About Dr Deborah M. Netolicky

Australian educator and PhD. My 'the édu flâneuse' blog narrates my thinking around education, teacher growth, coaching, professional learning, writing, and research. It also includes musings on creativity, travel, identity, and life. Photographs are mostly mine.

The Australian Association of Research in Education conference: Reflections on #AARE2017

snapshots of my AARE 2017, in Canberra

AARE provides a crucible for communicating, and sometimes collaborating around or arguing about, current thinking around education and education research. For many it also provides permission to stop and be immersed in their research field in a more collective way; time and space for thinking individually and together, and opportunities for challenging conversation and building lists readings. I believe that it is an important conference to consider for those like me (school-leader-teacher-and-researchers), as I explain in my reflection on the conference last year.

This was my third AARE.

In 2015 I presented in what was then the Narrative Inquiry SIG (now the Qualitative Research Methodologies SIG). Last year, in 2016, I made a late decision to attend the conference due to my new role at my school, so was purely a passenger in terms of the content of the conference. This year I presented twice, once in the Educational Leadership SIG and once in the Teachers’ Work and Lives SIG. The titles of these presentations have been:

  • Using extended literary metaphor and characters as analytical and conceptual tools: Creating a layered storyworld while preserving participant anonymity;
  • The Cheshire Cat: Redefining the school leader through unexpected metaphor (in a symposium titled ‘Slaying the edu-hero: Metaphors for alternative ways of leading’); and
  • What shifts the identities and practices of teachers and school leaders: Expanding notions of professional learning.

These titles reveal something of the broad but interconnected nature of my scholarly interests thus far. I have, in my presentations and conference presence, been a ‘SIG swinger’, attending sessions from multiple Special Interest Groups rather than committing to one common thread throughout the conference. Sometimes it is attending a session from well outside of my own areas that sparks in me the kernel of a way to think about something differently. Those presentations within my area help me to better understand the field and consider the place of my own work in the context of others’. As someone working in a school, attending AARE helps to keep my understanding of what’s happening in Australian education research current.

The sessions I attended this year were rich. They revealed scholarship that was rigorous, but also showed researchers grappling with the complexities of their work, and with the education world in and with which we all exist.

My own presentations were opportunities to communicate and publicly explore my scholarly work, but also to be invited by others to re-see or re-think my work. Some comments and discussion during my symposium on educational leadership challenged my symposium group to think critically about the lenses we were exploring, adopting, and playing with, in order to consider whose voices or perspectives are being omitted or marginalised in the process. We were challenged to see more clearly our own embedded socio-cultural biases and assumptions, that show themselves even when we attempt to work against them. There was also some great discussion in the individual paper session I presented in, around professional learning, teacher voice, relational trust in schools, teacher time, and school resourcing.

My reflections have been that this third experience of the AARE was the best yet, for me. But since the conference ended yesterday, I have been trying to figure out why that is.

As it is my third conference, I recognise many scholars in the conference, and this spills over into conversations over breakfast, coffee, lunch, and dinner. So the conference program (as is so often the case) is only one layer of learning, thinking, and conversing; much of the discussion happens in the in-between conference spaces. It was these liminal conference spaces that were particularly rewarding for me this time around. Between my attendance at AARE and AERA over the last few years, my academic writing, my academic collaborations, and my blog, now when I connect with delegates at AARE, people are able to engage with me about my research, my thinking, and my writing. At this conference, delegates (including early career researchers school-leader-scholar-boundary-spanners like myself, and professors) engaged me, questioned me, encouraged me, and directly challenged me. This is not about fan clubs, echo chambers, or discourse communities. It is about being in a critical community, unafraid to be critical, to push back, to resist, to trouble, to reveal, to be uncomfortable with one another.

Incidental conversations and provocative paper presentations now bubble in my mind as I turn over possibilities for future work, and questions about my reading, writing, and myself as a scholar. The AARE conference can provide space for the time and permission to think and talk about scholarship and education in a community of national and international scholars from various institutions, career stages, and -ologies. It is also a site of scholarly being, knowing, and doing.

