Michael Gove, late of the educational parish, had a number of go-to phrases designed to light up his many opponents in a blaze of fury: “the Blob” was the most famous, but the one I always saw irritate more than made any sense was his remark that England currently had “the best generation of teachers ever”. Despite some over-reading this as a criticism of older teachers, Gove and many other politicians who have made similar observations, are undoubtedly correct: the quality of teachers and teacher-training, both at entry to the profession and whilst in-post, is significantly better now than it was a decade ago. TeachFirst has led the way in bringing a new, more entrepreneurial attitude into our staffrooms, and many long-serving staff have leapt at the chance to enhance their professional skills.
Given the knowledge of pedagogy, curriculum creation and behaviour management that is in many places so strong across the English educational system, the question becomes how best to share such expertise? The days of five hours INSETs led by suspiciously well-fed individuals with rather thin teaching CVs are surely over, as teachers recognise that the power to improve may well be in the next classroom and not some generic PowerPoint presentation. But this presents a stark problem: in schools where there is much excellent practice, interchange is relatively straight-forward, perhaps simply over a cuppa in the staffroom, but in schools with inexperienced or inexpert educators, peer-to-peer training which does not reach beyond a single institution serves rather to lock in the very weaknesses staff may be striving to overcome.
Teachers have not been idle in seeking to solve that problem: new institutions have been flourishing, from entities like ResearchED with multiple conferences now spanning the globe focussing on the real lessons of academic educational research, to informal TeachMeets up and down the land in which much of the audience are also the presenters, bringing everything from simple tips for quicker marking to fully interactive assessment procedures which can vary from student to student. Much of this has been conducted with limited input from politicians, though the TeachMeet formula has been replicated as PolicyMeets at both Labour and Conservative Party Conferences, in which educational policy-makers have met teachers on an equal footing. The teacher trade unions have been slower to awaken to massive potential of (and demand amongst) teachers for opportunities to network and share, though my own union, NAHT Edge, has been established to build a form of unionism fit-for-purpose in this new age of teacher interaction. The potential for a unity of workplace representation and networks of best practice is very strong.
Beyond the face-to-face, Twitter has been a revelation for many teachers, allowing them to build networks and debate crucial issues with people whom geography may previously have prevented them ever meeting. My own views have been hugely influenced by a number of people, most of whom I met only after discussions on the internet and some of whom I still have yet shake hands with. Even though the online space can tend towards polarisation and the whole range of teachers are not proportionately represented amongst its loudest voices, the opportunity to directly ask, say, primary colleagues how they teach reading, or to explain to university tutors exactly what kind of essay work students are expected to complete at GCSE is a genuine boon, as well as being remarkably easy. The flattening of hierarchies can also bring some much-needed understanding to classroom teachers about management decisions (and vice versa!)
The point of all this being that networking should now be considered an essential tool for the most successful teachers: the more active a participant within those networks you are, the better for your career, because you can pick up strategies which are better for the students that you teach. Next month, I will be hosting an event designed to introduce and illustrate the benefits of face-to-face and online networking as part of the Education Innovation Conference in Manchester. Over a very relaxed set of nibbles, key speakers from elsewhere in the conference will have a brief chance to share their own insights before those present in person and via Twitter can ask questions and make observations. Such more flexible and open forms of meeting offer a window into a future which is being built by working teachers right now, where expertise is validated by experience, and distance is no bar to dialogue.
As plans move forward for a new College of Teaching and new forms of school organisation and policy shaping spring up in the wake of the decade of change schools have experienced, the best generation of teachers ever has a very real opportunity to work collaboratively to make the next generation better yet.
About the author
John David Blake is an assistant head teacher in London. To see him at EICE visit http://www.educationinnovation.co.uk for free registration and follow @EICEmanchester for show updates.