The Best CPD
I love observing teaching and learning. I'm not talking about the formal, appraisal stuff with lots of time-consuming reports for the benefit of pay progression. I just mean being inside the classroom, looking and listening, shoulder to shoulder with the children. It's the best place to see the magic happen and to reflect on what works and what doesn't. Whilst the term 'observation' may be loaded with unhelpful connotations, the process of continually looking, experiencing and reflecting in this way, can be the most rich and meaningful form of professional development.
After graduating, I had a momentary realisation that I had spent my life studying something that had no real vocation at the end of it. At this point I was offered the chance, unpaid, to paint a wall mural in a school. After this period of voluntary work, it was suggested that I went for the job as a teaching assistant. I was grateful for the opportunity, and with a starting salary of 6k a year, it was marginally better that being on the dole, although technically unemployed during holidays, I was able to sign on.
This may not look like a great place to start for a graduate, but it turned out to be profound. This post was in a special needs school and so I began to work with a lot of children from 4 to 18. It was pretty big and incorporated a specialist unit for children with Autism. Over the next four years I worked with a lot of very different teachers and helped lots of children to learn well. Every teacher brought something very different to their classroom and I can still remember their lessons now. Observing, listening and supporting, hour after hour, day after day. I supported teachers on school trips, residentials and in other schools when integrating pupils. After 4 years I left for London having seen at least 20 or 30 teachers apply their trade.
'Taking a lesson plan and adapting it to work is a skill. If you only have minutes to do this, and the success of the lesson depends on it, then it's high stakes.
When you're teaching to the class and you see that glazed look in the eyes of your TA, I can bet that they're processing how they are going to interpret effectively to the children.'
As I landed in London, aspiring to other things, it was this experience that enabled me to work. With the London living allowance, I made 10K a year working in the autistic resource base of a large primary in Hackney. Here I supported 12 different children across all year groups. This school was a joyous place, with children and teachers from all over the world. And whilst I dreamed of bigger things, I supported very different teachers and children with complex needs. By the time I began my teaching qualification 4 years later, I would say that I'd seen at least another 40 teachers teach.
After 30 years in education, I now know that this was the best form of CPD that you can get. For every course, book, inset and appraisal, this was is the Holy Grail. The shortfall in salary was made up for with opportunity. By the time I had qualified as a teacher, 9 years after graduating, I'd worked with hundreds of children, in all age groups, from all over the world, many with complex needs and I'd observed hundreds of lessons, covering every subject by a vast array of different teachers.
'Whilst we can recognise and value the critical role that our support staff play in school, It could be easy to underestimate just how much they actually know. I used to sit with our support staff most days for 10 minutes after lunch, and I'd hear them talking in detail about their experiences. All of them had worked with so many teachers and had a thorough understanding of standards across the school.'
I realise now how much we could inhibit critical teacher development by overlooking this opportunity. Once qualified, there's little or no opportunity to see anyone else teach. From here, many teachers will never know what happens outside of their own four walls. As a headteacher, I could find myself at times talking about standards in staff meetings, without realising that I was one of the few staff who actually knew what this looked like across the school. It can be hard to begin to define good teaching if your team only really know about what they know. The assumption could be that everyone does everything the same way, but they really don't.
Whether or not your support staff dedicate themselves to their current role or aspire to a future career in teaching, it pays to recognise and harness this experience in your school whenever you can. Seek to provide career progression and QTS so that you can fully utilise all of this expertise and experience in the long term.
At the end of the day, your support staff have observed far more lessons than you probably ever will.
The WIN / WIN
The gains from recognising the value of experience can be significant. If you can seek to offer experience within your school, then you can nurture and support from here. Theory and reflection are important, but it's hard to match the benefits of immersing people in the right environment. Seeking ways to enable your teachers to see each other teach is a serious logistical challenge. If your new appointments can bring this experience to your classrooms, then the dividends can be significant. I would be looking at the job application to see if this can be a possibility.
Whenever anyone approached me and asked about moving from the role of TA to teacher, I'd seek to try and support this wherever possible. I can name a list of teachers that did this with us, and before they even began their courses, I knew that they would be a wonderful asset to the school. They already knew what good teaching looked like and how to create positive relationships, they just needed to learn how to plan for successful outcomes.
Not all support staff aspire to be teachers. For many, the role itself it what they love. If you can create opportunities, with the right conditions, for these staff to share their ideas and opinions, then you can delve into their back-catalogue of experience. I think that it's empowering for them to know that you recognise and value this, they may just need reminding from time to time about just how much experience and knowledge that they actually have. I also think that when you recruit your support staff, identifying a thirst for this knowledge can be a useful part of the process.