Sunday, 24 November 2013

Confessions and musings of an #SLTCamper

I have something to admit: I've spent over over 3 days engaged in professional development activity over the last week. There, I've said it. It's out there for others to question, judge, envy or critique. 

A great chunk of that time was spent at the inaugeral #SLT Camp. Choosing to spend my weekend at a Youth Hostel in Dorking with 45 strangers was met with a variety of responses from my colleagues, friends and family ranging from intrigue and disbelief to utter shock and disgust. When trying to explain the concept at school, remarks included: 'Haven't you got better things to do with your time'; 'Wouldn't you rather be with your children' and 'I couldn't think of anything worse'. It was as if I was admitting to attending an historical re-enactment weekend or an Ewok convention. 

OK, I admit that I had my own moments of doubt at several points in the lead up to the event: attempting to finalise my Teachmeet presentation at 10pm the night before, having never even attended one before; cajoling my bemused husband to make a cake for the 'something borrowed' bake-off category; negotiating rush hour pandemonium on a complicated train/tube journey; holding my nerve during a Blair-Witch-esque taxi ride into the depths of Dorking forest without mobile phone reception. However I'm glad I didn't wimp out.

My pre-camp blog acknowledged that it wouldn't be an easy thing to do mid-November (what I hadn't anticipated at the time was the additional stress and exhaustion I'd be experiencing post illness and Ofsted!) It was those blog thoughts and the knowledge that forty-plus other school leaders and sponsors had committed to such a unique event that gave me the resolve to stick with it.

The weekend has been likened to a school reunion, a wedding and educational speed dating. It was a combination of the best bits of all three, and more. 

For those who didn't attend it's difficult to describe and appreciate the value and worth of the #SLTCamp concept and experience. I understand why others may deem it rather a bizarre way to spend your free time: I should have, arguably, been marking controlled assessments, recouping from the ordeal of Ofsted and spending time with my family. However my hopes and expectations for #SLTCamp were spot on: 'I've no doubt that I'll be refueled  refreshed and energised by what promises to be a truly absorbing and engaging weekend of professional learning and, dare I say it, fun. Not quite a spa break, but for an education junkie, perhaps the intellectual equivalent'

So what made it so great? The combination of the best features of professional development: 
  • The opportunity to hear about the amazing work going on in other schools but also to speak candidly with other school leaders about their challenges, fears and failures. 
  • Ideas and approaches to trial and implement straight away and others to think about, stew over and contemplate for the future.
  • Affirmation of my own leadership practice as well as challenges, questions and alternative approaches to refine and develop my own thinking. 
  • Fabulous food (thank you Phillip!), networking and idea-sharing - an extension of the best bits of conventional CPD: the informal discussions over coffee and lunch that are curtailed by the next session/journey home.  
  • Awesome care, freebies and attention to detail (my daughter is particularly fond of her new Twinkl drinks cup and Zondle keyring).
The wealth of warmth, generosity, humour, honesty and reciprocity that characterised the weekend made it so distinctly different from other professional development events that I have experienced. The 'no egos or wall flowers' ground rule was incredibly refreshing as was the lack of a stifling conference structure, death by power-point and the assumption that expertise lies solely with the presenters while the knowledge, ideas and skills of the delegates remains untapped. 

I suspect that few teachers would sign up voluntarily for a weekend training event involving sleeping in a top bunk, learning to salsa dance and wearing a beanie hat while using sparklers in the company of strangers. Or perhaps there are plenty of teacher geeks out there just waiting for the opportunity...

The most powerful aspect of #SLTCamp in my experience goes beyond the great ideas that I have taken away to try - some of which have already proved successful. It's the way in which it made me reflect on myself as a leader and the whole notion of professional development. 

In the Sunday morning action planning session and on the train journey home I didn't feel overwhelmed by the flurry of new ideas; I didn't feel the need to write myself a huge and impossible to-do list (as I am wont to do after most training events). Instead I used the time to digest and distill my experiences from the weekend and prioritise my personal and professional goals. The plenary cameos also helped me to reaffirm and realign my own leadership style: Jill's Berry's emphasis on integrity; Ross' Morrisson McGill's focus on resilience and Rachel's boundless enthusiasm helped me to dismiss any self-doubts that I had post-Ofsted.

The chance to look beyond the day to day minutia of school life and problem solving and think about my career and role back at school in a more holistic and strategic way was really liberating. It's also made me really re-think traditional notions of CPD. 

Professional development should be just that: a chance to grow and develop as a professional. But how often as it seen as something else? Pragmatically, CPD is too often limited to the transfer of practice from an expert back to school;  the delegate as a mere vessel to receive and disseminate knowledge and practice. 

As I've experienced this week, being 'allowed out of school' can be seen as an indulgence, a treat, a distraction from the core business of a school. While this, to an certain extent, is true, I'm hopeful that one of the changes that has been ignited by #SLTCamp is a change in the way that the teachers and schools perceive, value and engage with alternative models of professional development. Seeing CPD as something led by teachers, for teachers, not done to them. 

Sarah and Stephen's pipe dream developed into an incredibly stimulating, enjoyable and worthwhile weekend for all involved. I am incredibly grateful for the time, energy and commitment that they invested in the weekend. 

Perhaps intense residential CPD isn't for everyone, but I feel lucky to have been part of the first ever #SLTCamp and to have had the opportunity to spend time with and learn from such talented, dedicated and passionate professionals. As Hattie asserts, the future and success of the profession relies on 'Teachers who work together collaboratively to understand their impact'. 

Let's hope that this type of grass-roots CPD catches on, and that other school leaders appreciate its relevance, impact and potential for system-wide school improvement.