Workload and anxiety

grass tree panorama

grass tree panorama

I have tonight breezed in the door to home with dirt caked in my nostrils and shoes, smelling of sweat and the Australian bush, utterly dishevelled after five days of Year 9 camp. Going on camp was important; it was an opportunity for me to get to know more closely my pastoral group, the class I’ll be travelling with on their high school journey for the next four years.

The group built cohesion and relationships across the week. Individuals and the team were challenged by everything from expedition hiking, camping, eating and toileting, to abseiling over cliff faces into caves, surfing big Margaret River swell, and completing a high ropes course.

I recognise the significance of the week of camping for my students, while simultaneously trying to quell the rising panic that comes from a week away, ‘out of the office’. Not only was it a lot of work to prepare to be away—planning a week’s worth of lessons and resources, shopping and packing for camp, making sure the things required for our house sale-and-purchase were in order before I left, getting through the Famous Five novel I’ve been reading with my kids—but I’m returning to being (at least) a week behind my work.

Yes, lessons will have been taught while I’ve been away, but the double pile of marking I left behind wasn’t marked by marking fairies while I was away (darn those marking fairies; never there for you when you really need them!). Deadlines remain as they were, despite me being unable to make progress for a week (although I did take a notebook on which to scribble ideas). I feel in debit with my family, like I need to spend extra time with my kids and husband, like I somehow owe ‘extra’ because I left them for five days.

So I am feeling behind in my work and behind at home. I am pulled between the tension of wanting to do the right thing at home by immersing myself in time with my family; to do the right thing by work by catching up on marking, policy-writing and strategic project implementation plans; and to do the right thing by myself by painting my chipped toenails, exercising my aching body and finding time for solitude and seeing friends.

Workload and homeload as a working parent are always a tricky balance that can easily tip on their delicate axes. While I currently feel sucked into a vortex of mild anxiety, I know rationally that I will catch up. Sometime, I will catch up. In the meantime, I’ll breathe, do my best with the time I have available, and remember some of the stunning vistas I enjoyed while on camp in the West Aussie great outdoors.

my home for the week

my home for the week

Redgate Beach

Redgate Beach

abseiling into Brides Cave

abseiling into Brides Cave

Karri forrest

Why selling a house is like finishing a doctorate

Sold! Now what?

Sold! Now what?

This week my husband and I sold our house and bought another one, so it’s been a week filled with terrifying leaps of faith, trembling uncertainty, and dizzying highs that have involved actual whooping and jumping up and down. During this selling-buying-a-home experience, I was viscerally reminded of what it feels like at the end stages of a PhD.

Firstly, no matter how much work you have put in to getting your home ready for sale (or getting your PhD ready for examination), you don’t know how it’s going to go in the marketplace (or examiners’ eyes). There’s nail-biting insecurity that you won’t get the result you want. The waiting is insomnia-inducing. What if there is a low offer or no offer (a major revisions or a revise and resubmit)?

Secondly, there is no clear ending to the process, and no clear-cut moment to celebrate. We put our house on the market in January, like submitting a PhD to examiners, and then we have waited for results to come in. On Sunday night we received an offer, but it didn’t seem time to open the champagne. Nor did it the next night when we accepted that offer. Yes, we had sold our house, but celebrating the possibility of being without a home for our family didn’t seem appropriate. We put an offer on another house, but until it was accepted we didn’t feel we could celebrate. Even then (and we did celebrate) we are still faced with small milestones to complete and dominoes to fall, before we know that both sales are unconditional (finance, inspections, settlement).

Similarly, the end of the PhD seems to go on and on. There’s thesis submission. There’s the waiting game for examiners’ reports. Often, there’re the revisions. There is acceptance of those corrections and conferral of the degree and the title of ‘Doctor’ (which for me, was marked by having just presented at the AERA conference in DC). The printing of the bound PhD thesis that will luxuriate on the library shelf. The rollercoaster of completion emotions. There is graduation. Then there’s the first aeroplane boarding pass with ‘Dr’ on it, and the first post-graduation event when you get to wear the floppy hat and doctoral robes. There’s even the identity tussle as you come to terms with your doctorness, just as I’m sure my husband and I will need to transition from our current home, which we love and in which we have raised two young boys, to a new home which offers up the stage for the next chapter in our story.

