Classrooms are complex places. Perhaps more than ever before teachers are responsible not just for the transfer of knowledge in the academic sense but also for the pastoral care and social development of young people. Added to this, the growing expectation that teachers will quickly learn to harness new technologies and implement the latest techniques for engaging, supporting and challenging the learners in their charge, makes the job ever more complex and demanding.
Of course, such expectations are not baseless: In fact, teachers themselves place great value on their professionalism and ongoing learning and, despite their ballooning workload, most somehow manage to find the time to hunt down, ingest and implement what they need so they can ensure that the interactions that occur in their classrooms are transformational for their students – that is, after all, their role.
However, there is a difference between expecting teachers to acquire additional skills and strategies and creating the environment for this to occur.
Unfortunately, this is often a stumbling block.
Because many teachers have had to be heroes – finding, building and sharing strategies to meet the needs of their learners – there seems to be an expectation that this should continue without having to resource it. Subsequently, approaches to professional learning by the Ministry of Education have typically involved system level priorities -and funding – which largely requires individual teachers to access their own professional learning (PLD), outside these mandated areas, on their own steam.
Further complications arise when centrally funded PLD that is available is often disconnected from the needs of teachers. In fact, instead of supporting on-going learning for teachers, Ministry funded PLD has been used in many cases as a fulcrum for Ministerial pet projects or system changes that may make sense on paper -in the broadest terms- but have varying degrees of relevance for those teaching students in our schools. …Sadly, schools often jump to sign up for any PLD which is centrally funded – putatively so that they can provide something for their teaching staff without blowing the meagre PLD resources they have.
Educational guruism, in the form of externally provided initiatives for purchase by schools, has also run rampant over the past decade, resulting in myriad (sometimes conflicting) professional learning opportunities that occupy teacher time and energy. Unfortunately, many of these too are ‘nice to haves’ rather than ‘need to haves’, providing something new rather than what teachers need to do the best job they can with the kids in their classrooms. Instead, private interests such as CORE and Cognition appear to have generated a cottage industry in new approaches for teachers to try (and Senior Managers to implement to pad out their CVs) that are often just another thing teachers have to make space for – on top of trying to do the best for their learners. (Jut ask teachers participating in CORE’s Academic Mentoring programmes whether this has helped them access Subject Specific PLD).
Of course, some of these programmes are robust and some of the gurus reputable – but, sadly, ‘one size fits all’ approaches to PLD still leave the teachers who need (or simply want) particular professional learning having to find (and fund) it themselves.
This tension, between what teachers need, what the Ministry choose to prioritise and what market providers and gurus are selling is unlikely to be assuaged without a wholesale reconstruction of the PLD framework.
Happily, we are told this is currently underway. (However, only the very naïve would expect that a sudden change of outlook will occur, where teachers’ ongoing professional learning becomes needs based, teacher centred and well resourced). Ironically, exactly what is needed is least likely to result from the new PLD framework. Instead it will likely prioritise the system level goals du jour, provide a new set of parameters for private providers and gurus and likely leave the mechanism for accessing needs based or teacher identified PLD as the status quo.
In short, it will be a lost opportunity.
Expecting that a ‘heroic’ model should continue is simply unsustainable – teacher time is not infinite – rather, all teachers should have access to funded and proven PLD to bootstrap their practice. If we are all to be great teachers such access should be a given. At the same time, professional autonomy needs to be protected – mandated participation in centrally provided PLD is not the answer.
How then, should the PLD Reference Group enable teachers to continue developing their practice without placing unattainable expectations on them?
One way might be identifying the expertise that already exists within the system and creating the time and space for this to be shared. Certainly, the dismantling of the competitive Tomorrows Schools model may well lead to increased opportunities for teachers to collaborate on what is best practice, likewise the Communities of Learning. But there are still substantial hurdles:
One. The premise that teachers will find the time themselves to do this collaboration.
Two. The reality that schools’ purchasing power to ‘buy in’ the professional learning their schools and teachers need is limited.
Three. The preponderance of private professional learning providers who have not always demonstrated the flexibility to tailor their products to what is needed for the teachers in schools.
Four. A draconian ‘compliance’ approach that seeks to mandate participation in professional learning without targeting professional learning to the identified needs of the teacher.
Certainly, in the current context, with greater emphasis on each student reaching their potential through analysing evidence and the latest focus on personalised learning, it is a given that teachers will need to engage in further on-going learning to ensure the best learning opportunities are there for their students. But, while teachers are almost always supportive of evidence based, well-resourced and effective professional learning, they are also likely to baulk at another set of forced changes and expectations – especially if they cannot see that they actually need them or if they are going to have to find the time and training to do it without sufficient support.