Tag Archives: teaching and learning

A passion for teaching and learning

Semester has started and with the arrival of the new semester, the halls and classrooms have been filled with excited, new students ready to undertake their journey to be teachers. I’m teaching in a number of our teaching programs this year and at the end of last week I was waxing lyrical about how much I had loved the beginning of semester and working with our new students. Whether in our MTeach, Joint Degree, or PE program, my students have been enthused and excited about the start of classes.

On Wednesday I had a panel of teachers come in to talk to my first year Joint Degree students about teaching. It was a diverse panel, consisting of a teacher who finished her degree last year to teachers who have worked for a number of years in a range of contexts. We began with the question ‘why did you become a teacher?’ – a question that is deceptively simple and, yet, complex and challenging to answer. At the end of the session, one teacher said to me ‘I feel so exposed when I answer that question, teaching is so much a part of me that it involves opening myself up in ways I hadn’t thought about’. I asked him if it made him feel uncomfortable to have done it and he replied, no, just that it was something that gets lost in the hustle and bustle of teaching, and reconnecting with that question causes contemplation of the journey of becoming and being a teacher, a journey that is both an emotional and cognitive endeavor.

In hearing the stories of how these people came to be teachers my students began to see an insight into the richness and diversity of the teaching profession. We heard stories of people who had flirted with the idea of being teachers early in their lives, but through circumstance, chance, and life intervening, it may have been time before they found the path that led them to teaching. Some of them would have easily gained entrance to teaching courses, being what some would describe as the ‘best and brightest’. Others experienced challenges with their high school education, or their initial forays into tertiary education. One started uni in a science degree, only to leave and take up an apprenticeship, qualifying and working as a mechanic before turning to teaching when the need for an intellectual challenge called. If we apply stringent rules about ATAR scores as the only thing that matters in teacher entrance requirements it is possible a couple of these people would not have become teachers, and yet, these are teachers who have impacted on hundreds or thousands of students in positive ways. They are teachers who have helped students to grow, to learn more about themselves, to open up their eyes to learning. While I’m not really into measuring ‘impact’ in numbers, some of these people are teachers, who, when we look at VCE data have ‘value-added’ to their students, guiding students to scores over 40 in VCE subjects.

In each story of the journey to being a teacher, there was the thread of learning. Some of the teachers are still studying, others have taken time out of teaching to do more study and then returned back to it, they study in formal and informal ways, and what was pervasive is that these teachers are learners. One spoke of teaching as a lifestyle, but not in the simplest form that suggests it’s a job with holidays, but in a way that evoked the notion of a vocation, a lifestyle that involves a constant learning, relearning, shifting, shaping, thinking, reflecting and interacting with others.

The notion of relationships permeated what teachers spoke about and the things that they found rewarding in their work. The care that they have for students, for providing learning opportunities that enable students to learn more about themselves and the world around them was obvious. They did not gloss over the challenges of the work, did not shy away from the fact that teaching can be tiring, demanding, and that as teachers, it can be rare to receive acknowledgment and validation of the work they do. So why do it? One spoke of the ways their own life had been enriched by the many students and colleagues that they had come into contact with, a criss-crossing of lives, experiences and ideas. Another spoke of meeting students years later and trading shared memories of the moments spent in classes, the things students recall, remember and file away.

My first-years were engaged in these powerful stories of teaching and learning. They took notes of things the teachers said, jotting down and recording the things that these teachers described as central to their work. They asked questions that showed, that, only 2 weeks into their course, they are thinking of what it means to be a teacher and to be a learner. I thought about how lucky I was to be able to hear friends and colleagues I have known for years, talk about the passion they have for teaching and for their work with young people.

I walked away convinced and reminded that there is no job like teaching. As some policy makers and bureaucrats may try to confine the work of teachers to a list of competencies, they cannot capture the complex and multi-dimensional work that teachers do, the relationships they establish, the way they focus on knowing and growing the students in their care.

Yesterday I met a group of Masters of Teaching students at the school where I returned to work 0.5 last year. They were there for a day of observation, and I was meeting with the principal. In coming back to the school, I fell back into the ‘family’ of teachers I had worked with, I ran into students who I taught last year and we shared stories of what we were doing. I sat with the DP at lunch and we joked about school and teaching as the Hotel California ‘you can checkout any time, but you can never leave’. He returned later, sat down and said ‘We really miss you, you know’. A year 8 girl came up to me at the office and said ‘I really miss you Miss- you made learning French so much fun’. Strings spun out, connecting me back to all of these people, to who I am as a teacher, to who I want to be as a teacher educator, to my pre-service teachers. Depending on where I am, the strings twist, they slacken, they become taut, but they do not break. Teaching, school, teacher education. All of these are the Hotel California for me. I can checkout, but I can never leave.