It was interesting for me to note the way that an unrelated life event could bring my memories of the tail end of my PhD rushing back so vividly. Perhaps some of life’s most rewarding experiences are those which test our mental toughness, give us sleepless nights, and which don’t have clear cut endings.

The Research Lead Down Under

candle at the Emu Plains Market

candle at the Emu Plains Market

Schools, school leaders and teachers are increasingly expected to be research literate, to be informed by evidence in their decisions and practices, and to be assessed against a range of high-stakes measures. In this kind of education world, schools need to be able to make sense of the measures against which they are being assessed, and have the capacity to generate counter-narratives or alternative data to measure those things that are important for them.

As I’ve alluded to, I have this year begun a new role at my school, which encompasses overseeing professional learning, staff development, innovation and pedagogy. But it also encompasses the kinds of work associated with what UK schools call a ‘Research Lead’: developing the research base and systematic methodologies of the organisation; data generation and analytics; executing evidence-based strategic initiatives; overseeing and developing research and innovation frameworks.

As Hargreaves and Fullan (in Professional Capital, 2012) point out, leading evidence-based school practices and change is a complex process. Having a person dedicated to the curation, generation and communication of research supports everyone from the classroom to the boardroom in making better decisions. A role dedicated to raising the profile and practice of research helps a school to remain agile in response to current educational research; evidence-informed and systematic in its methods; proactive in its processes and communications; and keenly focused on its strategic impacts within the wider context of the global education world.

The Research Lead role has been around in UK schools for a few years, and now there are Research Schools. See, for instance, the Wellington Learning and Research Centre and the Huntington Research School.

As the UK’s College of Teaching noted yesterday, teachers need access to evidence, strategies for understanding it, and opportunities to conduct their own research, not to mention the desire to engage with research in the first place. Access is a real issue, and while there are open access journals, the occasional free paper, and popular dissemination sites like The Conversation and the AARE blog, many teachers do not have the library privileges, money or time to access pay walled journals and expensive books. The Research Lead can be a conduit between research and staff at the school.

The role of Research Lead is explained in this Education Development Trust report, by Tom Bennett. The report positions the Research Lead as gatekeeper, consigliere, devil’s advocate, auditor and project manager. Interestingly, the report notes that schools where Research Leads had made the biggest impact were frequently schools where the role was part of the brief of a senior member of the leadership team. It lists authentic buy-in from senior leadership and a ‘place at the table’ of school life as necessary conditions of the role; the Executive needs to support the role and give it authority, autonomy, time (for the Lead to manage projects and for staff to engage with research) and commitment. The autonomy is partly important for projects and getting work done, but also because the Research Lead might have to sometimes take an unpopular position, or suggest a pause during a time of rapid change; they need to be free to do so.

Elsewhere in the world, the American School of Bombay has a Research and Development Centre. In Australia, examples such as the St Stephens Institute in Perth, the Barker Institute in Sydney, the Crowther Centre at Brighton Grammar School in Melbourne, the Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation at Geelong College, and the Centre for Research, Innovation and Future Development at St Paul’s in Brisbane, show how Australian schools are focusing on centralising and developing research. Just last year, my own role and others local to me were created, incorporating ‘research’ in the title. Some of these roles incorporate learning technologies. Others incorporate student academic achievement and staff learning and development. The research focus is based around the strategic vision and learning principles of each school. In Australia, there is often a focus on generation and innovation (finding out what might work in what context) rather than on prescribing ‘what works’. Teachers are seen by many schools as potential researchers.

