Teaching a perishable skill?

Image source: Derek Wenmoth

The image at the top of this post is of a quote that sits on the wall in my office. It reminds me that as an educator I can never ‘rest on my laurels’ and assume that the training I did back in the 1970s will be sufficient to ‘see me through’ in the current context.

What this sign reminds me of is the need to ensure I am continually refreshing myself as a professional, by immersing myself in the ideas and thinking that is emerging in the field, as well as engaging in rigorous, ongoing reflection and inquiry as I see to embrace and embed the innovative strategies I regard as important.

While working as a teacher educator many years ago a colleague of mine was completing a PhD, looking into what makes for the most effective pre-service teacher education preparation. I recall vividly him speaking to me about his literature review, citing several similar studies from which he’d concluded, “while a rigorous preparation is important, unless these new teachers enter an environment with a strong culture of professional development and growth, within 5 years they are likely to revert to teaching in ways they remember being taught.” In other words, the embedded patterns of belief and behaviour learned from a lifetime in school are likely to be called on more often than the strategies and theory learned in a pre-service education programme.

It is those un-expected or un-familiar situations that confront us on a daily basis in our practice that leave us unable to immediately call upon the things we’ve been taught – as noted in the quote below;

New teachers juggle an overwhelming number of unfamiliar issues, such as classroom management, instruction, curriculum, school culture and operations, test preparation and administration, state standards, parent relations, and interactions with other teachers. Left to themselves, they may develop counterproductive behaviours. With extra support, however, new teachers learn more effective practices to apply to daily challenges… most importantly, research
shows that new teachers who received intensive mentoring had a significant effect on student achievement after as little as two years.

From Why Professional Development Matters, LearningForward

This is particularly the case for any educator when confronted with change or a ‘crisis’ of some kind in the classroom – whether that be a student for whom none of our tried and true behaviour management strategies have any effect through to what happens when we find ourselves having to work in an open space with 75 students and 2-3 other teachers.

The experience of most educators during the COVID-19 lockdown will resonate here. With the familiar structures, support and surroundings taken away, and the online environment used as a substitute, many thousands of educators were asked to ‘shift their practice’ into completely uncharted territory. The unplanned and rapid move to online learning – with no training, insufficient bandwidth, and little preparation – created the perfect storm in terms of challenges to the way we operate normally and the toolsets and experience we had to call on.

What we need to understand here is that these new contexts automatically de-skill us. We are forced to find new ways of working and achieving what we need to do. For some this is energising and empowering, but for most of us it can be a challenge as we find ourselves with no immediate experience to ‘fall back on’ as we seek to work things through.

Jack Boyle, president of the PPTA recognised this early on and had some sensible advice… 

Teachers will need to put on their own ‘oxygen masks’ before they can help their students, whānau and communities during the current COVID-19 crisis. 

From: Support for educators during COVID-19, Education Gazette

Which brings me to the critical question – what is required of us as educators to enable us to cope in such times of crisis and change? Where does our ‘oxygen’ come from? The answer may well lie in us embracing the same philosophical approach as we do with our students, drawing on the wisdom of the following quote (with questionable attribution to WB Yeates)

‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’

The problem with the approach taken in so much pre-service and in-service professional development is that it takes the form of the ‘filling of a pail‘. Courses are planned, existing bodies of knowledge are ‘delivered’ or ‘engaged with’ and assessments are completed to ensure the transfer is complete. It’s not that the provision of courses or well facilitated PLD days is wrong, it’s more about what we do to ‘light the fire’ for engaging with all of this to ensure that we are equipping ourselves and those we work with to be innately adaptive, creative problem solvers when confronted with change. What makes us intuitively curious about finding ways to solve the challenges that confront us, rather than looking outward to find the ‘answer’ from an expert.

So, before we put the experience of the lockdown behind us and return to what is ‘normal’ and ‘familiar’, let’s reflect a little on the lessons learned from the perspective of our preparedness for change, and the implications for how, as a profession, we can keep ourselves fresh and able to tackle the new contexts as they arise. Here are some questions to ponder..


  • what am I reading to keep me informed about changes I need to be aware of and the things that are on the horizon?
  • who am I discussing this with? Are these people only from my own ‘echo chamber’ or have I managed to extend my circle to include people who think differently to me and challenge my thinking?
  • am I caught up in the change for change’s sake, or am I maintaining a strong focus on what’s good for learners and will help them achieve?
  • do I use inquiry to actively investigate and improve my own beliefs and actions, or have I succumbed to some sort of long-term inquiry based on someone else’s question all for the sake of meeting teacher registration requirements?
  • do I factor the wellbeing of my students, and my own, into my thinking about change and how we adapt to new contexts for teaching and learning? How is this expressed?


  • what am I doing to develop a culture that embraces risk taking, inquiry, collaborative action and tolerance of failure within my context? How is this achieved and recognised?
  • is inquiry an embedded part of teaching practice – not something that I’ve made mandatory with large-scale, long-term investigations that appear disconnected from the daily practice of my staff?
  • am I providing time for personal reflection, reading and discussion in the time expectations I have of staff? How do we celebrate and share this? What things may need to be dropped to create space for this?
  • what procedures do I have in place to support staff who are fearful of change or are resisting new ways of doing things?
  • how do we plan and make provision for professional development in our context? Are we simply ‘filling the pail’, or have we ‘lit a fire’ where demand for this is driven by staff?


  • does the way we recognise teaching proficiency sufficiently address the capacity for change, resilience, risk taking etc?
  • can we more explicitly link pre-service and in-service professional learning to create a continuum of experience that is constantly evolving?
  • how might we re-conceptualise the teaching profession to recognise different roles and responsibilities, and focus on the impact of teams of differently skilled professionals?

One thought on “Teaching a perishable skill?

  1. Thanks, Derek for this post. The error we have made is that we did not stop or allow ourselves to stop, once the Rahui was lifted we just rushed back, we walked for a short time, then we ran and then we have been sprinting, and now we are at a point where many are exhausted, students and teachers alike. Psychologically, we just could let go of the old to allow the new experiences to filter into a new reality. As strange as this may sound, we kind of placed the rahui experience into our memory files as an experience that made no difference to our reality. I put this down to the fact that in public education, no one lost their jobs, no schools were forced to close. Yes, dates for NCEA exams were shifted (whippy do). Central government are not in the frame of mind to make an existential change to education particularly in primary and secondary education.

Leave a Reply