Why I'm a better teacher now: Reflections from a high school deputy principal

This week, we have a guest post from one the ACT’s many excellent Deputy Principals. Paul is the principal of Calwell High School, and has kindly shared with us a letter he recently sent to the school’s parent community:

I want to share with you a profound revelation. For the last 22 years of my teaching career I have been underperforming.

That’s probably a little dramatic and that was my intention. When I mean underperforming, I mean not reaching the potential of all that I can be to ensure learning is happening in my classroom. Oh sure, I have been differentiating curriculum to meet the needs of learners. I was pre-testing to gauge where my students were at before starting instruction and I was supplying feedback to ensure that my students knew what they could do and what they needed to learn next. Improvement has been a slow and steady progression since I started teaching in the ACT in 1994. While the key word here is slow, the teacher I am today bears very little resemblance to the teacher I was at the start of my career and that is a good thing. I know that my students learn in my classes. I know that I am engaging them (most of the time) and I have students that come back to me years later and give me feedback which makes me blush. But I’ve always known I could do better.

When teaching, time has always been the enemy. A work/life balance has always been a strong motivator in my life and that won’t change. That means that assignments might take a little longer to be returned, that feedback isn’t always completely fresh and that lesson planning is sometimes more, ahem, spontaneous than I’d like to admit. At the start of this term I was determined to change and I had the motivation to do something about it. Most importantly I had the tools available to make the change. I prepared myself to run an experiment with my teaching to see if I could improve.

Since the beginning of the term the school has had a set of Chromebooks in our Flexible Learning Space (a brand new classroom set up for innovative learning that sits neatly between our maths classrooms and our science labs). Usually, teachers book in to use that space for a lesson at a time or when they require group investigations, etc. For this experiment I planned to use that space exclusively for my Year 10 SOSE class for 4 lessons a week. I was going to avoid using paper where possible and have all activities completed online using the Google for Education apps (Google Docs, Google Classroom, etc).

Why was I doing this? I wanted to advocate for other teachers to use our new equipment and I knew that I had to lead by example. As a school leader, I needed to do it myself before I asked others to do the same. The school and our Education Directorate was making considerable investment in this area and I wanted to be an authentic voice to give feedback, to be sure the decisions we were making were the right ones for student learning. Privately, I wanted to be better at what I did and I was hoping the new tools would be the way to do it.

It has now been eight weeks and in that time I have been shocked at how much of an impact being in the Flexible Learning Space with the Chromebooks has had on my teaching, the learning of my students and sheer amount of feedback I am giving to students every day.

The best thing about using the Chromebook and the Google Apps is how easy it is to set up and use. The students took a little while to get used to not having Microsoft products and their work books, but that transition has gone extremely smoothly. The most common feedback has been how similar, yet easier, the Google products are to use. They have been especially impressed by how the files they are working are on are saved all the time and that they don’t need to save their work on USB drives in order to work at home.

I use Google Classroom a lot. The best analogy I can make is that it is like having facebook for a single class. I put assignments in there. I post videos for the students to watch with questions that I can check after class. I use it to post reflection questions. I also use it to check on my progress and get feedback from the students on the way I’m teaching.

Since using the Chromebooks and Google for Education, I have been impressed on how easy it all is. I have transformed my teaching for the better more in the last eight weeks than I have done in the last twenty two years and I’m not working any harder to do it. I can give written feedback to students in class. I can do it during a boring meeting. I can do it from home. My students have a clearer idea of their learning goals, what I want from them and are submitting drafts to me to check to make sure they are on the right track. Engagement in lessons is up and I’m moving through the curriculum quicker than I ever have. I am enjoying my teaching and that has transferred to my students. I honestly can’t think of returning to the way I taught before.

After eight weeks I am utterly convinced that this is the pathway for our students and the pathway for our teachers. It has renewed my motivation to get more and more devices into our school and to help our teachers see that using the devices will improve the impact of their teaching and correspondingly, the learning of their students.


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