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Building a school research culture

source: pixabay.com @ninocare

This year has been my first in a new role, the oddly titled ‘Dean of Research and Pedagogy’. I have a broad portfolio, including such things as pedagogy from PK-12 and overseeing the work of the Library, but two major aspects of the role are:

  • Building a professional learning culture of continual improvement, data generation and analysis. This includes overseeing the professional learning agenda and staff development, overseeing teacher action research projects, supporting our staff doing post-graduate study, leadership development, coaching teachers and leaders, and refining performance and growth processes.
  • Research innovation and support. This is about disseminating and building a body of research that promotes quality pedagogy and teacher improvement, executing evidence-based strategic initiatives, and working to develop a data analytics culture.

I sat down at the beginning of 2017 to map out how I was going to address these aspects of my role. What was the underlying strategy? What were the deliverables? Who were the key stakeholders? At the end of each year, how might I know I had been successful? What evidence of my own influence might I see if I was being successful in nudging the ever-nebulous school culture?

I wrote a two-year strategic plan (a working document that I revisit regularly) and put some measures for myself in place.

What follows is not my plan or those measures, but the kinds of things I have tried this year in my attempt at developing the research culture of the school.

  1. Harnessing internal and external expertise

As I explained in this recent blog post, staff development can include coaching, mentoring, consulting, courses, conferences and regular opportunities for goal setting and performance review. It includes collaborative learning experiences and those that occur over time. It includes harnessing both external and internal expertise.

This year a new initiative related to my role was called the Leadership Forum, a once-per-term cheese-and-wine event dreamt up and co-launched with the Director of Strategy. All of our school leaders, from Coaches and Year Co-ordinators to Heads of Faculty and the Executive, are invited each term to an early evening of cheese, wine, and connecting around leadership. This is an opportunity to connect the strategy of the school with the operational and relational work of our leaders.

The first Forum of the year was run by myself and the Director of Strategy, in which we took leaders through a process of reflecting upon research findings on effective school leadership, and then worked with them to set goals for themselves and their teams, aligned with the strategy of the organisation. For the second forum, we welcomed Professor Dylan Wiliam. For the third we ran a panel of three principals who spoke openly about their journeys of school leadership. And this final term, we welcomed Professor Pasi Sahlberg. This Forum provides one example of a way to engage teachers and leaders in current conversations around education, and with research and researchers.

Bringing experts into the school, and having them speak to our context, meant that their words and points connected more strongly with the people in the room. Also, staff enjoyed the collaborative experience of hearing them speak, together, so conversations have continued well after each presentation finished. Creating these kinds of crucibles of collaboration, and following up with books or articles that build upon the presentations, has been one way to nudge people’s thinking, especially when presenters are provocative or challenging.

  1. Research reports

I have published six of what I call the ‘Research Report’ to staff this year. The report is intended to provide all staff access to current thinking, research, and writing, around education. Across the year the report provides resources (from academic and theoretical, to popular and easily accessible) relevant to our specific school context, including to various sub-schools, faculties, and strategic priorities. The selected readings are a small selection rather than a comprehensive collection. Staff are encouraged to dip in and out according to their personal and professional interests.

I have been interested to note those people who have provided positive feedback about the report; many are non-teaching staff—from the Bursar to the administration staff—who have appreciated being able to immerse themselves in, or dip into, educational thinking, and have this shared in an accessible way. Making research accessible to all democratises the community and empowers everyone to have conversations around education. It has incited many corridor conversations, as well as more formal ones.

  1. Publishing on school platforms

Research is partly about communication and dissemination. In a school environment it is important that research can be made accessible for the community.

This year, on the school blog, I have written about things such as measuring success in education, professional conversations, and digital learning. In these posts I have referenced research in order to model how research can inform the thinking of educators and schools.

I was interviewed for the school podcast around the question, ‘What makes a great teacher?’, and I’ve written for and presented at other forums, in school and nationally.

Communicating in blogs, podcasts, and presentations, allows research to become alive and humanised.

  1. Keeping the staff professional reading library current

I am a card-carrying member of The Book Depository and have ordered plenty of resources for the professional reading library at school, in order to provide staff with the opportunity to engage with current research. At the end of each term, I promote a selection of books by emailing about them and placing them on a red trolley for the end-of-term staff morning tea in the Library.

