About Dr Deborah M. Netolicky

I am an Australian educator and PhD with 20 years of experience in teaching and school leadership in Australia and England. I am author of 'Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools', editor of 'Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Democracy', and co-Editor of 'Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education'. My 'the édu flâneuse' blog narrates my thinking around education, coaching, professional learning, writing, research, travel, and identity. Photographs are usually mine.

What might ‘taking action’ for Reconciliation look like?

This week is National Reconciliation Week in Australia (27 May-3 June), a week that challenges all Australians to work towards a reconciled relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous peoples, for a unified, just and equitable Australia for all Australians.

It was only in 1962 that Indigenous Australians were granted the right to vote. And it was only in 1967, via referendum, that Australia’s First Nations peoples were recognised by the government as people. Previous to that, the Australian constitution stated that “in reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives should not be counted”. In 2008, then- Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology to Indigenous Australians for the Stolen Generations—children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families under parliamentary authority. The 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for the ancient sovereignty of First Nations Australians to be recognised through structural reform including constitutional change and a ‘Voice to Parliament’.

This year’s National Reconciliation Week theme is:

“More than a word. Reconciliation takes action.”

Reflecting on what reconciliation action looks like for me, it’s the macro and micro actions we take.

In my school our actions include a Reconciliation Action Plan working group who meet to consider what Reconciliation can look like in our school, and to plan how to bring our Reconciliation intentions to action. It’s building a meaningful relationship and mutually beneficial partnership of listening, seeking to understand identities and realities, and positive action with a remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community school. It is acknowledging Country in ways that are respectful, embedded and that show awareness of and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cultures and heritage. For my school, that means acknowledging the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we learn and work, recognising their continuing connection and contribution to land, waters and community, and paying our respects to them, their culture, and to Elders past, present and emerging. It means providing students and staff with opportunities to increase understanding, value and recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories, knowledges and rights. It means celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander days of significance. It means always working to improve the ways in which we and our community engage with the ideas and actions of Reconciliation, and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This year in my classroom, engaging with Reconciliation includes studying the poetry of Australian poet Samuel Wagan Watson who encourages his readers to consider the lasting impacts and trauma of Australia’s colonial past, land dispossession, historic and continuing violence towards Indigenous Australians, and the erosion, appropriation and commercialisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, language, identity and mythology.

In my academic writing, my actions include citing Indigenous authors and seeking out Indigenous ways of knowing, researching and communicating. In my editing, actions include inviting Indigenous authors to write for books and journal special issues. I can highly recommend engaging with the work of ‘Deadly’ Australian scholars Tracey Bunda, Melitta Hogarth, Marnee Shay and Janet Mooney. In the conclusion of the upcoming edited book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership, I call for those in educational leadership to openly engage with complex issues and uncomfortable debates, and to make space for the perspectives and knowledge systems of Indigenous and culturally marginalised groups.

During this week’s Q&A program on the ABC, Marnie Omeragic asked:

“It is Reconciliation Week. Is Australia ready to hear its truth? Are we brave enough to learn the atrocities of our past and our present? Deaths in custody, children being removed- it is happening at a faster rate today. The gap is not closing. How will Australia find its heart?”

The panel’s responses can be watched here from the 34-minute mark. The challenge remains for all Australians to consider how our thoughts, language and actions contribute to the aim of a reconciled, just, equitable and unified Australia.

Q&A: Leading the change in education

I was recently interviewed for the American Educational Research Association’s Education Change SIG publication Lead the Change. The Q&A asked challenging and important questions about the field of educational change now and into the future, around the AERA 2021 theme of ‘accepting educational responsibility’. It’s wonderful to contribute to this publication alongside previous contributors such as Ann Lieberman, Yong Zhao, Pasi Sahlberg, Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, Alma Harris, Dennis Shirley, Diane Ravitch, Carol Campbell, Helen Timperley and Mel Ainscow. You can read my responses here in the Lead the Change publication, here in International Education News, and below.

Lead the Change (Ltc): The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions. For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Deborah Netolicky (DN): The rhetoric of education policy the world over is about the common good and quality, equitable outcomes for all. In Australia, we had the Melbourne Declaration (Barr et al., 2008) and now the Mparntwe Declaration (Education Council, 2019). Both declare an education goal of excellence and equity for all young people, and the building of a democratic, equitable, just, culturally diverse society that values Australia’s Indigenous cultures. Australia likes to imagine itself as a multicultural melting pot of inclusive diversity, yet, as in many countries, our rhetoric and our imagined national identity fall well short of our reality. As Suraiya Hameed, Marnee Shay, and Jodie Miller (Hameed et al., forthcoming) note, the concept of excellence in education for Indigenous students has been greatly under-theorised and requires a strengths-based rather than a deficit perspective. Racism, sexism, classism, religious discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, ableism, and the reverberations of our colonial past, persist. Inequities remain. Educational change is too often a political ball bounced back and forth, with governments making decisions based on short term political cycles and winning election votes, rather than on holding the line on sustained improvement for all.

Part of ‘accepting educational responsibility’ is working from a foundation of citizenship grounded in a shared moral purpose. Citizen-scholars and citizen-practitioners engage deeply with education committed to excellence, equity, and opportunity for all. We must not ignore the reverberations of past oppressions and the echoes of past violence in our current world. If we are to address the intensifying challenges that face society, education, and individuals, education scholars and practitioners need to make the implicit explicit, deeply interrogating systems, structures, policies, pedagogies, practices, and our own beliefs, behaviours, and language. Scholars, practitioners, and pracademic scholar-practitioners need to engage with, and provide safe spaces for, education debates, including, and especially, those that are uncomfortable and awkward, and that require us to examine our own motivations, biases, and privilege. As many authors argue in the forthcoming edited book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Equity, Democracy, and Inclusion (Netolicky, forthcoming), positive educational change requires challenging and providing alternatives to Western (that is, White, masculine, materialist, hetero) norms and paradigms.

“We need to engage with, and provide safe spaces for, education debates, including, and especially, those that are uncomfortable and awkward, and that require us to examine our own motivations, biases, and privilege.”

