Building the future; the legacy of professional learning
First up was Sabrina Hobbs, Principal of Severndale Specialist Academy in Shropshire, and then Gerry Robinson, Headteacher of Woodside High School in Wood Green London. Both school leaders were featured because of lengths that they were going to support their students, colleagues, their respective families and communities. Both women were familiar to me not just from twitter but because they had both been my PGCE students at Newcastle University.
Reading the articles, I felt a sense of real pride. I had interviewed them as young women wanting to become Geography teachers, I had spotted their talent, and over the course of the PGCE I and their mentors had nurtured it, ensuring that they found their feet and started to stretch their wings. Despite the many passing years, I can visualise them in our classroom, I can recall the ways that they engaged with early professional learning and remember the fledging lessons that I observed them teach. The PGCE course became their space for an exchange of ideas, the applied use of knowledge, and the gaining of professional insights, personal values and attitudes. What I could not have foreseen was where their journeys as teachers would lead.
I have caught up with them both only quite recently and only since they became headteachers. I met Sabrina at a Chartered College of Teaching conference and then at a union event and have since discovered more about her SEND expertise and advocacy as part of the Headteachers Roundtable. I have not yet met Gerry again in person, although I think once lockdown is over, I am going to see if I can conjure up an invitation to her school, if for no other reason that I have been inspired and hugely entertained by the Woodside High School twitter feed during the pandemic. As school leaders they both are now very much at the sharp edge of dealing with the Covid-19 crisis and taking a lead in managing the challenges in their contexts.
So, why this blogpost? In part it is about celebrating the difference that school leaders make when they don’t wait for the DfE to solve the moral and practical dilemmas caused by the pandemic. Gerry and Sabrina are not alone in this. In the same edition of Schools Week a lockdown diary by TEAL Trust CEO Jonny Uttley, a member of our CollectivED Advisory Board, was also published, adding further evidence of the challenges. But in the main part this blogpost is about the legacies of professional learning. When we work as teacher educators, we are there at the start of professional lives, and when our student teachers move into practice, we can expect them to head into many different roles, locations and circumstances. We do not take credit for all that they achieve; that would be ridiculous, but we can take an interest and pride in where their journeys take them.
Teachers and school leaders are responsible for learning; they inspire, teach, support and assess their students on a daily basis while also being subject to numerous expectations from parents, society, employers, government and their students. To engage with these challenges, teachers need to be enabled and motivated to continue to learn while operating within busy workplaces and a culture of performativity, and in the context of politicised education spaces. There has been no greater challenge to the functioning of schools than the Covid-19 pandemic. The knowledge now being deployed by professionals in education has been sourced and co-created rapidly and is contingent on ever changing circumstances.
Teachers’ and school leaders’ knowledge, and their ability to share and use that knowledge, is constantly in formation. They are never the finished product; and are always evolving. Without that they would be unable to continue to meet the dynamic needs of learners and their communities. As teacher educators our greatest impact comes from an, often unseen, legacy. While it is wonderful if our Newly Qualified Teachers appear polished and proficient and ready to fit into well-defined roles in tightly managed schools; it is much more important that they have gained confidence and skills to work flexibly, collaboratively and with empathy. They need the humility to know that they will always be learning combined with the activism to tackle challenges with values-based principles.
Only some teacher educators are former headteachers, but we can still be role models for the roles our student teachers will occupy that we have never held. When asking Gerry if I could cite her in this blogpost it was lovely that she responded that I was ‘an influence on the way [she] wanted to be as a teacher and leader’. And when checking in with Sabrina, she was in reflective mood and wrote that ‘I have thought a lot about ITT programmes and the experiences and preparation put in to early career development. It cannot be underestimated how important this is. Ethical and principled leadership underpinned by collaboration and openness stems from this starting point of teacher training and being a leader in the classroom. That’s when your responsibility to others really starts.’
So, as well as celebrating the dedication and practical wisdom of headteachers such as Gerry, Sabrina and Jonny, lets also pay our respects to those past and present teacher educators and mentors who forged this and future generations of school leaders. They are a community that I am proud to be part of.
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.