Refreshed learning

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Leading workshops and opening yourself up to peer criticism can be tough, but it will make you a better teacher

Many teachers are at their best about two years after they begin in the profession. At this point they have learned enough to deliver consistently effective lessons but have not been weighed down with additional responsibilities, nor been ground down by bureaucracy. At the dawn of their careers, teachers should be able to focus on what matters most: preparing lessons, teaching well, and helping young people learn.

A newly qualified, committed teacher who is still fired with enthusiasm is a wonderful thing. But schools sometimes conspire to change that teacher into something else, and although that can mean rewarding them for the qualities they have, it can also mean their teaching suffers: lessons are less well prepared and, as they are promoted, they teach fewer lessons. That turns into a vicious circle that is hard to break: if you teach less, how do you improve as a teacher?

This is a familiar situation in many staff rooms. I look back on myself as a young(ish) teacher and am rather envious of how he taught: he didn’t rush into class after an important meeting; the resources he used were his own and refreshed frequently, but also shared freely amongst colleagues.

I have been an English teacher for 13 years, and for most of that time I have taught Language A Literature for the IB Diploma Programme. It is a course I feel passionate about because it allows teachers the freedom to be innovative and choose texts from a vast range of authors. Over time, I realized that because of those additional responsibilities I was teaching the same texts with the same resources. I felt I had to reinvigorate my teaching, and stretch myself in the way I had been when I first began.

Two things came together at the same time: the first was that I approached Cambridge University Press and pointed out that the new Language A Literature course was being revised and that they should consider publishing new resources. This backfired when they said: Fine: please write some and send them to us. The second was that I started training to be a workshop leader.

This was one of the biggest challenges of my career as it not only forced me to go back and read the intricate details of the course, but it also introduced me to a far more demanding audience than a group of 16-year-olds: adults. For the first time in a long time I felt exposed as a teacher. To give some context: in one level 3 workshop I led there were 270 years of teaching experience in the room (not including mine). I had to know my stuff, and I had to write new resources as well.

Writing for a class is one thing, but writing for a team of editors and proof-readers is another: they scrutinized every word, and every idea.

I road tested our new resources with my students and, after teaching a scheme of work, would discuss it afterwards, something I found brought a new and innate value to the lessons. I learned from them.

Now that the book has been published, and the fears about leading a workshop assuaged, like all IB learners, I reflected on the lessons learned. Firstly, working collaboratively with different groups clearly produces the most effective outcomes, but it is hard to accept that some of the ideas you are most proud of are not going to be accepted by others. Secondly, I found that I was returning to being that new teacher again: I became increasingly observed but instead of becoming defensive I became more open about learning, and more willing to accept that pride is secondary to getting it right.

All teachers probably knew this when they started out because they were used to discussing lessons with senior colleagues. But over time, and with promotion, the opportunity to receive constructive criticism fades. So it was good to meet my younger, slightly fresher-faced self and ask him something I should have asked before: what can I learn from you?

By Dr David James, Director of IB, Wellington College, UK.