Decolonisation—deconstructing dominant ideologies and dismantling educational structures—is not enough. What is needed is not just the breaking down of systems of power and privilege, but also the building up of what we would like to exist in its place. This means including, embracing, and investing in Indigenous, culturally diverse, and culturally marginalised ways of knowing, being, teaching, and leading in education. We need these ways of knowing and doing to understand and apply inclusive policies and practices that serve all those in our communities, especially the most vulnerable.

LtC: Much of your work is informed by your positionality as a “pracademic” and the special understandings and experiences that come as a result. What would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience sitting in this specific space?

DN: Much of my scholarly work has involved looking at education, educational change, professional learning, and educational leadership through the lens of identity (e.g., Netolicky, 2017, 2019, 2020a). I have defined identity as the “situated, ongoing process through which we make sense of ourselves, to ourselves and to others” (Netolicky, 2020d, p.19). Examining education through the lens of identity allows us to remain focused on education as a human endeavour, wrestling with multiplicities, complexities, and tensions. In our forthcoming chapter, Claire Golledge and I (Netolicky & Golledge, forthcoming) advocate for what we call a wayfinding approach to school leadership that balances intuition with strategy, improvisation with systematisation, empathy with policy, the individual with the whole. This approach, and awareness of the multiple tensions navigated constantly by those working in schools, could be considered and engaged with by those in the field of educational change.

In the book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools (Netolicky, 2020d), I utilise my positionality as boundary spanning teacher-leader-researcher who works to bridge the gap between research and practice. The structure of the book mirrors the ways I bring a practice lens to scholarship, and a research lens to my daily work enacting theory into practice. In our upcoming Journal of Professional Capital and Community Special Issue—‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’—Trista Hollweck, Paul Campbell, and I (Hollweck et al., forthcoming) explore the identities, spaces, and tensions of what can be called pracademia. The multipart identities and multiplicitous spaces of pracademia involve simultaneous active engagement in education scholarship and practice.

Democratic educational change benefits from those operating in different educational spaces and also those operating between and across various educational arenas and communities. The pracademic whose day job is in the world of practice is free from the metrics and pressures of academia, free to engage in scholarship in some ways on their own terms, but also often in or beyond the margins of the academe. The pracademic whose day job is in a university is active in the practice of school-based education through working amongst and alongside practitioners, immersed in the work of school contexts, and engaging in scholarship ‘with’ rather than ‘to’ or ‘of’ those in schools. Often the in-between spaces involve unpaid bridging, sharing, and collaborating work.

Identity work—of pracademics, practitioners, or academics—can be part of scholarship that is a political act, edging from the margins of the academe towards the centre, in which we challenge ourselves to do “writing that matters – to us, to our communities, to our nations, to social justice, to the greater good” (Netolicky, 2017, p.101). Education theory and practice are always intertwined, but embracing the concept of pracademia in educational change is about intentionally embracing nexus and community. It is about co-creating a collective space shared by teachers, school leaders, scholars, policymakers, political advisors, and community members. It is about working within and across education spaces, and working together.

LtC: In some of your recent work regarding the future of education in a Post-COVID world, you speak to both the possibilities for a return to some practices and change for others. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice in the field, in educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students alike to create, as you say, reform for good?    

DN: Injustices and deficiencies in our education and social systems are being revealed during the pandemic. Often multiple and intersecting disparities such as racial, gendered, socioeconomic, and cultural inequities became evident in, for example: the significantly increased risk to women’s employment and livelihoods compared to men’s; and the increased risk of mortality from COVID-19 of Indigenous Australians, ethnic minority groups in the UK, and Black Americans, as compared to their White counterparts. The pandemic also accelerated educational change, forcing innovation and introspection in education (Netolicky, 2020b). The person—child, student, teacher, leader—has come into sharper focus. Care and collaboration rose to the top of the priority list in education (Doucet et al., 2020), as did increasingly flexible ‘whole-person’ approaches to judging student success and providing student pathways for future success. What has receded is a focus on standardised testing as education systems are forced to reflect on how the apparent success of education is measured, and negative impacts of cultures of competition, surveillance, and hyperaccountabilities. While tertiary entrance examinations went ahead in Australia in 2020, alternate admissions pathways were also introduced by Universities. These include calculation of a predicted Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) based on students’ Year 11 results, and a Special Tertiary Admissions Test available to all students including those studying vocational pathways at school. In the UK, examinations (GCSE, A-Level, Scottish Highers, and Scottish Advanced Highers) were cancelled in 2020 and 2021, replaced with aggregated teacher-assessed grades that currently form the basis of UCAS applications. US universities have varying admissions policies, but most are currently ‘test-optional’ for a year or more (some permanently), meaning applicants do not have to sit the SAT or ACT standardised college admissions test. Rather, US applicants are submitting portfolios of achievements, employment, and community involvement to demonstrate their readiness for university. Universities leading flexible admissions criteria and processes (including portfolio entry, virtual tours, and online interviews) may help to change the focus of schools towards preparing students for beyond school, rather than on succeeding in examinations at the end of school. These increasing flexibilities may also go some way to democratising the university admissions process for marginalised groups.

During periods of remote learning, educators asked themselves: (1) What is it that we’ve missed during remote education that we want to bring back to schooling and education?; and (2) What is it that has been removed that we do not want to return to? (Netolicky, 2020c). Underpinning these questions are what we—those of us working, teaching, and leading each day in schools and universities—have come to realise are paramount: health and wellbeing, the importance of learning for all students regardless of circumstance, meaningful work, community, connectedness, adaptability, and resilience. We learned that governments, education systems, and schools need strong, clear leadership that can respond to crises with immediacy while considering the long-term view and the needs of the specific community. We learned that technologies can support teaching, learning, collaborating, and developing student autonomy, but cannot replace the connection, engagement, and learning that is possible when we are face to face. We learned that schools are more than places of learning. They are sites of community, relationships, society, values, and care. They also serve the practical, economic function of looking after children while parents go to work.

“We learned that schools are more than places of learning. They are sites of community, relationships, society, values, and care.”

