Balancing Act

The art of doing it all

Early this month I met with the Lead Facilitators from each of the project schools. It was a time to reflect on the process so far. Seeing as most schools were about to begin an after school club with their artists, this was an excellent opportunity to share and discuss ideas, whilst supporting each other.

My aim was to create an atmosphere where we could be at ease with each other. Creating a place where there was no threat of judgement being made, enabled teachers to be honest about how they were finding things and this transparency, in turn, made it easier for us to share with each other and contribute to finding the solutions to potential difficulties which were being faced. What did this look like? We met in my classroom, sat at tables in informal groupings, there wasn’t a ‘boardroom’ feel to the setting, and as we were all teachers, we ‘get’ where each other is coming from, and understand the very real problems that arise when trying to balance any extra activity or venture into the demands of our tightly packed curriculum. For some teachers, things were moving along smoothly and the ‘after school clubs’ had started. For others, there was a level of frustration. In part this was due to communication between themselves and the artists, timings and other external demands. It is important to note that the artists are all freelance and as a consequence demand of their time and schedule has proved difficult to coordinate in some cases. Flexibility on our part as teachers, is essential when working with any outside agency. Something has to give. If there is to be movement on the pivot of teaching, we cannot keep on adding weight to one side of the seesaw. There has to be give and take – a shared workload, a shared learning from each other as professionals.

Part of our own school culture has been to actively seek ways and opportunities to learn from and with others. This in turn not only helps with our own teacher development (as we learn new skills, vocabulary and in this case, art), but also provides us with opportunities to challenge professionals from arts agencies and support them in working within the parameters of school life. We have timetables that need to be adhered to, other timings throughout the day, booking of rooms, and intervention teaching all play a part in making it complex to work in schools. Then there is the added demand of National Curriculum, data collection, testing and monitoring which can, if we let it, bind us into constricted rigid conformity.

Our parameters are dictated by the confined lines drawn by curriculum, the nuances of each school and the leadership which steers each one. This project is one that challenges every aspect of school life. It requires risks to be taken, it pushes buttons of conformity, and makes us question why we do things in a certain way. Committing to this project has meant that all teachers, artists and school leaders are reflecting on the challenges and rewards of working together with the common goal, in this case, of developing vocabulary through the arts.

What teachers have found difficult is keeping the balance of what is expected, what is ingrained in our psyche as teachers: we question what evidence is there of impact on the children as learners? Is there anything in their books to prove that progress is being made? Taking a step away from this expectation is risky, it is a brave move, but one that I think is essential to learn as we see that there is more than one way to achieve this aim. Our children need to become confident in talking about their learning, articulating why they have done something and start to develop a greater level of episodic and semantic learning. This will prove to others that they are learning – their knowledge is balanced with the memory of what they did. I would challenge that evidence is not always a double page spread in their topic book with neatly drawn diagrams and a well worded recount, I suggest that an equally balanced measure is through the conversation with directed questions to pick out the impact of learning that has taken place. If evidence is needed in a non-direct way in our 21st Century world of learning – could this be recorded digitally, blogged, or vlogged?

The fact is, that at the outset of this particular project, all school leaders agreed that evidence in books for the sessions of lessons being taught, would not be expected. This expectation was relaxed to give opportunity for a truly arts-based delivery of knowledge. By adding the extra layer of recording in books, not only are we making more work for ourselves in an increasingly limited amount of time, but we are overbalancing the seesaw – little or no movement of learning through the arts can be clearly seen. Where there is resistance, greater effort needs to be made to enable movement to happen.

This project remains an opportunity for teachers and artists to plan and teach together. It is a time for all teachers to learn explicit vocabulary for the art form being used, and to gain confidence in teaching specific curriculum knowledge through dance or drama. We are questioning whether working with an artist will have greater impact than teachers just reading an idea and experimenting with it. The artists bring with them, professionalism; years of experience, and skills which, as teachers, we should magpie and creatively seek ways to develop and use in other areas of the curriculum.

Some teachers have shown little difficulty in pursuing this and with ongoing conversation with their school leaders, they are confidently moving forward. Others find it a challenge. Possibly this is their first experience working with an outside agency, they may be young in this profession, or they may have a different focus of what the project is about. This final suggestion throws the ball squarely into our court as project leaders. Did we clearly outline roles and expectations? Has it required for us to adapt along the learning journey? Did we, and are we, communicating effectively? Hindsight is amazing of course, and all these factors are ones that need to be considered and brought to the evaluation process as we plan and move on towards Year 2 of the project.

In this reflection I use the imagery of the seesaw to convey the message of movement. It only happens when both participants on each side are working. It has to be balanced in order to keep it steady (and enjoyable!)

Learning from and with, moving up and down on the seesaw of learning, should be smooth and fluid. We work together with our artists to create a compatible learning environment for each other. It takes effort, time and flexibility to take risks. It requires us to be humble, let go, listen and learn from each other.