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A risky business

by Cathy Duncan

When I became a teacher, 20 years ago, I promised myself I wouldn’t teach from the textbook and bore my students with worksheets. I wanted to emulate my favourite teachers growing up; those who were inspiring, engaging, thought provoking and who made learning fun. Teachers who I still remember today for all the right reasons.

Unfortunately for the first year of my career that’s exactly what I didn’t do. My classroom was set up traditionally and my lessons were based around worksheets and textbooks. As a young teacher, I felt almost forced into a model of teaching where I felt subjected to teaching practices out of my control. Teaching practices that had been embedded in the school system for years and had cultivated staff who felt powerless to take risks and try new things in their classroom. It was easy to understand why many had developed a fixed mindset.

Consequently, it didn’t take long for me to become bored and stale and soon I began to question my career choice. My learners seemed disengaged and my job satisfaction was at an all-time low. I realised my teaching needed to change dramatically. I knew I couldn’t sit back and repeat the same lessons year after year because it was simply tradition. Inexperienced and young, I had allowed myself to be caught up in the system and culture of the school. Staff cared for their learners and had good intentions, but most had begun to settle for staying sane, checking all the boxes and getting the job done.

A new school soon gave me a newfound passion for my career and everything changed. Here, I realised that the culture in my previous school and the reliance they had on hierarchy were the real barriers for risks not being taken or change not occurring.

Innovation allowed

Trying out new practices and pedagogy will always be a risky business, but my new leadership team led by example. They promoted smart risk taking and a culture of growth. They encouraged innovation to thrive. It was embedded in the vision and culture of the school and we all had a commonality of purpose and values. Professional enquiry and triangulated coaching sessions helped me engage in continual reflective practice. All of this helped me develop, innovate and stay invigorated. I enjoyed the support of collective planning, teamwork and collaboration that allowed me to try out and learn new things in the classroom.

In my classroom, I began modelling taking risks, leading the learning and taking risks together with my learners. By nature, my learners responded to my expectations and my example. The culture, throughout the school, inside each classroom, was one of the most critical aspects that encouraged innovation for both teachers and learners.

In education, now more than ever, we are encouraged to teach our learners to become creative, critical thinkers, to be resilient and accept failure as part of the learning journey. Indeed, over the past 10 years Growth Mindset has been a buzz word in education. All too often, a practice that has been simplified and diluted when being implemented into schools.

New culture

Surely, if our learners see us as adults still on the learning path and taking risks then this will reflect on them and will help in creating a culture whereby this is common practice?

Lockdown and remote learning forced us all way out of our comfort zone. As a profession, we were empowered to take risks, reflect on our practice and adjust and develop our teaching accordingly.

I for one, hope the momentum continues. That leadership teams continue to create these supportive, nurturing cultures in schools where staff are empowered and have the autonomy to develop new pedagogy and practice in their classrooms. I hope we as educators, will continue to be curious, lifelong learners who continue to take risks.

Taking risks is important in all aspects of education, not only to find new innovative pedagogies, but to demonstrate these processes for learners, upon whom future innovation depends. If, as a profession, we are to continue to meet the needs of our future leaders, computer analysts and scientists, we must be willing to keep evolving; to develop, further develop and maintain a flexible and risk-taking mindset.

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