Recently I was in a kindergarten class with children who were just six weeks into their first year of school. Their shoes were still shiny and their eyes full of wonder as they hung on to the teacher's every word.
The students were working in groups playing literacy games as the teacher moved around the classroom. A bystander may have thought she was just chatting to her students but, as a teacher, I could see she was doing several things.
She was assessing the students' left to right movement, which is fundamental to learning to read; embedding phonics and sounding out words; using positive language to build the children's confidence for learning and interacting closely with each of them to understand their specific learning needs.
It reminded me how complex teaching is and how proud I am of this profession. But the profession has always evolved and we are at a point where teachers are preparing students for jobs that have not yet been created. Internationally, there is a greater emphasis on the four Cs - collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication - for students and teachers.
With NSW Institute of Teachers chief executive Patrick Lee and NSW Board of Studies president Tom Alegounarias, I have co-written Great Teaching, Inspired Learning: A blueprint for action. One of the important things about working on this blueprint for teaching was the emphasis on collaboration to improve teacher practice and student outcomes.
Collaboration, including teachers working together to prepare lessons and assessments, classroom observation and constructive feedback is standard practice in high-performing education systems in Finland, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Korea and Singapore. Teachers learn from each other.
In the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey in 2008, many teachers reported they received little regular and effective appraisal on their classroom practice and that feedback was largely administrative and had little impact on their teaching.
We need to entrench a culture of collaboration in our schools. Some schools have excellent structures for collaborative professional learning activities; others pay lip service to collaboration because the classroom has traditionally been considered the private domain of the teacher.
I remember that even as a student teacher I learnt from my supervisors' feedback and their classroom observation of my lessons - in particular, to use and value my professional judgment.
Nowadays I go into some staffrooms and feel the buzz as teachers discuss a strategy they are collaborating on to improve their students' learning. But this doesn't happen in every school.
Teaching is personal and we all want to make a difference but it is important that we throw open our classroom doors, because the most effective education systems are those in which the responsibility for student learning is shared. It's when teachers and principals work together to evaluate what strategy they can use to take their students to the next stage.
Under the blueprint I co-wrote, teachers would have professional learning plans aligned to the professional standards that spell out the skills and knowledge they need at different stages of their careers. Greater recognition would be given to professional learning in the school to address these standards.
Teaching excellence and professional learning will be identified, shared and developed through collaboration and learning within schools and across sectors, and by using technology. Professional learning that has the greatest impact on teacher and school-leader quality will be researched, published and used as evidence to inform future learning practices.
Our research tells us that teachers in NSW public schools consider collaboration with their colleagues critical to improving their teaching.
A three-year study of 6000 teachers completed last year found that primary school teachers felt collaborating with colleagues on lesson preparation and resources was their most significant professional learning practice. Their high school colleagues named lesson observation as the clear favourite.
Teachers talked about the power of observing another teacher and then discussing what worked and why, to discover what the teacher did to get that result from a student; or finding a new direction to improve the students' learning outcomes. They talked of the importance of preparing lessons together to meet syllabus outcomes or to engage their students.
The desire by teachers is there for greater collaboration. But building a strong culture of collaborative inquiry in our schools will involve breaking down the assumption that teaching is an independent profession. It is not an independent profession. Teaching is a collaborative profession.
Michele Bruniges is director-general of the NSW Department of Education and Communities.