Revealing the Secrets: ResearchEd Surrey 2019

What can we observe from the Hidden Lives of Teachers?

In his hugely revealing book The Secret Lives of Learners’ Graham Nuthall explored the world of learners in the classroom. From this study we saw how students saw concepts which were being taught, their own positions as learners and how widely varied, and sometimes utterly bonkers, their misconceptions about the world was.

As keynote speaker of ResearchEd Surrey this year, Professor Becky Allen, decided to reveal some of the hidden aspects of teachers lives, and revealing these were indeed. Back in 2017 Becky, Laura McInerney and Alex Weatherall set out on a journey, driven by a sense of failure, disbelief and lack of autonomy, to find out as much as they could about teachers lives. Becky was intrigued by the way in which retention levels continued to fall; Laura found the rhetoric in the press about teachers simply hard to believe, and Alex was concerned about the lack of autonomy teachers had over their own voices. Everyone seemed to have something to say about teaching, except for those who were living it, day in day out.

Thus, Teacher Tapp was born, an app which is designed to gather insight into the sphere of teaching in return for quick CPD opportunities and the occasional discounts and prizes. Now in 2019 there are approximately 6000 teachers who regularly contribute to this survey, allowing a significant insight into the experiences, beliefs, behaviours and feelings of teachers today.

Those insights which Becky shared yesterday were both interesting and troubling. They also resonated deeply with me and set the tone for the rest of the day well.

Agree to disagree

Education is a world which seems superficially simple, she told us, with simple structures where we allocate 30 students into groups and assign allotted times with different adults over their school lives or days. However, what underlies this is immense diversity, a diversity which stems from the myriad of people who make up the teaching profession. There are a huge range of different beliefs about what we do and why, about how we do it, when we should do it and even if we should do it. There is no consensus as to what an ‘optimal’ lesson looks like and, as of yet, science is unable to provide a template for this. Debate continues within our profession as to whether teaching is indeed a science or an art and if there is something therefore innate within ‘good’ teachers which simply cannot be taught. All of sudden that which appears to be simple really isn’t and when we look to how to develop teaching practice we are confronted with this range of belief, ingrained habit (absolutely necessary in order to have fluency) and a desire not to disrupt our familiar way of working. This is why making changes in education can be hard. Very hard.

Lonely in a crowd

Becky went on to talk about the lonely aspect of the job. Whilst teaching is without a doubt ‘lovely’ we spend a great deal of time bombarded by interactions. However, these interactions tend to be with children as opposed to colleagues. US Sociologists have found that when placed in positions where we have continuous demands placed on us due to these interactions, we create ‘adaptive strategies’. This may mean avoiding other interactions, opting to take our lunch away from our peers and allowing ourselves the time to decompress. This then leads to other consequences which Teach Tapp has been exploring, whereby teachers simply do not have the time to have discussions with colleagues, get feedback or share professional knowledge, beyond the designated slot of the timetable, which is usually small and infrequent in my experience, however much we try to provide opportunities for this in meetings and CPD sessions.

In my own experience I know that, whilst some of the time I will choose to have lunch in my room to work, other times I catch myself subconsciously avoiding the communal space. This is often related to my own sense of wellbeing and I know I am protecting myself from the general noise and hubbub of the corridors and the staffroom. I just need the quiet. However, although on the surface this appears to be a sound decision, in my case it is not always a sensible choice and can be a distinct red flag waving and insisting that I reconsider my workload and priorities. ‘Hiding’ at my desk for me is not always healthy and those interactions with my colleagues are as valuable as the quiet time I sometimes crave. Even the seemingly unrelated conversations about weekends, evenings and families, help to build an environment where you can explore professional practice in a way which is supportive and non-threatening, and I need to be careful not to opt out of this. A ‘low-threat, high challenge’ environment, to borrow from Mary Myatt, is one I can thrive in, if I make sure I am engaging and not isolating myself.

If we find ourselves isolated it is not just the feedback and professional dialogue we lose, but also our ability to be involved in the decision-making processes, challenging working practices and asking questions of our co-workers and leaders. In an environment devoid of adult interactions, we can be left feeling without a voice and without a choice, something which cannot really end well for the profession. Becky was certainly intimating that we see some of those consequences as we struggle to fill vacancies or watch yet another colleague head off for a career outside of teaching.

