Trusting our Teachers

Much of the recent discourse regarding teacher education and the profession of teaching is about raising standards. This accountability paradigm insists that boosting the quality of teaching, increasing the standards of entry into the profession and improving the quality of teacher education programs will improve student outcomes. Student outcomes in this case are often narrowly defined.

Marilyn Cochran-Smith shared at the 2018 AARE conference that this accountability paradigm has emerged based on five policy, political and professional influences, namely:

  1. Unprecedented global attention to teacher quality tied to neoliberal economics.
  2. Teacher quality defined as teachers who produce large gains in student improvement.
  3. Continuous public narrative about the failure of teachers and teacher education.
  4. Teacher education defined as a policy problem focused on outcomes.
  5. The teacher education establishments own turn towards accountability.

These five influences have infiltrated, permeated and embedded themselves so deeply that they are often seemed to be self-evident. This tacit struggle is a form of cultural/political domination that de-professionalizes teachers and simultaneously reduces agency and voice. This narrative legitimizes certain institutions, practices and interests, produces policy based on contested claims and hyperbole and positions education reform as a simple cure for inequality.

What can those working in schools actually do? No one I talk to is arguing that teacher quality doesn’t matter. We want the best teachers teaching. We also have to value those that we have in the profession and provide the structures and level of support to move beyond individual and collective appraisal and explicit improvement agendas, to a system that has a focus on learning, growth and pedagogical quality. We do this through trust. By trusting our teachers we can change societal discourse, elevate the profession and perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, increase levels of accountability. Not accountability to state or national standards, but accountability to ourselves, to our colleagues, to the students in our care and their families. A collective accountability that becomes a responsibility to enhance our profession. A moral responsibility to focus on what matters. A responsibility to tell our own stories, to change the narrative, to create our own visions and to define what counts as a successful education in our contexts.

In my experience the way schools typically enact teacher accountability and performativity measures is to have an appraisal process in place. In 2015, in conjunction with the introduction of a new professional learning model, I removed the need for our teachers to be judged on an annual basis and introduced a process based entirely around individual and collective growth.

From the communication that was sent to staff about the change.

It is recognised that The Geelong College has a responsibility to provide teachers with access to meaningful professional learning opportunities. It is also recognised that teachers are responsible for their own learning and responsible for ensuring professional learning is undertaken and the requirements for teacher registration are maintained.

In recent years teaching staff at The Geelong College have participated in a biennial Appraisal process to assist in the development of their professional skills and to document professional learning. Annual Learning Projects have become important self-determined professional learning experiences for teachers seeking to investigate their professional knowledge and practice. These projects are shared with colleagues annually and they have helped to stimulate greater vibrancy in the professional discourse among teachers. Over the last year or so, the Appraisal process has become increasingly aligned to Learning Projects.

The emerging strong relationships with Deakin University through the Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation (CLRI) and the professional value of the Learning Projects have resulted in an increase in the level of interest in post graduate research degrees among the teaching staff of The Geelong College. This is an exciting and significant development informing the next step in the ongoing development of our approach to the professional learning of teachers.

From 2016 it is proposed that a change in terminology be adopted moving from ‘Appraisal’ to ‘Professional Learning Program’ (PLP). It appears the term Appraisal no longer reflects the nature and needs of the College.

At some point every two years teaching staff will meet with the Principal (or delegate if appropriate) to review their PLP.

Key components of the PLP

  1. Annual Learning Project – this is to relate to professional learning and may include action research projects or the development of special projects related to improving student outcomes (academic, pastoral, co-curricular). A variety of methods and approaches can be adopted and may include, but not be limited to, classroom observations, interschool visits, action research projects and professional presentations
  2. Conference/course participation – documentation of participation in professional conferences and courses. This can be as delegates or presenters.
  3. Professional engagement – demonstrated professional engagement such as professional reading, VCAA marking, working with graduate or undergraduate teachers or other ways of contributing to the development of professional skills of other educators

*As a caveat, we still have a performance management and professional conduct process in place that can be evoked if needed.

In my experience, appraisal processes in schools are draconian in their implementation, or such a waste of time that they become a tick-the-box exercise. What we did was a fairly simple shift from appraisal to professional learning. The bi-annual meeting with the Principal or delegate now becomes a chance to talk about individual interests, contexts and passions, in a non-performative setting, that is influenced by a coaching approach. It was an initiative that was very well received across our community.

