"This is the kind of PD we've been begging for: it's not a lecture, it's not a workbook; it's relevant, it's by teachers for teachers, it's confronting, it's engaging, it's important."
Earlier this year I wrote to some of the teachers with whom I've worked, and I asked them a number of questions:
- Did the process feel relevant to you
- Did it lead to any insights about your practice?
- Did it contribute to a sense of ongoing collegiality?
- Was it valuable?
- Would you recommend the process?
The responses are reproduced below.
The very first thing that occurred to me is how the process gives teachers this really quite paradoxical ability to consider the specific while at the same time completely removing themselves from the usual discourses that might surround that "specific".
What I have noticed when teachers get together to rant and vent about a challenge they are having in class is that the listening teachers will ask which students were involved. Once those names have been supplied, you're likely to get responses like, "oh Ted? he's like that for everyone." or "Bob? Yeah, he's just a bad egg, don't let it bother you." or, "Sarah? Oh you can't give THAT task to HER. What you need to do is..."
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there is anything wrong with this necessarily, or that these conversations don't have value. These are conversations that can be comforting when you feel demoralised, or helpful when you feel like you've run out of techniques.
But imagine if you could hold the specific in your own head, without your audience being limited to what they know or assume about the characters in your story. Imagine if you could... imagine?
Working with you guys on that story really blew open my assumptions and made me see not just one other perspective, but many. I found answers in there to my questions about the situation I was currently facing, but I've also thought back to our conversations to find ideas and new perspectives for new challenges that come up.
The whole process also gave me a strong sense of connectedness to a community. You three in particular, of course - I felt that if I ever needed to, you would be the people I could speak with honestly and know that my feelings would not be dismissed, trivialised or judged harshly.
Good luck, Steve, I think it's a great idea. I'm worried it might be a hard sell - not because teachers wouldn't want to do it, but because they might be worried it sounds too much like fun and not enough like justifiable work.
DID THE PROCESS FEEL RELEVANT TO YOU
I began working with Steve while I was shoulder-deep in my teaching practicum, and the process continued into my first year of teaching. I had ghosts from prac that were still dragging me down. So many things were clouding my head that I found it difficult to untangle issues and work through the challenges in front of me. The process of sharing and discussing with Steve and our other collaborators was intensely cathartic. In the first instance that was enough to make it relevant. Our debriefing sessions were very human. Safe, non-judgemental, honest. On a much deeper level, however, the process was extremely relevant to my teaching practice because it allowed me to treat incidents more objectively and critically. Steve offered lenses to view my experiences: pedagogical, analytical, critical, but also very human and real. I cannot think of any interaction or process that could have been more relevant to my needs during that difficult and hectic time, nor more supportive of me in my journey to becoming the teacher I wanted to be.
DID IT LEAD TO ANY INSIGHTS ABOUT YOUR PRACTICE?
Absolutely, and those insights continue to be relevant to me today. I saw areas of my teaching philosophy that were robust and valuable, and I felt supported in keeping those at the forefront of my practice. I also saw areas where I had been narrow-minded and quick to assume or dismiss. Steve's method for working through teaching experiences opens one in a way that I have never experienced from other PD. It made me more self-critical, but also more forgiving of myself, more patient and more resilient.
DID IT CONTRIBUTE TO A SENSE OF ONGOING COLLEGIALITY?
The whole experience led to a feeling of trust and respect between those involved, and I will always be grateful for the ongoing relationships that got their start with that story! I know that there are people who will listen to me without judgement and support me if I need them.
Perhaps surprisingly, however, is the feeling of collegiality the process gave me regarding others NOT involved in our story. I found the process really helped me think of other teachers in a different way: I came to understand differing opinions and methods not as adversarial but as potentially valuable. I am more willing in general to talk to other teachers, ask for opinions, and listen to their experiences as well.
WAS IT VALUABLE?
Undeniably. If I could work through a story with Steve on an annual basis, I would never turn down the opportunity. It was one of the most valuable experiences so far in my career.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND THE PROCESS?
Absolutely. This is the kind of PD we've been begging for: it's not a lecture, it's not a workbook; it's relevant, it's by teachers for teachers, it's confronting, it's engaging, it's important. But be warned: you can only get out what you put in.
DID IT FEEL RELEVANT?
The process of working in a small group on the Both Alike in Dignity Project not only felt relevant, it was relevant! By having an opportunity to voice the pressures, problems, dilemmas and struggles of our daily experience as new teachers gave us a genuine and authentic experience of articulating these pressure and then being proactive and responsible for ensuring that we viewed them in a way that was conducive to moving forward and addressing things in a productive way, or at least understanding them in a way that made them less intimidating or stressful. Instead of someone removed from our experience telling us what it was supposed to be like and then telling us how you're supposed to deal with the challenges of being an early career teacher, we were empowered to recognise, reflect on and address the realities we faced. The relevance of what we did was rooted in the project's capacity to engage us on a directly personal level.
DID IT LEAD TO INSIGHTS?
