Building your house: Teaching in the Long Term

white and red wooden house with fence Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

At the start of the PGCE I use a recurring image with my students of a house under construction.  I set out that our aim during the ITE year is to dig and lay the foundations upon which their teaching career (the ‘house’) will be built.  This process will be necessarily messy work as we excavate their preconceptions and assumptions.  They need to be prepared to dig tunnels which seem to lead nowhere at first, but which ultimately become the channels through which their subject knowledge for teaching will flow.  They need to accept that these foundations will look incomplete and rough around the edges with cement oozing through the breeze block construction. And yet from this will come the firm foundation upon which they can build a teaching career for the long term. 

In my last blog I talked about how a PGCE student could be helped to end their ITE year well. However, when I bade farewell to my PGCE students last week, my primary concern was to help them think through how they might continue to build their house by embracing the ways of thinking they’ve established this year as learning, critiquing, researching classroom practitioners.

Practical approaches to building

  • Prioritising the development of their historical subject knowledge through continued engagement with history scholarship.

As the pressures of an NQT year pile in, one of the first things that suffers is continued enhancement of subject knowledge.  In these circumstances, beginning teachers will focus upon the pragmatic subject knowledge required for their next lesson, rather than striving to build their broader curricular understanding.  Continuing to engage with historical scholarship – seeking the debates and the ‘real questions’ of history – is vital for their development and for constructing relevant and significant historical enquiries.  Finding mechanisms to encourage this is really important for most NQTs – joining the Twitter-based History Teacher’s book club is a simple but effective way of encouraging regular scholarship reading for example.  Most powerful though is the history department that reads ‘together’, uses that reading to influence curriculum design, and makes scholarship central to their departmental CPD.    

  • Thinking through and trying out history specific pedagogies in their classroom

One thing the mentor of every beginning history teacher should do is encourage them to join their professional association, in this case the Historical Association.  Effective teaching of history resides in a deep appreciation for the subject and the subject knowledge required for teaching.  Generic pedagogical advice is everywhere.  Whilst there are undoubtedly things which can be learnt from the generic, it is no replacement for being plugged into a subject specific community.  Engaging in partnership with a local HEI, being part of the HA, staying in touch with Teaching History, using their webinar and podcast resources to build subject knowledge, attending the superb HA and Schools History Project conferences should be supported by departments and schools aiming to build and develop their teachers.  The best history teachers are those equipped to avoid jumping on the latest fashionable classroom fad.  The best history teachers are those who draw on their experience whilst remaining engaged with a professional subject community which explores and develops a critical discourse around the best ways to help children to understand history. 

  • Remaining engaged with broader research

I am growing in my appreciation of the opportunity that Twitter and social media presents for the Education community to stay abreast of new ideas and debates.  However, I am also struck by the danger of reducing everything to 140 characters – ideas can either tend towards overly reductive simplicity or polemical soundbites.  It is in this context that I would challenge the (regularly asserted) notion that Twitter is the ‘best CPD you can find’.  What it does offer, however, is a springboard, an access point into the policy, research and informed discourse.   Beginning teachers need support to understand how they can best remain critically informed and how to analyse and evaluate reports that ‘research says’ a certain approach is effective.  They need encouragement to ‘chase the lead’ and delve into the research and policy behind the headline.  They need the space to engage in professional debate in a school-based team, or another community of real-life teachers (such as through an MA or regional network), not just in the Twitter-sphere. 

  • Develop classroom practice by understanding context

During their PGCE training year, beginning teachers receive an onslaught of feedback from their mentors, tutors and through their own reflective evaluation process.  As the induction year gathers pace, initial feelings of elation around the freedom and agency they now enjoy can quickly subside to be replaced by a sense of uncertainty around their competency now no one is ‘watching’.  A supportive department and induction mentor will help their beginning teacher to continue developing good habits around their own classroom practice.  This could involve them being encouraged to continue with their lesson evaluations, filming and analysing their own lessons, undertaking observation of colleagues, support to understand how the data being generated might inform their teaching, and developing small-scale classroom-based research studies to trial and test new approaches.  It should definitely involve drawing them into the curriculum planning process early on; modelling how schemes of work are designed, refined and combine to create coherent programmes of study.

Building the house for the long term

I want my students to continue striving and building, to love history and to take joy in comprehending more of it each day.  Ultimately, I want them to achieve consistent competency and expertise in their practice.  However, our house analogy ends with a reality check which will resonate with every homeowner: just when you think you’ve finished building your house you realise the work is never done as the need for a refurb begins.

The mark of a teacher for the long term is one who understands their practice can always be improved and who seeks opportunities to reskill and engage in development and refurbishment, one who enjoys the process as much as the finished product. 

Further Reading:

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. & Major, S. E. (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research, https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/What-makes-great-teaching-FINAL-4.11.14.pdf.

Shulman, L.S. (1986) those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching, Educational Research, 15 (3), pp.4-14.

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