Systemic issues abound and can become overwhelming. But there are always small things that can be achieved in your own sites and contexts. A focus on trusting teachers is a good start.

Good Teaching

I have just finished reading an article by Claire Golledge titled Listen to the children. This is what ‘good’ teaching looks like to them.

Based on interviews with students around their perceptions of teacher quality and quality teaching, it was found that students valued the relationship they had with their teacher first and foremost, a variety of teaching methods and teachers who could inspire through their deep subject knowledge. Claire states “…students saw the best teachers as those who used engaging and innovative pedagogies to, as one student expressed it, “get us out of our comfort zone.””

This is interesting and I can’t wait to talk to Claire at the upcoming AARE conference to find out more about her research. I admit that this doesn’t necessarily corrospond with my own personal experience as a student, a teacher and also in my role as Director of Teaching and Learning. Of course everything depends on context and I have found that when students have a relationship with the teacher everything else can follow. If the relationship breaks down, then both parents and students question the use of innovative pedagogies. What constitutes a good student-teacher relationship will be left for another day, but this article made me reflect on two Professors I had in University. These two gentleman had a subtle, yet profound impact on the way I approach teaching and learning.

One was a short German fellow who often stopped mid-sentence and stared out the window. One time we asked him what he was doing and he told us he was letting his mind wonder and just stopping his thoughts momentarily to enjoy the beauty of the universe. He encouraged us to do the same, whenever we felt the need, as he believed it promoted deep thinking and an unconscious advantage when engaged in heavy cognitive lifting – particular in that Advanced Calculus class. I thought this was eccentric at the time but appreciate the simplicity and beauty of it now. He was wonderfully supportive and encouraging, quite explicit, and would not hesitate in giving you critical feedback.

Another Professor taught Advanced Cryptography. He was the opposite. Very abstract and wanted us to think and learn for ourselves. He would pose interesting problems that hadn’t yet been solved and expect us to grapple with them.  He would often stand very close to the whiteboard, facing the white board, trying to show us how to work through a complicated problem. He would mumble, scribble some stuff on the board, rub it out, start rubbing his head perplexed, stare at the board some more, go to start writing on the board again only to stop, scratch his beard – you get the picture. Often times he would take 20 minutes trying to figure out how to explain something to us or how to solve a particular problem. Most of the class thought that he was either unprepared or just didn’t know what he was doing. I found it very difficult at the time.

With the benefit of hindsight I now think different about this experience. On reflection I was seeing a mathematician in pure problem solving mode, grappling with complexity and pushing himself to the edge of both personal and discipline knowledge. He was modelling, perhaps unintentionally, thought processes and the way he approached difficulty. What would of it had taken for me to be aware of this at the time? Perhaps he needed to be explicit to the class and explain to us this would be his approach and what we as learners of the subject would get out of it as a result?

What I am sure about is that there is no one formula for great teaching and that’s what makes our profession such a rewarding one. Just like learning is a deeply personal endeavour – so is teaching. Teacher quality does matter. We want great teachers teaching the eager young minds of tomorrow. We also have to work with those we currently have in the profession and understand that teaching quality matters more.

Support for New Teachers

When new teachers arrive at a school they are often provided a mentor. Depending on the mentor’s experience, personality and disposition, the experience for the incoming teacher can be variable. At Geelong College we didn’t really have a process in place to support incoming teachers nor their assigned mentors. This was mainly due to the fact that we had such a stable staff and low turnover that it wasn’t really required.

As this changed we needed something in place to support mentors with this important job as it is essential that a new or beginning teacher recieves a high level of support, especially in their first years of teaching and in particular, their first term in the school.

As part of our new staff induction program we got all mentors together for an old school briefing and provided them a checklist or a minimum expectations framework to guide the support of their new colleague. The briefing covered the following main points:

  • It is essential that the new or beginning teacher recieves a high level of support, especially in their first term in the school. Keep in mind that, at this stage, the beginning teacher may not be ready to be mentored in terms of intensive professional dialogue. They do need a buddy to help with oreintation to the profession and/or the workplace. A buddy can then grow into a mentor.
  • At the very beginning of the year it is imperative that those in mentor roles ensure that new staff are aware of logistical and operational College matters by following the checklist provided (this will be listed below.)
  • Mentoring is essentially a formalised relationship that supports and encourages professional learning. When a new teacher is ready for this to take place, a number of structural elements supporting the relationship will be put in place including; regular and timetabled meeting times between the mentor and mentoree, close physical proximity in terms of office space where possible and the mentor assigned will usually be in the same school and where possible the same subject area.