Workload and autonomy

However, we do have some choice and autonomy over aspects of our work and Becky also discussed what the team have learnt about teachers working hours. They found that, whilst other working practices see the day condensed into a clear 9 to 5 slot, teachers have stretched this to cover anything from 6 in the morning until 10 at night. Again, this is something I have been familiar with, having started teaching when my son was young. I would often leave school at 4 on evenings where there was no meeting, spend a few hours with my family, and then begin work once he was safely tucked up in bed. This could lead to marking or planning up until 10 at night, but this suited me for a while. Increasingly though I found that this regime was impacting on my sleep patterns, especially as I adopted greater responsibility in my role, and I needed to reconfigure my day. I have done this with my working day on numerous occasions now each time my role has changed, and I like the fact that I do have ownership and flexibility around this, assuming of course others in my institution don’t have differing ideas. This autonomy is important to me and I still will spend time in the evenings and weekends working, but on my sofa, in my environment, with access to those I love nearby. Hell, I even opt to spend my Saturdays at education conferences or reading books about education.

However, interestingly Becky pointed out that sometimes this very autonomy that many of us crave, coupled with a desire for creativity and perfection, can lead to us placing inappropriate demands on ourselves. We struggle to know when ‘good enough’ is really good enough, seeking to perfect that resource or tweak our plans a little more. I’ve been guilty in the past of rewriting lessons I teach each year, not just to adapt for my class, but because I thought of a more interesting approach that I wanted to use. I’m not sure whether at the end these lessons were actually better as opposed to ‘different’. In other sectors managers may step in and set clearly defined parameters around different tasks, something which certainly doesn’t appeal to me, but may at times be necessary for others, and that brings me to another of Becky’s points; we know less about other teachers than we think.

One size doesn’t fit all

Despite working in the same schools, the same departments and even sometimes sharing the same rooms, our experiences as teachers are all very different. Our experiences as human beings are all very different and we are back to the significant diversity which exists in the profession. Just as Graham Nuthall found with the learners, the way we experience, shape and understand the world is very different and we need to be careful not to make assumptions about other teachers based upon our personal experiences. When we are putting in place ‘all encompassing’ policies for our schools we need to be aware that one size doesn’t fit all. This neatly links to the session in the afternoon with Chris Moyse talking about his model for developing staff called ‘Growing Great Teachers.’ He talked about how ‘one size fits one’ and how when considering developing teaching practice it needs to be flexible. What one person wants in terms of feedback is not the same as another and how you might develop that dialogue will be different again. If we make assumptions about other teachers, we are at risk of not providing the support needed by an NQT or RQT, said Becky, but equally we are doing everyone a disservice in my view.

The session from Becky and the later one from Chris, most certainly reminded me of the importance of really taking time to listen to your colleagues. We need to avoid making assumptions when we think about our colleagues or building policies which feed into a simple system when what we have is an incredibly diverse workforce. What may work for one person in their pattern of working hours may not work for another. For some people it may be important to redesign that worksheet yet again, but equally they may need a nudge to move on. If we take the time to genuinely listen, then maybe we can understand a little better what we all might need. Maybe then we could stop the hemorrhaging of teachers from the profession we have seen over the last decade. Maybe we can support each other to develop or professional practice and even have time to pop down the pub together (apparently this rarely happens in schools now, but seems to occur more in schools deemed ‘outstanding’- not sure what we can take from that!).

Drawing it together

I felt there was an interesting shift in the focus of the presentations I saw yesterday when compared to previous events. Curriculum was still there, as was data and assessment and principles of instruction. But there seemed to be a greater sway towards wellbeing than I have seen before. Maybe it was the sessions I had selected or the people who happened to be there kindly giving up their time to talk to us, but in the majority of the sessions the discussion seemed to include aspects of these ‘Hidden Lives’ Becky had started us off with. I found this refreshing and enlightening, and of course sometimes saddening. It made me reflect on how I am interacting with my colleagues, how I am supporting them and developing them and how I am allowing them to develop me. As always at these events there were examples of excellent practice with people such as Rebecca Foster, Michael Chiles and Ben White sharing what is working for them. And as expected we had plenty of research references and book recommendations to go away and explore (I’m especially looking forward to prizing the Michael Young book from my other half’s hands which was mentioned more than once over the day).

However, I think my biggest take-away was definitely about our hidden lives. I am going to looking at my colleagues just a little differently on Monday morning and I’m going to be asking myself a few more questions. That is always the beauty of events such as these; whether it is being introduced to the work of Robert Bjork (whom Rebecca Foster has a huge academic crush on by the way), or finding out how people are implementing assessment which works for their schools, or considering how you might be creating a culture which supports boys underachievement, there should be something which changes the way you think, even just a little bit, so you can go back into school with some fresh eyes and perhaps even some fresh ideas.

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching – a guide to teaching if it was left to the teachers, is out now!

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