PhD: The gift that keeps on giving

 

my bespoke graduation shoes

my bespoke graduation shoes

I submitted the PhD last October. I finished my corrections in March. My doctorate was conferred in April. I wrote blog posts about completion: how it felt, struggling with my doctorness, what happens in Australian PhD examination.

So it should feel long ago done-and-dusted by now, right? I should have nothing left to say about the PhD.

Yet I still have PhD reflections and I feel as thought I am still having PhD experiences. I’ve remained in a doctoral Voxer group because the after-the-PhD bit still feels like part of the PhD journey. I continue to blog about the PhD as I am still reflecting on its processes, products and outcomes, some of which emerge overtime.

Here are some of the ways that the PhD keeps on giving …

Academic writing

The wonderful thing about completing the thesis and having it passed is that it frees you up to write more tightly-woven pieces from your PhD literature, method, data and findings. Pat Thomson has recently written a very useful post on how to find journal articles in and from the doctoral thesis. You can look for interesting pieces relevant to particular journals, new ways of looking at your data, specific fields in which your work has something to add. This bit—in which you realise that your work has something to offer scholarly conversations and that you can create new offshoots of writing so that it to be heard in appropriate fields—is empowering and even fun. I’m even becoming better at seeing peer review as a growth process in which I am privileged to participate, rather than an ordeal to be endured.

The three solo-authored peer-reviewed journal articles I’ve had published (or accepted for publication) so far include one on coaching as a professional learning intervention, one around the use of literary metaphor as method in academic writing and one on my findings around professional learning (in press). I have a co-authored paper on method that is under review. I have an ethics paper I’m working on with my supervisors. I have a book chapter in preparation which re-considers my school leader data through a new lens, in a previously unfamiliar field. I have more ideas about what bits and pieces of my thesis might have to offer before I retire it. The more I read and write, the more possibilities I see for reporting on or re-seeing my PhD work.

Acknowledgements

I’ve been told that my PhD adds credibility to my voice when I present and to the work that I do. My thesis has been downloaded from the university website over 250 times since it was uploaded in March. I’m not sure where this number sits in terms of metrics for dissertations, but it does suggest that my thesis is being read (or at least filed away with the intention of reading it).

I’ve been acknowledged via the 2016 ACEL New Voice in educational Research scholarship, which I’ll be receiving in Melbourne in September. My thesis has also been nominated for the Outstanding Research Award in Cognitive Coaching.

Formal recognition of the completed work of the PhD remind me of its worth. Informal feedback, too, in which scholars or PhD candidates get in touch with me to let me know how my work has been influential for them, is also thrilling.

Graduation and the floppy hat

While I’ve been conferred my doctorate and therefore can call myself ‘doctor’, my actual graduation ceremony isn’t until next month.

This is when I get to go up on stage to receive my printed degree. I didn’t attend graduation for my undergraduate degree, but for the PhD I feel like I need this rite of passage, this moment of celebration. To embrace the pomp and find closure in the ceremony. It’s somehow not enough to get the piece of paper delivered to my letterbox.

Unlike Finnish Doctors of Philosphy, who get to wear a top hat and sword as part of their regalia, I get to don a gown, a red-satin-lined hood and the black velvet Tudor bonnet (aka the floppy hat). While I joke that I’ll be wearing my doctoral headgear to the Spring Racing Carnival (Melbourne Cup Day, here I come!), it’s likely that I’ll get more wear out of my graduation shoes, which I designed for the occasion (via Shoes of Prey). After tweeting the above photograph of my shoes, Hilary Davidson pointed me towards her great article on shoes as magical objects, the perfect symbol of PhD power, transformation and completion.

Continuing my research

While my choice has been to continue to work in my school (rather than, for instance, pursuing an alternate career in academia), I’ve also been recently appointed into an honorary research associate role at my university, which allows me to continue to read, research and write in academia after graduation. So I continue to bestride the worlds of practitioner and scholar. Each world, each role and each project informs the others and shapes me.

*                                  *                                  *

So the PhD is done-but-ongoing.

I’m still pursuing doing good work with good people. I’m still thinking, writing and researching around my PhD, although in many ways I can feel myself moving on from it and away from it. The bound thesis is like a frozen snapshot, capturing a moment in time. So, too, each academic paper. As I grow as a scholar, an educator and a writer, I feel freed to frame my PhD data in new ways and to apply alternate theoretical lenses.

