Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better. Dylan Wiliam, keynote to SSAT conference, December 2012

Back in August 2011, long before I ever thought I might one day be feeling guilty about being paid for going to another school and talking about teaching, I wrote this post asking what the point of an INSET day actually was. I didn’t really answer the question.

However, I did point out this:

All too often the only requirement for staff  is that they sit and listen. Either to an expensive motivational guest speaker or to a member of the school’s own leadership team. Teachers tend to be fairly intolerant of this and have a tendency to misbehave. We know that if we took this approach in an observed lesson we’d be (rightly) lambasted so we resent having it inflicted on us. Why does it happen? Cos it’s easy. The expensive motivational guest speaker will have delivered his (it’s always a bloke!) spiel many time before and can just trot out the same old same old and pick up their pay cheque.

On Monday, I’ll be the “expensive motivational guest speaker” and I cringe. Both at my own glib sense of certainty 18 months ago but also at the truth that this observation contains. I haven’t delivered my spiel often enough for it to be stale and I can take comfort from the fact that it’s rooted in my own classroom practice but still; it is a spiel. I’ve been given a loose brief but I know practically nothing about the school, its values, the people who work there or the students. Who the hell am I to tell them how to teach?

Well, I’m the guy they’ve hired and I’ve got a moral responsibility not to be crap. I know now about the tough balancing act of giving enough value for money in terms of input but also allowing staff time to think, discuss, plan and implement ideas. I know now that INSET is not the same as a lesson and the same rules don’t apply. Giving a learning objective at the start is a bit patronising and just providing some handouts and letting folks discover it all for themselves would, I am sure, not go down at all well.

And this has got me thinking about some of the entrenched views I’ve expressed on what teaching should be like in the past. I’ve come out on a number of occasions and said that group work is the approach most likely to result in students learning, and, while I’ve since qualified this position by arguing that all teaching is in fact group work of one for another, I know full well that I am there for my ‘expertise’ (such as it is) and that I will be expected (at least in part) to provide an entertaining and interesting lecture.

That said, I’ve worked hard to make my presentation interactive, thought provoking and useful. I’m not selling any snake oil and I have no particular axe to grind. I’m not even taking any copies of the book to flog.

Well known education writer and speaker, Ian Gilbert replied to my original post, all those months ago by saying:

Many schools have wasted a lot of money on me and my colleagues not because of the ‘same old same old pick up the cheque’ routine (the money-back guarantee if we’re crap sees to that) but because we’re treated as a one-off, stand-alone thing unconnected from the overall, stated and known-by-everybody (in theory) development aims for the entire school.

Teachers turning up not knowing what the day is about means SLT is not doing its job. SLT not capitalising on the new ideas, the buzz, the questions we create, is also SLT not doing its job. One or two teachers sitting there being rude where there are obviously many teachers keen to learn is SLT not doing its job. Not asking the speaker to be better or to stop before they do to much damage if no-one is listening is SLT not doing its job. Ringing up in July asking if we have any speakers for the 1st September, doesn’t matter what they talk about, we’ve only just got round to thinking about it, is the SLT not doing their job. Not asking up front for a money-back guarantee and/or refusing to pay if feedback shows the day was awful is the SLT not doing its job. And for more horror stories on how to ruin an INSET day, check out the latest blog post here.

The best follow-up to an INSET day is for the SLT to outline their clear expectation that they will be looking for ideas from the day being employed in lessons within the next two weeks, that they will be looking for evidence of conversations about the day in faculty meetings and policy, that they will refer back to it during briefings and staff meetings (don’t throw that flipchart away, pin it up!) and that the next INSET day or twilight will be led internally by a cross-faculty collection of staff sharing their successes or otherwise based on how they have used the day to move things forward.

And that’s true, isn’t it? It’s not going to be up to me to make the training I provide worthwhile, it’s up to the school. If they want me to be be a one off, stand alone sideshow then that is, ultimately, up to them. You can, as the old adage goes, lead a horse to water, but you can’t make the bugger drink.

So, what is the point of INSET days?

Headteacher, John Tomsett says in a recent article, “I take it as a given that every single one of us wants to become a better teacher” and that “only at least good teaching is good enough for our students.” He makes the point that “all teachers slow their development, and most actually stop improving, after two or three years in the classroom.  But continuous professional development means that we have to reflect upon our practice regularly and systematically.” This then is the point of INSET: to give us an opportunity to reflect and develop.

And while I still can’t help but feel a little guilty about the fact I’d do a much better job if this was at my own school, planned in collaboration with colleagues and addressing our development priorities. But it isn’t and that’s really not my concern. What is my concern is to provide the very best value for money I’m capable of and then to let go of the results.

Bit like the day job really.