A Rising Tide Lifts All Ships

How the approach to professional development benefits everyone in a school community.

ICS Zurich
When we think of personal growth, development, and improvement in a school setting, it is understandable our thoughts turn to young people – students benefitting from foundational instruction before joining the adult world. However, shouldn’t a school be a place of learning and development for anyone who is part of it?

Nurturing the Talent of Teachers

A senior member of our school leadership was recently asked, by a parent, “ Why don’t you talk more about the talent in the school?”. Beyond an inclination to modesty, this is a very valid point. At our school, we are privileged with remarkable, sector-leading teaching staff with the qualifications, experience, and competencies that would make them an asset to any school in the world.It is also valid, moreover, to ask why they are as good as they are. A commitment to continuous improvement is undoubtedly present, and the structures and attitudes to allow that to happen are in place.In all of our professional lives – within and outside the world of education – the concepts of ‘appraisals’ and, perhaps worse, ‘performance review’ will not be alien to us. It would be almost certain to presume that such events (regardless of which ‘side of the table’ one finds oneself) are unlikely to be calendar high points. This suggests there are more fundamental issues with the idea of ‘appraisal’ that need to be tackled.

Our Approach to Personal Professional Development

At our school, the approach to personal development for staff stands on three pillars.
  • The first completely shifts the point of ‘agency’ in the process of development – from ‘top down’ to ‘self-directed’. By giving staff the space and tools to self-evaluate and draw up their own plans, the concept of personal performance becomes constantly owned, rather than periodically examined by a third party. There is no coincidence whatsoever, here, that this is exactly the same fundamental principle of our methods of student feedback and improvement. Self-agency is key.
  • The second is another key shift of a normally unquestioned premise – that the process must be an individual one. Although introducing self-agency and self-evaluation to individuals will produce improvement, to also include grade, subject, or other groups generates even stronger results.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have the reason for personal development, not the mechanism of it. Our approach to helping staff improve their practise is grounded very simply – how does everything we do positively affect our students? A piece of ‘improvement’ is not worth doing if it doesn’t translate into benefit for our young people.
This isn’t solely about us as teaching professionals – arguably, it’s not about that at all – it’s about the young people our teaching will affect.

An Atittude about Improvement

But how can such a grand – if admirable – aspiration be practically realised? The key to a successful system at ICS lies in making an attitude to improvement cultural rather than imposed. For example, if we can take five minutes with our students, every three-to-four lessons, to ask them how their learning is going right now, it becomes part of the process. We mustn’t make it laborious or wearisome, but we can make it a sensible ‘firebreak’ for both teacher and student on a healthily regular basis.Equally, as a further example, we can use senior leadership within the school to conduct informal interviews with staff and students separately about learning experiences before triangulating that information so that both parties can discuss it without fear of minor points being over-exaggerated or legitimate suggestions being ignored.

Student Voice and Teacher’s Development

The involvement of student voice in staff professional development is not easy - we cannot shy away from that fact – and it is for that reason that it is not more common. What it can achieve when done well however, as in our case, is remarkable for both parties. At our school, for example, The Bridge student group is a key part of this process, and far more than just a ‘token’ involvement. Students are actively given the  me and space to talk about what it is like to learn at our school. This information is not only invaluable for crafting (self-directed) plans of personal development amongst staff, it also has far greater emotive resonance.

Importance of Peer Observation

This is not to say, of course, that as staff we cannot learn from each other. A vital cog in our personal development machine is the idea of ‘feedback’. This is not something ‘handed down’ to a member of staff, it is something requested. As well as coming from students, as mentioned above, this can come from peer observation. To watch a colleague teach – or indeed to watch oneself teach on a recording - can provide incredible resources for self-reflection. Crucially, however, such self-reflection will never be viable if the process is not considered a positive one at a cultural level.

Self Evaluation and Reflection

As parents we have perhaps all, at some stage, been met with a monosyllabic answer to the question of “ …how was school today?”. However, the more that self-evaluation and reflecting on learning is encouraged culturally , in staff as examples as well as students, the more we can see metacognition develop in our young people. This is the single biggest gain from this process, especially for parents who want to be part of their child’s learning journey. To hear students tell us that, “ I didn’t realise I could talk about my own learning like this.” is testament to how this culture embeds. To teach the International Baccalaureate (IB) to a high level, all of our teachers must be - by definition - superb, but if their own improvement can benefit the outcomes for their students both directly and indirectly, everyone stands to gain. The rising  tide, in that sense, lifts all ships.“The best teachers teach out of a love for seeing development in young people, and so hearing feedback coming from those young people will be immeasurably more of a motivation than were it from any other source.”

Find out more about the Inter-Community School (ICS) Zurich. Visit our website at www.icsz.ch.

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