Teachers have missed seeing students in person, and the complex and important non-verbal communication of the classroom, in which the teacher can ‘read the room’, see how each young person is approaching the day and the lesson, re-engage a disengaged student, or re-teach a concept to those who aren’t getting it. Students have missed school as a place where they see their friends and their teachers. What we would benefit from continuing to develop are:

  • Curricula in which students are active agents;
  • Use of a range of technologies to enhance learning, collaboration, and communication, and to empower students in their learning;
  • The declining focus on high-stakes testing and cultures of competition between schools and education systems, replacing this with a focus on multiple pathways to success and flexible alternatives that address the needs of students and their families; and
  • Providing trust, support, and resourcing to the teaching profession so that educators can get on with the complex work of serving their communities.

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?    

DN: Transformational professional learning— “learning that shifts beliefs, and thereby behaviours, of professionals” (Netolicky, 2020d, p.18)—has the capacity to support schools and school systems to successfully propel fruitful educational change. I argue (Netolicky, 2020d) for professional learning for those working in schools that:

  • Is targeted and ongoing;
  • Is driven by educational (not corporate or political) agendas;
  • Considers identity and humanity, providing high support and high challenge; 
  • Offers voice, choice, and agency to the adult learner; 
  • Pays close attention to context, culture, and relationships, avoiding one-size-fits-most models; 
  • Enables collaboration that is rigorous, purposeful, sometimes uncomfortable, and allows respectful disagreement; 
  • Broadens our definition of professional learning beyond courses or conferences; and  
  • Invests time, money, and resources in the learning of teachers and school leaders. 

Those in the field of educational change can support practitioners through teacher training, partnerships, sharing their scholarship broadly, and supporting practitioners undertaking post-graduate study. In my literature class, we are currently studying Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and discussing the ways in which this 1985 novel continues to resonate with modern readers, dealing as it does with inequities; misuse of power to protect the needs of a few; unjust class structures; oppression due to gender, sexuality, race, and class; and reduction of individual freedoms with increased government control in the name of a ‘greater good’ (something we have experienced during the pandemic). One of the characters talks about the intention of the novel’s distressing dystopian reality as intended to be “better” but notes that “better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.” We need education that is good for all, not just good for some. It is imperative that we continue to consider the very purpose of education, and how we invest in what we value. I often talk in my workplace about changing culture and building trust ‘one conversation at a time’. We all have a responsibility to change education for the better for all students, one conversation, policy, study, action, paper, citation, webinar, social media post, at a time. Scholars can ensure that they are speaking not only to one another, but to communities, governments, and education professionals. We can communicate our scholarly work through accessible channels (such as open access, and popular, online, or social media) so that it is available to those working in schools.

Those working with, and alongside, schools and school systems can do so with an understanding of the realities of the lived experiences of school-based educators, including: intensification of workload; increasing job complexity; and escalating emotional stresses resulting from family and social issues impacting students such as violence, financial difficulties, discrimination, and mental health. We can resist the short termism of fast policy change that follows election cycles, in which politicians present education policy quick fixes or simplistic solutions to win votes, rather than playing the long game of education. We can all advocate for sustained educational change focused on common good and long-term improvements. We can challenge deficit media narratives around teaching and schools when they are accused of ‘failing’ or ‘falling behind’ and instead work to instil trust in, offer alternate narratives of, and engage in scholarship that shares the voices and complexities of, the teaching and school leadership profession.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

DN: One exciting thing I see happening in the field of educational change is the global, networked approach fortified and amplified by the pandemic. Collaboration—local, national, and global collaboration that is meaningful, transparent, productive, and focused on the shared moral purpose of the greater good for all—is key to a positive future. Now, more than ever, we are talking, researching, and working together, across societies, countries, systems, sectors, and fields, to co-design solutions to injustice, inequity, and discriminatory structures and practices.

An ongoing development in educational change and other fields is an increasing diversity of voices, perspectives, and representations. As Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson, and I noted in Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education (Netolicky et al., 2019), and as is evident in my experience as editor of two books aiming to share diverse perspectives, this is not easy to achieve. It is often those with important perspectives to offer—from a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, genders, sexualities, classes, belief systems, and (dis)abilities—who are least able to contribute, for a range of complex reasons. It remains important for all scholars, educational leaders, and organisers of conferences and events, to consider who is cited, who is invited, and who is excluded, and to pursue the ongoing work of diversity and inclusion. We need to ask ourselves what behaviours and language we accept without challenge. We need to speak against microaggressions in our own professional and personal contexts. We need to consider how measurements of educational ‘excellence’ might perpetuate discrimination, favouring some and disadvantaging others. What do our measures measure, and what do our methods of research reinforce?

We need to seek out and seek to understand Indigenous and non-Western knowledges, ways of knowing, theories, and theorists. Including diverse cultural positions and approaches to research moves from problematising and othering cultural minorities, to expanding perspectives and the current knowledge base (Shay, 2019). What is exciting is the increasing valuing, reclaiming, and development of Indigenous research methodologies. Australian examples include Melitta Hogarth’s Indigenous Critical Discourse Analysis (Hogarth, 2017, 2018) and Marnee Shay’s Collaborative Yarning Methodology (Shay, 2019). Drawing simultaneously on Indigenous and Western methodologies—learning, working, and researching at ‘the interface’ (Ryder et al., 2020)—can challenge societal norms (Hogarth, 2017) and lead to innovation, the formation of new knowledge, and the development of culturally safe methodologies (Ryder et al., 2020). It is this work at the boundary, the interface, or the nexus that offers possibilities, as it means not binary thinking but both/and thinking in which new spaces, communities, and knowledges are formed, that can move educational change forward, while honouring and acknowledging its past.

References

Barr, A., Gillard, J., Firth, V., Scrymgour, M., Welford, R., Lomax-Smith, J., Bartlett, D., Pike, B., & Constable, E. (2008). Melbourne declaration on educational goals for young Australians. Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs.

Doucet, A., Netolicky, D., Timmers, K., & Tuscano, F. J. (2020). Thinking about Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic: An Independent Report on Approaches to Distance Learning During COVID19 School Closures. Education International & UNESCO.

Education Council. (2019). Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. Carlton South, Victoria: Education Services Australia.

Hameed, S., Shay, M., & Miller, J. (forthcoming). “Deadly leadership” in the pursuit of Indigenous education excellence. In D. M. Netolicky (Ed.), Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Routledge.