I remind staff that professional reading can be counted as an informal professional learning activity under our Teacher Registration Board Professional Learning Activities Policy, so they can log it as part of their 20 professional learning hours per year for teacher registration.

  1. Keeping myself current

I could not do this role without keeping myself up to date with research. My adjunct position at a university helps to keep me current (as I have access to research literature behind the pay wall). It also allows me to do thorough literature reviews, such as those I have completed this year on digital learning and school libraries. I now have staff asking me to find current research literature for them to inform the work they are doing.

  1. Collaboration

It should go without saying that none of this happens without collaboration with a web of stakeholders. Relationships are key in this role. There’s no point me being in my office, reading away like the nerd I am, if no one is engaging with me or the work. Much of my day is spent in formal meetings or informal conversations.

One of the indicators of my success is when people seek me out, such as for individual coaching around career or professional development or a staff issue, to work with a team around a problem of practice, to generate data to gauge their impact, or to help with a Masters dissertation or PhD application.

One challenge to anyone in this kind of Research Lead role is the reality of the lives of teachers and school leaders. Educators are busy, pressed on from all angles, constantly rushing to their next class, to mark their next assignment, to jump through the next accountability hoop. Leisurely time and space to sit back and drink from the fire hose of current research literature is a fantasy. In addition, as this Deans for Impact blog post explains, teachers have deeply held sets of cultural and personal beliefs about learning and about how to best serve their students.

Engaging in research, and in discussions and explorations about research, can help teachers to interrogate those beliefs and bring together science, evidence, and systematic thinking with their praxis (wisdom of practice). We should value teachers’ lived experiences of lessons, relationships, students, and bringing content to life through pedagogy. We can also work to incrementally develop school cultures in which research becomes a part of ‘the way we do things around here’.

Thinking of New York

This blog was born out of a few of my loves: writing, teacher professional learning, and New York City. The whole reason I began to blog in 2014 was to record my thinking leading up to and during my fellowship in New York at the end of October that year.

I was reflecting this week that it had been three years since I had been in NYC, when I visited for a fellowship in which I investigated teacher professional learning, teacher evaluation, teacher development, and standards of teaching. I visited a school on the Upper East Side and one in WestchesterProfessor Ellie Drago-Severson at Columbia, Teaching Matters, and Charlotte Danielson and Cindi Tocci in Princeton.

As my Facebook memories reminded me of my 2014 trip to New York (three years ago and my third visit), news came of this week’s terror attack.

So, I’ve been thinking of New York and the people there, the magic of the city in October (and all year round), and the connectedness of the world. Below are some photos from that trip.

from the top of the Met

from Brooklyn, near Jane’s Carousel

Columbus Circle from Robert restaurant

NYC from the air

HOPE in Manhattan

I heart New York

Halloween pumpkin

more pumpkins

Educators: Hold the line on voice, autonomy, and trust

Can we hold the line in the face of challenging circumstances?

This week I was thrilled to welcome Professor Pasi Sahlberg to my Western Australian school to talk to our leaders—from coaches and team leaders to Heads of Faculty, senior leadership and the Executive—about school leadership and what high performing education systems do. Pasi’s list covers things about which many of us leading in schools, and researching and writing about education, are concerned: collaboration, learning and wellbeing, trust-based responsibility, continuous improvement, and equity. They are also guiding principles for teachers in classrooms, who use what Pasi calls ‘small data’ every day. In my PhD, which was based around effective school change and transformational professional learning, these were also themes that emerged; in particular, my research surfaced trust, professional collaboration, and continuous improvement through a range of educator-centred experiences.

I am reminded of the chapter I have co-authored in the upcoming Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto book. In it, Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson, and I, cite Sahlberg’s concept of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and its destructive influence on teacher voice, power, and agency. We argue for a re-professionalising and re-humanising of teaching and education.

