The importance of engagement through knowledge exchange

Borders EAL team at Knowledge Exchange event

By Tuire Palonen and Tom Richardson

Colleagues from Scotland, Sweden and Finland have been busy presenting results of TEAMS research to schools, in a variety of formats. The aim at all these events is to link the TEAMS project to the professional context of the teaching staff – to make the discussions about TEAMS (how to strengthen collaborative networks in schools, for example) as relevant and practical as possible, as well as paving the way for future collaboration between TEAMS and education.

The team in Scotland has been contacting local authorities and arranging knowledge exchange activities both in-person and online. The team has also widened its network beyond Scotland to a consortium of local authorities across the north of England. Events are planned not only in schools, but in universities and further education colleges.

Staff have generally been very interested by the results and are keen to continue collaboration.

In Finnish and Swedish schools, where the sessions have already been organised earlier  this term, much discussion has centered around teachers’ agency and autonomy, both being very important topics in Nordic countries. On the one hand, teachers’ autonomy is our strength, on the other hand it creates challenges to co-operation inside school communities. The very Finnish slogan “My circus, my monkeys”, says it all. It is hard to share issues that take place inside classrooms. Daily news from the media would have us believe that teachers mainly struggle with big classes alone. However, in a modern Nordic school, there are better staff-student ratios than ever before, with a huge variation between schools of different sizes, and a rich variety of problems we did not have in the past. Therefore, rather than struggling alone with a big class, the teachers meet the increasing number of challenges of multicultural work, by collaborating with specialists and variety of other professionals, such as curators, psychologists, academic assistants, school nurses, extra curriculum counsellors, guidance counselling and so on.

Regarding migrant background students, there are particularly important teachers that teach religion or students’ own language for them. These teachers may have only a limited number of hours in one school – if they work in several schools – and fragmented work tasks and, further, a high number of colleagues in their schools. This all creates challenges for collaboration.  Rather than being a real problem with big classes, the problem may instead be related to complex network relations among staff members. Our analyses have shown a picture of school communities with specialists in the core of the school community and teachers with frequent ties to the community core and more sparse networks to other teachers, at the edge of the community. This indicates an emphasis on administrative workload.  There are many kinds of duties related to students and less time for pedagogical discussions. How to help the situation? This has been a topic in school feedback sessions, especially regarding migrant background students and their support. It seems that the ties among staff members tend to focus on a limited number of certain work roles, such as L2 teachers, special education teachers, social curators and so on. As a part of the specialist role, workload easily grows. The network structure like this can be effective but at the same time there is a risk of burnout in the core of the community, being isolated at the edge of the community, and a risk of losing key information if any of the most central persons leave the school. The big question now is: what can be done about this?. This is what we have been discussing in Finnish and Swedish schools.

To get a flavour of these sessions, you can view the slides presented to Scottish schools here.


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