element of continuity and predictability around the places I go and the people I see.  (I hadn't realised how important this was to me until recently).  And perhaps most importantly of all -
4.  Keep an open mind, keep the faith, and just keep on keeping on :)