This is the presentation I delivered on 4 October at the Innovate 2012 conference. It deals with why and how teachers can connect and develop a professional learning network.


Cellphones in the classroom – an African perspective

Through the network of teachers in my PLN I have the privilege of meeting some amazing educators from all over South Africa. One such teacher is Robyn Clark of Sekolo sa Borokgo, an independent school in Johannesburg. We met up at a conference in Pretoria last year and met up again at a conference in Durban last month when we both shared as speakers. What I love about Robyn is her willingness to embrace challenge and change as well as her drive to be a teacher who makes a real difference in her pupils’ lives.

Robyn’s innovative and open approach to the use of cellphones in her classroom is evident of her desire to use the tools available to her pupils to teach them more effectively. The recent call to ban cellphones from schools in South Africa (a short-sighted and, quite frankly, ridiculous call) by the National Association of School Governing Bodies elicited a great deal of response in the media. With emotional responses on both sides of the argument, it is good to see a piece of balanced journalism from China Network Television who recently visited Robyn’s school to see how they were using mobile phones as a tool for learning.

Televised insert available here:

I wonder how the National Association of School Governing Bodies would respond to this?

Well done Robyn!  You are an inspiration to your fellow-educators. Thank-you for being a difference-maker!

What Happened To Professionalism?

Local school teacher to a pupil in her class: “Where did you go to school before you came to this school?”

Pupil: “I went to {insert name of another local school here}.”

Teacher: “You are so stupid to have wasted half your schooling at {insert name of another local school here}. Only idiots go to that school.”

This is unfortunately a true story…

It never ceases to amaze me that a teacher can be so small-minded and insecure in herself that she is forced to make this kind of comment in front of a class of 11 year olds. Not only is this a ridiculous thing to say, it also reveals an astonishing lack of professionalism. There is also a lack of judgement evident in what is appropriate to say to children and what is not.

Teachers such as this have no place in a classroom in a society in which we are striving to develop children who have the emotional intelligence to seek first to understand before judging others and who have the core value of respect for others. How many other teachers like this are in our schools today? Whatever happened to teachers being the pillar of society and those to whom our children turned for moral and ethical guidance in an often confusing world? Call me naive, but I believe its time to bring honour back into our profession.

Stale Teachers Stink!

It seems to me that teachers can very quickly become set in their ways. It becomes easy to haul out files of work done in previous years and simply present it again to the current class. Large files are kept ready to be opened when a particular section of work is to be taught and pupils who catch on to the pattern can score high on assessments as they borrow a book from a pupil who had the same test the year before.

A stale teacher is an albatross around the neck of any school, class or pupil. They either need to be helped to improve or helped to leave.

We can choose to blame the education department, financial woes of the school, the changing nature of society, increased class size or poor school leadership but if we fail to address the issue of outdated, tired and repetitive teachers, we are not really tackling the problem.

Ongoing professional development opportunities, peer review mechanisms and a culture of professional accountability are important factors in keeping teachers fresh and “in the game”. I certainly do not want “stale” teachers in my school nor do I wish this for my own children.

Teachers need to be taken back to the day when they walked into their first classroom and reminded of what that felt like. I encourage my staff to remember the feelings of excitement, wonder and enthusiasm as they started their teaching careers and challenge them to remember why they entered the profession in the first place. Our nation faces serious challenges in the education sector. One area we should not have to worry about is teachers who have forgotten their calling to the classroom!


The Grading Conundrum

There is something deep within me that balks at the idea that we can rate children’s academic progress on the basis of either continuous assessment or formal examinations (although I believe the former to be more realistic than the latter). Over the past number of months I have noticed an increasing number of people in my Twitter network who are writing about the same dissatisfaction with this mode of assessing learning. There even appears to be a group of teachers who have signed on to a grading moratorium.

I am torn between wanting to see the children in our school develop competencies that cannot always be assessed in the traditional way and the need to provide quantitative results for parents who want measureable results. Therein lies the conundrum – the desire to provide a more realistic and relevant assessment system and also speak the assessment language known to parents so that they can be assured that their child is actually learning something!

When I began my teaching career I noticed that at parent-teacher meetings I would very seldom refer to the school report or grades. I would instead focus my comments to parents on their child’s attitude to learning, his/her social skills, the ability to focus on tasks during class and offer comment on how they could assist their child in improving the learning experience. I would also ensure that I listened carefully to their comments so that I would know how to reach that child better. This approach was also well-received by parents who understood that their child’s education was so much more that symbols on a page. I also learnt early in my career that I intuitively knew more about the child’s skills and competencies than a simple test could tell me. This intuition was my guide in the comments I wrote on reports and most times guided my assessment of children’s competencies. I still firmly believe that good teachers should more often than not follow their gut feel about a pupil more than they should rely on assessments.

A very intentional and strategic re-education needs to happen in our schools so that we can find a middle ground on this topic without alienating our parents, frightening our teachers and without compromising the complete education of our children. As Alvin Toffler said,

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

We cannot afford to have our classrooms filled by teachers unwilling to unlearn old paradigms and too scared of relearning how to assess pupils in world which is constantly reinventing itself.

As always I would love to read your comments on this topic – write away!

10 Outcomes To Measure Teacher Success

The corporate world measures success by the effect of staff and decision-making on the bottom line. If profits increase the staff are seen to be effective. If decisions taken result in more effective means of bringing in money then surely that team is effective?

Educator success cannot possibly be measured in such terms. I believe that measuring the success of teachers is not an exact science and that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to put measureable outcomes in place. There is an awful lot of subjectivity when it comes to measuring teacher success. Here are 10 outcomes I look for when assessing the effectiveness of my teaching staff :

  1. The pupils look forward to attending the teachers’ class.
  2. The teacher is well-prepared for each lesson.
  3. Every child is given the opportunity to contribute in a way which honours their particular learning style.
  4. The classroom is a place where learning happens through engagement with the material being taught.
  5. The teacher’s words and actions in the class provide an emotionally safe place for children to be themselves without fear of ridicule.
  6. Learning is seen as a collaborative effort – the teacher does not see him/herself as the “Giver of all knowledge”.
  7. The teacher engages in regular professional development – shown by the journals read, seminars attended, willingness to engage in online experiences with fellow-teachers and an openess to develop the skills required to use social media tools as a means of sharing with other teachers.
  8. The classroom environment is clean, thoughtfully laid out and age-appropriate.
  9. There is regular parent engagement.
  10. The teacher regularly takes learning outside the classroom.

This is by no means a comprehensive list but certainly gives a broad idea of what is important in assessing a teacher’s efficacy. It will be noted that nowhere in this list is a point about grades or assessments. This is intentional. Far too much emphasis is placed on assessments and grading often at the expense of effective classroom practice. The drive to finish the syllabus and produce “A” grade candidates so often compromises the learning process. We cannot measure the success of a teacher by how many “A” students he “processes” each year.

The question then is “How are these outcomes assessed?”. That will be the subject of a future post…

Please leave your thoughts on this topic in the comments. I look forward to engaging with you on this.