Teachers Talking about Teaching

In The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley26 Comments


Teaching can sometimes be an incredibly lonely job. It can stifle creativity and drive the brightest, most optimistic of teachers to downtrodden distraction. We teach in teams, but most teachers who face a full teaching timetable experience a gruelling war of attrition alone in the classroom, surfacing for air briefly at lunchtime. It is hard to reflect or think about how to do something differently when you have thirty students baying hungrily for your attention.

After lesson planning, a five period day and a liberal dose of marking, to keep up an intelligent conversation can be a monumental challenge, never mind deeply analysing our teaching practice. Most teachers, after a long day, want to talk about their teaching like they want a cavernous hole in the head. Yet, this is the very dialogue about practice that sparks genuine school improvement.

We do, of course, manage to survive in our jobs by lumping ourselves in the middle of the safety of the pack. Like penguins, we lurch back into the comforting warmth of the staffroom after the chill of a bad lesson. We talk. We talk to share our woes, pains and pleasures. Still, too often our insecurities mean we dare not share what went well.

The English disease is to treat such talk as arrogance. It simply isn’t the norm. Having a moan is fine, talking up our strengths – sharing ideas that worked brilliantly is viewed with scepticism. Therefore we too often carry on with our old habits of teaching, rarely making changes for the better.

What we must do is change the norm. The norm needs to become talking about learning and teaching with confidence. We need to share our passion and our practice. We need to share our failures, but more openly share our successes too.

Of course, over lunch we may prefer to gossip (sometimes a moan is good for us!), but school and middle leaders need to engineer as much quality time as possible in the working week to help make learning and teaching the discussion topic of choice.

Last week I posted John Hattie’s six aspects of schools that we need to develop based on his comprehensive research – see here. One salient point was this:

“We need to create climates where quality teaching is the subject of conversation at all times.”

It prompted this question:

“How often is teaching the discussion topic in your school?”

This got me thinking about more questions to ask on this topic. Here are my six of the best:

1. How do we find the time – and the money in an era of austerity – for teachers to genuinely reflect upon their practice on a continuous basis and make learning and teaching the topic of conversation?
2. What if we replaced judgemental lesson observations (whose accuracy is roundly critiqued here) with systematic coaching observations, peer observation, or ‘lesson study’, to make learning and teaching the topic of discussion?
3. What if continuous professional development was organised so that teachers could develop their practice to genuinely suit their professional development needs and personalise accordingly? How would it link securely to performance development in an age of accountability?
4. What if we could find the money to make research into their subject knowledge and their pedagogical knowledge a genuine part of the weekly experience of a busy teacher? Can we create a structure for this to happen to make learning and teaching the topic of discussion?
5. What structures best connect schools so that staff can share best practice and talk about learning and teaching across schools as a norm?
6. How do we get teachers to want to make learning and teaching the topic of discussion?

Helping teachers get better is an incredibly difficult process. I don’t have the answers of course, only questions, but collectively, in our schools, we do have the answers. In a time when budgets are being slashed, it is important to be creative and find answers to the key to school improvement – teacher improvement. Answers on a postcard pleaseā€¦or more practically in the comments below!

How about a man who can and did?

I do also happen to know a man who does know some answers…

Do spend a couple of minutes to watch this video of Sir Tim Brighouse – who helped orchestrate the successful ‘London Challenge‘ initiative that clearly did help teachers improve. He explains how teacher talk and butterflies of improvement can have transformational effects in schools.


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  2. I love this clip. So much food for thought. It caused me to littered my desk with a slew of post its and ideas. I do think that the job of encouraging and nurturing this is something middle leaders tailor made for middle leaders. Sounds simplistic but it’s so much more exciting to talk about strategies and resources that will make your teaching better than how the last lesson was spoiled by behaviour. For me, how to get teachers to be motivated to do this and the practicalities of a structure which is visible to all, makes for an interesting conversation. You can’t press gang people into this but if it looks shiny, if it looks like fun, if it looks like people around you get something from this, you’ll slowly seduce them. Some will come more willingly than others. A whole school opt-in CPD based on a non-judgemental coaching scheme could be a good place to start. Cracking work Hunting!

    1. Author

      Cheers – we have gone for the non-judgemental coaching scheme. Just type the search ‘coaching’ into my blog. You make a crucial point about middle leaders. They possess leverage on impact in the classroom like no other in school systems.

  3. Hi,

    Ive grappled with these issues as T&L coordinator for years in two schools and do not claim to have the answer. Indeed, I spent 12 months in special measures, which was grim in the extreme!

    However, it is possible to attempt to alter the dynamics of how teachers talk about teaching, as Tim Brighouse. The key I found was to review the school’s meeting structures and graft in a half-termly Dylan Wiliam style Tlc. Not revolutionary I know, but it does ensure that all staff are ‘exposed’ to a pedagogy debate and are provided with a coaching environment.