I am reminded, too, of my speech to the Australian Council for Educational Leaders conference last year about trusting and supporting teachers. In his new book, FinnishED Leadership: Four big, inexpensive ideas to transform education, Sahlberg supports the autonomy of teachers and schools. He writes:

Strengthen collective autonomy of schools by giving teachers more independence from bureaucracy and simultaneously investing in teamwork in your school. This enhances social capital that is proved to be a critical aspect of building trust within education and enhancing student learning. (p.43)

He notes that the Finnish government spends 30 times more funds on the professional learning and development of educators than on accountability procedures, such as tests and surveys.

We live in a time of compliance and performativity. Australian schools are like tin cans being crushed from the outside-in by a focus on the results external testing (NAPLAN, HSC, WACE, VCE, PIRLS, TIMMS, PISA, the upcoming Phonics Check) and on publicly published league tables and competition-based publications such as the myschool website.

When Pasi spoke to leaders at my school, robust discussion ensued. He challenged us to ask what is within our control, what it is that we can change, what we would do if we could enact our dream for the best way of serving our students, starting tomorrow. He challenged us to question the systemic and regulatory parameters within which we operate, and to hold the line on those things we know will make a difference to our students.

Sahlberg’s work is supported by that of others, such as Michael Fullan’s on the wrong drivers for education reform, and Fullan’s work with Andy Hargreaves on professional capital in their book, Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school, and in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community. The Flip the System movement, too, beginning with Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber’s book Flip the System, brings together and champions the voices of teachers, academics and education experts in order to reclaim the space of education discourse for those working within schools.

So, what can we do in our own contexts? How might we reshape the narrative of education, or advocate for the following?

Less testing

More collaboration

Less accountability

More equity

Less competition

More trust

Teaching apprenticeships: Legitimate pathway or the death of the profession?

Teaching is a complex profession that requires a range of knowledge, skills, and practices. It also has a human, emotional, and relational dimension. I have been a teacher for almost 20 years and despite multiple degrees, constant professional learning, and decades of experience, I am still constantly learning and incrementally improving in terms of my teaching practice.

Last week UK education secretary, Justine Greening, announced that higher apprenticeships will become a technical route to teaching in the UK. That is, someone wanting to become a teacher will not need to earn a university degree, but will be able to do so via a vocational path.

That the Schools Week article suggests that low apprenticeship wages will be a cost-saving measure for schools suggests that an apprenticeship pathway to a teaching career is about cheaper, faster labour, rather than how to train teachers in the best way. This has been pointed out by Laura McInerney who says, “This shift to apprenticeships, therefore, starts to look like a way to pay A LOT of teachers a low-wage throughout their ‘training’ years —  and never pay many of them a full wage,” undermining Greening’s claim that she wants teaching to remain a highly regarded, high status profession.

McInerney also notes that teachers are very attached to the notion of our profession as a graduate one, in which a university degree provides part of the foundation. As a member of the profession, I feel this, and have been challenged on social media about whether I am being a snob about qualifications by being critical of the notion of apprenticeship teacher training. Others, too, have been accused of elitism for opposing the apprenticeship idea.

Even though these reforms are being suggested in the UK rather than Australia (and it has been almost 10 years since I have taught in the UK), I’ve been thinking about it over the last week. Why do I believe that teachers should have a degree? Is resistance akin to snobby elitism, or is this a key issue on which we must hold the line?

As part of my current role I place student teachers at my school for their teaching practicums, and I wonder if all schools provide appropriate workplace learning environments. But much of my gut feeling about an apprenticeship route to the classroom is around a belief that teaching should be a valued, knowledgeable and skilled profession. Teachers should be respected members of our communities. I don’t think a degree is sufficient for teaching–it’s not all we need–but I think it is necessary. A degree provides a foundation of knowledge, integrity, and credibility, in terms of subject knowledge and theoretical knowledge of teaching itself. It is also about the skillset we get through the process of a university degree. My various university qualifications, including the PhD, have provided me with the bedrock for the learning I do every day in the course of my career. My university studies also show my students, and the school community, that I value education and have expertise to share. The qualifications of a school’s leaders and teachers are often published, demonstrating the education foundation of that school’s staff and suggesting their capacity to educate the students in their care.