Support for New Staff Checklist

Mentors are expected to contact new staff to welcome them to the College. This could be via email or phone, but in person is even better. If the new staff member is to commence at the start of the year then mentors should brief them about the staff professional learning program that is held at the start of each school year. If the new staff member is commencing at some point throughout the year, the mentors should arrange to meet prior to them commencing.

First Day

Mentors should meet with new staff on the new staff orientation day, prior to the staff professional learning progrm commencing. They will spend the afternoon with them at their respective campus, stepping them through College operations. They wil also liaise with the College eLearning leader, to have a session on ICT platforms and procedures if it should be required. If the new staff commencement date is at some point throughout the year, then mentors will need to make different arrangements to ensure the new staff feel at ease and welcome.

Mentor Checklist

The following items should be covered by the mentor upon commencement of the new staff member:

  1. Laptop has been collected and appropriate ICT support has been arranged including email access, and different ICT platforms have been logged into and can be navigated. This includes a brief introduction to the College Portal. Helpdesk support is also explained.
  2. Keys – have been distributed and any alarm codes given out.
  3. Parking – where to park.
  4. Bathrooms.
  5. Introduction to key College personnel such as Heads of School, Library staff and appropriate Administration staff.
  6. Term dates and school calander.
  7. Teaching timetables have been downloaded, yard duty and common room rosters, location of rooms shown, bell times and 10 day cycle all explained.
  8. Dress code for staff.
  9. Ensure office space is allocated and new staff member has access to required stationary.
  10. A pigeon hole has been assigned and new staff member knows where this is.
  11. Phone extensions and ensuring new staff member is on the phone directory but also knows where to access numbers and how to use phone.
  12. Remind new staff member of new staff handbook that is available.
  13. Relevant policies and procedures have been explained.
  14. Co-curricular information has been given out, and if appropriate, sports uniform organized.
  15. Mentor/Tutor responsibilities explained if appropriate.
  16. Informal discussions about the expectations of the teaching role and responsibilities.
  17. Meetings – which meetings they will be expected to attend and where.
  18. Class role marking expectations.
  19. Morning tea for staff, use of kitchen, coffee and canteen arrangements.
  20. What to do if sick or absent from the College for any reason.
  21. Support with ongoing reporting or report writing cycles and parent/teacher interviews.
  22. Ongoing support ie. regularly liaise with the Director of Teaching and Learning and the new staff member ensure beginning teacher is tracking well and clear of VIT expectations for gathering evidence for full registration etc.
  23. There are plenty of social events at the College that staff are expected to attend. Make sure you keep an eye out for your mentoree at these events and ensure they feel included by introducing them to others.
  24. Be friendly, a good listener and ask good questions.

I am sure many checklists like this exist, but this one seems to work quite well for us.

Anything missing?

Celebrating who we are

This short film is the result of a collaboration between our digital media guru Sam McIntosh and year 12 Media student Ollie Manton from the Geelong College.

Ollie stated, “The journey began on paper, concepts were drawn, presented and approved. Then the various film shoots were planned and shot. We used a variety of cameras; a #BlackMagicURSA, #PanasonicGH5, #Canon5D & 7D, an OSMO and a drone.”

The film was ‘co-shot’ and ‘co-edited’ across file hosting service Dropbox. Sam and Ollie would meet at various points to discuss the direction and styling of the film. Always sharing ideas and thoughts, the two passionate film-makers made light work of a large project. “Many of our catch ups were more about picking apart Christopher Nolan films or how to do particular shots with specific cameras. The catch ups were always fun and collaborative.”

Students and teachers working together is central to the Geelong College Vision for Learning.

Inspiring work by Sam and Ollie.

Assessment Focus Group

Back at the beginning of 2015 I established an assessment focus group at the College. It existed for less than a year and was part of a long term strategy around creating accelerator networks to overcome static and entrenched ways of thinking. By-passing the traditional hierarchy, it attempted to create agency and a more responsive and distributed platform for our staff to contribute to the future direction of the school.

