Teachers’ journal clubs? An exercise in integrity

This is the last in a series of weekly blog posts in which I show how a journal article or book has inspired me to improve my teaching practice. Each post ends with a practical resource or activity. Today I show why our first journal club meeting, based on a book by Christodoulou (2017) and recommended to me by Christine Counsell, had such a significant impact on me. I illustrate the reasons for setting up a school journal club and some practicalities to consider for setting up a club in your own school.

The foreigner

It wasn’t always like this. When I was a waitress, I moaned with my aproned friends about the grubby children and stingy tips. When I worked as a temp , I spent much of the day exchanging (what I thought were) witticisms across an open-plan office. As a project-officer in my early twenties, I sang along to Britpop with my colleagues in hired cars or drank coffee with them on overcrowded trains.

Now? Much of my day is spent in a coffee shop, marking. As a part-time classroom teacher, I spend much of my time in a state of isolation and sometimes even alienation. I attend few meetings, have little time to spare for the staff room, and time after school is spent on marking, planning and photocopying. On occasion I feel like ‘the other’ in the classroom – more ‘foreigner to be mocked’ than ‘sage on the stage’. I have no use for the chairs in the staff room. I wave at my colleagues in the corridor (I think a wink would probably be inappropriate) because I have two minutes to move classrooms between Period 1 and 2.

I am invisible on my seating plans.

The opportunity

I did not always feel this way.  In the PGCE seminar room, I worked with, learnt from, had coffee with, and occasionally argued with, my peers. It was wonderful. I felt part of a community, I felt heard, I was visible.

I did not realise, when I set up a journal club at my school, that perhaps the greatest opportunity for someone in my position (I am under no illusions that my situation is a mirror to each and all)  is that of connection. The process of selecting a journal or book to read from the field of educational research, discussing the merits and limitations of that book, and continuing to discuss those merits and limitations and opportunities in the corridors, all provide an opportunity to connect with others. It brings back the excitement of my PGCE year – reading Holt’s Why Children Fail, for example, and bursting to discuss it with others, or talking excitedly about a recent article from the journal Teaching History with my mentor.

Nostalgia is not a robust reason to start a journal club, so here are some other reasons to do it:

The reasons why

  1. Make a positive impact upon your educational community. From classroom practice to school culture to assessment policy. Educational leaders of academy chains, such as Christine Counsell of the Inspiration Trust, regularly ask school leaders to read educational literature as a way of transforming teaching and learning. Arguably the most successful changes to teaching and learning are research-based. Changes made in response to the latest political whim or educational fad – often masqueraded as a ‘silver bullet’ – require careful analysis before being installed.
  2. Rekindle your motivation. Setting up a journal club rekindled my desire to make changes to my educational community, rather than simply to endure. It reminded me of my original motivation to swop the office job with the great hours and the nice coffee and the excruciatingly boring meetings for something much more exhausting and complex and utterly beguiling.
  3. Repatriate your sense of professionalism. From being a passive receptor of government-led or school-led initiatives, here was an opportunity to analyse and evaluate those initiatives for myself, in the light of reading and of my own experience. As our journal club requires teachers to reflect on literature in the light of their own experiences, it draws upon a teacher’s professionalism. It serves as a reminder that teachers have knowledge and experience that is worth something. This reminder is crucial to mitigate against all of those policies and procedures that are imposed upon a teacher. Here is an opportunity to construct and deconstruct, in a climate of professionalism, and to discuss rather than to undergo. Even if nothing changes – at least you had a go at doing it. You had a voice.
  4. Connect with others. This is vital to those teachers with heavy teaching workloads, out on the frontier.
  5. Enjoy a sense of openness. If you set up the club with no agenda and follow a predictable format – to ensure that the club does not get highjacked by any panaceas or magic bullets – then this is a fantastic opportunity to make changes from the ‘bottom up’.

The how-to

  1. Present your journal club as a fait accompli. Why WOULDN’T you have one?Revel in the benefits that the club can bring, and give examples of other professions who use them. Journal clubs have been used for many years in the medical profession as a form of CPD, for example. They allow professionals to keep abreast of the newest research and thinking. They can allow a space for free discussion of the latest ideas, free from any agenda or need to conform to any practical or political purpose.
  2. Advertise and recruit. Make your club open to everyone, from student teachers to NQTs to Heads of Department to Senior leaders. From infant, junior and secondary schools. If successful, perhaps open up to partnership schools, widening the range of perspectives and breadth of expertise. Yet also personally invite those who you know will want to join, and ask them to invite people who they think will be interested. A personal invite is much more enticing and gratifying than an ‘all come if you can’. Remember that this is the purpose of journal club: to bring back a teacher’s sense of being valued for their professionalism and their perspective.
  3. Democratically select your text. Have a few to choose from for the first meeting (you can find our selection for this year HERE), and ask your club members to vote for what they want to read. In later meetings, teachers can nominate other texts.
  4. Have a format ready. Our format follows a medical journal club structure:
    • Everyone reads the short book or journal article(s) in preparation for the meeting.
    • One person summarises the text as:
      • A synopsis of the text’s main arguments and its impact upon teaching practice
      • Strengths
      • Weaknesses
      • Summary in relation to own practice and points for discussion.
      • You can find an example of our first presentation here:  Journal club – Making Good Progress (Thank you to our first Presenter & Chair, Matt Bennett)
    • We then open up the floor to discussion, thinking about the potential for our own subjects/responsibilities/pupil age groups.
  5. Take it in turns to ‘chair’ the discussion. It makes sense for the presenter to do this. It shares the (cognitive and political) load and is in keeping with a club that seeks to be democratic.
  6. Meet only once per term and for an hour only. Perhaps even forget the summer term. The worry is that journal club will seem as ‘yet another thing to tick off the list’. People need to see it as empowering rather than burdening. I think that two or three meetings, where everyone has read the book or article and has arrived raring to go, is an ideal frequency. Make sure that everyone finishes on time. Discussion can continue tomorrow in the corridors – or even sat down in the staff room – yet now people need to go home and collapse on the sofa.
  7. Think about the practicalities. Look at copyright, sharing as a PDF to reduce photocopying, or even sharing one kindle-book to six devices.
  8. Eat cheese. Serve with grapes, crackers and some elderflower cordial. Ask people to nominate their favourite cheeses, and take it in turns to bring the cheese. Make journal club something to look forward to. Serve something suitable for a group of professionals. Bring in real china and proper cheese knives from home.

The heart of the matter

Yes, our new teachers’ journal club has provided us with an opportunity to learn from evidence-based approaches to education. Yet, for me,  this has not been the biggest benefit. For me, it is an exercise in integrity. Being a member of a journal club reminds me about my competence, it gives me confidence in my knowledge-base, it is both challenging and confirmatory,  and it creates a feeling of belonging to a community of professionals.

Being a member of a journal club brings me back to a sense of self – to a sense of my professional, learned, specialist self. My good self.

Key reference:

Christodoulou, D. (2017). Making Good Progress? The future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford: OUP.

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