Hogarth, M. (2017). Speaking back to the deficit discourses: A theoretical and methodological approach. The Australian Educational Researcher44(1), 21-34.

Hogarth, M. D. (2018). Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy. (Doctoral dissertation, Queensland University of Technology).

Hollweck, T., Campbell, P., & Netolicky, D.  M. (forthcoming). Defining and exploring pracademia: Identity, community, and engagement. Journal of Professional Capital and Community.

Netolicky, D. M. (2017). Cyborgs, desiring-machines, bodies without organs, and Westworld: Interrogating academic writing and scholarly identityKOME 5(1), pp. 91-103.

Netolicky, D. M. (2019). Elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders in educational research, practice, and policymaking. In D. M. Netolicky, J. Andrews, & C. Paterson (Eds.) Flip the System Australia: What matters in education. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020a). Being, becoming and questioning the school leader: An autoethnographic exploration of a woman in the middle. In R. Niesche & A. Heffernan (Eds.) Theorising Identity and Subjectivity in Educational Leadership Research, pp. 111-125. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020b). Leading from Disruption to ‘Next Normal’ in Education. In Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Thoughts and Responses from Education’s Frontline During COVID-19 (e-book). World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in partnership with Salzburg Global Seminar.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020c). School leadership during a pandemic: Navigating tensionsJournal of Professional Capital and Community5(3/4), 391-395.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020d). Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (Ed.). (forthcoming). Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M., Andrews, J., & Paterson, C. (Eds.). (2019). Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M., & Golledge, C. (forthcoming). Wayfinding: Navigating complexity for sustainable school leadership. In D. M. Netolicky (Ed.), Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Routledge.

Ryder, C., Mackean, T., Coombs, J., Williams, H., Hunter, K., Holland, A. J. A., & Ivers, R. Q. (2020). Indigenous research methodology – weaving a research interface. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 23(3), 255-267. 

Shay, M. (2019). Extending the yarning yarn: collaborative yarning methodology for ethical Indigenist education research. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 1-9.

ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.  Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung KimGraduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.

Another review of Australian initial teacher education

A review of Australian initial teacher education (ITE) has been launched today by Education Minister Alan Tudge (the sixth review since 2014). The Minister tweeted that this review “is the most critical element of our target to return Australia to the top group of education nations globally by 2030”, but with about 300,000 Australian teachers currently teaching in Australian schools, this move looks like a political distraction designed to provide a seemingly simplistic solution to ‘fix’ an apparent education problem in which Australian education is described as ‘falling behind’ with ‘standards slipping’.

The quality of teaching is cited in the Minister’s media release as “the most critical element towards lifting standards” and “the most important in-school factor influencing student achievement”. The important part of this statement is that the quality of teaching is generally accepted as the most important SCHOOL-BASED factor influencing student learning and achievement, but is eclipsed by social, cultural and economic factors outside a school’s control.

What is needed is to provide teachers with trust, support, resourcing, time and professional learning. The Gonski 2.0 report, the Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, the Gallop Inquiry, and Monash University’s Social Cohesion in Victorian Schools Report, all point to teacher and school leader workload intensification, increasing complexity of roles and the work of schools, erosion of wellbeing, and the need for time for meaningful collaboration, planning, assessment, and monitoring of student progress. The pandemic has revealed that what is needed in our schools and school systems is addressing of systemic inequities, and a considered focus on and investment in wellbeing of students, teachers and school leaders, alongside a focus on learning for all.

While it is a longer and more difficult game to address systemic inequities and the work of the teaching profession (than to form a panel of four people to provide recommendations on teacher training), it is work that needs to be done. If the government wants the ‘best and brightest’ in the teaching profession, then the profession itself needs to be trusted, valued, and attractive to those entering ITE.

Deepening the discussion of pracademia in education

I have previously asked whether pracademia is worth exploring, and it is a discussion into which I find myself repeatedly drawn. At last year’s (in person!) International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) conference, I was part of a symposium on pracademia with Trista Hollweck, Paul Campbell, Leyton Schnellert, and Danette Parsley. That symposium resulted in plenty of stories shared from individuals, and ongoing discussions about the what, how, and why of pracademia. This year, during the 2021 ICSEI virtual conference, I was part of another symposium on pracademia with Trista Hollweck, Paul Campbell, Sharon Friesen, Rania Sawalhi, and Carol Campbell.

In our symposium presentation–‘Pracademia in education: Identity, community and engagement’–Trista Hollweck, Paul Campbell, and I explored some of our thinking around the notion of pracademia. You can watch the 14 minute video of our single presentation above. We begin with Derek Walker’s (2010) definition of pracademics as “boundary spanners who live in the thinking world of observing, reflection, questioning, criticism, and seeking clarity while also living in the action world of pragmatic practice, doing, experiencing, and coping”, and go on to articulate our own definition of pracademia as space between and across practice and academia. A pracademic is someone simultaneously active in the worlds of practice (e.g. work in schools or policy making) and the academy (e.g. university membership and active scholarship).

During the symposium, Hannah Bidjlsma  asked where pracademics are employed (or as Trista paraphrased: ‘Where do pracademics live?’). Often the pracademic has their primary employment in one of these spaces, and either works voluntarily or in a smaller-scale capacity in the other space. For example, Trista, Paul, and I are active in school, university, and advisory board spaces, but much of our boundary spanning work is unpaid work that we do because we are driven by moral purpose, professional meaning, and our sense of belongingness and community. To explain what this can look and feel like, in my speech at the 2020 ICSEI conference, I said:

My voice comes from within the education system, yet as a pracademic, I am bestride both the practitioner world of schools, and the scholarly world of research. Alongside my full-time school day job, I am an adjunct at a university. My dual roles inform one another and give me a perspective quite different from those who advise from the sidelines. I am firmly embedded in what it feels like to be a cog in the school reform wheel. What I do every day in my lessons, meetings, professional conversations, and operational and strategic work, influences how I interpret education research. And the research I read and undertake influences my understanding of my daily work at school. In these ways I operate as a bridge betwixt and between research and practice.