This project led to some very important insights for me. It helped me to understand that it is essential to look at situations from all perspectives, not just students, but also their parents, other staff as well as checking our own unconscious bias. The exposure to the experience of other teachers in other schools helped me to realise just how context specific education is. There is no one size fits all approach, and it really crystalised in my mind the importance of establishing yourself within the context you teach in and empathising not just with teenagers, parents and other teachers in general but figuring out what MY students, their parents and my colleagues needed from me. It also helped me recognise where I had achieved success through the processes I had followed, even if the outcome was inconclusive etc - critically reflecting on your practice and being open to the feedback and perspective of others is never a bad thing.
A SENSE OF ONGOING COLLEGIALITY?
Having a group of people that I trusted, with whom I could explore the challenges I was facing was a game changer for me. At times, my first year of teaching was isolating and I feared I would not survive it, however, the friendship and support I receive (and still receive to this day) from my writing group was part of what saved me. My positive experiences working in this dynamic, have lead me to seek other professional groups with whom I might connect and bond.
WAS IT VALUABLE?
Immensely valuable. While there are many sources of support that you can and should draw on at any time in your teaching career, but I think one of the things that is rare, but precious, is the time to immerse yourself in the circumstances that are having an impact on you. The truly lasting impact that this process has had for me is that it assisted me to become independently capable of self-reflection and true honesty about parts of my life as a teacher, without being afraid of what I might discover.
[Some of this] didn't appear as advantages at the time, but now that I am really far removed from that time in my life/career I can see and reflect on the impact it has had in a lasting way. I also believe it’s the influence of those other perspectives that has made it possible for me to reach a leadership position - if I hadn't learnt to be ok with sometimes being wrong, sometimes needing help and often having to reconcile myself to accepting things I can't control, then I couldn't be doing what I do now, which I love doing.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND THE PROCESS?
Yes, for anyone who is willing to be open minded and truly self-reflective.
DID IT FEEL RELEVANT?
The process of talking through experiences and issues I encountered with my teaching, as well as listening and contributing to my peers', with Steve felt very relevant. It was cathartic to express both frustrations and jubilations and analyse these in the light of pedagogical theories and other perspectives. I loved how Steve's extensive knowledge and deep understanding of education theorists helped to make sense of the feelings I was encountering teaching. While a lot of PD focusses on strategies, outcomes and skills (and still all very important!) Steve encouraged us and allowed us to explore our feelings and emotions and acknowledged the validity and complexity of those. We often get told how wonderful passionate teachers are, and this kind of PD allowed me to focus on that side of my teaching self, give it depth and make it stronger.
DID IT LEAD TO INSIGHTS?
Yes! It absolutely led to insights - into my own practice but it also opened up so many different ways of thinking about things that I hadn't thought about before. Sometimes they felt uncomfortable and challenging (for example the idea applied from Winnicott that our students were trying to destroy us to see if we remained) but the growth that those discussions inspired really did help calm and sustain me through some difficult times with certain students. The process too of working with other teachers provided insight and empathy into their issues as well, forcing each of us to put ourselves in each 'characters' position in a scenario and explore each of their own motivations and backgrounds. It gave me more patience and understanding dealing with colleagues at school.
A SENSE OF ONGOING COLLEGIALITY?
The collegiality experienced in the process was wonderful and I felt such privilege and honour in working with my peers and with Steve. I still sometimes pinch myself in later communications how fortunate I am to have access to such intelligent minds and caring, nurturing people. Even if a friendship doesn't form from these interactions, a definite respect will. Teachers are naturally intelligent, and questioning people however often times our minds aren't let free to wander and explore with the pressures of deadlines, admin and rules. Sitting down and talking with someone only about teaching, learning and students can be magical.
WAS IT VALUABLE? WOULD YOU RECOMMEND THE PROCESS?
It was very valuable. And you got a story at the end! I liked how the drafting process was conducted, allowing people time to process and give suggestions and ending up crafting something so true and yet so creative it was unrecognisable from the original experiences drawn on in the group. It acknowledges the complexity of teaching and the lived lives of all the individual people involved and explores how those lives interconnect for a few moments in time. Even the seemingly mundane can be become powerful in this way. Having the fictional story can create open discussion and empathy. It can't be a point of blame as its not 'real' but the issues and feelings that are invoked from its reading certainly are.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH STEVE?
Steve Shann is a wonderful human. He is sincerely interested in what you have to say and anything you say is thoughtfully considered. He makes you feel valued and your views valid. He has a wealth of experience both in academia and in schools and his own commitment to continuous learning and creativity helps to fill you up and give you confidence. I'm a science teacher and a very practical person, and while sceptical at first, Steve kept me intrigued and challenged the whole time. I didn't realise how much I'd not paid attention to unpacking and trying to understand my feelings professionally (and personally) until I met Steve. This process has helped me understand and value the relationship and interplay between theory and practice more than other activity at Uni, working in schools or any other PD. I would recommend it to anyone who is willing to try something a little different to have a genuinely rewarding and enjoyable PD experience.