Today I got up and went out on my bike. It was one of those bright blue mornings that reminds you that summer is not a fiction, but one cold enough to root it firmly in winter. From my vantage point at the top of the hill where I live I could see out across the town and over to the tops of the hills across the valley. They were drenched golden, and rolls of mist enveloped the moors beyond.
I knew what was up there, on those hills across the valley. I could picture close-up what I could see from a couple of miles away. I’d been there before and I knew it would be good to get to those places. But I wasn’t sure exactly which roads to take to get there.
And very soon, after a quick descent, I found myself in town. Surrounded by traffic – people going about the busyness of their day – and by tall buildings. Cycling in shadows. No longer could I see the heights I had come down from nor the hill I wanted to climb. I had traffic lights to heed, junctions to navigate, impatient drivers to consider. But I knew something of the general direction and steered my course towards the valley sides.
Steadily I began to climb again, and I began to see, thanks to a long, straight climb, something of my goal. That precious sunlight once again, making the ordinary extraordinary. I climbed. And I stopped to turn, to take in the view again, and to see what I had already achieved – something I have learned to do both in life and on my bike.
Very soon – after a quick photo opportunity - I was off again, navigating now even steeper climbs. Steeper, harder, but all the while a reminder that I was well on my way to where I was headed. Hindered somewhat by the very sunlight I sought and a lack of sunglasses – I had not been prepared enough – I made my way upwards.
The urban became suburban and soon I was out, up on the tops – the tarn, the fields, the farms and their dry stone walls. I was bathed in sunshine – where I wanted to be. It had taken a bit of effort but it most certainly was worth it – I was on top of the world.
Quite quickly, I started my descent – long and leisurely, brakes applied so as to take in the view, no cycle computer to egg me on to ever faster speeds. I noticed the way the light layered the landscape, and how the low-lying cloud formed illusions of newly-wrought mountains. I saw the history in my surroundings, the clues of the past, at one with the geography.
And then I was down; down in the valley once again. No longer coasting, but back to putting some effort in. Back to those steady rotations that keep a rider moving. But I wasn’t in the town any more. The squat buildings here more spaced out, the traffic less frantic, the twists and turns easier to navigate. The sunlight came through too here – I didn’t need to be hundreds of feet high to feel its warmth and benefit from its light.
And all the while I was thinking of how apt an analogy this was for us as teachers when it comes to our own development.
You see, we are at work at town-level.
In the town itself there is the hustle and bustle – the busyness. Things get in our way, distract us, block us from doing what we want to do. In the school environment, and in the classroom, there are 101 things to think about – the proverbial plates to spin. And, sometimes, in the demanding immediacy and the madness of it all, we can’t see anything other than what’s right in front of us. So we get on with the job in the best way we know how.
The thing is, without us knowing it, we could be out in the sunshine at the top of a hill, or riding pleasantly down the other side, or, perhaps even better, taking an easier – but just as effective – route through the valley. We could perhaps be doing the job in a better way – a more efficient way, or a more effective way, for example.
The hills and the hill tops are the learning zone - where desirable difficulties allow us to become better teachers. Those moments where we are undertaking professional development. The downhill stretches are those times following good professional development opportunities where teaching seems to be a breeze for a while as we assimilate our new learning into our practice. The valley roads are the normal, everyday experiences of an expert, or even a developing teacher, who has managed to make good habits of the professional development they have received, embedding them in their practice making things just that little bit more efficient and effective.
Much of the time, we haven’t had the benefit of being up on the hill to begin with, looking over at the other hills and seeing what there is to be seen. If I lived in the town, and started off there this morning, I wouldn’t have seen the hilltops and wouldn’t have thought to go there. I might have just cycled around town, overshadowed and dicing with death. And, even though I had seen where I wanted to go, I could have struggled to find my way there as I was not able to see my final destination at all.
And this problem can affect novice and expert teachers alike – we are all learning teachers, and therefore there are always things we can learn to improve our teaching. But there are always obstacles that can get in our way, obscure our view.
Often novices either don’t know what they don’t know (the Dunning-Krueger Effect) or they do know there are things they don’t know, but don’t know how to start doing them. They are either cycling round town oblivious to the open countryside and roads beyond, or doing laps looking for the signs to the off ramp that will lead them onwards and upwards to where the sun shines.