What do you think? Should teachers have university degrees or are more vocational pathways to the career appropriate? Can an apprenticeship have parity with a degree? Does learning teaching ‘on the job’ make sense? Or will apprenticeship options, and related wages and conditions, devalue and demoralise the profession?

Leadership lessons from school principals

source: pixabay.com by @ThinkTanks

Part of my role in overseeing professional learning at my school is building a variety of ways to develop the capacities of leaders. Our termly leadership forum, a new initiative this year, provides a place and space for all of our leaders – from coaches and pastoral leaders, to heads of faculty, senior leadership, and the Executive team. We meet each term for an evening of wine, cheese, provocation, and connection. In Term 1 I ran a session with the Director of Strategy on thinking about leadership in terms of research, organisation, team, and self. In Term 2 we welcomed Professor Dylan Wiliam to our forum.

This term we welcomed a panel of three independent school principals to present to our school’s leaders. These three panellists represented more than three decades of principalship between them. They had some clear messages about leadership for leaders at all levels, including the following.

……

Embrace opportunities

The panel encouraged everyone to embrace and pursue available opportunities, to take on challenges and pursue work and service that energise, inspire, and motivate us, and that align with our framework of personal beliefs and values. For me this is about aiming to do good work, without a clear vision of where this might take me.

Be yourself

All three principals said something that resonates with my own philosophy: in order to lead effectively, we need to be authentic. That is, rather than trying to perform the identity we think others are hoping for, each of us can be ourselves. Being ourselves means knowing ourselves. To be authentic leaders, we each need a clear sense of our own core values and beliefs, and a willingness to be transparent in our thinking.

Back yourself

The stories of these three principals showed that we need to be ‘in it to win it’; that is, to put our hat in the ring even when we might not be the obvious choice for a leadership position. Backing ourselves means having the courage and confidence to put our hands up to take on responsibility, and having the self-awareness to know what we bring (and don’t bring) to the work and leading we do. Part of this also means to be unafraid to challenge others or to call out injustice, and to have the capacity to be decisive even when faced with challenging issues.

Receive and give encouragement

All three principals had at some point received a ‘shoulder tap’ where a colleague or more senior leader had suggested they apply for a leadership position they had not considered. I have also had these experiences where someone has recognised for me an opportunity that I didn’t recognise for myself. These are moments that can help us to reimagine of what we are capable, and where our paths might take us. I am grateful to those who have taken the time or opportunity to challenge me on the limitations I have sometimes set for myself.

We can each listen to advice from others and be open to opportunities we may not have considered for ourselves. Each of us can also find opportunities to recognise, acknowledge, and encourage those around us; to let others know when we see leadership potential in them; and to pull others up with us, championing their work and helping them and others to see their possibilities.

……

The panel also had plenty to say about being a principal. Principalship is leadership as service that can have very real impacts on those in the role. As the results of the Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing survey show, Australian principals score lower than the general population on positive measures of wellbeing, quality of life, and mental health; but higher on negative measures such as stress, depression and sleeping trouble. Our panel discussed their own self-care strategies and the ways in which they look after themselves as they navigate what is complex, unrelenting, ethically-challenging, and often isolated work.

Our panel also noted that ‘principal’ is a leadership position that can be reached via a range of pathways. This encouragement comes at a time when Australia has a shortage of those aspiring to principalship, with a looming shortage as the majority of Australian principals reach or near retirement age.

The message from our panel was that being a principal is doable. Their stories brought a human side to the role and one panellist noted that the principalship is not a special place for an elite few but something to which many can aspire, and in which many can find success. The caveat here was that aspirant principals needed to be those with a strong values framework who is clearly aligned with the core values and mission of the school they are leading, and an ability to make decisions under pressure.

The lessons from this panel of principals are relevant for those aspiring to leadership and those already leading. Whether we have a leadership title, or are seeking opportunities to positively influence the world around us, we can be authentic and true to ourselves. We can be motivated by what energises us and by our desire to make a difference in the world. We can be courageous in our action and communication, make deliberate ethical decisions, and enact well-considered actions that are based on a solid foundation of self-awareness, self-efficacy, and self-belief.

