The comfort of knowing that other teachers face classroom challenges similar to your own is only one of the basic supports that all teachers need. Yet, setting up and sustaining teacher networks to provide such support is as difficult as it is essential.
“We have no option but to start with pilots … We should start small [and] think medium term,” said Hamsa Venkat, professor of numeracy at the University of the Witwatersrand, referring to a maths-support projects she leads that involves 10 primary schools.
She spoke last week at a seminar on teacher networks at the University of Johannesburg, which explored how such networks can enable the sharing of everything from subject knowledge to the hard-won teaching tips classroom experience provides.
The seminar was the sixth and last in the first series of Teachers Upfront seminars, convened jointly by Wits University’s school of education, the University of Johannesburg’s education faculty, the Bridge education network and the Mail & Guardian.
Venkat’s “Maths Connect” project offered the lessons learned not only from establishing teacher networks, but also from sustaining teachers’ interest and participation in them. “Some of our work looks at maths content, some focuses on teaching and some emphasises mathematical leadership,” she said.
The project was an example of a teacher network that linked know-ledge to practice by focusing on content and teaching methods, she said.
The value of colleagues’ discussion
Alexandra Cock, in her first year of teaching at Parktown Girls High in Johannesburg, spoke about how valuable she found colleagues’ discussion of maths teaching. The experience prompted her and a fellow teacher to set up a similar network involving the teachers of all subjects at her school.
Social-media networks could serve similar purposes, Robyn Clark told the seminar. She is a maths teacher at Sekolo sa Borokgo school, established in 1993 to fill the large equality gaps between rural, township and then-model C schools.
Describing how these networks supported her, Clark said Twitter was her preferred medium: #mathchat allowed her to keep abreast of issues in maths education and #edchatsa gave her access to other teachers in South Africa.
Professor Karin Brodie at Wits University’s school of education described a “professional learning community” of teachers as “a group working with a facilitator, learning together and sustaining the practice of learning and of understanding learners”.
“Learners’ needs inform teachers’ learning needs and the role of data is important in a professional learning community, including data from tests, learners’ interviews, learners’ work and classroom observations,” Brodie said. She drew on her experience of the “data-informed practice improvement project” at the school, a project that focuses on maths learning and teaching. “Data provides evidence of learners’ performance, but data is not enough. Teachers need to learn to analyse and interrogate it and understand how learner data fits with everything else they know from research and experience,” she said.
Teachers in this project are exposed to locally relevant and research-based knowledge, and are taught how to interrogate conventional wisdom by considering it in relation to data and research. The project works with and across particular professional learning communities so that participating teachers can compare findings, find additional resources and communicate with other facilitators. One benefit is the comfort teachers derive from knowing that others grapple with similar challenges in their classrooms.
The facilitators’ role is central, Brodie said. They must “set a tone of helpful, relevant conversation, combined with rigorous work and hard challenges, while creating a safe space for discussion”.
Not a quick fix
All this takes time, careful planning and expertise. The resource intensity required means sustaining such forums is a problem and they are not a quick fix.
Josef de Beer in the department of science and technology education at the University of Johannesburg shared lessons from the university’s “A-Team Project”, which draws science teachers into online and physical communities aimed at supporting their professional development.
New subject content, the latest scientific developments and local knowledge are shared. Hailing mostly from underresourced schools, the teachers attend workshops, write online reflections and can visit science laboratories working with cutting-edge information and technology, De Beer said.
The seminar touched repeatedly on how much work it took to create and sustain teacher networks of any kind. “Teachers work for principals, in schools, which are in districts, which in turn are part of provinces,” Venkat said. “We need to do advocacy work at all these levels, where we share our aims and rationale, detail the course model, as well as our expectations.”
She stressed that this work was different from once-off, quick interventions aimed at all teachers. In the “Maths Connect” project, “we work with selected teachers”, she said.
“We also have an explicit research focus and we’ve built in teacher assessments because we need to know whether this is making a difference at the level of knowledge. A better maths understanding is the springboard for all three aspects of our linked focus.”
Barbara Dale-Jones is chief operations officer at the Bridge education network. For debate on the “Teachers Upfront” series, see bridge.org.za. The M&G‘s articles on previous seminars are at mg.co.za/teachers-upfront