Like a pair of shiny red shoes, the finishing of a PhD is both end and beginning. Designed, created and seductively new. Ready to be enjoyed until worn-out, grown-out-of or kicked to the back of the wardrobe. While in many ways I feel that I’m moving away from the PhD, it also continues beyond its end, a shoe that continues to fit and bring joy. For now.

Mapping quality teaching

Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love Source: http://www.rockshockpop.com/forums/c

Sidney Poitier in’ To Sir, with Love’. Source: http://www.rockshockpop.com/forums/

This is the third post in a series of posts on quality teaching. You can also read:

Part 1, which explored the terms ‘teacher quality’ and ‘quality teaching’; and,

Part 2, which outlined those things that effective teachers have been found to do.

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If we accept that the quality of what teachers do in their classrooms influences student learning, and that quality teaching has some agreed characteristics, what can teachers, schools and systems do? How does the profession come to a common understanding of what good teaching looks like? Amid teaching debates like ‘traditional vs. progressive’, what is it that teachers should be striving to do?

Some question and warn against the itemising of teaching into a set of prescriptive elements, and many agree that attempting to quantify the complexity of teaching is fraught with difficulty. Many scholars and educators have nonetheless worked to identity what quality teaching looks like and what effective teachers do, trying to capture what teaching encompasses. These authors attempt to detail, describe, interpret, and evaluate the elements of teaching; to find what quality instruction looks like and the conditions necessary for developing the quality of teachers’ instruction.

Many authors suggest that in order to develop their teaching, teachers need a ‘map’ of where to go and how to get there. In his 2004 book Successful school change, Claude Goldenberg reflected on his work with a USA primary school over five years. He noted that the school and teacher change model he and the principal implemented was too abstract and unspecified. He added that “we should have been more nuts-and-bolts oriented, in the sense of specifying more clearly what teachers were to do in various settings, including their classrooms” (p. 173).

In order for teachers to improve, not only do teachers have to want to improve, they must know how to improve and on what aspects they would benefit from focusing their attention. Schools can benefit from frameworks that provide the knowledge base of what good teaching looks like, as well as processes that facilitate the improvement of practice. A map of teaching involves a clear set of agreed standards and a way to think systematically about the complexity of the task. Mapping teaching can be less about identifying quality and proving teacher performance. It can be about empowering teachers to improve, developing a common understanding and shared language of practice.

Examples of attempts to address the need for a framework or map of the intricacies of teacher practice include the Danielson Group’s Framework for Teaching, the Marzano Causal Teacher Evaluation Model, and the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) National Professional Standards for Teachers.

The Danielson Framework for Teaching, endorsed by Dylan Wiliam in his 2016 book Leadership for Teacher Learning, has been shown to: identify the most effective teachers and positively correlate their quality with student achievement gains; focus observers’ attention on specific aspects of teaching practice; establish common evidentiary standards for each level of practice; and create a common vocabulary for pursuing a shared vision of effective instruction. Students showed the most academic growth in classrooms with teachers who rated highly on the Framework, and the least academic growth in classrooms with teachers who received the lowest ratings.

Marzano’s model has also been tested in studies and meta-analyses, which report that using the instructional strategies of the model improves student achievement and helps teachers develop themselves professionally.

In evaluating the perceptions of the AITSL Professional Standards, AITSL has found that pre-service teachers were the most enthusiastic about the potential of the use of the Standards in their practice and their students’ learning, school leaders were most engaged in the implementation of the Standards, and non-pre-service teachers were least likely to perceive the Standards as useful in changing their practice or impacting their students. AITSL’s measures have concentrated on educators’ perceptions of their tool.

Frameworks such as Danielson’s, Marzano’s, and AITSL’s may have a place in helping teachers to achieve clear, measurable targets, but schools and systems using these tools need to be considered in their purpose and process of their implementation. My school uses the Danielson Framework (overlaid with the national AITSL Standards) as a third point in conversations, in order to help novice and veteran teachers to reflect on their lessons with specificity. It is a tool, as part of a large toolbox, for developing shared understanding.

My PhD study found that the Danielson Framework for Teaching, when used as part of a non-judgmental model of teacher growth, helps to develop teachers’ precision of reflection around teaching practice and a common language for talking about teaching and what it can look like. At my school, teachers who develop familiarity with the Framework and its descriptors find that while teaching they mentally aim for the descriptors of ‘Distinguished’ teaching; knowledge of the Framework shapes their decisions and their classroom practices.

