How can teachers identify and build on their strengths, and make time for professional development? We asked Amy Lightfoot and Deepali Dharmaraj, who are part of the team behind the British Council and UCL Institute of Education's current free online course, Becoming a Better Teacher.
Why invest your time in professional development?
Perhaps you are in the early stages of your teaching career, like Sangeeta. She is a new teacher – just finished her initial teacher training at a private institute in Mumbai. She’s started her first year in a secondary school and she’s feeling a little bit overwhelmed.
Or maybe you’re very experienced, and have got more in common with Jorge. He’s been teaching for 23 years, in four different schools. He loves his job, but he feels like he’s been doing it for a long time.
You might be somewhere in between – a few years of teaching under your belt, with many more to come. Whatever stage you’re at, making an effort to learn alongside your students and develop your skills and knowledge will help you not only become a better teacher, but also remind you about why you became a teacher in the first place.
By becoming a learner again yourself, you can develop greater empathy with your students. You will also refresh your repertoire with new ways to help them learn, and deepen your own understanding of your subject.
Where should you start and what should you focus on?
It can be difficult to know where to start when thinking about your professional development. This might be because you’re overwhelmed by the volume of courses and resources available, such as the various communities of practice on social media, blogs, and websites. Or it might be overwhelming just because you’re just not sure what areas you should prioritise.
A common misconception is that teachers should always focus on areas where they are less experienced or less confident. Of course it’s important to try to develop your skills and knowledge to a certain threshold, but equally, teachers need to be encouraged to develop their strengths even further. That way, they can become specialists or experts in a particular aspect of teaching.
By becoming a specialist, you can not only refine your own teaching practice, but you can also make yourself a source of knowledge and expertise for your colleagues. Sharing knowledge informally is one of the most common ways to learn more about a particular area of teaching. Most people will have their ‘go-to’ colleagues when they have questions about specific things like how to teach using information and communications technology (ICT), where to find new resources for their students, or how to design appropriate assessments.
One way that teachers can try to decide what to focus on for their professional development is to use the British Council’s free online self-assessment tool. This helps identify a teacher’s profile in relation to nine of the 12 professional practices, which include areas such as ‘planning lessons and courses’, ‘managing the lesson’, and ‘using inclusive practices’.
When you know what your relative strengths and areas for development are, it becomes much easier to find the right resources and content for you. These resources could be online or face-to-face training courses, articles and books, joining a community of practice on social media, or just having a chat over coffee with a fellow teacher.
Why consider a massive open online course (MOOC)?
Free online courses – or MOOCs – have become a popular form of professional development for many teachers. You can learn with other teachers all over the world through articles, videos, discussions and other activities. To keep you motivated, some courses offer extra support through online tools like Padlet (which functions as a kind of noticeboard for sharing ideas on a particular topic), live Facebook chats for real-time conversations with fellow learners, and encouragement from the educators running the course.
Finding time to take part in courses or access other content for your development can be a challenge. But with a little bit of discipline, carving out a small amount of time each week or fortnight can make a significant difference.
How to stay motivated and make sure you use what you learn
Some teachers find themselves doing big bursts of development activities – reading articles every night for a fortnight, or spending three hours commenting on other people’s posts on a MOOC. This can work for some, but it’s more likely that ‘a little and often’ approach can be more sustainable and effective.
Scheduling helps. Choose a time of the day or week that works best for you, when you’re unlikely to have lots of distractions. Keep a diary to record what you do, and make notes about things you might follow up or try in the classroom.
Whatever form of professional development you choose, linking it back to your classroom experience and your day-to-day teaching is vital to make sure that what you’re reading or hearing about translates into an improvement in your practice. Making a detailed action plan saying specifically how you’re going to use some of the new ideas will help you focus. Even writing down just a couple of notes or questions to think about next time you go into the classroom will be useful.
After you’ve tried something new, it’s also important to reflect on how it went. Would you do it again? If not, why not? Ask yourself whether you could do something differently next time. If it worked well, how can you make this part of your normal teaching repertoire? Finally, think about how you can share your experience with other teachers, too. That way, you can strengthen your professional connections, build your reputation, and help other colleagues at the same time.
Join the Becoming a better teacher: exploring professional development MOOC, developed in partnership by British Council India and the UCL Institute of Education.