Lately I find that I’m troubled by the inadequacy of the concept of ‘teacher improvement’ – the whole language and the processes constructed around the idea that teachers get better; that they move along an axis from less effective to more effective in some absolute sense. This has previously been enshrined in the delusional absurdity of teacher grading – Abdul is a solid 2, Jane is still RI – a practice that still goes on in some places and has left its mark on our psychology around teacher evaluation. Some teachers are better than others.. everyone knows it! Every teacher can improve. This could be true but is that the right way to think about it? I’m going to suggest that this thinking can be problematic.
Here’s my personal experience. My first teaching groups were A level physics and maths classes – I was pretty good at teaching them right away, in my early 20s. My physics classes actually got the best results in the department (much to the palpable irritation of my much older colleagues – they told me so). Forward wind 30 years… in my last teaching experience, I was teaching maths to lower sets in Year 7 and Year 10 and finding it pretty hard. Most of my lessons didn’t go according to plan and I had a semi-permanent sense of things being imperfect; it was frustrating. Some students learn more easily than others; some fly; others struggle and it can be really hard to manage a disparate group, keeping close to their learning needs in a timely manner.
Generally I’ve found that it takes time to get into a groove with a class and feel you know what approaches work lesson by lesson, term by term… before you know it, you’ve reached the end and then you start again with new students. New problems to solve. Some ideas transfer; your experience grows… but are you now ‘better’ or ‘more effective’. I’m not so sure. You are older (inescapably), wiser (hopefully) and more battle hardened (probably)- but by-and-large you are the same person facing new problems; your success will really depend on what those exact problems turn out to be.
When I work in schools and colleges I meet a lot of teachers – and I could look back to my time as a school leader surveying all the teachers I worked with there too. I’ve met teachers with a wide range of experience and what on the surface might manifest as ‘teacher quality’. But largely this sense of someone being ‘a good teacher’ is judgement based on a range of biases and preconceived ideas; it can get in the way of evaluating what’s happening.
In reality, some teachers appear to be effective because their students appear to be making good progress with their learning; they can do some fairly straightforward things and, in the main, students respond and it all seems to go nicely. In contrast, other teachers have students who find the learning more challenging, or have a much wider range of student abilities to teach in one class, and the teacher fundamentally has a much tougher job on their hands – one that probably everyone would find harder. If you swapped the teachers around, your perceptions of their quality or effectiveness would probably change.
In this scenario, you can find a less experienced, less ‘expert’ teacher thriving and a more experienced, more expert teacher struggling – as with my own experiences. This is the crux of the issue. If we are talking about improvement or teacher quality, too often these are seen as a continuum that runs alongside a teachers’ career over time in some way. But, what I find is that actually, it really only runs alongside the period for which the teacher is teaching that particular group.
When I’m in my teacher-trainer, teacher-coach mode, I find it profoundly unhelpful to talk in terms of quality and improvement. The discourse that goes with this paradigm is so loaded with judgemental language, it creates a minefield of sensitivities to navigate – as well as being so deeply subjective. What I find works much much better is to couch everything in terms of problem-solving.
- How do you manage the room when students appear to have a wide range of prior knowledge or confidence?
- How do I get my Year 9s to listen when other students are talking, without it being a battle of wills every lesson?
- How do you explain how to add 20% to James and Shafiq who seem to find the concept particularly difficult?
- What’s the best combination of methods for checking for understanding during an instructional phase with teaching chemical equations to my Year 8s?
- How do you structure the modelling process to optimise students’ capacity to learn from it – how much to model, how to check for understanding, how to check in on students’ success, how to construct the feedback…
- What set of retrieval and practice activities might work best to deepen students’ knowledge and develop their fluency and confidence with the material?
These are all problems to solve. They are problems that nearly every teacher might wrestle with. You might argue that a ‘better teacher’ would find it easier to solve the problems. You might answer that a teacher could be said to improve if they become more successful in solving these problems. That’s true. My point here is that just isn’t a helpful way to frame it. If we can drill down to the problems that need solving in that specific context a teacher is working in, we are more likely to identify the solutions that work for that specific teacher, with all their personality quirks and habits and predispositions; with that specific class – with all their personality quirks and habits and predispositions; teaching that specific area of the curriculum, with all its nuances and complexities.
If we adopt the problem-solving paradigm and the mindset needed to ditch the judgemental thinking and language, the onus on observers, mentors and coaches is to help solve problems – not to judge. It means you need to think of solutions for that teacher-class-curriculum scenario. This helps to engage with teachers across the experience spectrum. Rather than seeking to evaluate/judge the ‘quality’ of an ECT or a highly experienced teacher, it’s far better to get alongside them to consider the problems they’re trying to solve and to support them to find solutions. Not only is this better in terms of sustaining a positive, professional spirit and culture that motivates teachers and validates their experience, it’s just more effective. It works better. We get closer to the reality of what a teacher can and will do in their practice that can support more students to learn more. We solve the problems better.
Of course that can be described in terms of ‘improvement’ and ‘quality’ too, but only as outcomes, not the process for achieving them. If we focus on problem-solving, we can actually solve the problems.
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