    I think this is a starting point: we can’t afford a situation where T&L is the preserve of the ‘clique of the keen.’

    1. Author

      I like your point about breaking past the ‘clique of the keen’. They are our likely starting point, but we must make this talk school wide. Also, we can’t be naive to the fact that the circumstance of a school can have hugely inhibiting effects upon such a culture.

  4. Excellent post & a really interesting video. It’s something we’re struggling with as a school, time being the biggest factor. Thinking about drop in sessions, open door days, teachmeets, teaching ‘nuggets’ in briefing. Anything to get people talking. Love the idea of butterflies, I truly belter that once you get conversations started, they will develop a life of their own! For many schools, mine included, it’s a huge cultural shift from observations & grades to improvement through coaching.
    Thanks for your thoughts on such an important issue.

    1. Author

      Yes – I think the cultural shift is a common experience in schools at the moment. Of course, time is the key – and the sticking point. We need to look at innovative ways to find marginal time gains that can accumulate into something significant.

    2. Author

      Thanks Natalie. I think the cultural shift is common of most schools. It will be frustratingly slow I expect, particularly in austere times of PRP etc. Still, I have faith a change is going to come.

  5. Great post as always Alex. I think our 15 minute forums have helped to develop this culture – finding the ‘bright spots’! Every Thursday, after school, a teacher shares an area of their practice they have been developing and staff choose to come along to listen. As it’s only 15 minutes, informal and led by their peers, staff feel that it’s manageable – somebody described it as ‘Guerilla CPD’! It’s done a great job of strengthening ‘pedagogical patter’ amongst the staff and sparks off lots of informal sharing and collaboration. An example of our most recent one is here http://classteaching.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/modelling-writing/

    1. Author

      Love it – small but perfectly formed. Will add it to the list for our prospective ‘teaching and learning forum’.

  6. Good post. These are the principles we work from when supporting schools and teachers in the SPN project: bit.ly/SPNtrump
    Access to an external mentor or coach can have a transformative effect on teachers’ practice and pupils’ experiences.

  7. Hi Alex, another great post! I’ve written something related here – http://mrocallaghanedu.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/personalised-cpd/

    This year I have set up a team of pedagogy leaders to drop a few ‘pebbles into the ocean’ of conversations that happen around school. We’re currently looking at ideas that require little effort on behalf of the teacher but deliver a big impact in the classroom. We’re also running CPD sessions, workshops on INSET days and workshops at TeachMeets to encourage teachers to talk about teaching with the hope of making this a typicality.

    I’m wondering how much the environment within schools plays in holding back this kind of talk? I think there is alot we can learn from tech companies like Google, Dropbox, Facebook, e.t.c.about how to use and make spaces more ‘collaborative-friendly.’

    For teachers to continually improve I believe there are 4 things they must do:

    1. Keep exploring.

    2. Connect with others.

    3. Share your discoveries.

    4. Deepen your understanding.

    CPD needs to be geared around facilitating this. I’ve written some more about this here – http://mrocallaghanedu.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/safe-is-risky/

    Thanks for another thought provoking post!

  8. Pingback: Teachers Talking about Teaching | Teachers Blog

  9. a lovely post&video! oh yes, complaining about a bad lesson (or rather, bad students) can become a favourite sport for some of the teachers( so it’s very important to foster teachers’ development and their positive attitude to what they do!

  10. This is such an important question and one which doesn’t seem to have had much given to it in terms of time to think about it and solid answers- although some of the ideas in your thread and the video are a good start.

    We were very good about this last year – with seven teachers, four classes & one tiny staff room, we talked to each other about lessons & learning every single day. Split between three buildings, with more teachers and classes and more focus on accountability, we’ve lost some of this. We get some of it in CPD time, but what was a real joy last year was having a non-stop conversation about our teaching…

    Our head put up a lesson observation chart last week: who’s seen who? This has catalysed more observations, which is a good start – I’m going to have to think about how we can build on it.

    Great post – thank you!

  11. It’s funny to me that this *isn’t* the way most staffrooms are, if only because it was the way my very first school was and so it has always been natural for me to walk into the staff room and the first thing I would ask people is how their lessons went and chat about what was upcoming. Looking back, a big part of that was the culture set by our ITT lead in the school. As professional tutor for us trainees she constantly asked our opinion, passed us articles, and books and suffused everything we did with conversations about teaching practice. When she struggled with things she would come and watch us to see what WE did. She just made these conversations part of the absolute every day and so it wasn’t until I went other places (and was told to “be quiet and stop upsetting us with practical help while we moan!”) that I realised things could even be any different.

    1. Author

      Undoubtedly recognize your description Laura. We need to systematically create the conditions for such talk. It is my touch paper problem!

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