Joining a subject association might just be the one missing piece of your CPD puzzle. But is it worth it? David Preece explains his own experience of subject association membership and asks whether or not it is time you joined too?
What’s the collective noun for a group of Geographers? A map? A legend? A meander, perhaps?
We know that subject knowledge development is critical to making teachers as good as they can be, but for most teachers, the chance to talk about their subject can often be limited by structures or the phase or size of their school.
I’ve been a Geographer for all of my teaching career, and that subject-identity is really important to me. I like developing my subject knowledge about Geography, which is a pretty vast range of topics and I enjoy discussions about approaches to teaching and working with other Geographers.
Lots of us work in departments where there are only a few subject specialists at best; and even across Trusts and wider organisations, the chance to discuss your subject doesn’t always happen as much as we’d want.
So, what’s the solution? For Geographers, the answer has always been in the power of our subject networks – the Geographical Association and the Royal Geographical Society. While the Royal Geographical Society has always been about the academic discipline of Geography and connecting the whole profession across the different pathways and careers that it embraces, the Geographical Association was always designed deliberately for Geography teachers.
In April 2022, the Geographical Association held their first hybrid conference in two years, with participants joining face-to-face at the University of Surrey in Guildford, as well as remotely and this celebration of Geography was a strong reminder of the power of subject associations in helping teachers to thrive.
What are the advantages?
Firstly, I think the scale and diversity of subject associations is really powerful in helping teachers broaden their thinking and their experience. You’ll find people who work in schools just like yours, doing your exam specifications, but you’ll also talk to people in all types of school setting, all kinds of locations, and a wide breadth of professional Geographers too.
Teachers talk to Geophysicists about their work; primary colleagues talk to secondary colleagues about the expert ways they’re embedding Geography in their curriculum; and experienced Heads of Departments or curriculum writers talk to recently qualified teachers and share their ideas.
Instead of feeling like you’re in a small team, you feel like you’re part of a large and powerful group. That’s really reassuring.
Secondly, you have a chance to access really specialist knowledge and training. At the 2022 Conference, teachers heard from internationally-renowned disaster specialist, Ilan Kelman; the UK’s COP26 leader, Dr John Murton, and ‘Africa Is Not A Country’ author Dipo Faloyin. You might be able to read some of their work by yourself, but it’s a completely different experience to have them bring it alive, and then share your thinking at lunch or over coffee.
You also get a huge injection of subject knowledge development, connecting you back to what you loved about the subject when you started teaching, and giving you a huge boost of inspiration for renewed curriculum and subject thinking.
Your access to knowledge isn’t just about the subject, though. It’s about sharing the best practice, thinking and ideas of all kinds of other teachers. You learn from others, talk to them afterwards, share your resources and theirs, and come away feeling like you’ve had a chance to really discuss and debate your learning. It’s about being part of a conversation, not feel like it’s being “done to you”. That’s really empowering.
Finally, you are challenged to see more than just your own context. Some of the most powerful work at this year’s Conference was about the voices and the stories of diverse lived experiences. It’s easy to focus on your own context, and it’s good to be confronted with different realities and the difficulties that others are facing in their work. That’s sometimes uncomfortable; but so necessary.
Many subject associations offer regular training, ongoing consultancy and support, or huge ranges of resources that have been expertly prepared and curated. Both the Royal Geographical Society and Geographical Associations offer CPD courses, online resources, and professional accreditation and support for all stages of your career and it’s become more accessible and open to all in the hybrid era.
Subject associations also offer a “trusted voice”, being able to speak on behalf of the subject in exam consultations, in the design of national curriculum documents and of representing the range of the teachers of a subject in a way that isn’t possible in almost any other platform.
What are the disadvantages?
Of course, joining a subject association isn’t a universal panacea. There’s a location bias towards more populated places. If you’re in London and the South East, you’ll find more events available and accessible to you.
Often, they’re not cheap either. While many offer ‘school’ memberships, individual membership can become expensive in a time of budget challenges and a cost of living increase. You might feel like you’re getting a lot out of the association, but there’s no question that they come at a cost.
These factors combine to make the diversity and inclusiveness of the organisations an evolving work in progress. I think there’s still a long way to go before our subject associations fully reflect the majority of the profession, and the views of all. There’s a skew towards more experienced teachers and presenters, and I think the costs can be off-putting for those at the start of their careers when the benefits aren’t immediate and clear.
So, is it worth it?
My identity as a Geography teacher has been intertwined with the work of the subject associations over multiple decades now. They’ve offered me a wider community of practice to share with, and learn from, and I’ve found inspiration, reassurance, expert knowledge and challenge.
I’ve become a better teacher because I’ve been able to learn from others – not just those colleagues in my own school, but across the full range of Geographers across the country. That’s been amazing and I’d encourage all Geographers to be part of our associations.
And yet, as I’ve stepped away from the classroom, I’ve come to learn that not all teachers are always tuned in to their subject associations, and that there’s a wide range of subject associations in their provision. Some are focused on the links to academia, others on the provision of training alone, and there are contested areas in some disciplines which have caused tensions and debates in the associations.
If you’ve never thought about it before, perhaps it’s time to look up your own subject association, and see what it might be able to offer you?