I put out a call for expressions of interest via email and let participants know that we would be meeting twice a term for twelve months. I was looking for representation from each of our Junior, Middle and Senior schools and got 17 members – usually I would keep focus groups much smaller than this but I wanted to get as many people from each of the three schools involved as I could. The purpose was to create a space for dialogue that moved beyond using the terms assessment, reporting and grading interchangeably, and to change the student culture of anxiety about performance, to one of curiousity about what intellectual journey might lay before them. It took a great deal of effort and re-focusing to ensure that conversations remained about assessment as they inevitably (almost inexorably) drifted towards grading or reporting.

We workshopped ideas. People contributed research articles or blogs for discussion. Sub-committees formed and visited other schools. We looked at our current assessment profile across the College. And best of all, after some vigorous debate and discussion, we created actions that led to the creation and introduction of new policies and practices.

I recently found the following summary of one of our focus group meetings.

Can we rethink the basic tenets of teaching and learning and evaluate what students have done in a manner more consistent with our Vision for Learning? This is the question that has driven the discussion of the assessment focus group.

Our most superficial concerns have usually involved the practicalities of how to grade students’ work. Do we use a 5 point scale? A 6 point scale? What are the grade cut-offs? Do we use a normative or criterion referenced approach? We often put emphasis on how to detect plagiarism, rather than focusing on creating better assessments. This focus reinforces and reproduces the traditional paradigm of “test, grade, test, grade” and as a result many students become conditioned to this routine. Students then only engage in learning to a certain extent. They learn not deeply, but deep enough in order to learn how to play the game of assessment that is in front of them. Worse still, this paradigm can be damaging for many students as it reinforces self-narrative and familial discourse such as “I’m no good at maths.”

The discussions and workshops throughout our focus group meetings have attempted to move beyond this. Here we have debated and argued about the importance and necessity of allocating students a grade at every opportunity. We have debated the difference between a student in Year 1 and a student in Year 9. We unpacked the difference between assessment, feedback, grading and reporting. We workshopped alternative methods of assessment in order to provide a more meaningful approach that includes portfolios and a more formative focus on student understanding and progress.

After several meetings, almost unanimously the group recommendation is that:

Grades are only given to students on end of semester reports (EL-10) supported by a consistent ongoing online reporting/feedback/progress system, further supported by digital portfolios. In this case, ongoing reporting replaces end of semester reports.

This was a nice find as I clean up the files on my old laptop and a chance for me to reflect on how far we have come on this journey. This group did some great work and contributed to a more diverse assessment portfolio across the College, the introduction of new ongoing reporting platform and the introduction of a new College-wide assessment policy that I include below. I actually believe the policy is an exemplar policy because it is concise and underpinning it is the fact that we trust the professionals in our workplace to enact it in a way that is relevant to their area.

Get in touch if you would like to know more.

Assessment Policy

Purpose
The primary purpose of assessment is to help improve student learning. This process should develop students’ capacity to reflect on their learning and to assist their progress towards becoming independent learners. A secondary purpose of assessment is to provide teachers and parents with feedback about teaching and learning practices.

Policy Statement
The Geelong College assessment policy is informed by research and best practice. There is an expectation that discipline areas will draw on assessment research relevant to their field to underpin how this policy is implemented.

The statements below outline the principles of assessment at the College.

  1. Assessment must reflect the values of the College
  2. Assessment practices should be consistent with the College’s Vision for Learning, including a range of formative, summative, self and peer assessment strategies.
  3. Assessment practices must be conducted and undertaken ethically and with honesty and integrity by staff and students.
  4. An appropriate and diverse assessment portfolio in and across each subject area should demonstrate an articulation and application of knowledge and understanding, skills and competencies.
  5. The design of any assessment should take into account the requirement for timely, meaningful and constructive feedback to be given to students on their assessments.
  6. Assessment practices and processes must be continuously monitored for quality assurance and improvement purposes.
  7. It is expected that assessment tasks are assessed with clear expectations and this can include normative and criterion-referenced approaches.

Responsibility for implementation
Director of Teaching and Learning
Heads of School
Deputy Heads of School
Heads of Department
Curriculum Coordinators

Relevant policies
Reporting
Grading
Vision for Learning