Before our visits we sat down on several occasions to talk as a team about what we wanted to see, hear and discuss by visiting schools. These conversations helped us to structure our guiding questions that were the base of how we selected schools. From here we spoke with educators we knew to locate schools that would help us focus on our guiding questions. Our key emphasis this visit was on open learning spaces, negotiated learning, student ownership and the practice of reflection within the learning. Big ideas to look at and we were more than excited about the day of visits.
The schools we visited allowed us to see a range of different understandings, directions and thinking. It was a great opportunity to talk about the things that mattered to different schools and communities and why those things were important. It allowed us to see some of the big picture of what small decisions in classrooms can mean or do school wide.
The 2 key themes coming from all the schools we visited were the importance of 'relationships' and 'systems' to team teaching/open learning spaces. We were really excited about discussing these key themes with the schools, but then again afterwards amongst ourselves as we reflected on our own journey.
A key element of a successful teaching team is the relationship between the teachers involved. A high level of trust, integrity, support, friendship and willingness is required to work in such a close space. You are consistently a reflective buddy, support person and general day to day go to person for each other. A shared understanding about what path the classroom is on is required to make sure that a clear path is created for the students working within the space. What are your shared beliefs, understandings and ideas that underpin what is happening in your classroom space? How well do you work together to make the things you want to happen in your class move from visions to happenings? Just some of the important questions that teachers spoke of considering and thinking about.
Many principals spoke about the fact that these relationship often need to come from the teachers rather than be selected by the management team. The driving force behind these relationships need to come intrinsically from the teachers. This is where a lot of management have seen the most effective classrooms, as the teachers have established that the strong relationship is there.
What clear systems are in place to allow teachers and students to work within the shared space? Do all people in that shared space have the same understanding about the little things as well as the big things in the class - where do the kids put their book bags in the morning? To the bigger decisions - how will we group our students for ... subject? The systems in place need to be steadfast and supported by all individuals. In one class in particular we saw extremely clear and effective systems in place in all avenues of the classroom practice that supported both students and teachers to work in the space. From planning, classroom space, organisation etc - the small systems in place guided all parties to use the space for effective learning.
There are also a lot of people who need to navigate day to day classroom systems - are these systems clear to you, the students and the parents? Some of the schools we visited spoke about 'Guardian Teachers' in the open plan environment. This system gave each parent an opportunity to feel like they had 1 parent to talk to in regards to issues/concerns and general day to day business. This didn't mean that the student and teacher belonged specifically together, but it was a system that allowed parents to have a means of communication with one of the teachers. A simple but effective system had been established for students, teachers, parents and management. What was also great was being able to speak to most people along that chain and hear the same systems communicated from each party - one sign of effective systems being in place.
We took the time after each school to share our understandings, ideas, reflections and new thinking with each other. This time was extremely valuable. I feel privileged to work in the team that I do. We have both relationships and systems happening currently that support and develop a range of powerful teaching and learning. Our ability to work as a team and reflect on what we are doing and why it is working well is one of our strengths. I felt that the themes the schools shared with us were a key element of a successful open plan teaching environment. Yes, there are other factors but with great systems and amazing relationships some real magic can happen for the students and teachers.
Our team has used the opportunity to walk away and think about what is really important for each of us within our classroom environments. It was great to affirm some of the things we have already placed such as shared assessment documents across our pod that is allowing us to cater for our student's needs across our pod and teachers - not just within our own classrooms.
My 2 colleagues have spent time analysing what they do and why it is important to them and then coming together to share with each other what these elements are as they continue on the journey of working in an open plan space. There is so much more that they are doing - but that is their journey to share! I am just privileged to be along for the journey with them as they make amazing steps in their own practice and their student's learning.
For myself, there has been a lot of assessing and balancing thoughts and ideas of my own. It is helping to cement for me the importance of the open plan environment and what can be offered by working in a space with multiple students and teachers. It has helped me to reflect on the opportunities I have had over the last few years to work with some amazingly talented people. There is a lot to move forward with, for myself and my team.
We were extremely grateful to the principals, team leaders, teachers and students who gave up their time to share their learning, thought processes and journey that they are on in order for us to follow our own. We are also grateful to our own school that allows us the opportunity to use our CRT days in this way and support us with our ongoing classroom journeys. It's amazing what supportive and wonderful people we have in our NZ schools.
Taking a risk...