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 the author of 'Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools' 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.

In education: To whom should we listen?

X speakers

Today I had the privilege of being part of the ‘Extreme After Dinner Speakers Club’, a main stage event at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement, held this year in Marrakech.

This session had me sharing the stage with Michael Fullan, Lee Elliott-Major, Cecilia Azorín, Dean Fink, Pooja Nakamura and Jihad Hajjouji.

Pierre Tulowitzki was the compare, revving up the audience and introducing each speaker. We each entered to a piece of music we had chosen, and we each spoke for 8 minutes on something in education about which we are passionate. There were no audio visual supports, and certainly no PowerPoint slides. It was just each speaker under a single spotlight.

I share my speech below. (You’ll need to imagine the strains of Roxette’s ‘Dangerous’ playing as I entered.)

______________________________________

Teaching can be a personal, political and dangerous act.

I’m an English and Literature teacher, and an avid reader, so I love metaphors as a tool for making meaning. I often find myself comparing education to the worlds of various texts.

One metaphor that’s resonated with me is that being in education can feel like existing in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an 1865 novel about a girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world with strange creatures and absurd goings on. This metaphor is a playful way to consider education reform and examine to whom we should listen in education.

The novel is set simultaneously in Victorian England and in the imaginary world of Wonderland. The characters in the novel are constrained by the worlds in which they exist. The regimentations of Victorian England reflect the constraints of our current education systems. There are rigid rules of the education game, and inflexible, standardised and often externally imposed, indicators of success against which teachers, school leaders and schools are measured.

In Wonderland there’s a lack of equity, with some characters having huge amounts of power, and others existing without agency. The autocratic Queen of Hearts might be seen as the international culture of testing, accountability and performativity. She’s a force for panic and alarm, imposing a narrow focus of right and wrong. Characters race around anxiously in fear of her.

In our education systems, teachers might be seen as the White Rabbit: rushed, watching the time, constantly in a hurry to meet expectations and ever-increasing workloads. Teachers are mostly absent in the formulation of policy, on advisory boards, and on media panels. Often so-called ‘experts’ speak for or about teachers and schools. Everyone has an opinion on education and on teaching. Teachers themselves are often undermined or deprofessionalised.

School leaders could also be seen as the Rabbit, buckling under deadlines, external pressures and challenges to their wellbeing. Leaders might alternatively be conceptualised as the Cheshire Cat, doing often invisible work and empowering others through just-in-time advice as they shift in and out of the spotlight, constantly code switching and operating in multiple contexts almost simultaneously.

In the novel, the Eaglet says,

“Speak English! . . . I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!”

Education buzzwords can become nonsense language devoid of meaning. Academic writing can seem impenetrable to practitioners. Contradictory advice abounds, and those of us working in schools and in research must make sense of multiple competing voices.

To whom should we listen?

As a teacher, school leader, coach and researcher, I feel a lot like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole and muddling my way through a foreign landscape. Belonging and not belonging. Betwixt and between. Constantly working to make sense of the education world, to sort through a sea of information, and to make my own voice, and the voice of my profession, heard.

I’ve taught in schools—in Australia and England—for 20 years. I’ve been a school leader for almost as long. In middle leadership positions, I shared the voices of senior leadership down, and the voices of teachers up. Now as a member of a school executive, I eke out the voices of teachers, students and families, in order that we can improve in ways relevant to our context. When I speak and write, I am a voice of my profession.

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.

Like Wonderland, which seems confusing to the newcomer Alice, schools and education systems are non-linear ecologies of complexity and interlocking relationships. In schools, we navigate competing demands with the needs of our students and the moral purpose of the greater good. In schools, change happens in ways that researchers and school boards don’t or can’t suppose. The work of schools is not easily quantifiable. In fact, measuring and ranking schools and education systems can diminish the humanity of education. Often what we can measure is not what actually matters.

Wonderland was perhaps Lewis Carroll’s way of pushing back against the regimentations of England at the time, a way of embracing chaos, surprise and wonder. Many teachers and school leaders, too, resist external demands or play the accountability game while working hard to protect and serve their students in ways that embrace their humanity.