What does it mean to be a leader?

leadership according to the internet

One thing that drives me mad in my social media feeds are the images that accompany articles on leadership. Infographics about leaders often feature male suited figures. An Google image search for ‘leader’ results in swarms of male figures in front of a group or standing atop a mountain. This presents a very limited notion of what a leader is or to what leaders should aspire. The men photographed or illustrated for these images of leadership tend to be white and photogenic, and wearing suits or capes. Leader as man. Leader as hero. Leader as at the apex. Leader as forging ahead.

Some of the academic writing I’ve been doing around leadership, in the form of journal articles and book chapters, has me revisiting my thinking around leadership. I’ve written before about challenging traditional notions of what a leader is and what they do. I wonder how my own approach and journey might play a part in offering alternative narratives of leadership. How does my story allow others to imagine a leader who may not be out in front, or on top, or male, or in a suit, or wearing a cape? How might leaders or aspirant leaders give themselves permission to lead differently, or to aspire to images of leadership that are different: softer, more collaborative, less visible, more joyful?

This isn’t about being a woman or a man, but about everyone being able to access a continuum of ways of being and leading. Or perhaps it isn’t a continuum but a web of possibilities, connected but divergent.

I have always lived the educational cliché – doing my very best, striving for high achievement, immersing myself in lifelong learning. Many of the leaders in my PhD study said the same: not only had they drunk the Kool-Aid of education, but they also felt its essence down to their bones. Leading, teaching, and learning aren’t add-ons or aspirations, but ways of being based on deeply held beliefs.

I have been a school leader since my first principal took a chance on me by promoting me to a Head of Faculty position in my second year of teaching. I was 22 years of age. I was tasked with leading teachers who had been teaching for more years than I had been living. My approach then, similarly to my approach now, was around building trust and relationships as the foundation stones of leadership. As Bryk and Schneider (2002) assert, relational trust is the connective tissue that binds together individuals with the common mission of advancing the education and welfare of students.

Now, my leadership style is based in an understanding of leadership literature, valuing of relationships, belief in the capacities of those I lead, and willingness to listen equally to enthusiastic perspectives and dissenting voices. My PhD and current role mean that I am a practitioner committed to I research-informed and data-rich practice. I also, however, place great value in practitioner experience, the wisdom of professional practice, and the capacity of those with whom I work, to grow, improve, and serve their students and communities.

My approach to school and cultural change is ‘go slow to go fast’. Deliberate, collaborative change coaxes buy-in and ownership from stakeholders. It involves creating a shared need, designing a shared vision, and then energising, mobilising, and building the capacities and motivations of others to propel change. This kind of leadership isn’t about me, but about how to fire holonomy (Costa & Garmston, 2015): the nuanced interactions between ‘me’ and ‘we’, individual and organisation, cog and machine. As Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan (2012) point out, the group is more powerful than the individual in school and system change.

The reason that I continue to blog, to edit and contribute to books, to act as a peer reviewer for journal articles, to engage at conferences and online, is because I want to be part of shaping narratives of education and leadership. It is my hope that through sharing my voice I can be part of offering alternatives and providing solutions.

I have had two children along the way, and have navigated my way through the decision-making that comes with finding ways to be a good parent, a good spouse, and to do work that I think makes a difference in the world. As a leader I am mindful of the example I set for others in the decisions I make around work, family, and wellbeing.

As a leader, I don’t aspire to embody the hero, perform the all-knowing problem-fixer, or forge ahead with innovation at a rate of knots. I aim to be my authentic self and work to empower and elevate others in what Andy Hargreaves, Alan Boyle, and Alma Harris (2014) call ‘uplifting leadership’. Sometimes leading means holding the line or being calm in the eye of a storm. It often means giving others what they need based simultaneously on a balcony view of the macro picture, and an intimate understanding of the individual.

References

Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. Russell Sage Foundation.

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2015). Cognitive Coaching: Developing self-directed leaders and learners. Hawker Brownlow Education.

Hargreaves, A., Boyle, A., & Harris, A. (2014). Uplifting leadership: How organisations, teams, and communities raise performance. John Wiley & Sons.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. Teachers College Press.