So the Research Lead, or equivalent, is advisor, instigator, filter, conduit, provocateur, disseminator, critical questioner, sceptic, creator of partnerships, and builder of a professional culture in which rigorously considering evidence, research literature, and how to measure impacts are an accepted part of the way things are done. The Lead is across and through the organisation, an influence and an advocate for systematic thinking through. As Gary Jones’ blog often explores, evidence-based practice is nuanced and rife with challenges. The Research Lead needs to move beyond lip-service to research and hat-tips to evidence-based practice. They need to be aware of their own preferences, biases, blind spots and deficiencies, as well as the research-and-evidence temperature of the organisation, and how to evaluate and generate evidence and research.

I’m looking forward to shaping the Research Lead part of my own role. As a boundary-spanning PhD-universityadjunct-schoolleader-teacher it is something to which I am deeply committed and about which endlessly fascinated. My nerdery will be put to good use!

The power of clear messaging

Cervantes sign

Cervantes sign

While professional learning is the internal process of knowing, learning and becoming, professional development tends to refer to activities, courses, sessions, talks or conferences that teachers attend, voluntarily or otherwise. While it’s more trendy now to say ‘CPD’ (continuing professional development) than ‘PD’, one-off rather than sustained learning continues to pepper the lives of teachers as they and their schools attempt to improve themselves, keep up to date with the profession and meet legal and professional requirements.

The Australian school year has begun, which means that teachers have been given the opportunity to enjoy or endure staff days. Staff days prior to the commencement of the academic year tend to include time for planning, collaboration and setting up classrooms, as well as guest speakers, seminars or the kind of scattergun PD that hopes to land somewhere in the audience and maybe make a difference.

How do schools make decisions as to what kinds of development, collaboration and individual growth they facilitate for their staff? Especially in light of provocative reports like that from the TNTP (2015), The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development, which suggested that we do not yet know what helps teachers to improve the quality of their instruction? The TNTP report (of a two year study into teacher professional learning of over 10,000 teachers and 500 school leaders in three USA public school districts) found that, despite schools and systems investing time and money into professional learning of teachers, no clear patterns emerged to suggest which deliberate efforts improved teacher performance, as measured by teacher evaluation scores (using the education district’s final evaluation score, calculated using the district’s official methodology).

The TNTP report did note one school system whose teachers and students consistently performed better and improved more than the three public school districts. The report states that this better-performing, teacher-developing system had a more disciplined and coherent system for teacher development, a clear vision of success, and a network-wide culture of high expectations and continuous growth. Coherent system. Clear vision. Cohesive culture.

This year, my school decided not to invite a dizzyingly inspirational guest speaker or enlist the services of an external expert to run PD with our staff on those days. Instead our focus was on honouring, respecting and utilising internal expertise, and on communicating clear messaging around the school’s strategic priorities for the year. Valuing tacit knowledge and lived professional experience was important, as the strategic priorities were not new, either for the school or in education. The message, from the school executive and senior leadership team, to teachers, psychologists, education assistants and non-teaching staff, was that there are three key priorities for the year, summarised as three simple words. And that none of these was new, but rather things that teachers and non-teachers engage in every day, in and out of their classrooms.

What we aimed to do on our staff days was what Hargreaves and Shirley describe in their book The fourth way: The inspirational future for educational change as “explore the nitty gritty challenges of their practice through thoughtful exchanges with colleagues and in relation to relevant research” (2009, p. 93). We provided presentations from internal experts and leaders, including a panel of community members, as well as accessible readings and time for colleagues to collaborate with one another, both in their teams and with others from across the school.

The sense I got from our staff days was that staff were:

  • Relieved at the lack of new initiatives and the deliberate slowness in rolling out current projects; we continue to move forward, but in a measured way.
  • Comfortable with the clarity, simplicity and consistency of the messaging.
  • Grateful to be informed of and included in the strategic direction of the school.
  • Energised by the opportunity to work in a structured way with colleagues, around how the school’s strategic priorities would come alive in their own contexts.

I am often inspired by Ellie Drago-Severson’s work on adult learning, and the notion of the ‘holding environment’ as one of high support and high challenge, where people feel both ‘held’ and encouraged to be their best. Additionally, plenty of literature around school change talks about the need for shared vision, as does the 2016 ACER Professional Learning Community Framework for Australian schools. It is worth considering at length how to share school vision with the community so that it is lived, breathed, understood and propelled by those across the organisation. Everyone from the principal to parents and students have a part to play in knitting a community together around a common purpose. This year, those three words communicated from the executive down are helping to bind our community more closely together with common vision and shared purpose.