My first year Joint Degree students stand on the shore, ready to plunge into the sea of teaching. One of my Masters of Teaching students said yesterday that he hasn’t even got beyond the breakers yet. I’m lucky to swim out with them, sharing stories of our passion for teaching and learning.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it …

The name of John Hattie has become synonymous with feedback over the last few years in education circles. Many of the schools I have worked with have been looking at Hattie’s work and thinking about the types of feedback they give students and the impact that different types of feedback have on student learning. Coupled with an increasing awareness of assessment of, as, for learning, teachers are experimenting with ways of providing students with opportunities to grow their understandings of critical thinking and content through a range of assessment and feedback styles.

As a teacher, I’ve always been focused on doing more than just giving students a ‘well done’ on their work and at the same time searching for ways of giving feedback that will encourage students to take the next step in their learning. When working with Year 12 English students a few years ago, I experimented and tweaked a PEEL (see peelweb.org for more information about PEEL) strategy that encouraged students to keep feedback logs. In these logs, students would create a log of feedback that highlighted where they had demonstrated success and where they could continue to work on particular areas. In order to do this, they would read feedback given by me and then summarise that feedback into their logs. They would also use activities such as peer and self-assessed criteria to review their own learning and understanding, and notes on these would be added to their feedback logs. In using the feedback logs I was hoping that students would be able to chart their own progress over the year and that this would inform our discussions about their development and learning. One of the challenges of this approach was that as the time pressure of Year 12 intensified and led towards the final exams and the all dominating fear of what mark they might get on the final exam, students were driven to searching for the ‘quick fix’ when it came to feedback. They wanted it distilled down to the simplest of parts, the recipe for what would gain them the highest mark, the sure, never-fail strategy that would provide success. Such is the challenge of a system that is driven by assessment of learning and where students saw their future hopes as determined by a number on a final exam.

Despite these kinds of challenges, I continue to search for ways of giving feedback that encourage students to take an active part in their own learning. Following a couple of teachers on Twitter (@BiancaH80 and @alicelung), I saw ways that they were using the concepts of ‘Medals’ and ‘Missions’ when giving feedback to students. @BiancaH80 writes a blog about her teaching and has written an awesome post that I only read today about the ways she uses medals and missions http://biancahewes.wordpress.com/tag/geoff-petty/ Before that I’d just seen her twitter posts about using it and had gone from there to look into Petty, but then came across her post today so had to edit my blog to link to hers.    What I  first liked about this idea of using the medals and missions  was the language as for many students who play computer and platform games, the idea of medals as things they have gained, and missions as the things they still need to accomplish, are familiar concepts.

I’d heard Black and William but not of Petty and again it was @BiancaH80’s tweets who alerted me to his work. Drawing on the work of Hattie and of Black and William, Geoff Petty describes medals as feedback on the work students have done well, while missions are the information about what a student needs to work on, develop further and explore. You can visit http://www.geoffpetty.com/feedback.html to find out more about what Petty says on this type of feedback. The medals and missions are related to the goals that we have for learning, so that students are aware of what they are working towards.

Towards the end of last term I decided to experiment with presenting feedback to my students in Years 7 & 8 French using the Medals and Missions approach. I was interested in seeing if the approach encouraged me to target more effectively the areas that students had done well, as well as what they still needed to work on, and I was also interested in seeing the student response to this kind of feedback.

The first class I used this feedback approach with was my Year 7 French class and after explaining the medals/ missions idea, I handed back some work students had recently completed. It was great to see that students were reading the feedback carefully and then asking questions about the kinds of strategies they could use to tackle the missions sections of their feedback. This was also the case with my Year 8 students, and it was great to see the Year 8s talking about the ways they wanted to grow their understandings.

At the end of the term I gave the students a self-evaluation where I asked them to reflect on their learning over the term and the activities/ strategies that had helped them to learn throughout the 9 weeks we had spent together.  The students gave excellent feedback about their learning and about the strategies that worked well for them in helping them build an understanding of language and culture. When we return to school next week, we are going to start with our medals and missions for this term related to our goal of learning new vocabulary and developing new understandings about culture. I’m going to ask students to identify their medals from the previous term and then set themselves some missions for the term ahead.

So far, I’m liking the way that the medals and missions approach to feedback is encouraging students to process the feedback that I am giving them. The approach also encourages me to move away from bland feedback statements (eg ‘great work’ ) that are not actually related to the specifics of what students have done in their work, it encourages me to think about each student and their learning and the strategies that are going to help that student develop. So my mission, which I have chosen to accept, is to continue with the medals/ missions approach this term and see how it works for the students this term and what kinds of learning we may be able to bring about.