CPD: A good teacher is like a magpie...

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
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Good teachers are like magpies – they spot little things that attract their attention and steal them for their own teaching practice. Dr Bernard Trafford urges us all to embrace in-school sharing...

Funding’s tight and savings have to be made. An early casualty is frequently CPD. When tough choices are made, CPD is frequently a soft target, understandably cut this year in the hope of putting it back in the budget next.

It rarely works like that, of course. Moreover, letting CPD slip is as damaging long-term as neglecting to service your car – or ignoring that leak in the school roof.

On-going school improvement, the thirst for making our schools better in every respect all the time, is rightly a constant. We needn’t berate ourselves (or our teachers) for not being perfect (growth mindset: not perfect yet!) – but we can and must always strive for progress. At the heart of that quest lies CPD.

School leaders are bombarded by emails offering expert advice on whatever new aspect has been squeezed into the Ofsted framework, or how to boost scores in a particular area. Such consultancy doesn’t come cheap, much is best ignored.

At secondary level, subject specialists can be tempted to regard as the only valuable CPD those briefings from the exam board on the latest specification. Yes, it’s necessary to keep up-to-date, though I suspect boards are finding such events a “nice little learner”. (Don’t try complaining about lack of clarity in the spec if you haven’t already sent colleagues on several of them.)

There are high-profile practitioners “out there” who will address your staff on a training-day. They have to make a living, and are thus expensive by the day (though arguably better value than sending individual teachers out separately to hear them).

I cannot have been the only head who would book someone reportedly excellent, only to find them misjudge their brief. I’ve known warmly recommended speakers who didn’t do their homework on the nature and style of the school: who promised to talk about one thing but, actually, were so carried away with their latest research that they talked about that instead. On such occasions, already anxious, I would look around, see the teaching body start to switch off, and groan in anguish.

We can spend a lot of money, then, yet fail to tackle the most important focus of CPD – non-subject-specific reflection and concentration on excellent teaching.

I am not about to suggest anything glib or cheapskate. Nor will I echo that infuriating suggestion from government that everyone needs to “do more with less”. But it is easy to squander large sums on staff training. Conversely, by employing resources and talents already in the school, great results can be obtained from minimal financial investment (though not forgetting the time committed). I would start with two rules. First, remember that there’s more potential within your staff than outside it for changing practice and galvanising your teachers to move in new directions.

Second, teachers are at their most imaginative and creative when working together and learning from one another. And they are more reflective, I think, working in a group with their colleagues than as a static audience listening to the visiting “big name”.

Teachers can be excessively modest. Everyone in the staffroom knows which colleagues are doing exciting, ground-breaking things with their pupils, but they’re often the last to acknowledge it: “Oh, I just do a few things that work for me. There’s nothing I can share with colleagues.”

There’s a charm in that self-deprecating response, but how wrong it is! The process of learning begins immediately when they start analysing what they do. Sometimes they cannot really explain what they do, but working with colleagues to dissect it collectively is a dynamic and productive activity.

Collaboration is key. A pitfall of collegial presentations is that those teachers who are reluctant to change (we all have a few in our schools) may concede that it works for their colleague, but claim: “I get that. But it’s not applicable to my subject.”

Over the years I’ve come to reckon that few excellent teaching strategies are truly specifically subject-related – they can always be adapted to a different context. So cross-subject collaboration is a powerful and empowering process within staff training. We can all picture stereotypical differences between teachers of the humanities and scientists, so in your training session mix them up!

Given that teachers are by-and-large pretty biddable, it’s the recognition of differences and of how techniques can be shared and adapted that is most powerful and probably leads to the deepest levels of productive reflection.

The last thing you want in a training session is all the scientists or all the English teachers sitting together in a clan. They’ll ask for it – resist the pressure! Alternatively, get those scientists and English teachers to work together on a collaborative project – with feedback and sharing with the whole staff.

Naturally teacher-driven training and joint working don’t have to be confined to a single school. There are great examples of sharing excellent in-house training across clusters or multi-academy trusts. I’d nonetheless insist it must start within the individual institution – there’s a question of ownership and buy-in.

I have mentioned the perils of modesty, but there’s fear too. Where self-esteem is low (how often we see this in our pupils, but fail to spot it in ourselves), teachers can be reluctant to believe that they can take on board new ideas. Understandably but self-defeatingly, they prefer to stick to what they know – even if it isn’t all that good.

The advantage of the in-school approach is that it is non-threatening, collaborative and collegial. I’ve frequently heard teachers generously confess that they hadn’t appreciated what great work was happening in another department. Often effusive praise followed for a particular teacher who had shared a teaching idea.

It grows. I was delighted when a group of teachers asked senior staff to keep out of organising CPD sessions, preferring to run them themselves. My role was merely to provide tea and cake for hour-long twilight meetings (never underestimate the motivational benefits of cake!), which my colleagues termed “magpie sessions”.

Good teachers are like magpies, identifying little snippets, ideas and techniques that attract their attention. Like the thieving bird, they steal, adapt and use them in their own nest. It’s an attractive metaphor, and it works. Magpies don’t steal one huge object (or teaching idea), they accumulate lots of small, shiny things. For teachers, none of it is high-stakes, intimidating or overwhelming.

As a result, over time, more and more teachers are willing to take that first step and share an idea.
In one school, I witnessed these magpie sessions spawn a staff learning blog. At first teachers assumed that a formal, rather learned, research-type piece was required. But, as they relaxed into “magpie mode”, some simply contributed links to useful pieces of work from outside the school (often found on Twitter) and others would share in only a couple of hundred words a wrinkle for getting a lesson underway purposefully.

This was no instant, magic-wand solution. Discussion was stimulated, ideas were shared and respected, and growth was organic. In a few years reflective discussion became commonplace in offices and even over coffee or lunch, simply as the professional way to behave.

I offer this in the spirit of the colleagues I’ve known who – perhaps unwillingly at first, but later with generous enthusiasm – have been ready to share. As they’d say: “I don’t know what you make of this, but it’s something that’s worked for me...”


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