An interesting development has recently been that two of we presenters have recently won awards for our scholarship, despite our primary roles being in schools. Paul won the 2021 Innovation Award (International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement and the Journal of Professional Capital and Community) for his study ‘Reconceptualising Collaboration in the context of Crisis Response and Systemic Improvement’. I won the 2021 American Educational Research Association Educational Change Emerging Scholar Award and the 2021 Michael Fullan Emerging Scholar in Professional Capital and Community Award. These awards indicate that those who work between and across the fields of practice and academia can potentially have meaningful impact on and across spaces.

Identity is as a key part of considering pracademia. During our recent symposium, Sharon Friesen talked about the pracademic as estranged ‘trickster’ who operates in the liminal space, between scholarship and practice, and who also questions and challenges both spaces. Rania Sawalhi shared in her presentation that her research found pracademics saw themselves as the ‘missing link’ between practice and scholarship. In our symposium presentation, Trista, Paul, and I explore pracademia as bridge, as mobius strip, and as the process of ‘breaking the wheel’. These metaphors reflect a few emerging themes – that pracademia is a complex space of the transitional, the chameleonic, the in-between, and the critical. Words that continue to emerge for me are duality, multiplicity, fluidity, and liminality.

In our paper for the Special Issue that Trista, Paul, and I are editing for the Journal of Professional Capital and Community—‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’—we develop our thinking further as we conceptualise pracademia, especially for the field of education. The more we explore it ourselves, and the more people reach out to us to talk about their own experiences, thinking, and research data, the more I see pracademia is as an emerging concept, space, and identity in education, with the potential to knit together the varied values, languages, reward systems, identities, and work of educators in policy, in schools, in universities, and across systems and spaces.

Flipping the system – Where are we now?

Recently I had the pleasure of collaborating with interstate colleagues Cameron Paterson and Jon Andrews in a webinar for the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA), in which we explored the notion of flipping the education system.

‘Flip the System’ is part of a movement, as Cameron would say, and of a series of books, including the following.

  • Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up (Evers & Kneyber, 2016);
  • Flip the System: Förändra Skolan från Grunden (Kornhall, Evers, & Kneyber, 2017);
  • Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto, (Rycroft-Smith & Dutaut, 2018);
  • Our book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education (Netolicky, Andrews, & Paterson, 2019); and most recently
  • Flip the System US: How Teachers Can Transform Education and Save Democracy (Soskil, 2021).

The books deal with issues around teacher agency, voice and professionalism; and democratising education and addressing inequity.

During the ACSA webinar in February, we editors of the Australian book reflected on how our thinking around flipping the system has changed or stayed the same in the last couple of years, especially in light of recent contextual factors such as the global COVID-19 pandemic and the NSW Gallop Inquiry into the work of teachers and principals and how it has changed since 2004.

In my ‘presentation’ piece during the webinar (from minutes 34-43), I reflected on the neoliberal education agenda to which we were responding as we worked on the Australian book in 2017 and 2018. We were writing and editing the book amidst the rise of the idea of ‘teacher quality’ and (often dubious, quantitative and punitive) ways of attempting to measure that nebulous ‘quality’. The education discourse was rife with talk and policy around school effectiveness, improvement, standards, accountabilities, surveillance, competition, and standardised testing. Teachers were teaching and school leaders were leading amidst a culture of audit and measurement, a distrust of teachers and schools, and an obsession with ‘what works’ (usually without any nuance around what might work where, for whom, and under what conditions). Simplistic, seductive ‘silver bullet’ solutions and hierarchical league tables (of teaching strategies or of schools or school systems) were all the rage in education. My chapter in the book was on teacher identity and teacher voice. It argued for elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders in educational research, practice, and policymaking.

Fast forward to 2021, and the pandemic is disrupting education along with lives, families, societies, economies, and industries. Citizens have submitted to increasing government control. From policymaking to educating, we’ve been building the plane while flying it. Sometimes governments and education leaders have got it right, and sometimes not. Some challenges have arisen in education and some issues have come into sharper relief.

There are also opportunities emerging, such as strengthened global networks of educators working and learning together. Since we edited Flip the System Australia some ideas are becoming more prominent in education, as well as in other fields: identity, wellbeing integrated with learning, and belonging.

Some ideas around the essence of flipping the education system remain the same. We should continue to focus on what matters over what works, on the greater good over individual good, on strengthening teacher voice and agency, and on democracy and equity. We should continue to engage with education as a human endeavour.

You can view my slides above and watch the video via this link.

Challenge is a choice: IWD 2021

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day (IWD) and this year’s theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’, focused on calling out gender bias and celebrating women’s achievements. It is about both speaking up when things are not ok, and seeking out a multiplicity of voices and perspectives, especially those often marginalised, ignored, or unrecognised.

In Australia, activist and advocate for survivors of sexual assault Grace Tame was named Australian of the Year in January. Yet the days leading up to IWD 2021 have been filled with despair and controversy around continuing cultures of misogyny and violence against women. Two Australian cabinet ministers are currently facing allegations of sexual assault, and a petition calling for earlier sexual consent education in schools led to thousands of testimonials of teenage experiences of sexual assault.

I continue to be surprised when panels continue to feature groups of mostly-male, mostly-white speakers, thereby excluding the voices of those less prominent and less privileged. The teaching and school leadership professions in Australia remain far from representative of our population’s gender and cultural diversity. Indigenous Australians are particularly under-represented and Indigenous students are especially disadvantaged by our systems and structures.

How do we ensure that diverse voices, and voices of those not in positions of power, are heard and listened to? How can we each be a part of a world where equity, diversity and inclusion are the norm rather than the exception?

Women authors in Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership

One thing we can do is to work towards diverse representation. The upcoming book I have had the absolute pleasure of editing – Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Democracy – includes 15 exceptional chapter contributions from 25 authors from the UK, USA, South America, Canada, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East. 19 of those 25 authors are women. This IWD I’d like to celebrate and acknowledge those women: Pat Thomson, Christine Grice, Claire Golledge, Cecilia Azorín, Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Asmaa Al-Fadala, Suraiya Hameed, Marnee Shay, Jodie Miller, Vivienne Porritt, Karen Edge, Carol Campbell, Eugenie Samier, Liliana Mularczyk, Annie Kidder, Eloise Tan, and Christine Corso. I am incredibly proud to have worked alongside all of the book’s authors. The book’s representation isn’t perfect or comprehensive, but it is part of the ‘working towards’.

In Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson and I wrote in the conclusion that “flipping the education system is a vision for … a world in which the privileged few do not eclipse or speak for those pushed to the margins.” We asserted the following.

“Ultimately, education is a political act. We are all activists. We have no other choice. With this comes a responsibility to ensure that we are fairly representing the views, needs and aspirations of our communities rather than the prolific and vociferous few having their views exposed to politicians, sculpting the debate that may well be at odds with those who need representation the most.”

Actually, our every micro action and inaction is a political act. We decide when we look and when we look away. Who we invite. To whom we listen. Whose voices we amplify. Who we ignore. Who we cite. Who we celebrate. Who we oppose. Who we select. Who we defy. When we choose to speak or and when we decide to stay silent.

Choosing to challenge means challenging ourselves as well as others. It is on each and every one of us to choose to think deliberately, thoughtfully, and self-critically about how we can contribute to a world that is equitable for all, and in which a diverse range of voices are heard, even and especially if those voices are different to our own.

NEW BOOK KLAXON: Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership

“The work of an educator has never been challenged the way it is today. Leadership in education during current political turmoil, economic uncertainty, and global health crisis may sound like a mission impossible. But wait, this future-focused volume comes to the rescue for educational leaders from classrooms to ministerial cabinets. It is a must-read for anyone hoping to understand what it is to be a leader in the post-pandemic world.”

Pasi Sahlberg – Professor of Education Policy, The University of New South Wales and author of Finnish Lessons 3.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland

I am beyond thrilled to announce the soon-to-be-released book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Democracy, an exciting edited collection of contributions by outstanding authors in the field of educational leadership.

As its title suggests, this book presents future alternatives in the educational leadership space. Its contributions consider the history of the field of educational leadership, what the reality of educational leadership is right now, and importantly, what is needed in educational leadership next.

This book offers provocations for what’s now and what’s next in educational leadership, simultaneously bringing the field both back to its basics—of equity, democracy, humanity, and education for all—and forward to productive, innovative, and necessary possibilities. Written during the pandemic reality of 2020, this collection shares the global voices and expertise of prominent and emerging leaders, scholars, and practitioners in education from the UK, USA, South America, Canada, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East. Authors engage with the complexities and uncertainties of leading in education. They examine research, reflections, and real stories from which school leaders, education system leaders, policymakers, and researchers in the field of educational leadership, can learn, and in which they will find honesty, authority, and inspiration to guide the future of the field. The new perspectives and hopeful alternatives presented in this outstanding book are essential to researchers, school leaders, policymakers, and are key to advancing education into positive and democratic futures.

I have edited this outstanding volume and am incredible grateful to the book’s contributors for their thought-provoking, important chapters, written during the tumult of 2020, often during rolling lockdowns, university and school closures and reopenings, remote teaching, educational upheaval, fast policy, anxiety, uncertainty, and crises.

Thank you to Beatriz Pont for writing the Foreword and to Professors Yong Zhao, Jane Wilkinson, Pasi Sahlberg and Ellie Drago-Severson for their endorsements of the book. Yong Zhao describes it as “a fantastic collection of brilliant voicesa much-needed hopeful volume“. Jane Wilkinson calls it a “timely and important book” providing “a rich and diverse set of insights into the past, present, and potential future of educational leadership“. Ellie Drago-Severson says it is “a treasure trove of insights and wisdom to help shift paradigms in educational leadership“. Pasi Sahlberg asserts that the book is a “future-focused volume” that “comes to the rescue for educational leaders from classrooms to ministerial cabinets” and “a must-read for anyone hoping to understand what it is to be a leader in the post-pandemic world.

I can’t wait until the book is published. In the meantime, check the link to the book (currently available for pre-order and on sale) and the Table of Contents below for more details.

Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Table of Contents

  • Foreword. Beatriz Pont
  • Introduction: What’s now and what’s next in educational leadership. Deborah M. Netolicky

Section I: Knowledge and Theory of Educational Leadership

1. Back to the future: Recuperating educational administration? Pat Thomson

2. Leading forward by salvaging for the future. Christine Grice

3. Wayfinding: Navigating complexity for sustainable school leadership. Deborah M. Netolicky and Claire Golledge

4. Leading in context: Lessons from Nuance. Michael Fullan

5. Distributed leadership and networking: Exploring the evidence base. Cecilia Azorín, Alma Harris, and Michelle Jones

Section 2: Diversity and Inclusion in Educational Leadership

6. Multilevel distributed leadership: From why to how. Asmaa Alfadala, Richard Paquin Morel, and James P. Spillane

7. “Deadly leadership” in the pursuit of Indigenous education excellence. Suraiya Hameed, Marnee Shay, and Jodie Miller

8. Leadership, identity, and intersectionality. Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley

9. Women as leaders in education: What works and what must we improve? Vivienne Porritt

10. A tale of two leaders: Reflecting on senior co-leadership in higher education. Karen Edge

Section 3: Systems and Structures for Educational Leadership

11. Leading large-scale educational change in the 21st Century: Educational leadership pre-, during, and post-pandemic. Carol Campbell

12. Educational administration’s Paradises Lost: A flâneur/se stroll through the futures past. Eugenie A. Samier

13. Schools as ecosystems of leadership: Leading by all and for all. Liliana Mularczyk

14. Leading to liberate learning: Educational change meets social movements. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo

15. What could education leadership look like outside the system? Annie Kidder, Eloise Tan, and Christine Corso

  • Conclusion: Educational leadership for all. Deborah M. Netolicky
Authors of Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership

Staff wellbeing: Time and money

source: @nikkotations at unsplash.com

In 2019 I blogged about the increasing concerns about teacher and school leader wellbeing. I’ve lately been thinking a lot about wellbeing in education. It was brought into stark focus during the pandemic reality of 2020. I wrote in this journal 2020 article in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community that:

At this time more than ever, we must consider humans before outcomes, students before results and wellbeing before learning.

I discussed wellbeing in this 2020 contribution for the special edition e-book Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Responses from education’s frontline during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, published by the World Innovation Summit for Education, Salzburg Global Seminar and the Diplomatic Courier. In it, I stated the following.

