Lorne Charles, who teaches at Morpeth School Bethnal Green, was one of the first NQTs to join the GTCE’s Teacher Learning Academy (TLA). She describes how her involvement has helped her to develop professionally and the value of the TLA’s support at this moment in her career.

I didn’t think the TLA was for me, when it was first announced in a hot and sweaty staff meeting in spring of 2005. It was just another one of those announcements directed at other people, and I didn’t think any more about it. Until it was announced again, and there was a meeting, and I was encouraged by my head of department to find out what it was all about.

I hadn’t thought it was for me because, as an NQT on the induction programme, I was already involved in ongoing staff training and development, and it seemed to be something aimed at teachers who had long since left the world of initial teacher training behind.

Moreover, it had sounded like the TLA was very academic. It sounded as though our work needed to be of the standard one might expect to read in an academic journal, or in some other professional publication. What could I, a first year know-nothing have to say about teaching practices? Even to turn up at the meeting seemed to be getting a bit ahead of myself, a bit ‘bolshy’, I thought the others would be thinking ‘who does she think she is’?

Of course I was wrong, because teachers at Morpeth aren’t like that, and also because the TLA is open to all. Literally all. Teachers showing interest in the TLA ranged from those like me, just arrived from the factory that is PGCE, through to those who have been at the school for 25 years or more.

But still I wasn’t hooked. Producing a piece of written work demonstrating my learning and growth as a professional smacked of more PGCE-style hoop-jumping; I wasn’t convinced that the work required would be meaningful. On top of which I was already feeling steeped in acronyms, I couldn’t stomach any more. As an ‘NQT’ having just completed the ‘PGCE’ when I was a ‘BT’ who produced an ‘EBE’, quite frankly, it was all a bit much. I was just coming into the easier period of the year, when year 11 were nearly gone, and my other 14 classes (the plight of the RE teacher) were finally settling down; I was looking forward to going home at a reasonable time and not returning until after 8am the next day.

I was tempted, however, when I was told that I could double-up some of the work I had done for the induction programme with my submission to the TLA. One of my major objections both to the PGCE and the induction programme is the requirement to amass great folders full of paper evidence and information, particularly when most of this information is never to see the light of day again after it has been duly stuffed into a plastic wallet and filed. The opportunity to use the knowledge and experience I was gaining through the induction programme was attractive particularly because I felt I was making a significant effort to utilise the ideas and suggestions made during NQT training sessions. It would be nice to have my efforts formally recognised.

Support provided

The group of teachers at my school who had signed up to the TLA were taken one evening in the school minibus to ‘GTC Heights’ in central London, where we were introduced to other teachers participating in the pilot, and to those running the scheme. I did feel slightly daunted, particularly when we had to split up into groups according to the intended level of our submission, and it turned out I was the only person doing a level one (the most basic) submission. I felt like bit of a twit. However, I also felt very excited about the chance to be involved in the scheme, and I was already looking forward to going back to school to start work on my submission. I have enjoyed studying post-16 (I hated school), and I was getting really interested in doing academic type work again.

My attitude toward the TLA had shifted, because I felt that both within school, and within the community involved in the pilot scheme, teachers were being well supported in what they were trying to achieve. It didn’t feel like an adversarial ‘prove yourself’ type endeavour. It was clearly an attempt to encourage teachers to see that most teachers, most of the time, are making great leaps forward. I guess the key thing about the submission process was to formalise that learning curve, and to ensure that the greatest benefit for a teacher’s own professional practice is drawn out through the process.

Stage one submission

I decided to produce a stage one submission for the TLA, which would require me to show what ideas I had taken on, how I had put them into practice, the outcome of this for myself professionally, the outcome for the students, and to reflect on how I could move forward with my own development. I decided to think about how I could develop my oral questioning technique so as to extend student’s knowledge and understanding.

The ‘input’ I was using was some material and ideas discussed during an NQT training session on questioning techniques and higher order thinking skills using ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’. After the training session I had been observed putting these ideas into practice. To complete the cycle for my TLA submission, I looked at the notes I had been given in feedback on the observation, and in a subsequent lesson with the same class, I put into place alterations to my questioning as suggested by the observation feedback. Finally, I reflected on what I had learned through the process, and how I might move forward and develop further.

Part of the process of producing a submission is the requirement to liaise with a ‘peer’; a colleague that you feel will be able to offer constructive criticism as well as support with the project. On a couple of occasions all the teachers involved came together to discuss how we were getting on.

This aspect of my involvement with the TLA has, I think, been extremely important to me. As a new teacher, new to both the profession, and to my school, one often wanders around feeling a little bit like a year 7 student on a wet Tuesday in October. Nobody knows you, nobody has time to stop and find out about you, and really you just have to grow up quick and find your feet.

