Sunday, 2 October 2016

Feilte, professionalism and professional learning

During the Teaching Council Ireland Learning Festival, Feilte, I was struck by the similarity between the conversation in Scottish education and education in Ireland. Hot topics for both nations are professionalism and professional learning.

Teacher confidence and professionalism is based on their knowledge, experiences, skills and abilities and is firmly rooted in the values, assumptions and beliefs they hold. So what are the small wins that motivate you and keep you in teaching and as a learner? 

While you ponder that simple yet profound question, think about your daily routines with your classes. What energy do you bring? Teachers are the catalyst for the learning that goes on in their room, they create the energy and vibe for learning. 

Where do you make a difference? Who have you supported to have a lightbulb moment? Who smiled at you, because you were the only person who said their name? Teachers cannot underestimate the 'power' they have to make a difference to a child's life.

At the heart of this is relationships. Developing relationships and knowing children is one of the most important factors in helping children learn. One of my core beliefs is "they don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care", so show them how much you care. This investment in children and young people is crucial and because you have invested time and energy, the children and young people have an increased investment in your relationship and become accountable for their own learning through that relationship.

Professionalism is underpinned by your values, assumptions and beliefs. In challenging your own assumptions, values and beliefs think about the 'white mask' that some children wear to fit in because they cannot see themselves reflected back through the curriculum or through the experience of education. Who are the 'invisibles' in your classroom? Who is wearing a 'white mask'? How are you displaying your assumptions about race, gender, sexual orientation, learning ability etc.? Do you need to stop and challenge your pedagogies and learn about yourself and how you project your values?  Do you understand diversity in all its guises so you can teach in an equitable way? Do you know and understand and use wisely, the influence you have in children's development?  And do you accept, understand and use wisely, your position as a role model?

Another aspect of professionalism that is profoundly impactful and requires time, space and energy is professional learning. Within the busyness of teaching, where do you find the time to try new things? To challenge your thinking? Or to develop your teaching practice? 

Time is a major issue for all teachers across the globe. There are competing demands such as administration tasks, preparation and correction and improvement planning which all consume large swathes of teacher’s non-contact time. Then teachers are expected to still have the energy to be creative and innovative in their practice.

In my experience the best way to innovate practice is by talking with colleagues both from within and beyond your own school. Teachers are the best resource in education. Professional collaboration and sharing is one of the best ways to move forward and challenge your practice. When you share your learning it becomes more powerful to you and is also more credible to your colleagues than an 'outside expert' telling them that 'it will work'.

Professionalism also requires teachers to have a voice and to think critically about policy and their practice. Teachers voices matter. Teachers can be the agents of change for the education system if they take responsibility for their own professional learning and become solution orientated, to become better tomorrow than they were today. Teachers should plan for meaningful professional learning that enhances their practice. The better prepared teachers are, by having a purposeful focus for both their own learning and the pupils learning, the better chance of improving attainment for all learners.

Excellence and equity can be achieved through the creation of space and time for professional collaboration and teacher agency.  The creation of time requires a change in the focus of the education system to prioritise professional learning. This change accompanied by a cultural shift to professional collaboration becoming the norm will empower teachers to challenge and support each other's learning and be the agents of change. 

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