We need to put safety, health, and wellbeing before formal education, curriculum, pedagogy, and especially assessment. Community, connectedness and relationships need to be at the forefront of education decisions and practices. This is a time to focus first on the humanity in education, from a position of seeking to understand and accommodate for the complex circumstances of those in our communities.

Wellbeing continues to become a hotter and hotter topic in education.

Wellbeing is noted as part of a ‘right driver’ in Michael Fullan’s new paper ‘The right drivers for whole system success’ in which he argues that wellbeing and learning are inextricably integrated into a foundation based on equity, knowledge, engagement and connection to the world. The Association of Independent Schools of NSW has just launched a 12-18 month program on navigating whole school wellbeing. This week the Gallop Inquiry released its findings around the complexity and workload intensification of teaching, and the need for teachers to have more time to plan, collaborate, and monitor student learning. Ask any teacher what they need more of and the answer will be: time!

Yesterday, a UK educator tweeted about the use of school funds to send care packages to staff while they are in lockdown and working from home. A long thread of replies ensued, with a range of responses from ‘school leadership do/should pay for gifts and wellbeing initiatives for staff out of their own pockets’ to ‘this is improper use of school funds’ and ‘staff wellbeing is more than buying treats’. Many tweeters invoked the Nolan Principles, suggesting that buying food or paying for things that might be considered wellbeing initiatives for staff constituted unethical or dishonest use of school funds, or that every dollar or pound spent in a school needs to have a direct impact on student outcomes.

In my view (although it is something most of us do or have done), teachers shouldn’t be expected to buy classroom materials out of their wages, nor should school leaders have to provide staff wellbeing initiatives out of their own salaries. Teaching is a caring profession, but the trope of the hero teacher who sacrifices their own needs, money and health for the good of their students is unhelpful. Educators need to give themselves permission to fit their own oxygen masks first, so that they can serve others. Schools should be able to consider ways in which they can take care of their staff, appropriate to their own budget and context. Looking after staff takes time and money. A school leader’s time spent checking in with a staff member; a thank you card; tea and coffee in the staff room; providing relief cover for a teacher’s lesson so they can collaborate with colleagues, attend a course or address a personal matter; a morning tea; the flu (or coronavirus!) vaccine; investing in professional learning. At what point does spending money on staff and on developing the wider culture of a school, become controversial?

Wellbeing is one of the pillars of my school’s new strategic plan, so we are having robust discussions about how to support the wellbeing of all in our community, and about what being well really means. Our discussions are about culture, feel, belonging, workload, teamness, a sense of purpose and togetherness. Wellbeing and learning are the foundation of my school’s framework for our K-12 learners to explicitly engage with those attributes found to be those of people who continue to learn and engage in meaningful work throughout their lives.

Wellbeing (as well as learning and teaching) is at the heart of our new staff development suite, which is based in Martin Seligman’s PERMA framework, as a way to support staff’s (P) positive emotions, (E) engagement in valuable work, (R) rewarding relationships, (M) meaning in their work, and (A) achievement and feeling of accomplishment. The suite of staff development options is based not on evaluation and surveillance, but on a sense of belonging, authentic connectedness, vibrant professional community, purposeful collaboration, central purpose, and meaningful feedback. It is focused on the voice, choice, ownership and agency of staff. It takes time and investment in people. Professional learning, too, costs money, and is part of improving student outcomes and teacher expertise, but also about wellbeing through valuing and growing staff, and supporting them to reach their goals.

When it comes to staff wellbeing, as I noted in the above recent blog post,

Staff wellbeing is more than free food and fitness classes, although these can be nice to have. Nurturing staff wellbeing might take various forms, such as providing initiatives that support staff health, modelling sustainable work-life behaviours, maintaining predictable timelines, ensuring clear policies and procedures, streamlining communication, considering workload issues, ensuring a range of internal and external support mechanisms are available for staff, recognising staff efforts, celebrating staff achievements, leading with empathy, and making decisions with the needs of staff in mind.

Trust, too, is key to the wellbeing of the teaching profession. Schools need to cultivate cultures of trust. Teachers need to be trusted by parents, the media, and government. Trusting teachers to be the professional experts they are allows teachers to focus on their core business of teaching and supporting the students in their care. Looking after staff is key to retaining them within positive cultures of people working together for the good of their community. Nuanced attention to staff wellbeing takes intentionality, thoughtfulness, a framework for decision making, time, and often money.

Distance Learning Round 3: Applying what we’ve learned

Screenshot from today’s video lesson.

In Western Australia we have been lucky that our periods of COVID-19-related lockdown or distance learning have been counted in weeks, not months. In fact, until the weekend, we had gone almost ten months with no community transmission of coronavirus.

Monday was to be the first day of the academic year for most students in Western Australia, but as 2020 taught us, COVID-19 disruption can strike at any time and change circumstances. One hotel quarantine case of the B117 variant of the novel coronavirus, and Perth was put into a five-day lockdown at 6pm on Sunday night, hours before the first day of school was due to begin. The Premier’s announcement came at lunchtime Sunday, giving school leaders just enough time to meet to plan the response, organise communications, and open schools so that staff could drop in before lockdown commenced to collect anything they might need for remote teaching.

Luckily, this was unlike the announcement in April last year that pressured schools and teachers with significant extra work to begin a hybrid learning environment with students learning from home and from school, simultaneously. Rather, what was announced was a one-week extension of the school holidays. Schools did not need to open for essential workers, nor did they have to provide resources for learning from home. Many independent schools had, however, already started their school years, so student lockers were filled with books and boarders had arrived at boarding houses. Other schools, having not started the school year, had IT devices and books not yet distributed to students.

Government schools are honouring the Monday to Friday extension of the holiday break. Some independent schools launched into remote learning from Tuesday or Wednesday for all students K-12. At my school, we took a balanced approach. The academic year for our K-10 students was postponed for the week, with teachers spending their time at home preparing lessons for Week 2, possibly to be delivered using distance learning if the lockdown is extended due to testing or case numbers. After two days of teacher preparation (of remote lesson plans, instructional videos, Teams functionalities and resources), teaching of courses in Years 11 and 12 began today (Wednesday) via distance learning.