My involvement in the TLA project has brought me into contact with teachers who are great lions of the staff room – too intimidating to get near – and with teachers from departments with which I don’t ordinarily interact. This has been beneficial both personally, in terms of feeling part of the school’s adult community, and also professionally in terms of providing a wealth of experience from which to draw ideas and inspiration.

Reaping the benefits

I have learned a great deal from the process and procedure of producing my submission and I have learned something that I did not expect to learn. I learned more about the process of learning, and I feel that this is perhaps the most fundamental and important benefit of being involved with the TLA. Whilst this may sound a little odd, I do think that what is lacking from the PGCE programme that I completed was an understanding of the basic processes of learning. If you had asked me in July 2004 when I completed the PGCE how people learn, I’m not sure I would have been able to provide a coherent, robust response. By placing myself back in the position of being a learner, by being a ‘participant observer’ of teaching practice, I feel I have developed a far more substantial and solid understanding of what I am doing and what I am trying to achieve in my classroom.

Moreover, I now feel that I am better equipped to move forward into my second, third and fourth years of teaching, continuing to develop my skills and explore my attributes as a teacher.

I was very aware throughout my PGCE and my NQT years what a great deal of support I had received. Just last week I was reflecting, having struggled through a full day in the classroom, how challenging I found the PGCE when I was teaching only five lessons in a week! The PGCE was hard work, and my NQT year, although enjoyable, was definitely a personal Everest that I feel proud I was able to conquer.

Towards the end of my NQT year, I was beginning to wonder what it might be like when I wasn’t benefiting from such great support networks as weekly NQT meeting, and ‘de-briefing’ sessions with mentors, and when there weren’t so many sympathetic ‘oh dear its an NQT’ ears from my colleagues. How would I cope as a second year teacher?

The TLA isn’t a comfort blanket; a place to make people feel better because they’re stuck in a blizzard of paperwork. It’s not about mopping up the emotional mess that teachers seem to hazard every day. It is about helping teachers to steer themselves through the fog of day-to-day chaos towards professional achievement and value of great feats in the face of seemingly inclement conditions. I am looking forward to completing another submission for the TLA and even though I haven’t officially begun my next project, I have the intellectual tools to make a start on the job.

It would be an untruth to say that producing a TLA submission does not create more work. It does. But my experience is that the kind of work it creates is work worth doing. At Morpeth School we have been lucky that time has been given to us as Inset to complete our work, and management support for our TLA related activities has been in place from the outset. It is a positive feature of the submission process that, unlike other Inset packages, ‘feeding-forward’ and sharing findings and learning with colleagues is essential.

Our school has been developing whole-school teaching practice through a ‘learning working group’, which has been helping staff to help students to understand more about how they learn in order to enable students to become more effective, efficient and independent learners. The involvement of staff with the TLA offers a great opportunity to model learning to young people, and the scope to develop a learning community that genuinely benefits all who contribute to it.

Useful web addresses

Editor’s comment

Working in the PGCE ‘factory’

Readers may remember that when government ended the earmarking of money for early professional development (the first five years of professional life as a teacher) it said that it hoped that everyone involved would, nevertheless, keep it going. When Lorne began as an NQT, the Connect Network was relatively new and the Engage Network, designed for people like her, had yet to be announced. Together with the Teacher Learning Academy these are attempts by the GTCE to provide structured, sustained and professionally useful approaches to CPD. It is worth noticing the contrast that she draws between working to join the TLA and the process involved in working in the ‘PGCE factory’.

The core dimensions of the TLA and Bloom’s Taxonomy

CPD Update has included a number of articles and references to the TLA. The core dimensions of the TLA are:

  • engagement with an appropriate knowledge base
  • accessing peer support, coaching and/or mentoring
  • planning of professional learning and change activity
  • carrying out a change activity
  • evaluating the impact of the change activity on practice and on own learning
  • disseminating what has been learned.

We recently compared these dimensions to the structure of an academic research proposal. We felt that they had much in common. In this article Lorne has mentioned Bloom’s Taxonomy.

The key items in Bloom’s list are:

  • knowledge: remembering learned material
  • comprehension: grasping the meaning
  • application: using what has been learned in new situations
  • analysis: breaking down into parts
  • synthesis: putting parts together to make a new whole
  • evaluation: judging value for purpose.

Lorne says that at first she wondered if the TLA was going to be very academic. Others have criticised the TLA process of compiling and making sense of evidence for professional learning as insufficiently rigorous. CPD Update, however, has often made the point that academic and practitioner perspectives are valuable to each other.

Looking at Bloom’s Taxonomy and the core dimensions of the TLA it is possible to see how the two approaches can be reconciled; how professional learning is enhanced if it is sustained, systematic and rigorous; and how teachers who ask serious questions about themselves usually find that they are better than they thought.