Novices – newer, less experienced teachers – without guidance, may not know the possibilities that there are. They may not know that there are easier ways to work, more efficient ways to do things, more effective approaches to teaching. They are probably doing a great job, considering their levels of experience, it’s just that there is more.
They need a more experienced teacher to come alongside them - a mentor, a coach, or better yet, a partner – to show them the ways out of the clamour and chaos of the town. A partner who helps them to climb – doing the hard work of development – and shows them what is possible in terms of efficient and effective practice. A partner who has ridden this way before and knows the route and what awaits at the end. Indeed, one who knows that the peak of the hill is not the real destination, merely just a significant point on the journey, and a place that will be revisited many times during the career of a teacher who is always developing. A partner who is willing to share their own mistakes so others can learn from them, saying, “Put these on. Last time I came up I forgot mine and I couldn’t see a thing.”
And sometimes, just sometimes, novices can feel like they know all there is to know. This is different from not knowing what the possibilities are, and can be more dangerous. When we feel like we know a thing already, we are not open to new things, possibly even seeing the new things as the same as the things we already know, unable to discern the subtle differences that a more experienced teacher might be able to identify. Expert teachers who partner with such novices have to explicitly point out the differences between practices that might superficially look the same, but have some deeper differences – differences which make all the difference to the efficiency and effectiveness.
And it can be just as hard for experts. Experts are more likely to accept that there are things they don’t know, some of them suffer imposter syndrome and don’t even realise how much they already know, and others find it hard to put a finger on what they actually do already know – they just get on and do it.
It's not that experts work out on the hill top – they work down at town-level along with the rest of the teachers. They occupy the same terrain where the potential for distractions can be rife – perhaps even more so when extra responsibilities are factored in (for example, partnering with a novice teacher) – and where life and work is super-busy.
Sure, the experts have probably been to the hills – the places where the sun shines - but they don’t stay there. Experts know what is possible – they’ve seen the light – and they strive to bring that light down to town level. And often they manage it, and are working along those valley roads where everything is a bit brighter, a bit clear, and things take a little less time and have a greater impact. They’ve done the hard work of climbing the hills and have brought their experience back down with them.
But sometimes, it’s difficult for an expert teacher to actually explain what it is they do. And that’s where partnering with a novice teacher is actually beneficial for the expert too. In doing this, in riding with them and showing them the way and sharing their experiences, they are given cause to reflect forensically on what they do and how they do it. As they climb the hill again, this time with a novice beside them, they take more notice of the route and their technique, and their sense of achievement at the top comes from having taken someone else there: “I’ve been to this amazing place and seen the view: I’m so glad you’ve see it too now.”
And, I'm sure that most expert teachers, if they were honest, would admit to certain practices becoming habits, and not always necessarily good habits. It cna be hard to break these habits, and they, even though it can be awkward, need these to be pointed out just as much as novices do. And to be honest, there is nothing wrong with a novice being the one who questions things and challenges them. No expert should be above this. They might need to be forced back up that hill, into the learning zone.
And anyone in between
Perhaps there is a good term for teachers who are along continuum between novice and expert. We certainly don't remain novices, but neither do we become experts overnight, all of a sudden after being a novice for certain period of time. We are all, as I've said, learning teachers, somewhere on that line, moving from novice to expert.
And because of this, we all need our partners - the ones who we sharte this ride with, learning together, improving together. Teaching is not an individualistic thing - the responsibility for development is corporate. More than that, the only real way of truly developing teachers is corporate: teachers help teachers.
Teachers help teachers
It is often very difficult for us to make our own decisions about what CPD we need. We can be too bogged down in the craziness of the here and now to identify our needs - even expert teachers.
Developing a culture where teachers anywhere across the spectrum of novice to expertise are able to take advice from their fellow teachers about what their CPD needs might be. This might be through a mentor or coaching relationship, through a buddy system, through a year group partnership or just through general friendships with colleagues.
Who is it in your school who helps you to see what your CPD needs are?
Could you cultivate a relationship with a colleague which would enable you to suggest CPD opportunities to each other?
How, as an expert, would your CPD needs be supported by a novice teacher?
If you would like Aidan to work with you in your school, perhaps on instigating a culture of developmental coaching, or by providing staff training, you can find out more here: www.aidansevers.com/services