As much of the world grapples with how to wrestle the octopus of ‘teaching’ into a small, rigid glass jar of pithy statements or political one-liners, we need to be wary of atomising teaching into disparate parts, but we can be equally open to tools that might help us deepen our professional understandings and practices. We can focus on dialogue, interrogation of practice, reflection, collaboration and growth, and on researching and critically appraising the frameworks and measures available to us.

What do ‘quality teachers’ do?

Jaime Escalante in 'Stand and Deliver'. Source: http://remezcla.com/film/edward-james-olmos-on-stand-and-delivers-25th-anniversary-and-the-release-of-filly-brown/

Jaime Escalante in ‘Stand and Deliver’. Source: http://remezcla.com/film/

This is Part 2 in a series of posts on ‘teacher quality’ and ‘quality teaching’. You can also read Part 1 and Part 3

In response to my last post, I’ve received a lot of comments from those who bristle at the use of the term ‘teacher quality’ to label teachers and demean the profession; it is, however, a term used profusely in research and policy literatures. I’ve used the term here as shorthand for ‘teachers whose practice positively influences student learning.’

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As the quality of teachers’ teaching is generally agreed to be an important school-based influencer of student achievement, researchers have attempted to identify aspects of teaching as demonstrating evidence of positive effect on student achievement.

In reviewing literature for my PhD, I found five elements that emerged as agreed elements of what ‘quality teachers’ do. I have cited some of the references that mention each aspect, although there are larger webs of literature for each of the five threads explained below.

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1) Quality teachers purposefully design learning opportunities

Teachers have excellent knowledge of their content, pedagogies, their students, and how their students learn. They apply this knowledge to planning programmes, lessons, student groupings and assessments with clear, transparent performance targets. The purposeful designing of learning opportunities is articulated in references such as Bransford and Darling-Hammond’s Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do, Shulman’s (2004) essay ‘Communities of learners and communities of teachers’, and Linda Darling-Hammond’s seminal The right to learn: A blueprint for creating schools that work.

2) Quality teachers diagnose student progress to inform both teaching and learning

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (in their 2007 Schooling by Design) wrote that teachers facilitate the setting of challenging goals and high standards, designing the work so that learners believe in their own capacity for success, and adjusting plans in light of unexpected or inappropriate results. Jim Rose in his 2006 Independent review of the teaching of early reading noted that high quality teaching should inform realistic and ambitious target-setting.

3) Quality teachers fight for their students’ learning

A couple of references point to the importance of advocacy in teaching. In 1986, Philip Jackson argued that effective teachers fight for what they believe about teaching and learning, acting independently to advocate for their students. Wasley, Hampel and Clark (1997) spent three years observing and interviewing six students in five USA schools for their book Kids and school reform. They found that good teachers believe that each of their students can learn; and have the skills and capacity to engage in debate on behalf of their students’ learning.

4) Quality teachers personalise learning for students

Teachers balance the needs of the learner, the knowledge and skills students need to acquire (what they teach and why), assessment and feedback, and embeddedness in community. They select appropriate classroom design, instructional strategies, and subject matter to help each student learn, with a diversity of teaching methods including: reciprocal teaching, direct instruction, problem solving methods, explanation, elaboration, modelling, plans to direct task performance, sequencing, drill repetition, optimising peer learning, providing strategy cues, domain-specific processing, clear instructional goals, setting challenging goals and teaching students self-verbalisation and meta cognitive strategies. They respond with immediacy and a sensitivity to the here-and-now, showing flexibility by valuing freedom of thought and movement in the classroom. The emphasis on sensitivity towards, and individualisation of approaches for, students, is evident in Bransford and Darling-Hammond’s Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do and Philip Jackson’s The practice of teaching.

5) Quality teachers provide meaningful and appropriate feedback.

In Schooling by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe pressed the importance of backwards assessment design, providing ongoing feedback with immediate opportunities to use it, and implementing strategies to develop learner autonomy, thus making self-assessment and self-adjustment a key goal of teaching. The work of Dylan Wiliam and Rick Stiggins promotes formative assessment as a way to frequently check for understanding and to engage students in self-reflective, self-regulated learning.

