There’s something rather wonderful about having your eyes opened to new and effective teaching methods sixteen years into your career as a teacher. There’s also something rather worrying about this, however – my recent introduction to the Instructional Leadership Programme run by Education and Training Boards Ireland in conjunction with Professor Barrie Bennett, has left me wondering just what exactly I’ve been doing all these years!
I’m one of four teachers from my school, Pobalscoil na Trionóide, who have recently embarked on the programme. We’re part of Cohort 8 – many ETB teachers are familiar with IL at this stage, but it’s relatively new to the Community and Comprehensive sector. And what exactly is Instructional Leadership? I don’t profess to be any sort of expert in the field after my first three-day immersion, but so far I understand it as a professional development programme aimed at, among other things, enabling teachers to better understand their role, to utilise skills, tactics and strategies which will improve both teaching and learning and to improve classroom management.
Our initial three days were exhilarating, exciting and exhausting. Our colleagues on Cohort 7 had given us some idea of what to expect in terms of content, but not the level of intensity involved! Barrie Bennett is an inspiring speaker and teacher, and I found his concrete examples of what we needed to do to improve our effectiveness in the classroom fascinating. Those who know me well will be aware of my aversion to all things mathematical, and yet here I was enthusiastically attempting to figure out the rationale behind my rote-learned knowledge that ‘minus by minus is plus’! We were also encouraged to recognise and name all the many elements of our role as teachers, something which bolstered my respect for my own profession.
Most interesting for me was our work on the concepts and skills associated with the framing of questions. Encouraged by various CPD courses, I’ve been using group work in my classroom for years now, and can see many benefits to it, particularly in a subject like English. This year, I finally seated my classes in pods of four/five, and I really like this arrangement. However, I’ve never been entirely convinced that I was making the most effective use of group work. I could see there were students who simply opted out, who didn’t fully engage or who were dependent on others in the group, but I wasn’t sure exactly what to do about this and it was still more effective than constant whole-class teaching. In terms of questioning students, too, I knew it wasn’t easy to strike the balance between accountability and fear of failure.
We opened our IL experience by being taught a number of micro-lessons by some members of the cohort ahead of us, Cohort 7. Our first lesson was an eye-opener, as we were set up in groups and shown strategies including Place Mat, Snowball and Venn Diagram (more information on graphic organisers is available on the PTSD website), along with some demonstration of framing questions, and I could immediately see how effective these techniques could be in my own classroom. (How effective and easily applicable the material was to my own teaching was the most exciting part of the experience for me.)
More work later on framing questions showed me how I could ensure that every student was engaged and accountable and yet avoid the fear of failure at the same time, particularly using think-pair-share (which I’d often heard of and used in my own way but never seen demonstrated effectively) and choosing imaginative ways to ensure an even distribution of responses. It wasn’t all about what I hadn’t been doing either – I was pleased to note that I did generally frame questions effectively, that I did already allow sufficient wait time, that I often responded to the my students in ways that fitted in with what I was learning, but in many cases this was instinctive rather than a conscious choice.
Off course it’s all about applying this to our own practice, and when I returned to school, it was the day before Proclamation Day (March 15th 2016) and all the English teachers in our school had undertaken to teach a 1916-related poem to each of their classes. This provided me with the perfect opportunity to test my new-found strategies and skills, so I tried out think-pair-share, framing questions and distribution of responses. On the latter, I had some fun selecting the students to report from each group (having already alerted them to the fact that someone in each group would be asked to report the views of their colleagues), so I asked for the person with the shortest hair, someone wearing black socks, the person to the right of the youngest person in the group and so on. This ensured accountability but took away the fear of failure as people were selected seemingly randomly and were reporting on the views of the group rather than their own views. At the end of some of the lessons, I asked my students what they thought of this and the responses were interesting: “It was fun,” “It kept us on our toes,” “We really had to listen to what others were saying.” Just what I wanted to hear! I could see its effectiveness myself too.
Obviously, that was a safe and easy situation in which to try out these approaches as it was a one-off poem that was being explored simply to raise awareness of the 1916 commemoration, and integrating these skills, tactics and strategies into my normal teaching practice will take a lot of careful planning. Also, I’m only beginning the journey and I still have a lot to learn over the next two years. And of course, it’s not going to make it any easier to mark those endless homework assignments… However, it was immediately obvious to me that being part of the Instructional Leadership Programme would benefit the teaching and learning in my classroom, and I’m really looking forward to exploring this further.
One thing is certain – even after just three days of Barrie Bennett and this programme, I could never again go back and teach exactly as I did before.
*More information about the Instructional Leadership Programme is available at http://instructionalleadership.ie/