Ancient history school: what's new with the old?

teaching like an expert

Last month, an article appeared in Melbourne’s newspaper, The Age, titled: Conferences waste teachers’ time and our money, Auditor-General claims. While not a Victorian teacher, my bristles certainly went up upon reading the headline. I have attended some sensational conferences that have not only improved my teaching but further developed my own understanding in my subject area. What is this Auditor-General on about?

Essentially, there is an industry that offers various education related professional development in Victoria, but appears to do little to actually determine long term effectiveness. Teachers are required to complete 20 hours of PD a year as part of their registration. For many, I suggest there is little say in what they attend as schools just buy up tickets to various conferences so teachers can secure their hours. The main criticisms from the Auditor-General are that there is little teacher-led PD, the sessions do not take into account the diversity of educators and classrooms, and the content is often generic in nature. The Grattan Institute weighed in, commenting that teachers need to have ownership of their PD to ensure that it can improve classroom practice. Peter Goss, school education program director at the GI comments: "The most effective professional learning involves a rigorous focus on the day-to-day challenges of teaching,"

I thought all of this was quite fair. There is no doubt that I have had to attend numerous vanilla PD sessions that left me either bored, or fully up to date with my social media. Matters are usually improved if the catering is good, but that is rare! Many times, this PD was not by choice, rather arranged by my school without determining the needs for my personal practice or to further develop my own subject area knowledge. Perhaps school leadership teams believe that they know best! Or do they?

As an ancient t history teacher, I am always reading and furthering my own knowledge about all things ancient. Many of my classes start with questions such as: Have you be to the British Museum? Have you climbed the pyramids? Have you met Prof Mary Beard? While sometimes I can answer yes (no, I have not met Mary Beard, alas!) it is only that I am afforded the privilege to travel that I am able to say yes. The question that (until recently) remained a no, was : Have you even been on an archaeological dig? There was something professionally shaming for me to stand in front of a senior ancient history class and say: “No! I have never attended an archaeological dig.” So how then, they wanted to know, are you going to teach us about it?

Senior students often have a choice of modern and ancient history. Those who choose ancient do so because they are fascinated with the distant past, probably dream of being the next Indiana Jones or desperately want to dig up the next fortune in Roman coins (who doesn’t!) These are students who know their stuff and are hoping that I know mine. Which I do - now that I’ve been on an archaeological dig. By no means am I an expert, but now I can answer “YES!” to that dreaded question. Now I feel like I have some credibility, some authenticity to teach a unit about archaeology.

Getting back to the article in The Age, I think it was remiss of them not to address the fact that there is brilliant PD happening in education spheres around Australia and that many thousands of teachers are actively managing their own journey and using it to enrich their classroom practice. In my case, my classroom practice is enriched because I am speaking from a position of authentiity. My subject-specific PD provided me with skills that no generic classroom practice PD could ever offer.

How fortunate then that I stumble across this article on my twitter feed: Teacher As Practitioner (TAP) program helps keep teachers in the profession. In the same month as the above article, Julia Morris (et al) from EduResearch Matters, reported on subject-specific professional development as a way to improve classroom practice - and as I have discovered, classroom credibility. In the face of critical teacher retention issues, it appears that teachers who ‘do what they teach’ see themselves remaining for longer in education. The Teacher as Practitioner longitudinal study began in 2010 and has tracked the effectiveness of art and science teachers who have practiced their subject outside of the classroom. For art teachers, this may mean exhibitions and personal art making. This comment is the essence of good classroom practice:

“Everything I do in my practice affects my teaching because it provides me with more insight, which transfers into for example, empathy with the students as they make work. I believe that any accumulation of knowledge shifts who we are, even if very subtly and would therefore change who we are and what we have to offer, as a teacher” (TAP 2017 research participant).

So, I agree that there is wasted PD in education and I agree that PD is often driven not by the needs of individual teachers but by the requirement to tick a box that says teachers have attended a certain number of hours of PD. The evidence from the TAP study clearly shows that when teachers engage in subject-specific PD, it develops their knowledge and confidence. Then, they enter the classroom with an authenticity that can only improve classroom practice. This is when the best dollars are spent on PD. I encourage you to take control of your PD journey, seek out the courses and workshops that you believe will assist you in your subject area. Then you can answer ‘YES!’ to those awkward questions.

Go forth and conquer

Dr Estelle Lazer in Pompeii

Dr Estelle Lazer in Pompeii

eat like an ancient

eat like an ancient