In praise of everyday conversations (about teaching)

I’ve been trawling through a lot of questionnaires and films of academic historians talking about their teaching recently. And also a good deal of the recent literature on teaching and learning history. What struck me today was how important conversation is to our sense of ourselves as (developing) teachers.

Now I know I should have been thinking about this all along. After all how we talk is fundamental to who we are; and in many ways the best teaching is about conversation – about talking with our students about things that are important to us, them and the world.

But our own teaching we have often kept private – hidden behind the plasterboard walls of our offices and classrooms where you can only hear the occasional disembodied sounds of colleagues and their students in muffled and disconnected form.

Today the privacy of the classroom is certainly receding, not least through departmental peer observation and mentoring schemes. But it seems to me that these initiatives have too often become infused with bureaucratic imperatives: with form-filling and ticking quality assurance boxes or, as in the case of teaching away-days with structural modifications. And the result is often a shallow exercise in reflection: one that often fails to explore the fundamental values we hold dear or use the available evidence from the literature around teaching.

But it is wrong to say that historians don’t talk seriously about teaching – they do. Our films and survey data show that historians talk a lot about their teaching but not in ways they pay much notice to because it’s part of the fabric of day-to-day working lives. When they’re asked how they developed as teachers, a large number talk about colleagues – about supervisors, mentors and workshops led by historians. But mostly they talk about everyday conversations. And I feel the same and would include in my shaping influences the impact of many serendipitous conversations with colleagues at conferences and workshops around the world. Often, I think, I learn more outside the official sessions than I do in them.

These everyday conversations are conducted in corridors between classes, staff common rooms, over lunch, at tea breaks. They are spontaneous and immediate. What comes up is often in the mind because of a recent bad class (interestingly often more than a good one); a puzzle (why two classes on the same topic work differently); or a challenge (how do I get this student/class to do better?). They are unplanned, direct and authentic conversations about practice that are real opportunities for sharing experiences, advice, reassurance and mutual support. And they allow us to tell each other our stories (and historians like telling stories) and so help us to think through who we are as teachers at a more immediate level. In short, these conversations that we often take so little heed of are vital to developing as a teacher, to sustain our passion for teaching and to collegiality.

It is therefore especially frustrating that these conversations are ignored in our formal processes of accreditation and development and in performance review (after all they are not ‘evidenced’ by paperwork). It is doubly frustrating that the opportunities for such conversations are getting ever harder to find. Staff common rooms are increasingly rare – converted into offices for new staff or teaching rooms, or just not designed into new buildings because they at not occupied at all times in a way that speaks to the ‘efficiency’ concerns of institutional managers. Likewise, lunchtimes and tea-breaks are increasingly taken (if at all) in our offices in front of the computer. There is less and less space for everyday conversation about teaching at a time when it is needed more than ever.

Perhaps, then, it is time for us to speak up for these conversations and their importance in our lives and effectiveness as teachers. Time also to insist on the need for spaces that make such unscripted conversations more likely and are more important to us than all the professional development workshops we attend. These unstructured conversations can help more than almost any other activity to create a departmental ethos for teaching. They need to be actively encouraged and this will make not only for better teaching but also for the better ‘student satisfaction’ scores whose pursuit seems to have become the holy grail of institutional managers.

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