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The above-mentioned studies suggest that quality teaching requires teachers to have a sound and continually developing knowledge of content and pedagogy. This supports the definition of teacher quality I identified in my last post: ‘knowing what to teach and knowing how to teach’. Quality teaching, according to the above cited works, involves teacher self-reflection, planning of well-structured units and lessons, focusing on higher order thinking, managing the classroom effectively, utilising an arsenal of effective teaching strategies, individualising learning, setting challenging goals for all students, knowing where each student is ‘at,’ facilitating each student’s progress to the next level, and giving effective, targeted, timely feedback.

Anne Freese (in her 1999 paper ‘The role of reflection on pre-service teachers’ development in the context of a professional development school’) describes herself as an educator (albeit in a higher education, rather than a school, context, so perhaps from a potato perspective) and in doing so resonates with the above threads of quality teaching:

I am more like a coach who structures the learning events and co-inquires. . . . I have become more comfortable modelling and making public my thinking about teaching, and risking being vulnerable as I put my own teaching under scrutiny. This is a different role from that of being the `expert’ and the dispenser of knowledge. (p. 908)

Here Freese underscores the teacher’s purposeful designing of learning by structuring what she calls “learning events,” suggesting deliberate design of student-focused learning experiences. She makes her thinking “public” and sees herself as coach and co-inquirer, vulnerable in her collaboration as co-learner with her students. Freese highlights the notion of self-reflection in her comment about having the willingness and capacity to put her “own teaching under scrutiny.” Freese’s description reflects Wiggins and McTighe’s description of those teachers who demonstrate ‘quality’ practice as designers, diagnosers, facilitators, and constructors of learning and learners.

As teachers, schools and systems have conversations around how to improve the learning of students by improving what happens in classrooms, it’s important that we continue to attempt to build a shared understanding of exactly what we mean when we say things like ‘quality teaching’.

Teasing out ‘teacher quality’

This post is the first in a series exploring the popular notion of improving teacher quality in order to improve student learning and achievement.

You can also read Part 2 ‘What do quality teachers do?‘ and Part 3 ‘Mapping teacher quality‘.

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For some time, scholarly literatures have generally agreed that, within the school sphere of influence, the quality of teachers’ teaching is the most influential school-based variable in terms of improving student learning and achievement. (We need to remember, however, that student learning and achievement are influenced primarily by many factors that are hardest for policy makers and schools to influence, such as students’ attitudes and abilities, socioeconomic context, parents’ education and peers.) Now, everywhere we look in education there are institutes and government policies and school websites all hailing the catch cry: ‘teacher quality!’

The term ‘teacher quality’ is in danger of being subsumed in what I call the ‘hashtagification’ of education terminology, in which words like ‘mindset’ and ‘grit’ become ubiquitous platitudes shared in sound bites or 140 character tweets. When we use words in education, we need to read the literature and research about them, tease them out, and come to a shared understanding about what are often dense concepts around the complexity of teaching.

During my PhD I spent time (ok, years) reading up on, among other things, ‘teacher quality’. Its definitions, its features, studies that aimed to measure its impacts. While I can’t distil those years of reading into a blog post, this post is a starting point (for comments, conversations, future posts) as well as a call to others to spend time cogitating over and teasing out the terms we use in edu-spheres.

‘Teacher quality’ is used to denote the quality of teachers’ teaching, in terms of its effectiveness in adding value to student learning. While it is sometimes used in terms of the individual teacher, many scholars argue that teacher quality should be considered in terms of collaborative expertise, rather than the solo hero teacher (so wonderfully written about here by Corinne Campbell). That is, while an individual teacher can have an influence on student learning, a move to improve the quality of teaching (and thereby, student learning) needs to focus on teachers as a collective.

One of my favourite images of collaborative expertise comes from Susan Rosenholtz in her book Teachers’ workplace: The social organisation of schools. She writes that in learning-enriched settings “an abundant spirit of continuous improvement” seems to “hover school-wide, because no one ever stopped learning to teach,” describing educators in effective schools as “clumped together in a critical mass, like uranium fuel rods in a reactor” (1991, p. 208). That image is a powerful reminder of what we in schools and education might aim for: a critical mass of huddled-together teachers feeding off each other’s energies, knowledge and practices. It’s also why competitive or punitive measures, like performance pay for teachers, are damaging to the profession. Collaboratively improving teacher quality is based on a notion with which most teachers would agree: that no matter how good our teaching is, no matter how well-planned and well-intentioned, we can always improve.

