Share what you know

The next time a qualified, experienced, intelligent early childhood teacher tries to tell me they’re not able to share their knowledge with the profession and recommends that I seek out a recognised “expert”, I’m going to cry, Max Grarock writes.

I’m going to cry because I know that my profession is filled with committed and reflective practitioners who astound me with their deep thinking about the work they do. A large part of my professional life is the struggle to get those people to share this thinking and practice with others. What they do should be shared. Sharing makes our profession stronger.

I once sent an email to 20 early childhood teachers asking if they, or any practicing early childhood teachers that they knew, were skilled in working with children with additional needs. I was looking for someone to share their experience in balancing the competing demands of including the child, working with the family and completing the meetings and paperwork that is often required of funding bodies. I figured that the challenge of managing all these elements is best shared by someone who does it regularly. Someone who knows first hand the pressures of the current systems of funding and accreditation.

Three teachers replied to my email request with suggestions. One suggested a teacher working in the school system. One, a person in a management role overseeing a number of services. In the final suggestion I was given the details of a consultant who hadn’t taught in an ongoing role for more than a decade. Despite specifically asking for a practicing teacher, I wasn’t provided with one suggestion that met this criteria. Amongst the group of 20 teachers who received that email, there were at least four who could have shared their considerable skills with others.

Common experience

This is not an uncommon experience for me. At the Teacher Learning Network (TLN), where I work, we try to use practicing classroom teachers to deliver the majority of our programs. This comes from our core belief: that teachers are the experts in teaching and should be involved in teaching one another. This belief has both political and practical ramifications.

It’s political because it suggests that the core knowledge of teaching and how to teach rests with teachers. This is knowledge owned and developed by the profession. Asserting that teachers are the experts in teaching is political because it suggests that universities are not the experts in teaching. It suggests that politicians are not the experts in teaching. It even suggests that bureaucrats and those whose role it is to assess services are not the experts in teaching.

Don’t get me wrong. Universities have an important role in shaping the work of teachers. They train the next generation, they research and disseminate optimal ways of educating young children and they attempt to codify what it is that makes teaching more powerful. But the nature of studying things in isolation means the complexity and emotional toil of teaching is difficult for them to fully comprehend. It’s also difficult for them to respond quickly to changes that face the reality of classroom teaching.

Teachers are the experts in teaching and should be involved in teaching one another. This belief has both political and practical ramifications.

Teachers the experts

Politicians and departmental staff have important roles to play too. In a democracy, ensuring that community expectations about education are present in our education system matters. But that does not make them the experts in teaching.

Asserting that teachers own the body of knowledge around teaching is easy enough to say. It’s easy enough to agree with. Defending that ownership is difficult. I have enormous respect for the teachers I work with each day who are prepared to make themselves vulnerable by publicly sharing their practice with other teachers. That’s terrifying. But it’s vital in proving that teachers own teaching – and should gain further control of the profession.

Beyond the political ramifications, suggesting that teachers should be involved in teaching one another is also a practical notion. Sometimes reading about the theory underpinning a style of teaching is too abstract. Policy documents can leave out the important hurdles that need to be overcome in making change. Both policy and research can miss the fact that teaching is immediate. Hearing a real teacher describe the details of their successes, challenges and interactions can help bridge the gap between what’s ideal and what can be done.

In a presentation about storytelling last year, one of the teachers we work with shared her experience of responding to children’s questions about the Syrian refugee crisis. Not in an abstract ‘If this came up, you could…’ way but in the practical ‘When they asked me about Syria two weeks ago, I added it to the story by including these things…’.

To top this off, she also addressed how she managed the time pressures of her role when planning storytelling experiences and presented different gender roles within her stories. This was the kind of presentation that reminded me about the value of my work and keeps me looking for more teachers who are willing to take the risk involved in sharing what they do with others.

In an effort to support greater collegial sharing, I regularly ask myself ‘What makes teachers so reticent in sharing their knowledge about teaching’? I understand that teachers are constantly pressed for time. Preparing material to share with others is an imposition on time and it makes teachers reluctant to do this work. I suspect it’s something deeper than a mere lack of time. I think it speaks to the deep insecurity that many of us have about our professional practice and knowledge.

The insecurity presents a challenge. Sharing your practice with other teachers publicly is nerve wracking but ultimately a professionally affirming thing to do. I suspect we’d all feel less insecure about our practice if sharing what we do and how we think about our own teaching was more common. I’d love to see the sharing of practice become such a common part of our profession that it no longer felt like a risky thing to do.

Helping teachers share knowledge

Here are some of the things we do at the TLN to make the steps into sharing practice seem less daunting.

We run a training program for those who are interested in presenting to better understand their expertise and develop ways of sharing it with others.

We’ve developed an early childhood educator magazine Ideas for Early Years which is primarily composed of photos of play spaces that educators have created. The sharing of photos seems to be less time consuming and emotionally confronting for educators.

We run professional writing days with TLN staff on hand to support writers in creating articles for our magazine.

We’ve created frameworks for some of our professional learning programs so that the presenters don’t need to worry about the structure of the session and can focus on the information that they wish to share.

I continue to look for ways to help teachers overcome the barriers that prevent them from being comfortable in sharing their knowledge with others. If you think there’s something else I could be doing to help grow the pool of teachers who are proud to share their work with others, please let me know. I’m serious. Just don’t make me cry.

Phone 03 9418 4993

Max Grarock is the Program Manager at Teacher Learning Network. He worked as a preschool teacher and director in the western suburbs of Melbourne before taking up his role at the TLN.

The Teacher Learning Network is the not for profit professional learning organisation supported by the IEU and the AEU. IEU NSW/ACT early childhood members have access to their programs in 2017 as part of their union membership fees. Information about how to access these programs at no additional cost can be found here