The Value of Collaborative Professional Learning
In 2017 my family and I took a year for ourselves. We wanted some adventure. We wanted to spend more time together. We wanted new experiences and to challenge ourselves. We got all of that and more. Very little of it was what we’d imagined, but all of it was probably what we needed!
We were lucky enough to gain two teaching positions in a small school in the Pacific for twelve months. The school had no need at the time for Science teachers (our ‘expert’ area) but we were happy to take on the roles of the Year 5 teacher and the Maths teacher.
From the very beginning we knew that the learning curve for us was going to be steep. We were taking on new teaching roles in a country far from home with a rich and unfamiliar culture. We were working with many students who only spoke English at school. We were working with much larger classes in much smaller spaces. We were working with other teachers with vastly different experiences and beliefs to ourselves. We were working with very limited access to ICT in a tropical climate in a developing country.
I have been very lucky to have the opportunity for excellent mentorship in every role that I have worked in in South Australia. Access to Professional Learning is not difficult. In fact, it is expected that teachers will engage in extensive learning and reflection.
But I realise now that I had often engaged in quite a ‘haphazard’ manner. If an opportunity sounded useful, I’d take it. If one of my leaders suggested that I engage with some learning, I’d do it. It was just part of my job and I enjoyed it. It was difficult (perhaps impossible!) to imagine what working life would be like if those opportunities did not exist.
By the end of my first day at work (spent moving furniture and relabelling shelves) I had questions regarding effective use of learning spaces. How should I set up my room? Where should I put the resources in order to keep it neat but make them accessible? How could I make sure there were places for students to work collaboratively, have opportunity for quiet concentration, see the board, and move through the space without disturbing each other?
By the end of the first week (getting to know my students) I needed better strategies for working with EALD students. How could I differentiate the resources that I had so that they could access them? Was it OK to have other students translating for them? How could I structure my time so that I could give them the attention that they needed? How could I increase their independence and confidence?
By the end of the first month I felt overwhelmed by questions regarding structuring my term plans, my timetables and my curriculum documentation. Everybody else’s timetables and plans looked different to mine. The plans that I submitted to Leadership came back to me with so many corrections. The learning and assessment activities that I had imagined that we would undertake were being replaced by tasks that felt disconnected and which I struggled to make engaging.
I was deep in a Learning Pit. I was desperate for answers and felt that I was sinking deeper and deeper with each passing day. I’ll jump to the end of this story now. By the end of the year, I felt a lot better. I tried lots of configurations for the classroom and never found the ‘perfect’ one, but I found ones that worked at certain times, for certain activities. My EALD students’ English improved and I found lots of strategies that they seemed to enjoy or find useful and which weren’t too difficult to employ. I struck a balance with leadership as to how my planning would be done and as time passed their trust in my practice seemed to increase. I, in turn, understood and respected their desire to see concrete, daily routines enacted. Things got better with time and I wouldn’t swap the experience, even if I could. One day, I’d like to do it all again.
But it didn’t get better just by wishing. The ladder to get out of the Learning Pit was Professional Learning and reflection!
I desperately wanted the chance to sit and talk with another teacher, to ask questions and bounce ideas off of them. I wanted to be able to access online Learning Communities, YouTube clips and courses that would help me to answer my questions. I wanted an extensive library of texts that I could read in the afternoons (in the shade of a palm tree!) which would give me practical tips – but that was not going to happen in the manner to which I was accustomed!
- In short, I realised very quickly what the role of Professional Learning is in a teacher’s life. A teacher at any stage of their career. It’s a way to learn new skills. To meet new people. To get new ideas. To recalibrate and refresh.
So what do you do when you can’t do that? Here are my ‘Big 5’ helpful strategies:
I kept a journal of reflections. Writing it down helped me to find patterns in what often seemed so chaotic. Quite often I would wake up in the early hours of the morning, worried about some aspect of my work. Writing it down put things into perspective.
- I watched other people and asked them “Why?” Different teachers have different strengths and by observing my colleagues and discussing those aspects of their practice with them, I found that I learnt a lot about their strategies and motivations. Many of my colleagues had been teaching in situations similar to this for many years and had developed excellent strategies. Non-teaching staff were not immune to my observations! Administration staff and cleaners also had understandings about the school and the community that were invaluable. This also helped to start conversations which eventually led to friendships.
- I ‘mimicked’ the practices that I liked. By trying out different ideas, I felt that I became more adaptable and I found strategies that worked for my class. This didn’t always work, but it felt good to give things a go and gave me opportunity to reflect.
- I scoured the school for texts and found more than I had expected. Old books left behind by teachers who had come and gone. Good teaching strategies don’t seem to go out of date. I read them, thought about the students in my class and then tried my best. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. It was better than not trying.
- I wrote to people that I trusted back home. This was good for many reasons. Firstly, it reminded me that I could be a competent and effective teacher! Secondly, writing concisely was another method of reflecting on experiences. Thirdly, they had good advice. And the best advice that I received was to ‘consider the context’. I was far from home in a very different role – I shouldn’t expect it to be the same and I should adapt my practice to suit my new situation. This initially read as unsympathetic, but it was true. And it (eventually) worked.
To summarise, I returned to Australia with a greater understanding of the value of Professional Learning and especially of the value of collaboration in this field. Since returning I have re-evaluated my ‘learning goals’ and found that this has sharpened my understanding of exactly which opportunities I have a passion to be involved in and why. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. But I was lucky enough to be able to get it back!