Talking about our work as educators; stress release or active engagement?
‘Who do you talk to about your work in education and why?’
Recently I have had the privilege of talking with a wide range of teachers, student teachers and school leaders in South West England, Yorkshire and Brussels. One discussion was part of professional development conference in an international school, one an evening seminar with teachers and school leaders in my role as visiting professor at Marjon University. Further discussions were with teachers and leaders of teacher research in a local school, about 70 student teachers at various stages of training, early career teachers and newly appointed SLEs. In each case I asked the participants a simple question; ‘Who do you talk to about your work in education and why?’.
I asked this question because if you search for images of teachers or teaching they are nearly always pictured alone, or as the single adult amongst a sea of pupils. School leaders are also often depicted as figureheads or apparently visionary people, shouldering the role independently.
Away from the staffroom teaching can seem a solitary endeavour. It is easy to read the teacher standards in England as criteria waiting for teachers to prove their individual worth. Even once qualified navigating their chosen career path can create a sense that they need to be the chosen one. Teaching can make them feel that it is them against the world (both in triumph and in defeat), and learning to teach and maintaining their success as a teacher or school leader can be assumed to be down to the individual.
I also ask this question because I believe it matters. It draws our attention to an important focus – our ‘work in education’ – which relates to our practices in our own professional contexts and recognises that our own work matters. By asking ‘who do you talk to’ we recognise the potential of a wide range of connections that we make, both formal and informal, within and beyond our places of work, and also that the people who we chose to talk to matter to us. By asking ‘why’ we acknowledge that these conversations help us to address our needs, which might be related to our working environment, our specific roles, our past experiences and possible futures, our values, our dilemmas, our triumphs and our emotions.
What this question doesn’t do (deliberately) is start with a deficit, or assume there is a problem to be solved through conversations with others, or demand that we as educators engage in monitoring or self-surveillance of our work. I stress that because in that respect that’s a different starting place from many professional conversations or interactions. I also use ‘we’ rather than ‘you’ or ‘they’ as I believe that this question is relevant to us all, whatever our role in education.
A range of responses were elicited by the question across the groups of participants in these discussions. There were some interesting contrasts between groups but I won’t go in to most of those here. In most conversations it was clear that teachers and school leaders talk to partners, family members, colleagues (although more frequently, it seems, to ex-colleagues) and peers (as student teachers) about their work. There was a strong sense that these people provided reassurance, perspective and advice, challenged the teachers’ and leaders’ thinking and sometimes enabled them to change their decision-making regarding their work. It was also interesting to discover how relatively infrequently current colleagues were identified as the people they talked to about their work. This was particularly evident in teachers in England. Maybe this was simply because the participants in the discussion thought that was not the answer I wanted, or maybe it tells us that the time, license and structures to talk to their colleagues about our work is in short supply.
The qualities of the conversations they do have, and the reasons for seeking out the people they talk to, seem pertinent to me. Have we squeezed out our social thinking time in schools, does it matter that few teachers or leaders have staffrooms that they can chill out in and share what they are doing with colleagues, are meetings consumed by some-one else’s agenda and the need to engage in the accountability culture?
These seem critical issues when we are concerned not just about teaching quality, but also about teacher retention. The recent NFER report on teacher workforce dynamics highlights how teachers’ job satisfaction is related to their retention, and recommends that ‘to improve teacher retention, nurturing, supporting, and valuing teachers is vital to keep their engagement high.’ Teacher engagement might seem a vague term, but perhaps we could at least start with considering the role of teachers talking about their work with each other. Evidence related to coaching, collaborative inquiry and activities such as lesson study and teacher rounds suggests that these can create genuine opportunities for teachers to talk with each other about their work, including what interests and challenges them about the curriculum they teach, how they gain understanding of their learners’ needs and achievements and how they can make productive decisions to support their own practice. This smacks of engagement to me.
My final comment at this stage is with regards to my current conversations. I have been awarded a travel scholarship by UCET, and have the privilege of talking with teachers and school leaders in Western Quebec School Board. During my first day of conversations I met teachers in Hadley Junior High School - Philomen Wright High School and their principal and vice-principals, who seemed so engaged with their work that they could not stop smiling (I know this sounds cheesy – but it was true). In this school teachers new to the School Board (however long they have been teaching) are supported by a Mentor-Coach, and many other teachers are working in coaching triads. The following quotes from four teachers illustrate this,
“This is my first time being mentored; it changes the way you see yourself as a teacher.”
“This school is like a family; when I wake up in the morning I feel no stress. If I have a problem with a student, I know I will get the help I need. It’s not a secret. In a family we work together.”
“I do not see coaching as adding to our workload as the benefits are real”.
“There is a lot of power in this building; people are observing each other all the time, our doors are open, we are always asking questions.”
These narratives provide me with insight into another education culture. I would not argue that no teachers and school leaders in England experience this, but I would propose that there are some interesting perspectives that we can learn from other places, however unique they might at first seem. In a subsequent blog post I will consider what I have learned in this part of Canada, for now I want to reflect that it was very hard to walk away from the school and not feel the enthusiasm and the energy carried by the teachers. This does not exist by chance, but by design, and is supported by a mature, ever-evolving and context sensitive coaching and mentoring. As the Principal of the school said,
“It is our job to create this environment, we hear teacher voice and we make changes”. (Principal)
A good source of practice and research evidence related to designing and developing opportunities for teachers to talk and learn together can be found in the CollectivED working papers, and will also be discussed at our forthcoming CollectivED events. More information can be found on the CollectiveED pages.
Rachel Lofthouse is Professor of Teacher Education in the Carnegie School of Education. She has a specific research interest in professional learning, exploring how teachers learn and how they can be supported to put that learning into practice.