Teaching and leading schools in a #posttruth word of #altfacts

General Hux's speech in The Force Awakens (reddit.com)

General Hux’s speech in The Force Awakens (source – reddit.com)

Post-truth: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. ~ Oxford Dictionary

To my continued astonishment, we are living in a post-truth world. ‘Post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year. The Trump administration in its first week seemed to impersonate the Star Wars totalitarian First Order when it claimed that it was not lying but providing the public with ‘alternative facts’. Then, gag orders were placed on a number of government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services. (Hurrah for whoever tweeted rebelliously about inauguration crowds and climate change from the National Parks Service ‘Badlands National Park’ account.) 

For a Western government to blatantly deny reality is at once baffling and terrifying. Hello, propaganda. Hello, the invocation of untruths (sorry, ‘alternative facts’) to smother any unfavourable actuality.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The misuse and abuse of language and facts is something that dystopian and speculative fiction has been warning of for decades, and something that history tells us has the ability to tap into the hive mind and rally societies around a common, often chilling, cause or leader. 

In this post I’ll explore the notion of a post-truth world of alternative facts and empty emotive rhetoric, around two arenas in my own life: teaching English and Literature, and my new role at my school, which encompasses in part engagement with research across the school.

First, to teaching in a post-truth world …

With the school year beginning next week, my Year 12 English team are finalising the texts to be taught and studied this Australian academic year. We’ve been tossing up between two contemporary texts about modern issues like gender, sporting culture and bullying, but every day the news and my social media feed give me a nagging feeling, a tugging at my literary shirt sleeve, a whisper to pause, take stock, listen. And dig out a dystopian classic.

Last year we taught the 12s Fahrenheit 451, a text that portrays books as dangerous threats to government control and societal compliance. This year perhaps we should teach Orwell’s 1984. Its Ministry of Truth, that falsifies historical events, and Newspeak, a language that restricts freedom of thought, are more relevant than ever. In fact, Orwell’s novel has this week rocketed to number 1 on the Amazon best sellers list.

A more recent text also comes to mind. Lionel Shriver’s 2016 The Mandibles, set between 2029 and 2047, is an economic dystopia that imagines the USA’s collapse. In her novel, the bungling US government has little respect for its citizens. First world problems like gluten intolerance disappear as violence and poverty rise. It is Mexico that builds an electrified, computerised, constantly-surveyed fence to keep desperate Americans illegals out.

Of course as a teacher of English and Literature I teach versions of reality and multiplicity of perspectives, but that plurality doesn’t stretch to bald-faced lies for the purposes of propaganda, banning scientists from speaking, or removing language like ‘climate change’ from government policy and websites. Language matters. It shapes thought. It wields power. It’s our job as teachers to elevate our students’ capacities to engage critically with their world. To be sceptical consumers of what they see, hear and read, and to be empowered to use language as an agentic tool.

Next, to school leadership in a world of alternative facts …

I am also coming to terms with how schools might respond to this post-truth world. This is especially relevant to me as I have just begun a new role at my school (new to me and new to the school). It is a senior leadership role that encompasses the use of evidence and research to make informed decisions from the classroom to the boardroom, as well to underpin and frame pedagogy, professional learning, performance review processes and capacity building across the organisation.

In this paper published online on 18 January, Brown and Greany (2017, p.1)—thanks to Gary Jones, whose blog is a great resource in this space, for sharing it—write:

Educational evidence rarely translates into simple, linear changes in practice in the ways that what-works advocates might hope. Instead, … evidence must be combined with practitioner expertise to create new knowledge which improves decision making and enriches practice so that, ultimately, children’s learning is enhanced.

