Learning from Europe

“A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.”

– George Moore 1852-1933)

It was with the best wishes of my colleagues ringing in my ears, and pigs flying past the window of the KLM Boeing 737, that I left a mildly autumnal Scotland at the end of September for the rigours of a week’s in-service training in Athens, courtesy of Comenius, the British Council and the taxpayer.

Comments like “How come I only ever get to go to Greenwood Teachers’ Centre for my in-service”?, ironic as most of them undoubtedly were, confirmed the belief that for many teachers continuing professional development is still something that happens to them, rather than something they are in control of – a notion which would convince me in the week to follow that there must be a better way to do it.

But what to expect of a Socrates-Comenius course on “effective staff development”, supported by the European Commission and run by the Flemish Board of Catholic Education, in Athens? Would the course have any kind of intellectual rigour, or would it simply be an excuse to get together in Greece for a good time? And would the sea still be warm enough to swim in? Fortunately, the answer to all three questions turned out to be yes.

For the next seven days, there were times when the classroom resembled a scene from Mind Your Language, a politically incorrect 1970s sitcom about a group of foreign nationals learning English at a night school in London.

But there was a genuine sense of community, and teaching and learning became one and the same thing. The non-native English speakers frequently apologised for near immaculate English, and the native speakers generally felt embarrassed about the one-sidedness of the effort.

Avoiding cliches and national stereotypes proved to be a difficult challenge. The Belgian system seemed to be top heavy with advisers and inspectors, their Dutch neighbours occupied with pursuing non-hierarchical management systems and the principle of networking. German teachers seemed to have no shortage of opportunities for staff development, while eastern European states like Poland and Romania were struggling to put food on the educational table.

Could it be true that in Belgium, new teachers are assessed twice in their first year and may be dismissed on the strength of the second, formal assessment; or that in Hungary this assessment takes place after three months? Suddenly Scotland was a much more appealing place to teach.

One of the conditions of acceptance on the course was that participants had the opportunity to make a presentation on their own country, and many were to take the opportunity. There is so much to be learnt from the other member states, but I returned quite reassured that Scotland is well to the fore in staff development and in many other aspects of education.

My crude attempts to summarise the McCrone report provoked a great deal of positive reaction and genuine enquiry from the others, not least the English and Irish contingents.

As for the course content, the standard was consistently high, drawing much of its material from recent research, including the work of home-grown Scots like John MacBeath, with the emphasis very much on the development of the individual teacher as a prerequisite for the development of the institution. How Good is Our School? turned out to be the envy of Europe as a self-assessment tool.

Contributions from course director Rudi Schollaert and Dr Jane Jones of King’s College London stressed the work of Hargreaves, Brighouse and others in establishing the importance of teachers as reflective practitioners in their own professional development, the challenge for effective managers being to provide them with the opportunities to reflect in an appropriate and informed environment.

As always, of course, most of the learning took place in the informal settings, in the street cafes, bars and restaurants of Athens, a bustling, noisy city of contrasts: of old and new; of classical and modern; of the beautiful and the ugly. And what better place to talk about learning than at the seat of learning itself, where even the waiters are keen to discuss philosophy and the arts.

But what had I learnt by the end of the week? For one thing, that professional development cannot be separated from personal development; that an effective staff development programme will recognise that the best research comes from within the establishment itself; that developing your professional skills does not always mean listening to another expert, but just as often means having the opportunity to demonstrate to others your own knowledge and expertise.

Have a look around you as you take your coffee in the staffroom this morning. There you will find most of the expertise that you are ever likely to need.


This article was first published in TES on 20 August 2004.


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