Every year, on a Friday in the autumn term, my school completely closes its doors to our students. Along with the students, we teachers welcome this halting of the deafening grindstone. But what do we do with this day? No, it’s not marking, work-scrutinising, co-planning, or being subjected to 7 back-to-back PowerPoint slides on spurious theories of learning. What we do is embark on our own individual adventures to schools of our choice, to see them work, and learn from their ways. Like homing pigeons, we will return the next week. But like magpies, we will hopefully bear treasure. We call it a WoW day (‘Watching Others Work’).
I think that this day is a no-brainer great idea for teachers. I always look forward to my WoW day. I’ve had very positive experiences of it over the years: heads of department have always been willing to put together a schedule of observations; members of the maths department have given their time to compare schemes of work and teaching activities; and students in strangely coloured uniforms have – on the whole – not given me ugly looks. At my school I now run a mentoring scheme involving about 50 sixth-formers, and this was basically an idea stolen from a school on a WoW day. A colleague has filled his walls top-to-bottom with big whiteboards because of the animated problem-solving he saw one year. My head of department has just come back with plans to change what calculators all of our sixth-formers use because of what she saw.
And it’s not just big things that you’re looking out for. Just seeing half a dozen different teachers with their classes – the examples they use, their manner with the students, the routines they have established – is very eye-opening. I think we underestimate just how much of the content of our lessons is determined by the culture and expectations unique to our schools. In the usual flow of things we teachers like to let things run the same course as before, down safe well-worn tracks. The same lesson plans get brought out, from the same schemes of work, topped with the same anecdotes. But we know that when we do this we run the risk that our practices will calcify. Something like a WoW can just shake this up.
It’s also not just about pedagogy and your subject area. Visiting another school allows you to see teachers up against a different pattern of workload, with often wildly different expectations, observation policies, support systems and so on. I’ve seen teachers taking home buckets of books that I would’ve simply gotten peer-assed in class. I’ve talked to teachers who are horrified at the sound of regular no-notice drop-ins which we have at our school. And yes, the leaders of our school must be aware that – frankly – we could use this opportunity to scout out and cosy up to a potential future employer. I think it takes a lot of guts really – they are essentially saying “Go out to 50 other schools, compare notes in the staff room, and if you see a school you’d rather work at, let us know.”
These are the reasons why I think the WoW day is great. But from my experience, teachers at other schools think it’s very strange. At almost every school I’ve visited, they’ve said, “We’d love to do that, but I’ve never heard of anything like it before.” And should it feel so exotic? Just to spend 1 day out of 200 learning from hard-working professionals who have roughly the same job as you, in a different context?
I think that what is actually bizarre – and what will one day be looked back at as a strange practice – is that as schools we erect such high walls around ourselves. We almost never allow other teachers in, or let our teachers out. Most teachers don’t even venture far from their own classrooms. Apart from a token yearly CPD meet-up we don’t seriously reflect on the practices of other schools. This leaves most of us are left with very little idea of how other teachers work, and what it’d be like to teach at other schools. Intriguing rumours fester unchecked (“All academies are awful and work you to the bone!”… “That school is soulless. I read it on Mumsnet.”). If you’re lucky, you might be able to share experiences with local teachers at the pub. But I think we should expect much more.
So I encourage you to ask your leadership team about the possibility of a WoW day (do say that you don’t mean ‘World of Warcraft’, that might not go down well). And completing a review of your school will help push things forward, starting to bridge the moats between our guarded citadels.
Image credit goes to Bert Knottenbeld.