This focus on what Brown and Greany call ‘what matters’ as well as ‘what works’ resonates with me. As Jon Andrews (channelling Marilyn Cochran-Smith) reminds us, teaching is unforgivingly complex. If we schools and educators are to really engage with research, then we need to honour our own contexts and value our own wisdom of practice. Teachers and schools can and should engage with research. I’m grateful that my school is able to create a role like mine in order to elevate evidence and research, execute research initiatives, and further embed scientific thinking and data analytics into the fabric of the school a culture. I’m grateful that there are schools around the world bringing evidence, mindfulness and crticiality to their decision making and pedagogy.

In a post-truth world, how do we balance a respect for truth, evidence and reason, with an honouring of plurality, multiplicity and praxis? How might we use literature or research as vehicles for respecting perspectives, while exploring challenges and possibilities?

Perfectionism, control, letting go

Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it. ~ Salvador Dali

I’ve learned something about myself in the last week. Or maybe I’ve re-learned it. It’s one of those things I already knew, but sometimes manage to sweep into a shadowy corner. I am a perfectionist and control freak. I know ‘perfectionist’ is one of those things you’re meant to be able to say at job interviews as an example of a negative-that’s-really-a-positive. You know, “Oh I just pay such attention to minute details and need everything to be perfect. It’s such a burden! *mock sigh*” But, without trivialising mental health issues, it really can feel like a disorder when it becomes obsessive and consuming, as it does for me from time to time.

I tend to research everything to the extreme. From high intensity training and child birth to travel and party planning, I over-read and over-think. I create dossiers and Pinterest boards and wake up in the night with ideas.

The event that has brought my own desire for control over the minutest of details out of the shadows this time is putting our house on the market. While we’ve been thinking about the possibility for a while, last Wednesday we met with real estate agents. Thursday we signed the paperwork. Monday the house was photographed. Wednesday we received the marketing proofs. Thursday the house went on the market. Sunday the house will be open.

Never mind that it’s school holidays and I am home hanging out with my 4 year old and 6 year old while also preparing for a new school year in a new role, and trying to get various academic writing projects moved along their pipelines. Never mind all that. The house must look perfect.

I have decluttered to the point that our double garage now only fits one car. I have planted and mulched and watered the garden. I have fixed and hired tradies and made my husband lists of jobs. He visibly rolled his eyes when I was changing every lightbulb and cleaning every light fitting. I don’t even think he knows that I bought new fluffy white towels for photos and home opens. He probably hasn’t noticed my artful re-arranging of what we own. He does know I went to a wholesale flower market to buy flowers to arrange around the house. That I borrowed some lovely wall art from our friend at Frank Prints. That I’ve emptied and organised every cupboard in the house. That I re-wrote the real estate copy for the agent. And that I was disappointed at tiny things about the professional photos (leaving cords from the back of the tv uncropped and in the frame; the photographer’s bag visible down the hallway; no pics of the internal courtyard). None of these are things that will stop a buyer from coming to a home open or potentially buying the house, but they are things that have been on my mind and the whole process of preparing to sell has kicked off a little internal obsessive insomnia-inducing twitch.

(Disclosure: 6 years ago, when we sold our last place, I took the marketing photos and wrote the real estate copy myself, as well as staging the home. This behaviour isn’t new!)

some thumbnails from our house

some thumbnails from our house

This in the same fortnight that I have failed to meet my own weekly blogging deadline. (My perfectionism does know bounds. I can’t sustain it in all areas of my life or at all times.) For most of last year, I posted a blog every Friday. This year, since the first of the month, I haven’t blogged. Partly, what has been on my mind is hanging out with my kids before the summer break ends, and getting the house ready for sale, not things the internet probably wants to know about (yet here I am writing about them). I also figured that my oneword for 2017—nourish—allows me to take a break from blogging deadlines in the name of self-preservation. But here I am, back to my Friday posting.

Also this week I was on a leadership retreat during which I had a refresher on the HBDI (Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument) that encourages self and team reflection on preferences of ways of working, thinking and relating to others and to problems. I was reminded of my love for details and my tendency to be excruciatingly clinical and heavily researched about everything. Just what I’ve been doing with my house. It was a good reminder to be mindful of letting go, for the sake of myself and others.

