Professional Development: reflective practice

Silent contemplation

Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about professional development. I have mainly been thinking about this because I feel really professionally unfulfilled at my current school.  Don’t get me wrong, I do sooooo much CPD but, upon reflection, so very little of it is actually driven by my school to support me to develop as a practitioner in my place of work.  Consequently, I think (and know) we can do better and I’m going to use this space to reflect on just that!

This week….

Reflective practice

We want practitioners to be reflective about their own practice.  If teachers can evaluate their own practice, in terms of strengths and areas to develop then professional development has its starting place.

However, a number of things need to be in place for staff to become reflective practitioners.

  1. Time.  The time has to be there in order for staff to reflect.  Ideally, that would be enough time in a timetable for an individual to regularly have conversations with themselves about their practice.  Be it a short reflection on a particular lesson or a longer reflection on some aspect of their teaching they feel they are getting particularly right or spectacularly wrong.
  2. Culture.  The culture of reflective practice has to be embedded within the school.  That has to come all the way from the top and trickle down.  In IB training last week, someone asked ‘What is the learning culture of your school like?’ and this question is relevant for both pupils and staff.
  3. The confidence to be vulnerable. Many many practitioners are scared to articulate that they are not good at something.  The high stakes, high accountability environments that have been created, particularly in the UK, mean that people are more reticent to be honest and open about areas of their practice they are struggling with for fear of judgement and worse still recrimination.

SO, how do we overcome these three things:

  1. We have to carve out time for reflection.

Some might argue that PPA time is time for reflection and yet, if you are a full-time teacher then, you and I both know, it isn’t quite as easy as that.

In the book Four Thousand Weeks Oliver Burkeham talks about carving time out specifically for yourself that is protected – to the extent that we are booking time out in our diaries with ourselves – something I think is really key if we value it enough.

And again, these moments don’t have to be long.  My favourite reflection times are first thing in the morning as I sit and have my morning coffee and at lunch time.  I am fortunate to have a long lunch but I purposefully try to sit by myself and eat lunch because, for me, it is a precious 20 minutes of silence and quiet reflection time that I don’t tend to get anywhere else in the day. Building a habit of reflection is key though so carving this time out can really help this.

And yet the reality is that our teachers are so busy this might not be the norm so we have to build opportunities for reflection into our school programme.

The most obvious space is the meeting space with time given over to the consideration of a particular aspect of curriculum, teaching and learning or assessment, for example.  Posing a question and giving staff time to reflect upon their own strengths and areas for development in regard to the discussion topic, allows individuals the space to have that dialogue with themselves before an actual dialogue across the Department table begins.  This can also be done if an agenda is circulated in good time, with HODs asking their teams to reflect on their own practice in relation to an agenda item and to come to the meeting with one thing they think has worked and one area they would like to improve upon, ready for discussion.

INSET days need to have reflection time built in.  Many INSET days I have attended have offered a range of sessions, back to back. Not only does this lead to cognitive overload for staff, exhaustion at the end of the day but it also means that very little of what is shared has any real discernible impact.  If, instead, a reflection slot is built in to the day, people are provided with the opportunity to sit quietly with their own thoughts and reflections so they can sift through the new learning and identify the one key thing that might have a very real impact on their practice.

2. Dialogue creates culture.

In order for a culture of learning to exist, we have to know what learning is taking place.  And we can only know that, if there are regular dialogues about Teaching and Learning happening within the work place.

Again, this works at an individual, department and whole school level.

Individual – we have to ask ourselves, what dialogue are we having with ourselves about our own TL and what dialogues are we creating? Do those dialogues foster individual reflection and do they challenge others to reflect upon their own practice to? Do we know where to go when we have reflected? Do we know who we can go to for advice or support? Do we feel safe enough to do so? Consequently, do we share our reflections often enough?

Department – how are dialogues being instigated?  Is there a weekly bulletin with a key TL question for everyone to consider, think about and share their response to?  In meetings, are people sharing what they are doing in the classroom?  Are all staff given the opportunity to share?  Are all voices being heard? Is there an area where people can collate their responses to a new strategy so that everyone is involved in the dialogue and the dialogue is built up over time? Is there a bulletin that shares best practice within the department? Are regular CPD offerings shared to instigate discussion?  Are papers or extracts from books shared to enable staff to reflect upon their practice, individually, and then with others?

Whole school – how often do you walk into the staffroom and hear staff talking about teaching and learning?  How is best practice disseminated? How often are staff working across departments rather than simply within? Are there 15 minute forums? CPD drop ins? Case study compilations etc etc Are Senior staff aware of their teams strengths and areas for development?  How are they supporting this development?  Can they identify staff who offer best practice in areas to coach other staff?  Has an environment been created where all of this is comfortable and slowly becoming the norm?

And finally…

3. It’s all about relational trust…

Just as we wouldn’t expect our pupils to have the answers for everything, nor can we expect that of our teachers.  Our learning culture has to be such that talking about what we don’t feel so confident about or so good at, is a really positive thing. 

And, yes, it has to start at the top. When was the last time your SLT or your HOD admitted they hadn’t got something sussed?  Or that they reached out to find out what people thought about a particular area they were leading on? Leading with humility and utilising others to support is so important if learning cultures are to be created where this honest, open dialogue to make progress exists.

Relational trust has to be in place.  Individuals have to feel that their SLT or HOD back them. We often refer to servant leadership but in order for people to feel comfortably vulnerable they have to know that their leaders are championing them, all of the time, so that if they do expose their vulnerabilities they feel they will be supported rather than it then being used against them.

Regular dialogue between colleagues is more likely to lead to security in expressing vulnerability.  This is because regular dialogue is about establishing those safe relationships where you are prepared to be more vulnerable.

And finally, staff feeling confident about themselves as practitioners also leads to an increase in being able to express when they also feel vulnerable.  Ensuring staff recognise they are good at so many things is the key to empowering that to happen.  How are staff’s achievements, work, contributions being regularly recognised so that positive self-esteem is in place to allow for more vulnerable conversations later on to occur?

All in all, in my humble opinion, if we want reflective practice to occur we have to make time for it, foster and nurture it and create the culture for learning where this becomes the norm.

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