Opt-in interest groups for teacher professional learning

Source: pixabay.com by @rawpixel

I wrote earlier this year about the individualised professional learning pathways model that my school is trialing this year. Teachers and leaders are now able to have more voice and choice in the internal process of professional learning in which they engage. Where before staff were allocated a school-based development process (such as coaching) based on their place in a three-to-four year cycle, we have in 2018 opened up a range of new options and each staff member negotiates with their line manager the one most appropriate to their career stage, interest and development needs.

One of these options is what we are terming ‘Professional Learning Groups’. These groups have been opted into by staff from PK to 12, from various faculties, and in a variety of roles including teachers, leaders and staff from libraries or co-curricular arenas. This year, of our 140-odd teaching staff, 40 chose to be involved in one of these groups, so each group includes about ten people. The following groups were on offer.

  • Teaching best practice
      • Members of this group have a particular interest in teasing out classroom teaching. From evidence-based methods to transfer to ensuring that they are able to ‘reach’ all students in their classes, they have come with a desire to focus on their core business as teachers: teaching!
  • Pedagogies of learning spaces
      • This group is made up of a range of teachers and leaders working in various learning spaces across the school, some of which are newly refurbished and some of which are well-established. There has so far been vibrant discussion and sharing of the practices, challenges, and benefits of co-teaching and teaching in open or flexible spaces.
  • ICT for teaching and learning
      • Members of this group have a range of expertise and needs surrounding the use of technologies for teaching and learning. They have so far been very interested in one another’s expertise and also in the targets each person is setting for themselves, and challenges each is facing. They have been able to offer one another advice.
  • Post-graduate study
      • My idea for this group came about when I was doing my PhD. Working in a school while moonlighting as a post-graduate student can be incredibly isolating as you rush from work to study. There are often few people with whom teachers and leaders can discuss their study, especially when it involves self-directed research. This group is as much about solidarity, support, recognition and acknowledgement of those engaged in further study as it is about research methods or dissertation writing.

As the recent Gonski 2.0 report surfaced, teachers would like time to talk about and collaborate around teaching. Groups like these can provide this opportunity. While from the outset I had a loose idea of what these groups would do—such engage in scholarly literature, reflect and workshop problems of practice together, share practice, visit one another’s classrooms, collaborate in online spaces—I am facilitating them in a way that allows the group’s interests and needs to lead the way the group operates. This means employing structures for collaboration and coaching-style language, but in a way that is open to the groups operating in ways that are unexpected or taking directions that are surprising. These are not groups at which I am the expert at the helm or the instructor filling colleagues with my knowledge. They are groups of expert practitioners whose value is in the rich expertise around the table, and the potential of professional conversation and collaboration about our daily work.

Each person has come to each group with a particular intention, and we fleshed these out in our first meetings. The opt-in nature of the groups has meant that staff have generally arrived with enthusiasm for being involved; they have chosen this pathway for themselves. As my leadership role is PK-12, and in a previous role I coached classroom teachers across the school around their classroom practice, I get to see the potential symbiosis between disparate areas of the school (like the co-teaching in Year 3 and in Year 11 Physics, literacy approaches from PK-12, common strategies for behaviour management and developing classroom culture or addressing students with particular learning needs), but many staff do not have the opportunity to see the connections between themselves and others in the organisation. How might a Year 12 Design and Technology teacher know that their design thinking process mirrors that of the Pre-Primary classroom? The luxury of spending time with colleagues who share similar interests and challenges cannot be underestimated, especially in the environment of a PK-12 school where so often we can be siloed in our year level or faculty teams. So far there seem real benefits to those from vastly different areas of the school workshopping similar challenges and goals, ones they may not have known they shared with colleagues until coming together.

Teachers and school leaders need professional learning opportunities that are at once self-chosen and self-directed, but also collaborative and supported. Often internal expertise goes unrecognised and untapped in schools. Looking outside and borrowing others’ practice has its benefits, but schools can and should consider the expertise of those within their own walls, rather than looking tirelessly to external ‘experts’. Teachers are experts in their own classrooms. School leaders are experts in their own school contexts. They deserve to be recognised as such, and to be given time and permission to deeply and collectively engage in the core aspects of their work.

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Performance pay: Don’t do it, Australia

Today the Australian media has reported that the Federal government is going to spend an extra $1.2 billion on education between 2018-2020, but that part of this money will go towards linking teacher pay to performance.

I am writing to urge Australia not to spend precious education budget money on teacher performance pay.

Performance pay initiatives have been experimented with around the world, including in Nashville, New York City, Dallas, North Carolina, Michigan, Israel, England, Kenya and India. See Leigh’s (2013) “The economics and politics of teacher merit pay,” which argues that merit pay negatively impacts teacher collegiality. Hattie, in his 2015 papers on what works and what doesn’t work in education, says that performance pay results in teachers working fewer hours with more stress and less enthusiasm. I agree with his warnings against trying to fix people and systems, and his suggestions that instead that the focus be on growth and collaboration.

Performance pay alienates teachers and is unsupported by evidence. There are those such as Hargreaves and Fullan (in their 2012 Professional capital) who criticise performance pay as demeaning, commodifiying and oversimplifying teaching and education. Until now I have been relieved that Australia has not gone the route of many North American states with teacher evaluation models that score teachers and schools. (I voiced my despair at the New York APPR reforms when they were announced.) Fullan and Quinn (in their 2016 Coherence) note that a policy focus on punitive accountability measures is crude, demotivating and has no chance of working. Wiliam (in his 2014 paper “The formative evaluation of teaching performance”) sees measures of teacher effectiveness as unreliable, noting that when teacher performance measures are linked to job or financial decisions, teachers are unlikely to innovate, tending instead to performance-teach to the evaluation. Also importantly, as Kemmis notes (in his 2010 chapter “What is professional practice?”), the quality of teaching and of teachers is not measurable by tests. So performance pay pits teachers against each other around questionable metrics.

These views are consistent with work around motivation, such as that by Dan Pink, David Rock and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Punishments and rewards don’t improve practice.

Negative drivers of change are ineffective in driving positive transformation. What Australia doesn’t need is to cultivate cultures of fear, competition and compliance in our schools. We need to invest in teachers and in education (a thousand times, yes!), but performance pay which alienates the profession and is ineffective in improving it, is not the way to go. We need collaboration, not compliance and competition. We need initiatives that trust and encourage teachers and principals to grow their practices and their schools. Australian educators need voice, agency and support to improve, not punitive sticks and accountability carrots.

Please, Australia, say ‘no’ to performance pay.

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Update: Since publishing this blog post I have written this piece on performance pay for teachers for The Conversation. I was also interviewed on Sydney radio station 2SER about this issue. You can listen here.

On the day I wrote this post, other grass roots education commentators have also reacted to today’s education funding announcements. Here is a list …

Joel Alexander: Merit pay in primary school is about as bad as it gets

Jon Andrews: Cruel optimism – Pay, performance and promises

Greg Ashman: How should Labor respond to the Australian government’s education proposals?

TER podcast with Cameron Malcher and Corinne Campbell: School funding special