Inset is dead! Long live Inset!

Jane Basnett

Jane Basnett is head of MFL at Downe House, a successful Independent Girls School in Berkshire. She has been teaching for almost 20 years and is still learning. She achieved an MA in Digital Technology for Language Teaching at Nottingham University.

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Inset days are often criticised, with both teachers and parents finding them an annoyance. Jane Basnett, Downe House’s head of Modern Foreign Languages, tells us why Inset days need to be remoulded into something worthwhile.

September: So, the lovely, long, hot summer is over. Well, maybe not so hot, but lovely and long anyway. You have rested, recuperated and regrouped. You have done lots of reading for pleasure and reading for work and, if you are lucky, the two will have coincided. You have taken down old displays and planned for some exciting, interactive new ones. Your classroom is ready for action. Lessons are planned and you have had time to let the creative juices flow and design some great new resources. You personally are raring to go, as you have managed to get some down time over the holidays. A few weeks cycling through the Loire, or camping somewhere on Britain's beautiful coastline or perhaps a staycation taking in all the sites you never get round to seeing. Yes, you are ready to come back and face the new term. All you have to do now is get through those first days back, including the dreaded Inset.

You know the thing. SLT get in some specialist to talk at you and your colleagues for an hour or two. Do not get me wrong, there can be some good ones that get you thinking and reflecting on your own lessons, students and perhaps even your own family situation. However, on many occasions Inset simply provides an excellent opportunity to make your to-do list, to think about what you need to do when you get back to your classroom, to consider how you might deal with that tricky class last thing on a Friday or simply to doodle. In short, your mind wanders and you are just keen to get back to the nitty gritty of the back to school period.

Then, just when you think it's all over, and mentally you have got your lips on a nice cup of coffee, some wag in the audience decides to prolong the agony and asks a question that really did not need asking. You can feel the stifled groans in the atmosphere around you, and you are wondering if it would be rude to pack up your things and perch on the edge of your seat in anticipation of the end. I am sure we have all experienced an Inset or two like that.

If you are lucky, the talk has been about some methodology or new teaching idea that really interests you and you can see how it is relevant to you and what you are trying to achieve in your lessons. The expectation, of course, is that you will implement the idea. Yes, you know how it works; spray and pray (‘Instructional Coaching’, Knight, J 2007: Chapter 1). They spray and then they pray, or you pray that you might be able to use some of the bright new ideas you have just listened to in your lessons.

You know the reality though - a week later and you're in the thick of it; marking up to your eyeballs (already, how did I let that happen?), issues to deal with concerning your new tutee, departmental concerns, high profile events to organise for the next week, the annual trip to whoknowswhere to get off the ground. The list is endless. So what about the Inset? What Inset? By this stage it is a long and distant memory - was it really only a week ago? There were some good points discussed that you would have liked to put into practice but you have had neither the time nor energy to do so.

I think these types of Inset are something to which we can all relate. However, Inset as we know it is dead, but this is not a time for mourning. This is a time for jubilation and celebration as a new type of Inset has made its appearance . So put away your doodling pads and coloured pens and pay attention.

There has been a sort of slow-burn, mild revolution. I am not even sure when this started but it has been going for a few years at least. No blood, guts and gore, simply a turnaround: a change in approach. The teachers, the ones who live it, work it and experience it everyday, are providing the Inset for each other. Gone are the days when the staff room sits and listens as passive recipients. Now, in true constructivist style, we ARE the Inset. Rows of chairs and a desk for the speaker are gone. You are more likely to see circles of chairs facing each other, or groups of chairs in opposite corners, or a conference type setting where departments display their ideas in a kind of teacher-exchange scenario.

This new Inset is refreshing, invigorating, relevant and meaningful to those of us who are involved. Our voices and ideas are being listened to and valued; this means a great deal, and has greater impact than our old friend the Inset speaker who talked at us for an hour and then disappeared never to be seen or spoken of again. Herein lies another benefit of the new Inset.

The speaker with the idea is right on our doorstep to provide ongoing support, ideas or encouragement. Indeed, with this new version of Inset the provision can be ongoing through the year so that it can really make an impression on teaching and learning. It can remain a focus for all and thus have impact on those who really matter; the students.

Yes, Inset is dead! Long live Inset!

How do you make the most of an Inset day? Tell us in the comments.

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