Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sharing the wisdom of creative teachers - the agenda for the future.

Quote from Goethe.

Last week I attended a farewell for an excellent teacher.

All the principals who had been involved with the teacher's career, since she had returned to teaching after raising her family, were invited to her current school  be part of the celebration.

We were all asked to say a few words. The teacher concerned had returned to teaching when I was principal in the 90s. My comments centred around the thought that in our profession we do not really value, or take advantage, of such excellent teachers and that it is a shame that their wisdom is not able to be captured and shared with others.

Learning from other teachers, both within and between schools, is the most powerful form of professional development. Every teacher respects and appreciates the reality that any such advice is based in contrast to many current  advisers who , more often than not ,  give advice about things they have never put into practice.

That school leadership has not taken advantage  expertise between schools has meant that wisdom and an opportunity for teacher leadership  has been lost.

In my experience all the lasting innovations have been developed by , or in collaboration with, classroom teachers - particularly those few who are really gifted or creative.

In reply the teacher concerned thanked all who spoke and the support of all on the current school staff.

I was impressed with her thanks to me for helping her develop her teaching philosophy when she returned to teaching - particularly the idea of doing fewer things well, providing students with whatever help they need and expecting quality work from all students. Simple stuff but it makes all the difference. She even commented on the challenging staff meetings we used to have!

I had only been a principal for few years before the teacher concerned won her position at the school. Previously I  had been an art adviser, and prior to that, a science adviser. Hardly a typical background but during my previous experience I had learnt a lot from all my classroom visits and was the ideas gained from such experiences that I introduced into the school.

Visiting classrooms in the 1960s, helping teachers with their natural history programmes ( and later science generally), I soon began to appreciate teachers whose classrooms stood out as particularly exciting environments. In those early days such teachers were more often that not teaching principals of rural schools - teachers who had escaped from formality of the  more traditional  bigger town schools.

Such teachers took advantage of the ideas 'in the air' at the times.It was the 60s and schools were changing dramatically. Language experience  teaching, centres of interests, integrated programmes and related arts. The rigid timetables of the fifties were  breaking down with this emphasis on child-centred learning.

As an adviser I was able to observe some of the first integrated studies to be developed centred around science and social studies. In my advisory  position I was able to assist teachers with integrated studies  based around ecological community studies - seashore, bush and river life. Today ,I guess, It would be called inquiry learning. It was learning in depth and, as well, students expressed their ideas in language, art and drama. The local advisers worked together to develop and share innovative between teachers and the local inspectors made use of such teachers for professional development. The art and craft advisers, in particular, led the way with integrated related arts courses -and in rural  school principals they found their greatest supporters.

Added to the mix of ideas were idea about integrated learning coming out of the UK and ,after spending a year teaching in very creative school, I returned to work with a group of local teachers in the 1970s.

The creative work undertaken by such teachers became well known nationally as the Taranaki Environmental Approach. As a group we also discovered the ideas of pioneer creative teacher Elwyn Richardson through his book 'In The Early World'. For a few years I returned to the classroom to see if I could put ideas I had gained into action. Then, after a brief time back as science adviser I became an art adviser and then a principal.

It was the ideas gained from my experiences, working with and observing teachers, that I wanted to introduce as a principal.

The phrase 'Environmental Education' has since morphed into 'Quality Learning'. The term 'environmental approach' had originally meant placing importance of the total environment created ( today called culture), making use of the immediate environment for much of the schoolwork, and the quality of classroom displays and recorded work.

This brings me back to the ideas learnt and shared by the leaving teacher.

An overriding belief was that our student's can achieve far more than we currently expect.

A key idea I introduced when a principal was that integrated inquiry studies should provide most of the inspiration and energy for the days programme -everything should be introduced as a problem to be solved and that in the process we should value children's question and prior ideas. The inquiry model to be used was the Learning In Science Project model which required teachers to value and expand  children'sknowledge. Our rich local environment was to be our most valuable resource - and observational skills an important element.

Our role is to develop the gifts and talents of all students through exposure to a wide range of studies and means of expression.

Children's ideas should be celebrated in all subject areas and in particular we need to celebrate the children's personal experiences through language and art to develop, in all children, a positive sense of self; to celebrate their 'voice'.

Reading and maths should be planned to provide skills needed for inquiry studies as much as possible.

As teachers we need to 'slow the pace' of children's work to ensure they achieve quality work; to do 'fewer things well'.

To achieve quality all appropriate skills need to be taught ( often during the language block).This particularly applied to all written work where teachers and students ought to be able to show continual quality improvement in thought and presentation.

Expectations, tasks, and group work, need to be negotiated and clearly defined on blackboards to allow teachers to work as 'creative coaches' with selected students and for students to be able to work independently.

Room environments to feature well displayed finished work with appropriate headings to inform visitors.

All these idea were gained from ,and by working with, classroom teachers supported by local advisers.

Today the opposite is all but true.'Best practices' are imposed on schools by contracted advisers. Compliance and conformity are valued more than creativity; technique and process above in depth personal knowledge and creativity Standardisation is being asked for rather than personalisation.

Time for teachers to claim back centre stage to transform schools.

The 2007 National Curriculum provides inspiration with its vision of 'connected, confident life long learners'  - learners able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge'. The current emphasis on testing,  achievement data, and standards in literacy and numeracy are reactionary steps back to the fifties - along with ability grouping and streaming.

We can't afford to lose the wisdom of our creative or retiring teachers.

But the battle now is to go beyond quality into creativity led by a  new group of creative teachers; and the key is to tap into the creative teachers between schools

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