Two definitions of ‘teacher quality’ resonated with me in my reading. Firstly, the Educational Testing Service, in their 2004 publication Where we stand on teacher quality, defines it as: knowing what to teach and knowing how to teach. This definition hones in on the planning, classroom instruction, and assessment aspects of teacher quality, on the professional knowledge and skills upon which teachers can build in their pursuit of improving the quality of their teaching. Secondly, in their best evidence synthesis of international research on ‘teaching for quality,’ Zammit et al. (2007) define teacher quality as consisting of three intersecting factors: sociocultural context; professional knowledge, skills and practices used to meet student needs; and personal, relational and professional attributes. This second definition reminds us that teachers’ experiences are always situated within their professional contexts and entangled with personal and relational experiences. Teaching is not just about knowledge and skills, but about identities, contexts and emotions, too.

Some of those who write about teacher quality focus on the impact of teaching on student achievement and the others consider how we might break down or compartmentalise teaching in order to distil and define what quality teaching is; how it looks, sounds, and feels, and how it might be mapped, measured, or developed. Many grapple with the tensions between the desire to define and measure teaching, and its immeasurable complexity. In my Australian school, we investigated a number of tools that attempted to map what good teaching might look like. We chose to use the Danielson Framework for Teaching as our frame for professional reflection and conversation. Its rubrics help our teachers to drill down into their own practice, and into the AITSL Professional Standards for Teachers, giving them a sense of what those standards can look like at various levels of practice.

Teaching is such a complex phenomenon, it shouldn’t be reduced down to clichéd catch cries devoid of meaning. Despite the problematic nature of defining what teacher quality actually means, much available research shows that what a teacher does in the classroom is a crucial determinant in improving student achievement, and something we should spend some time teasing out in order to understand it in more detail. When we use terms in education—‘teacher quality’, ‘growth mindset’, ‘coaching’, ‘grit’, ‘vision’—let’s ensure that we work hard at figuring out what those mean and where our understandings might be shared, incomplete or requiring further discussion.

How writing is like cake making. #acwri

this week's home-made asymmetrical Aussie Rule football cake

this week’s home-made Aussie Rules football cake

Why cake ? Because joy and deliciousness are nutrients in their own right. ~ Jude Blereau

I make about two cakes a year, one for each of my children’s birthdays. One year ago, baking and decorating my eldest son’s cake prompted a blog post in which I compared making a novelty birthday cake to doing a PhD. This year, baking his double-layer chocolate cake (decorated as an AFL football field) had me thinking: this cake making business is a lot like writing, particularly academic writing.

My boys are 4 and (just) 6, so on my one-cake-per-child’s-birthday / two-cakes-per-year average, I haven’t baked that many cakes. Yet this week’s cake (pictured above), is the first cake that has felt stress-free to make, and first one for which I haven’t made big mistakes in the making. In the past my cake and icing mixes have split and curdled. I have broken cakes trying to get them out of the pan. There have been times when I decorated cakes the day before serving and the colours from the candy bled into the icing. Once, a heavy cake topper figurine sunk into the cake overnight. Earlier this year, I got a knife caught in the beaters while making icing, which resulted in me icing myself and the whole kitchen, including the ceiling. I didn’t feel quite the Nigella-esque image of domestic goddessery when I couldn’t see through my tears and icing-splattered spectacles.

This week there was none of the cake-anxiety drama. Baking and decorating were calm and enjoyable. Much of this was due to the knowledge and skills I have gained over time, as well as processes I have developed for this task. I knew to leave my ingredients out so that they were room temperature when I used them, preventing mixes from splitting. I knew to alternate mixing in dry and wet ingredients. I knew to take the time to cover the whole inside of the pan with carefully-traced-and-cut-and-placed bake paper so that the cake would slide out easily, with a now-practiced flourish, onto a wire rack. I knew to ice the cake while it was partly frozen to prevent crumbs in the icing, and to leave the extra decorations off until the icing was set so that the colours didn’t bleed. I had a familiar routine set out over a few days which made the process manageable. I also knew my materials better, what they could and couldn’t do. My expectations were managed. The cake was a bit lopsided, the icing a bit uneven, the drawn lines a bit skewwhiff. These imperfections were the marks of me as the maker, and I was ok with those idiosyncrasies. They were the ‘voice’ or the ‘me’ in the cake.

