If teachers could learn from each other more, maybe teaching could be a lifelong profession – not a four-year sacrifice

Hand holding pocket watch

When I started in teaching, I wanted to copy everything I loved about the teachers who had made a difference to me. By the time I started in the classroom I was very much in favour of being tough on kids and demanding superb output from them. I was anti-liberal and, looking back, too much so.

Teaching English was a huge amount of fun, but in my early years in the classroom I relied much more on copying some of my best teachers than putting into practice what I had learned from teacher trainers. I had done part of my teacher training in the US, where I had a 'master teacher' to guide me. She was a woman in her early 30s who had been a lawyer for a few years before re-training. She was highly organised, knew exactly what concepts and skills she wanted to teach, and refused to let the kids get away with anything.

I liked the whole notion of a teacher as an apprentice. My master teacher would teach a lesson and we would discuss what she was trying to get the students to learn and how effective we thought it had been. Then I would teach the same lesson with a different class in the same year group. Sometimes I would teach a lesson that she had prepared, and sometimes she would teach from what I had prepared, then we would compare notes on what had been more effective. I learned quickly because I was constantly getting feedback. She was in the room most of the time, watching, taking notes. She made sure I got to know the other teachers in the English department, that I watched them teach, that I found out what kind of lives they lived. She wanted me to get a good feel for what living and breathing as a teacher felt like.

But I was full of zeal rather than subtlety in my early years and I wish I had spent more time watching older, more experienced teachers who used a greater variety of approaches. Several times during my US teaching practice, we went to watch teachers in other schools. I still remember one who taught English to the senior year. She wandered into the room, with a cup of coffee in her hand, and yelled: "Ok, bears, to your places."

She then proceeded to summarise, via a Q&A session, what they had been learning in the previous few lessons and picked out a few highlights in the 'papers' that she had marked, getting really excited by the insights from students. She was ambitious, she took the best analysis from the students and led them deeper. It was fascinating to watch – a bit like observing a talented artist beginning with rudimentary lines and ending with depth and colour. I don't think I ever managed that in my own teaching, possibly because I only taught for little more than a decade.

When I became a headteacher, the first thing I did was to ask staff, who had been there for decades, to go and watch each other teach. I was amazed that in a school where there were only about 25 teachers, there could be such a variety of practice. Some were highly structured in their approach; others were inspirational and fascinating; others got pupils to copy what they were doing before branching out on their own; others explained the concept to be covered and immediately tested the children's understanding of it. In amongst all of that was lots of highly effective teaching which, when distilled, could act as a core for improving the school as a whole.

But some thought my approach was rather insulting. One told me that he had been to teacher training college and had been an effective teacher for nearly 20 years, why did he need to watch others? I realised that what seemed so obviously beneficial from my perspective could be seen to be undermining.

It took a time before it became anything like normal practice for teachers to work together. I made the fundamental mistake of insisting that teachers observed each other and wrote reports to prove to me that they had done it. Thus it became yet another chore and made the job less enjoyable: the exact opposite of what I wanted. I could have won hearts and minds by starting with just a few teachers who were keen to get involved and to have them share what they had learned. That way, it wouldn't have come across as a management demand, but as something which could have significant benefits to individual teachers. I excuse myself now by remembering that I was only in my early 30s and thought that logic prevailed over all else when it came to managing and leading.

Culture in UK teaching has changed a lot in the last decade or so and teachers are used to people coming in and out of their classroom in a way that they weren't in the 90s. Now we have "lesson study", where trios of teachers collaboratively plan, teach, observe and analyse learning and teaching in "research lessons".

In an age where we have to be more and more efficient in getting children to master their learning in the shortest possible time, we need to learn from each other and not remain isolated – no longer do the most effective teachers place such a high premium on independence and autonomy. By sharing, perhaps teaching can become a manageable profession, where people are quite happy to stay for their entire working lives and not leave when they have made their four-year 'sacrifice' on behalf of the nation. 

This article is an adapted chapter from Fergal Roche's new book, Mining for Gold: Stories of Effective Teachers.

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