Small goals, big impact

Matt Tiplin, the VP of ONVU Learning and Former Senior Leader at Tiffin Girls School
Matt Tiplin, the VP of ONVU Learning and Former Senior Leader at Tiffin Girls School explains how small, attainable goals in teacher development can lead to quality education and support for both educators and students 

Reducing reliance on oil as a driver of economies across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region has put the education sector in the spotlight as the priority tilts towards creating a diversified and knowledge-based economy.   

In the UAE alone the education market is forecasted to grow as much as 9.45% within the next four years. And to support sustainable growth in the education system the Ministry of Education has committed to developing Emirati expertise in education.  

Meanwhile, Kuwait has recently relaxed family visa rules in some categories and the continuing surge in expatriates choosing to live across the GCC is creating a burgeoning and diverse student population and a dynamic education landscape. In fact, the fastest growing education market in the Middle East is centred around the GCC. 

In such competitive market school leaders can feel under pressure to deliver and sustain continuous school improvement. This can understandably lead them to think big when exploring a solution, like launching a whole school specialist training programme for example. They are not alone in thinking this way as often when we see a need for change, our instinct is to adopt the big-bang method and to try and solve everything at once.  

However, schools don’t need big ticket ideas to develop teachers and support them in their role. When it comes to delivering a rounded education and quality assuring teaching across a school, sometimes it’s the small, but winnable goals, which best meet the needs of teachers and students. 

Why less can be more with teachers’ CPD  

When it comes to driving long-term, sustainable change a more effective approach is to take it in bite size chunks. To regularly focus on smaller areas and see how the improvements add up. This is known as marginal gains.  

Sir Dave Brailsford, former performance director of British Cycling adopted the marginal gains approach to revolutionise the cycling team’s performance. He started the journey by making smaller and more manageable changes such as redesigning bike seats and switching cycling suit fabrics rather than going all out to organise extended periods of overseas training.  

His philosophy to think small and adopt a continuous improvement approach paid off. In just five years under his leadership the team went from winning one gold medal in their 76-year history to winning seven at Beijing.  

This little-by-little approach can also be applied to many areas of school improvement, and more schools are beginning to recognise the need to reflect this in their approach to teacher professional development. Because putting teachers under pressure by feeling over scrutinised in a traditional lesson observation or being asked to make too many changes all at once, can leave them feeling demoralised and defeated.  

As the individual needs of teachers are nuanced, replacing generic training days with smaller, more frequent sessions work better than large-scale training and professional development days. In my view, these should be reserved for updating the knowledge and skills all teachers need such as how to navigate the impact of AI in education. 

A series of short workshops for teachers with students in key exam years perhaps, so they feel better equipped to support a student struggling with academic pressure, can be a more productive approach.  

The key to lasting change is making smaller improvements that add up as it allows teachers to keep developing as professionals day in and day out and gives them ongoing confidence to improve student outcomes.   

Retaining good teachers  

Teachers are a school’s most valuable asset, and school improvement relies on recruiting, retaining and developing good teachers.  

New research published by the Council of British International Schools reported overseas teacher supply is a significant challenge which schools are addressing by recruiting and training new teachers locally. This is backed by recent reports that teachers from native English speaking countries such as the UK and Australia registering to teach abroad are down by 40% compared to pre-Covid times. 

Given the status of the current recruitment market this could pose a significant challenge to schools across the GCC. That’s why it’s more important than ever to support teachers’ potential and give them the time and space to self-reflect and continue to develop as professionals. 

So how can schools help teachers to boost their individual practice and support their professional development in a measured and attainable way? 

Providing them with more opportunity to self-reflect on one aspect of a lesson is one way to help teachers see for themselves where they could improve their practice. That might be by assessing whether a Q&A session went well for a particular group of students, or by reviewing a video recording of a lesson to understand at which point several students disengaged and did not grasp a complex maths problem.  

Understanding where in a lesson teaching practice needs to be tweaked so everyone learns is essential for supporting teacher development and in securing better outcomes for students. 

I worked with one school where a teacher reviewing a recording of her lesson noticed that a new student sitting at the back of the class appeared disinterested. She hadn’t noticed earleir as he was not disruptive and did the work. She asked him what was wrong and discovered he had already covered the topic in his last school, knowing this she was able to adjust her lesson so that he too could get the most out of it.  

Encouraging a culture where teachers feel safe and happy to share what they have learnt through self-reflecting on these types of incremental improvements can be very beneficial. After all teachers learn best from other teachers. A weekly discussion in the staff room over a cup of tea and biscuit might be all that’s needed to start having an impact across the school.   

Self-reflection activities such as these help teachers to see where they, as individuals, can refine their practice in small but incredibly important steps. They also demonstrate the school values the teacher’s professionalism and expertise.  

Putting teachers at the centre of their own professional development is essential for raising standards of teaching and learning and sets a school apart in a competitive market.