Sir Tim Brighouse, former chief commissioner for schools and inspirational speaker on education, said recently that ‘you can tell if it’s a great school when teachers talk about teaching’. Sounds obvious? But in my experience many teachers have stopped talking about teaching. Some appear to have slipped into some kind of survival mode and some, after their initial training, seem to plateau in terms of striving to get better at what they do. There is no blame attached here. The metaphorical wood has been obscured by the trees.
The TAMLA course, offered to middle leaders, has taken off like a rocket since its inception 18 months ago. Our first trainees graduated last summer and there are currently six other courses running up and down the country, involving 79 teachers. Although the content of the course has been carefully planned and often bespoke in terms of meeting the specific needs of the different academies, there is something, I believe, much more important going on here. The course offers that rare opportunity for teachers to have time to talk to each other, to think about teaching and learning, to question and to debate. In short, it offers time out, a space for reflection. Sometimes I find myself saying to the groups: ’I can see you thinking’. From a trainer’s point of view, it’s magical.
The actual process of putting a mixture of teachers together with different starting points in a safe and stimulating learning environment, has a more profound impact than mere content. It is, for example, a constant surprise to me the high level of commitment from the groups especially as much of the training happens in long twilight sessions, ending around 6pm. These are sometimes called graveyard slots, as teachers turn up after a full day’s teaching, pretty worn out and low on energy. I’d like to say it’s the scintillating trainer who gets them going again but, in reality, the provision of food plays an important part. (Most teachers at the end of the day would kill for a cream cake and/or a tasty sandwich). They feel well looked after and appreciated; they perk up, settle down with their colleagues and prepare to learn.
And learn they do. They listen, participate, contribute and debate. They ask questions of themselves, of each other and of me. They get to know each other better, and they understand each other’s roles and responsibilities. They are open and honest about education and their own challenges and frustrations. Surprisingly, there is a noticeable absence of pessimism and gloom. Just like pre-planned lessons, we go off on tangents, respond to interesting viewpoints, and explore new ways of looking at things. I become a learner too as I listen to them, and watch with deep satisfaction how they develop, and re-engage in the art of teaching.
It has often been said that schools should be ‘a reservoir of hope’. Our TAMLA trainees become the living embodiment of this. They grow to understand the absolute importance of hope and their part in building and sustaining it. Throughout the two terms of working together, they talk through the big issues, and the small ones. They tackle tricky topics and discuss how best to improve their performance, both in the classroom and in their leadership roles. They role play difficult conversations and pick through the challenges of maintaining the role of leading edge practitioner. We dig into behaviour for learning and we collaborate on what works. We explore the big issues of disadvantage and how to deal with it, positively and resolutely. Crucially, they share good practice.
We see the long-term impact of TAMLA as the retention of our bright and best staff, the improvement in results, and the raising of staff morale. But when I feed back to our Principals after each session, and we fall into our own professional conversations about teaching, it also reminds me that it’s not just good to talk about teaching, it’s essential. The whole education community just needs to do it more often.