I have worked in mainstream education for 17 years and I have just participated in something of a unique experience, a three day, uninterrupted training course for the very first time. In fact, since qualifying to teach, I have never had any more than a single isolated day of training and more often than not, any specific extra input comes in the form of just an afternoon clamped on the end of a morning of teaching. The reasons for this restriction is either financial or, and this is more often the case where I work, the fact that lessons for our pupils are cancelled. I understand this reasoning up to a point. However, really the question in the end is; is the hugely limited and disjointed scope of on the job training in education actually not a far bigger problem than that of a number of cancelled lessons?
As it happens I haven’t been on the receiving end of the training during the first three days of this week. I have been giving the course, together with Cathy, a colleague form New Zealand to a group of ten other teachers from our school who will be teaching in English as part of our bilingual team for the first time after the summer break. It’s been a fantastic three days. Hard work for all of those involved, challenging for many, fun, engaging, thought provoking and certainly good for team building. The progress made by the group has been amazing to see, confidence has been built and there is a growing belief that they really can teach their classes of Dutch twelve year olds using a good level of English.
The space we have been given this time has allowed us to deliver information, to use numerous didactic approaches, allow discussions to take place, create space for actual lesson material to be developed and presented and above all work on the verbal presentation skills that are necessary for a teacher teaching in a second language. What you might call a ‘critical learning mass’ has been built up and will hopefully be carried forward into the next school year. Way more common in education are training sessions that are offered in an intensive two to three hour session that throw a series of ideas at participants that work as a flash in the pan creating momentary enthusiasm only for the input to largely disapate due to a lack of follow up as the teacher is once again left to their own devices to try and find a way of making use of the material. I’m a pretty conscientious worker but I recognize this tendency for good input is simply lost because it is offered initially in such an isolated island of training. So what would I propose as an improvement on the current situation? Well, on the basis of the last three days I would definitely say that twice a year, a training session of two or three days could be fantastic and actually have the chance of producing something truly effective. Yes, the pupils would miss five days of lessons, but if the quality of the education on offer was significantly improved might that ground not simply be made up in another way? Schools have significant pools of experts and examples of good practice, but if we are honest it is mostly only the pupils who happen to be in the right classes who are the beneficiaries. The spreading and sharing of ideas, material and teaching skills is something that all educational institutions probably have to work on.
This has become a bit of a joke at school. I said it once in an email in relation to a comment from a colleague when he provocatively said something like “what we need is someone who could design us a good poster”.
My “design, design, did someone say design?” mantra is often thrown around now at school whenever there is something visual to be made. I didn’t train as a designer of any kind, I did fine art and to be specific painting. But like many a fine art graduate I like to turn my hand to anything creative. Schools benefit a lot from their art departments and their creative teachers. One of my deputy heads (a physics teacher) at the school where I teach recognized this when he said that “alle scholen hebben creatievelingen hard nodig” (Dutch for, every school needs creative minded spirits amongst it’s personnel). However the reality is, that often the specialist skills they bring to a school are not always given the acknowledgment they deserve, or alternatively hugely and unrealistically overestimated.
Another former colleague used to observe how other staff seemed sometimes to want to hijack her art lessons, “can you just quickly use some of your art lessons to design and build the scenery for the school play?” Like the art department doesn’t have plans of its own for lesson content! Maybe the English department would like to try writing the school play with the cooperation of sixty of its pupils, that should produce an interesting evening of entertainment. Or what about a geography class and a French class taking charge of the next exchange with a school in France?
I’m joking of course, and actually I really like the extra creative tasks, if I have the time for them I really like doing them and I do feel appreciated too. In the last couple of years I and my art department colleagues have designed and built websites, produced artworks for departing school heads, exhibited pupil work inside and outside of school, produced publicity material for school, designed school t-shirts and hoodies (the actual t-shirt in the picture comes from www.teespring.com and seemed to fit this post so well – hope you don’t mind guys!) and even repainted part of a wall where ink had been spilled and nobody else could manage to match the colour! Many of us also keep our own studio practice running alongside the school work as well.
There is a certain irony here too. I often find myself explaining at school that there is work and careers to be found by those who choose the art and culture route at school (contrary to what a few colleagues might suggest to pupils). Within a school context there is actually a lot of work to be done! People seem to quite like calling on us for extra assistance and help in any number of creative areas. I sometimes wonder whether the physics department have to help with the electrics around school, or the economics department with the school budget? I suspect not, I guess the truth is, we’re just a little different in the art department, but then I think most of us knew that already.
I have been trying to raise the general profile of art and culture at the school where I work since I have worked there. For the last couple of years I have been sending out a newsletter every couple of months to the older pupils in the school and to all the staff. Normally the content of the pdf file has a similar format. On the right is a çultural baggage’ questionnaire, filled in by one of the members of staff in order to give us all a little more understanding as to what they are (culturally) all about, and on the left links to a sellection of artistic, sites, films or articles that I think might be interesting to my quite broad readership.
I’m not sure why it hasn’t occurred to me to put it onto my blog too, I’d certainly be interested to hear any feedback or comments from others who do something similar. Click on the link below to take a look at the lastest issue.
october 2014(blog vers.)