And so, from baking and decorating to writing …

My reflections on my journey as a novice baker and decorator remind me of my arc as an academic writer. The brief for each cake (footy! outer space! race track!), or each paper or chapter (this journal! that book! this field! that theory!), is different, requiring planning and consideration at the outset about how to proceed in order to reach a particular end point. Academic writing requires a nuanced understanding of its ingredients, materials and processes. The writer needs to understand, and be able to expertly manipulate, the language of particular disciplines and the language of particular journals. They build a growing knowledge of theories and literatures.

Like the baker, the writer develops a routine, a flow, an individualised writing process that works for them, including how to time their work, how to structure it, how to build layers of meaning, how to perfect and polish it in the final stages. They acquire tools and strategies for their work, things that make the work smoother and produce a better product. Some knowings and doings become internalized over time, with the writer having to think less about them, able to turn their attentions to refining their craft, developing deeper understandings and pushing the scope of their work beyond the limits of its previous iterations. Writers hone their voice, the ‘me’-ness in their writing, while watching out for their writing tics.

Like a cake made for a particular individual and a specific celebration, a piece of writing is often constructed with a particular audience in mind. Peer review of cake at a child’s birthday party is gentler than that in academia, but the party guest’s purpose is to appreciate and thank the host, while the peer reviewer’s purpose is to critically judge and improve the work. Once writing is published, more feedback comes in the forms of citations, downloads, reviews and social media shares. The audiences are different, but for both baking and writing there are accepted norms of feedback from others. A baker might dread the grimaced smiles of guests pretending to enjoy their cake while they leave slices unfinished, just as a writer might fear Reviewer 3’s scathing critique or the deafening silence of an uncited, un-clicked-upon piece, lying unread in physical and online spaces. Peer review is, after all, often like getting a punch in the face and a high five simultaneously.

While I am a sometimes-baker, I am a regular writer. I’m sure that if I baked with the constancy of my writing, it would improve markedly. I write something almost every day, for different purposes or different audiences. One distinction for me between baking and writing (obviously there are many differences!) is that I find I write my way into understanding, into knowing my own thinking and into interrogating my worlds and the writings of others. Writing is inquiry, identity work, illuminator. It is joy and struggle. And while a cake is devoured until only crumbs remain, writing lives on.

Escaping the machine in nature: #PrayforNice

For I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes the still, sad music of humanity. ~ William Wordsworth

my fave wellies, Hunters bought in London

This week I attended and presented at the Heroism Science conference, one that presented theoretical and practical exploration of acts of heroism and ways of being heroic. But it also looked at how our neoliberal world works against heroism and instead promotes individualistic narcissistic egocentricity rather than noble purpose and common good.

And then days later was news of the Nice terror attack, an antithesis to heroic behaviour. I have small children at home who are too young to listen to news of atrocities committed by people on other people. I don’t watch the 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock news. If I’m driving with my children in the car I turn the volume off if the news comes on the radio. I pick up a lot of my news on Twitter during the day and sometimes catch up in the evening.

This week we went far from televisions and 24/7 commentary. It has been school holidays for me and the small people in my life, so we have gone outdoors.

Into nature we went.

My husband always tells our children, “Explorers take their time.”

We went slowly and deliberately.

We haven’t been hunting Pokemon but we have been chasing muddy adventure.

We went outside to embrace the wintry outdoors and walk, ride, dig.

Curl fingers and toes in mud.

Fill our ears with the roaring of oceans and waterfalls.

Fill our senses with aromas of gumtrees and wet leaves.

Crowd out the noise with silence and stillness and nature.

I know escape doesn’t help the world to be a less frightening place. The world continues to be one in which terror attacks now have a familiar news cycle and even more familiar internet memes. One in which beacons of racism and xenophobia are an accepted part of the Western political landscape. One in which the ordinary person can’t comprehend their reality let alone see a way to enact meaningful change. But it helps us to ground ourselves in the world and be present, as human beings rather than human doings.

As a parent, teacher, coach and school leader my hope is that I can have an impact on helping people find the best versions of themselves. Kind, thoughtful, even heroic selves who work towards a better world. As a researcher my hope is that I can be a disruptive cog in the neoliberal machine, challenging from the inside systems that value self-interest, profit and metrics over equity, ethics and freedom. I aspire to find a balance between working with systems that exist and ethical activism.

