Every school I have ever worked in or visited is keen to improve. When school leaders often talk about improvement, they more often than not consider what is needed to help teachers grow and develop. This may be in through the provision of resources to complement the teaching and learning that we wish to see in our schools, or the investing in the professional learning that will equip teachers with new skills or consolidate existing skills that enables teachers to hone their craft.
When it come to teaching and learning, teachers generally do the best they know how to do. This is why school leaders, both formal and informal, seek to provide learning and development opportunities that will enable teachers to grow and flourish in working with students.
Providing opportunities for teacher growth and development, however, is not merely enough. It is vital that before providing opportunities for learning, school leaders need to ensure that teachers have the ‘headspace’ to take on this learning. Going back to the work of Vygotsky and the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’, if leaders push people too far, too soon, because they are not ready, then things can get dangerous. Push back against professional development initiatives may begin to occur, behaviour towards the learning may take a turn for the worse and leaders may end up with a developing school culture of complaint and cynicism.
How often do we see schools start a year with professional development after a long summer break? You may have noticed, though, that the enthusiasm for learning begins to wain in days two and three, as the reality of planning for lessons begins to set in and all teachers really want to do is get into their classrooms ready to start the year. The response we see here is related to ‘headspace’. How much new learning can we take on at any one time in order for it to be effective and change practice in the way it is intended?
This where school leaders have to be switched-on to detect how teachers are going, when they need a break and when there is opportunity for new learning.
I have heard, over the years, many a school leader say, “There is never an ideal time for professional development.” Well that could certainly be true, if we continue to use a one size fits all approach to professional learning, as school leaders will not please everyone in this way. If a more personalised approach is adopted, then there may be a chance of greater success.
School leaders need to understand with each individual teacher that there are good times to push forward but at other times, leaving someone where they currently are is all they have the ‘headspace’ for at that moment in time.