Tying myself in knots about the need for something to be perfect (an academic paper, a report to the school board, a presentation slide deck, a lesson, some performance review documentation) isn’t helpful. I need to be able to let go and be ok with good-but-not-exactly-how-I-envisaged-it. The only time I felt ok about this kind of obsession was with my PhD thesis; that seems an appropriate thing to obsess over so I was able to immerse myself in it guilt and shame free.

So I am going to try to be mindful of letting go of holding onto unrealistic expectations or obsessing over the minutest of details. I’m going to try to celebrate the benefits of caring about precision (because it does have perks!) while giving myself permission to be ok with a level of disarray.

Oneword 2017: NOURISH

my 2017 is going to be replenishing

my 2017 is going to be replenishing

It’s January 1. The time of year for resolving to do more, better, healthier. To be more productive, mindful, prosperous. For the last couple of new years, instead of resolutions, I’ve chosen a oneword (sometimes called oneword365 or one little word) to set my intention for the year, a lens through which to view my decisions, to reflect upon daily and to embed into the rhythms of my year. Unlike the traditional resolution, it’s not possible to fail at a oneword. You can’t get it wrong or fall off the wagon. You just revisit it across the year, rolling it around in your head and allowing it to guide your thoughts and behaviours.

In 2015, although I began with three words, these were soon overtaken by one word—CONQUER—as I climbed to the summit of my PhD thesis. Success! In 2015 I submitted my thesis, within 3 years of enrolling (O, happy days!). Then in 2016 my word was MOMENTUM, as I looked to put one foot in front of the other in order to keep moving, despite not being sure of my destination. In 2016 I did plenty. I taught, led, coached, worked, fought for what I believed, became a doctor, presented, published, wrote, read, connected, advocated, won a couple of awards, was appointed to two new positions (one at a university and one at my school). I got somewhere. These words served their purposes, but I finished 2016 spent. I had conquered and moved at a cracking pace, and 2016 was pretty good in my book, but I reaped the exhaustion of pushing hard. I knew that in 2017 I needed a word that allowed me to be kinder to myself. A gentler, slower word.

As I was considering words, I considered ‘consolidate’, but that seemed too inert. I want to do more than stay where I am, but I am ready for a less frantic, more mindful pace. I considered ‘joy’ and ‘illuminate’, but a Twitter poll told me what I already knew: my oneword for 2017 is NOURISH.

Twitter polls: solving life's dilemmas

Twitter polls: solving life’s dilemmas

The thing I love about oneword is that it can be applied to all aspects of life. Nourish can mean nutritional nourishment. It can mean doing what helps me to feel centred, like coastal walks, yoga and seeing close friends and family. Nourish can mean saying yes to work that feeds my inner nerd, and saying no to being ruled by metrics or external measures. It can mean connecting with others who encourage and inspire me, and vacating conversations, Twitter arguments or relationships that wring me dry. Nourish gives me permission to withdraw from that which does not sustain me—physically, emotionally, intellectually, professionally—and to immerse myself in that which nurtures, supports and strengthens. This year I intend to be mindful of how my time, food, drink, sleep, exercise, relationships, writing and work give me something positive, or whether they sap me of energy and fulfilment.

In setting my intention to seek nourishment this year, I’ll use this question to focus myself:

Does this nourish me?

Simple!

I’ve started my nourishing year as I mean to go on. Today I woke and made a yummy breakfast of paleo pancakes with raspberries. I exercised by the beach and drank coffee from one of my favourite coastal cafes. I cuddled and played with my kids. I’ll work on abstract for a book chapter that I’m excited about, an example of something that feeds my brain and my always-itching-to-write fingers. I’m writing this blog post because it helps to set my intention and to help me think through what’s in my head. I’ll be catching up with old friends on the beach later today and will see the sun set into the ocean.

I’m looking forward to a year in which I turn away from what depletes, drains and undermines me, and in which I am attentive to what feeds my body, mind and spirit.