Finding the time to reflect on your teaching practice

Julian Stanley considers how the charity's programmes can help headteachers develop their students and themselves

I've recently been doing some reading around the work of Emil Jackson. a psychologist and work coach, who during his time as a senior psychotherapist at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust's adolescent department, published work in the Journal of Child Psychotherapy considering how work discussions groups at schools can help teachers reflect on individual pupils, consider social factors and understand possible mental health issues that impact on a child's learning.

I've long thought that teachers need sufficient time to reflect on their practice of teaching and Jackson is an interesting researcher in this field. He has shown the benefits of these discussion groups, where classroom teachers, as well as staff working throughout the school including heads, receptionists and support staff, meet on a regular basis to take a closer look at challenging pupils or classes and explore the issues at the root causes. This kind of forum allows staff to consider, maybe for the first time, the background of the pupil, issues at home and how they personally felt about or interacted with the child. Peeling back the layers like this can unearth hidden issues; in some cases a student's bad behaviour may have more complicated origins.

Teachers are so busy marking, setting exams, dealing with parents' evenings, planning lessons and preparing for Ofsted. In all of this, when do they get the time to sit down and think about individual pupils unless it's in a safeguarding meeting? I don't think every child requires this level of scrutiny but every teacher will have some students who pose a problem and who would benefit from this approach. Teachers need time to think differently about relationships with each other, with their pupils, and those between pupils and others. There's something quite powerful in sitting down and having these kinds of open discussions.

In our Headspace programmes, we offer a similar forum for school leaders to meet in a neutral space to learn from and support their peers. These sessions, often run before the start of the school day, are particularly popular among primary school heads, but they do not focus on pupils. Rather they create a space to openly discuss the challenges each individual headteacher faces in their role, be that professionally or personally. This is a space to work with colleagues, share learning, frustrations, and best practice and explore what works in the face of change and amid the growing raft of demands placed upon headteachers. Headspace has proved not only powerful, but participants also report they feel more effective as leaders, developing skills and behaviours that impact positively when they are back in school.

This programme is now beginning to attract serious attention among secondary school heads, although some find it harder to devote the time required to participate. Others seem less willing to admit that they struggle with anything. Perhaps this is because the environment in secondary schools is much more charged than in primary schools due to hormone-fuelled students, the extent and level of examinations, the sheer size of the student body and the growing demands that result from being autonomous organisations. There is also a gender difference, with many more male leaders in secondary schools than primary, which, it could be argued, makes a marked difference in the culture of headship in pre and post-11 education.

Our Headspace sessions are similar to the ones Email Jackson has worked with in that they offer that rare opportunity to reflect. However, they are not therapy. Nor are they touchy, feely gatherings. Actually, the people who attend are determined, focused educationalists attempting to deliver the best outcomes for their students, and deeply committed to running schools that are highly effective places of learning and that combine a business-like approach to budgeting, planning, employment practise and governance.

Headteachers today have to be highly competent and robust to flourish in this highly demanding role. It is not unknown today for a head to become a scapegoat sometimes after only one bad Ofsted inspection. Thus it is hardly surprising if some heads feel reluctant to take up CPD opportunities which they perceive might reveal their weaknesses, doubts and fears. But the truth is that many of those who do commit to this process report they feel more confident, able and empowered.

Education is about growing, learning, sharing, exploring and becoming competent, knowledgeable, skilled and confident in the world across a range of subjects and skill sets. Facilitated group sessions can provide a powerful arena that can foster a better understanding of our own needs, those of colleagues and of the students in school. Group work encourages listening, an openness to change and often results in being better equipped to manage difficulty and cope with difference. Emotionally literate children and adults are central to making our schools the best they can be.

Submitted by Julian Stanley on Thu, 14/05/2015 - 09:00