As an antidote to images and words of violence and terror, here are some of our grounding moments in the natural world this week.

by Deborah Netolicky

by Deborah Netolicky

by Deborah Netolicky

by Deborah Netolicky

by Deborah Netolickyby Deborah Netolicky

by Deborah Netolickyby Deborah Netolickyby Deborah Netolicky

 

Questioning heroic leadership: The visible-invisible hero

heroes

Our notions of heroism change over time. The construction and reception of heroes is dependent on context. Often the heroes of a time and place are only decided in hindsight when their actions and the consequences of those actions are weighed by the collective, the media or Hollywood scriptwriters.

Texts can reflect the values, anxieties and aspirations of their time and place. For example, the Star Wars franchise has changed its notions of the hero over time. Early Star Wars films had some diversity back in the 1970s. Leia was an independent hero who could stand up for herself and played a key part in the Rebel Alliance. But she was still pictured as the pretty woman handing medals to the male heroes. Lando Calrissian was a non-white heroic figure, but a more minor and less honourable character than the two white males, Luke and Han. Diversity and Otherness were also foregrounded by the multiple alien species in the films, from everyone’s favourite heroic Wookie, to sinister or repulsive villains.

Fast forward almost forty years and Rei and Finn, the heroes of the 2015 Star Wars Episode VII (which I have written about here and here), show the shift in the hero’s representation in terms of gender and race.

Meanwhile, Batman is a hero whose representation has evolved over time, from the silly unintimidating comical figure of the 1960s television show, to the tortured, vengeful, imposing figures of recent films. Newer Batmans, including those played by Christian Bale and Ben Affleck, are psychologically darker and more complex.

In 2016, heroes like Deadpool and the new Ghostbusters question the traditional portrayal of the hero. Deadpool, like the animated hero Shrek, challenges stereotypical hero behaviour. He is rude, lewd and without a noble cause. The new Ghostbusters expand our vision of how heroes might look. The Game of Thrones franchise, too, agitates reader and viewer expectations of the hero by presenting us with complex, shifting characters who dance along and frequently cross the line between heroism and villainy.

To leadership …

How is the realm of leadership affected by the fluid definitions of heroism, dependent as they are on the time and place in which any real, mythological or fictional hero is created and received?

Today I’ll be speaking at the Rise and Future of Heroism Science Conference in order to explore what insights the data from my PhD has to offer the field of heroism, and what heroism has to offer the arena of leadership.

The questions I ask are:

  • Must the school leader hero be a charismatic, selfless visionary? A beacon of bravery and a moral crusader?
  • Are alternate leadership metaphors and narratives helpful for thinking about contemporary leadership in schools?

My answer, based in the emergent themes from the interview data of school leaders in my PhD study, is that the traditional lone hero on an individualistic quest is not an appropriate metaphor for the school leader. The leaders in my study reflected notions of servant, distributed, caregiver or transparent leadership.

Participants offered up their own metaphors for heroic leadership, revealing that heroism when leading others can be fluid, deliberate and imperceptible.

by Deborah Netolicky

In my PhD thesis, I applied the literary character of the Cheshire Cat to emblematically articulate the visible-invisible school leader, who deliberately appears and disappears, showing only part of themselves depending on the needs of those who they lead. The Cheshire Cat leader empowers others to find their way through their professional Wonderlands. Sometimes they are the encouraging grin, the glimmering eyes, the disappearing tail. At times they are the disembodied voice, mentoring, coaching or guiding. Unlike the autocratic and unlikeable Red Queen, the Cat is a mysterious guide who operates from the aerial view of the tree, with an understanding of the bigger picture.

The image of leaders posturing as white knights of school improvement, wielding swords of change and self-promotion, is seductive but unhelpful. Heroism in school leadership can be deliberate, fluid and at times imperceptible. School leaders can focus on the collective good and intentionally navigate visibility and invisibility (although I wonder to what extent deliberately imperceptible leadership can feel like being an under-appreciated Santa Claus, and how leaders feel when their machinations to build the capacities of others go unnoticed).

My PhD suggests that leadership that serves a community or organisation, and the individuals within it, need not be highly visible. Heroism in leadership can be about deliberate invisibility, the barely discernible swish of a tail and the disappearing gleam of a Cheshire grin.