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Why do we all teach differently?

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

by Rebecca Thomas

Sat around a table after a hard day teaching, a beautiful staff meeting unfolded before me, and it all started with a question.

Why do we all teach differently?

Instead of answering the question, the teachers were instructed to use a non-verbal solution. The prior learning task was driven by an Aboriginal framework, 8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning. The staff meeting that followed was both incredibly inspiring and insightful.

(8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning Framework)

Using a visual approach in the form of a learning map, teachers began explicitly mapping and visualising their personal growth through their pedagogical journey. Happily they filled their A3 paper with bright, colourful symbols and memories, while they listened to some soothing music.

To make this process even richer they were asked to follow some simple success criteria to complete their learning maps:

  1. The journey was not to be bound by time scales.

  2. There were no boundaries of what they could/couldn’t include. They could choose to start their journey as a hopeful student and begin with inspirational teachers they had at school or university, or select particular perhaps traumatic events in the past that they promised they would never replicate themselves as educators.

  3. They were only allowed the use of symbols, no writing, and they were instructed to use lots of colour that reflected elements of their journey.

  4. The journey itself, in form, could be any pathway, a non-linear formation: zig-zag, circular, wavy…

  5. At the end they could use a talking stick to share their maps verbally if they chose to, without interruptions or questions from others.

The process made them deconstruct and then reconstruct why they teach the way they do. The stories that were shared at the end were all very different, but unique in the fact that each of them was a portrait of life experiences that captured: what made them, what broke them, and what drove them to do what they do. Unpacking and sharing their pedagogical prior knowledge was a step closer to understanding any potential resistance to change process that lay ahead.

In the end, these visual maps revealed the profound personal and interconnected nature of their experiences as educators. This activity allowed a safe space for the teachers and leaders to share the intimate connections they had with their established teaching methods.

For me, facilitating the session, these maps shone the spotlight on the reason why it's incredibly challenging to ask a teacher to alter their pedagogy. And when we do ask them to change it, what a demanding job lies ahead of them. After all, pedagogy is deeply rooted in delicate memories and emotions, making it an integral part of a teacher’s identity as an educator.

The purpose of me writing this piece is to express that sometimes in our haste, experts, leaders and facilitators miss something valuable as we begin any change initiative or professional development; our teacher’s voice, their narratives; their pathways, their experiences.

After the meeting I re-read chapter 5 of Russell Bishop’s, Leading To The North-East (2023). The same teacher validation and narrative that unfolded in this staff meeting, where we talked about our journey of pedagogy, is evident in his recommendations to leaders here.

“Building upon teachers’ and leaders’ prior knowledge is fundamental to motivating these staff members to participate fully in reforming their and the school’s teaching practices.’’

- Russell Bishop

In this chapter Russell goes on to explain that there should be opportunities given by leaders of learning to encourage their workforce to share their preferred pedagogy, as this is the best way for staff to feel included in the transformational processes necessary.

If we don’t take the time to address the beginning of a journey, to listen to the individual pathways of how and why we all teach differently; if we don’t take the time to share and validate the voices of our teachers, then we ourselves as facilitators, researchers and leaders, run the risk of not being culturally responsive to our colleagues either.

Teachers and leaders don’t know what they don’t know. In the relatively isolated bubble of the classroom and school they can only teach in the way that they know how, the way that life and their experiences have shown them. This voice, this narrative, this journey, needs to be validated and heard before any educator can engage with agency into any PLD ahead.


8 Ways Rule - if you take something, put something back:

Special thanks to LeeAnn, Lorilee, and Jill from Whangarei Adventist Christian School for their mahi and their honesty, and lighting up my day!

Special thanks to Jacque Allen who introduced me to the 8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning Framework.

Finally, a special thanks to my critical friend Tania Heke who keeps me grounded in my mahi by providing me with her timely expert insights and feedback.

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