This lockdown and period of remote learning feels different to the scramble in March last year. Even then, we were considered and prepared in our approach. In 2020, in the most isolated city in the world, we had seen the virus coming across the globe like a tidal wave we knew would reach our shores. But it was still a case of building the plane while flying it, and finding ways to listen to our community to figure out what was working well and what could be improved. This time our plan had been refined by deep reflection on lessons learned from our last two rounds of distance learning, and we continued to base our decisions on the following key principles.

  • The wellbeing of all in our community, including students, families and staff. We did not want to rush into providing a home learning scenario for all students as families and teachers were busy preparing their households for the lockdown. Parents and teachers were organising to work from home, while having their children at home.
  • Clear and streamlined communication. Everyone was consuming and coming to terms with fast-changing news, a new suite of rules and restrictions. A bombardment of communication from the school, or from teachers about remote learning, was not what our community needed on top of the firehose of information they were processing. We ensured clear communication through a couple of key channels. Our All Staff Microsoft Team allowed for detailed, dynamic communication for and among staff.
  • Clarity of plan. In 2020, while learning in Western Australian schools returned to face to face, the leadership team continued to iterate and improve the distance learning model for what we thought might be a ‘next time’. That plan—what we called Distance Learning 3.0, as well as previous emergency response planning—made Sunday’s planning much easier. We knew what was likely to work, and we could swiftly tweak the plan for the current scenario and for what is most appropriate for our community, based on a range of previous feedback.
  • Collaboration. It has been heartening to see the collaboration between staff in our virtual spaces this week. Staff are creating how-to videos for one another, sharing resources, and reaching out. There is an incredible and uplifting sense of solidarity and staff community, even when a bushfire emergency was added to this week’s lockdown scenario.

In the last year, we’ve learned a lot in education about how to bring humanity together with precision of instruction and collaborative technologies so that remote learning is effective, reassuring and provides connectedness. Today, on our first day of distance learning with Year 11 and 12 students, there has been tremendous uptake and engagement by students. I have been buoyed by feedback from teachers, parents and students, and energised by interactions with my own class and their openness to beginning our course at a distance.

Going slowly, carefully, and with clarity in our response to the latest lockdown has allayed overwhelm and anxiety. It has given time, space and resources for teachers to design remote education for their students that is excellent, equitable and realistic for the context in which we find ourselves. Our approach balances best practice in remote teaching and learning with safeguarding the wellbeing of students, families and staff. We have been able to respond realistically, responsibly and with agility to changes in circumstance, and will continue to do so. With any luck, our five-day lockdown will end after five days.

Staff development and wellbeing

Source: @suju pixabay.com

Wellbeing is an area in schools that is becoming increasingly important, including the wellbeing of staff. Being well, and being an organisation that supports staff to be well, is complex. This is especially true in schools where work comes in intense, relentless waves, and caring for others can deplete staff resources for looking after themselves.

Staff wellbeing is more than free food and fitness classes, although these can be nice to have. Nurturing staff wellbeing might take various forms, such as providing initiatives that support staff health, modelling sustainable work-life behaviours, maintaining predictable timelines, ensuring clear policies and procedures, streamlining communication, considering workload issues, ensuring a range of internal and external support mechanisms are available for staff, recognising staff efforts, celebrating staff achievements, leading with empathy, and making decisions with the needs of staff in mind.

Meaningful work, a sense of community, shared values, and a feeling of ‘fit’, are also important. Investing in staff professional learning, valuing staff by supporting them in pursuing their own goals, and working to develop staff sense of belonging to community, are ways to foster staff wellbeing. We feel buoyed when we feel that through our work we are part of something bigger than ourselves and that we are making a positive difference beyond ourselves. We want to know that what we do matters. And we want to be able to contribute professionally without eroding our own wellbeing or burning out.

Collaborative, vibrant cultures of trust allow staff to flourish. I have often quoted an excerpt from Susan Rosenholtz’s 1991 book Teachers’ workplace: The social organisation of schools. She describes educators in effective schools as “clumped together in a critical mass, like uranium fuel rods in a reactor” (p. 208). I love to imagine a school’s staff as a mass of fuel rods, huddled together and buzzing with an energy that feeds the group, creating fission that results in a chain reaction of positive changes rippling through the organisation.

Somehow, in 2020, in my teaching and learning portfolio at my school, we managed to review and redesign our student school reports, craft a Teaching and Learning Philosophy, and develop Learner Attributes that describe the qualities of lifelong learners that we aim to cultivate in our students. All while working with Executive and Council to finalise the school Strategic Plan. In addition, we managed to develop a refreshed staff development model, which I am thrilled to launch with staff this week as they return for the new academic year.

Importantly, the staff development model has emerged out of collaboration and consultation with staff in all areas of the school, in all sorts of roles (from teaching to administration), from multiple faculties and multiple year levels. The meetings I had last year with groups of staff passionate about the professional growth of themselves and others were always energising and left me filled with excitement for the possibilities. Emerging as it did from people within the school, I am pleased that the resulting model aligns with the best of what research says provides meaningful opportunities for professional learning, and with my own belief that staff development should be focused on growth and support, and on trusting and empowering staff to develop themselves in ways that are meaningful to them.

The staff development model builds on what has existed previously. Key features include:

  • Alignment with school strategy while honouring individual needs.
  • Opportunities for all staff, not only teaching staff. We are and educational organisation committed to the development of all our people, so staff development needs to reflect this.
  • A focus on staff individuality and agency. The COVA principles apply: choice, ownership, voice, and authenticity.
  • A range of development and review processes that include self-reflection against professional standards, goal setting, easy-to-generate feedback from appropriate stakeholders, and intentional, supportive conversation.
  • A suite of options from which staff can choose, with differentiation for career stage, professional interests, and vocational aspirations. These options were developed by a range of staff who know their colleagues and the school culture. I’m eager to see how they are received and taken up.

I look forward to building on the foundation of this model, and working iteratively with staff to improve it over time based on staff needs and feedback. Tomorrow, staff return and we will feel the buzz of the beginning of another year, grateful to be together (although at a physical distance appropriate for our COVID-19 times) and ready for what lies ahead.