Time is at a premium in colleges at the moment, with the mounting pressures of planning, marking, tracking and reporting eating into all hours of the day. So this means that it is vitally important to take a focused, thoughtful approach to making space for professional dialogue. If managers and leaders do not configure organisational calendars and timetables to enable staff to meet, course and curriculum teams can find themselves unable to talk professionally outside informal settings. I have been in Further Education as a teacher, trainer and coach for over twenty years and now work freelance across the sector. The lack of time for professional collaboration and reflection within teams is a real concern to me at this point in time. In many of the twenty colleges where I work, I see:
- Teams that can NEVER meet altogether because provision is scheduled over the full timetable so some staff members will always be working whichever slot you pick for your meeting. This has the potential to negatively impact communications and team processes as well as relationships in all kinds of ways.
- Part time teachers and agency staff are not paid to attend meetings or in some cases not even invited, even though they are part of the curriculum team and their work will affect learners’ experience and achievement in that institution.
- Team meetings and CPD slots are scheduled in twilight slots, which sometimes exclude those with childcare commitments, and mean that people come into the session tired and often uncreative of mind as it is the end of the long working day.
- The main bulk of CPD staff development and planning days (a dwindling phenomenon) are scheduled in the July weeks before summer break when teachers are dreaming of beaches, feeling shattered and have not met their new learners yet. During these valuable non-teaching days, expensive external gurus are brought in to share wisdom which is promptly filed or forgotten as the teachers head off to the long hot summer break. Just not a wise use of our time all round.
All of these approaches make me question whether collaboration and professional dialogue in groups is sufficiently valued in these settings by leadership and management teams or whether people see the value but are just struggle with the logistical challenges due to the blizzard conditions in FE. I am meeting many leaders and managers who talk about the value of collaboration and focusing on T&L in teams but not enough who actually prioritise that effectively on the ground in their ways of working. For me it is about putting your attention on this and making that commitment to change the reality in your teams. It is about realising that leaders and managers have a great deal of personal power and influence to create that change if they work together on it at an organisational level.
I think regular, purposeful, creative time in groups can be such a positive and powerful thing for teaching teams. When curriculum or course teams get together they can have so many useful, rich, helpful conversations, for example:
- Sharing information about the behaviour and performance of specific learners in their classes; Identifying challenges and brainstorming ways to tackle them
- Sharing practice on a hot topic through discussion and a resources swap; Identifying ways to adapt that content for your context
- Discussing an article on research and what it could mean for you
- Completing peer review of Plans for Learning using some questions for reflection and debate
- Reviewing samples of marked work and challenging each other with ways to enhance it
- Sharing key points from a recent CPD event or external visit and identifying what you want to implement together
- Following up on personal development plans in a peer review conversation or following up action points from team activities in previous meetings, to close the loop
- Getting support, inspiration and a morale boost from just talking to colleagues about what you do as a T&L practitioner. With the amount of pressure, anxiety and change in the sector right now, this professional network can be a real form of support and comfort for people in difficult times
I could go on, but I think the point is obvious – these conversations, when they have purpose and focus and depth to them, can help teachers develop their thinking and practice and can support development of the team spirit and ethos. Many teams have someone with coaching skills who can provide support in forming questions for discussion and encouraging deeper reflection through facilitation skills. In many colleges these coaches or advanced practitioners are really under used in the team meeting setting. These conversations can help teams to solve problems, standardise some practices, widen their repertoire of approaches, identify patterns of learner behaviour to tackle etc. The list of productive topics to talk about goes on and on!
Some people tell me that they do all of this in an ad hoc, small scale way through informal links with individual colleagues they are close to and I am in no way criticising that valuable approach here. What I am saying is that creating a space for the team to be thoughtful and creative and collaborative is also important and gets neglected in many institutions.
So how can we create regular, high quality space for professional dialogue in teams in our squeezed timetables? Here are some of the approaches that I see people using in colleges to begin to tackle this challenge:
- Asking their teachers about how team time is used and what their suggestions are for improving those meetings. Then responding to this with some new approaches. Our sector is in constant flux and nothing is set in stone, so meetings should be no exception.
- At college level, deciding to value team time and planning the timetable so that people are all free at the same time, even if it isn’t a weekly occurrence, and avoiding the deathly twilight slot. This is about leaders deciding to prioritise staff learning in their organisation and bringing this to life in their actions. It is about not letting other things get in the way. Colleges are a world of constantly competing priorities and there is never time for everything so why not put the T&L at the heart of things and see what will develop from that move? When you don’t, it is about another choice having been made.
- At college calendar level, planning the cross-college CPD days into the year with the majority falling in year and not in July. This can be done now in colleges for next year and will make a big difference to the way that time can be used for relevant, live planning and agile developmental activities. On CPD days, dedicating and ring fencing part of the time for teams to plan appropriate activities for themselves means handing over power and autonomy to the middle managers and coaches to work with teachers in that process.
- Considering how best to run team meetings to maximise participation. Some colleges run a repeat of their twilight meeting in a morning slot; some places use video cameras to capture the meetings so people can watch the link in their own time; some places use Skype, Google, video conferencing and other tech tools to get people into the meeting even if they are not in the room. There is a conversation to be had at senior level about what we need and expect from part time staff – should we be offering to pay them if they can attend key meetings? Do we want to budget for that for part timers who teach a substantial number of hours and therefore affect a greater number of learners, if we can’t offer to pay everyone?
- Allocating some meetings to administration, operations and bureaucracy and others to T&L so people come to each one with the right head on. For the T&L ones, making sure the focus and purpose is clear and relevant so it is a good use of teachers’ incredibly valuable time.
- In T&L focused slots, ensuring that theory and classroom practice gets modelled and discussed and critically reviewed. Making those slots rich as learning opportunities by thinking about who leads each item and how it will engage teachers. Team meeting agendas do not need to be dominated by the manager and they do not need to be dull, boring and repetitive either.
- Building a loop over time to ensure that topics are re-visited and actions are reviewed and reflected upon. Closing the loop on things that the team are working on by having the rigour to really follow things through over the year in your meeting schedules.
- Building in some cluster group time within the team meeting schedule. Maybe level one teachers want to meet together sometimes to discuss pertinent issues for that level? Or course teams who deliver one qualification together may want to share ideas and challenges?
- Investigating and trying out some more experimental ways of people getting together, e.g. Teacher Talk sessions held now and then, in different slots, to create a space for teachers from different teams to come together and discuss topics informally. One college I know has started this and found it a positive approach with increasing staff involvement through word of mouth.
Spending time together as professionals can be enriching, inspiring and energising. It can help us collaborate more effectively to support our learners. It is undoubtedly an effort to find ways for teachers to meet in teams. I think it is possible to achieve and it is definitely worth it.