Metaphors work because of their recognisability, but as I reflect on the metaphor I’m sharing today, I realise that it’s limited and potentially dangerous. There are so many versions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that meaning can get muddied and diluted. More worrying, however, are the biases inherent in metaphor. This metaphor has a Western origin. While the novel has been translated into almost 100 languages, it is a work of English-language fiction. It’s by a white male British author. It’s set in upper-middle-class England. How, I wonder, does this exclude particular views of education? Does it marginalise some from accessing its meaning? Does sharing this metaphor promote a linear, masculine, white and Western view of education, based on hierarchical structures and economic agendas?

So when I think about the question – To whom should we listen? – the answer is manifold.

We should listen to researchers who interrogate what we know about education. We should talk with policymakers who oversee the big picture. We should listen to parents. We should listen to students who are the core of our work and our why. We should certainly listen to teachers.They are experts whose professional experience and judgement should be a key part of education discourse.

In the book Flip the System Australia my co-editors and I worked to include a range of voices. Dr Kevin Lowe, one of our Indigenous authors, pointed out that Aboriginal contributions are often tacked on to the end of books, if they appear at all, as an afterthought. He challenged us to think carefully about not just who we included, but also where we situated particular voices.

We all do need to listen to each other. But this is not enough.

As we consider to whom we should listen in our work in school effectiveness and improvement, we need to carefully interrogate whose voices are being invited and amplified. We need to include those often marginalised by or excluded from the dominant narrative.  We need to embrace diversity rather than homogenisation. We also need to consider the risks to individuals and groups in sharing their views publicly. Often those who are the most vulnerable in our systems feel the least able to speak up and speak out. We need, however, to seek out, and make space at the highest levels, for voices that will move us towards democratic, equitable and inclusive education for all.

ICSEI 2020 SYMPOSIUM – ‘Agency, democracy and humanity: Global perspectives on flipping the education system and empowering teachers’

Flip the System books

On Wednesday 8 January at 11 am, I have the privilege of chairing a symposium at the ICSEI annual congress at the Mogador Palace in Marrakech, featuring the editors of the Flip the System education books: Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (2015); Lucy Rycroft-Smith and JL Dutaut (2017); myself, Cameron Paterson and Jon Andrews (2018); and Michael Soskil (in preparation). Andy Hargreaves, who has written a chapter for each of the books, will be our discussant.

Our symposium explores what the notion of ‘flipping the education system’ means for each of us in our own contexts: Europe, the UK, Australia and the USA.

We challenge the status quo in which governments and policymakers make decisions disconnected from those at the nadir of the system: teachers and students. Schools in this system are highly bureaucratic institutional settings, and teachers are increasingly undervalued, constrained and de-professionalised. Those that wield influence on education policy and practice construct narrow measures of the success of schooling, and these impact heavily on teacher agency. Large-scale assessment, the use (and misuse) of big data at all levels of schooling, corporate investment, and new models of governance and technological innovation, are pervasive. A focus on numbers and rankings contributes to the disconnect between bureaucracy and the profession, and to the tension between education’s vision for equity and the realities of competition, marketisation and cultures focused on fear and narrow measures of performance.

Our symposium shares global perspectives around the notion of subverting, flattening, democratising and reimagining our education systems in ways that embrace human aspects of education, wrestle with the criticality of the task of schooling, and engage with multiple voices in education, especially those often sidelined in education discourse. The assembled presentations offer powerful insights about political, social and economic forces that influence numerous aspects of education, and also positive alternatives for the future of education.

The throughline or golden thread here is that teachers—their agency, professionalism, expertise and wellbeing—are central to flipping, strengthening and democratising our education systems. We all advocate for a focus on the GOOD in education. The greater good, the common good. Good for all students, everywhere, and good for the teachers who teach them.

The symposium presentations are described below. If you are attending the ICSEI conference, join us for a robust, and ultimately hopeful, discussion!

‘Striving for good education for all: The alternative offered by Flip the System’ – Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (via video)

As the originators of the Flip the System book series and education movement, Jelmer and René outline the history of Dutch education reform and how they came to the conclusion that the system needs to be flipped using six global guidelines for future action: trust, honour, finding purpose, collaboration, support and time. For teachers, they argue, this is a professionalising process of ‘self-emancipation’. Their books, The Alternative and Flip the System, have had powerful political impact, as well as sparking a global discourse that foregrounds practising teachers as a crucial voice in educational change.

Jelmer and René reflect on the current state of the profession globally in the Global North and South. They explore the continued struggle between democratic professionalism and privatisation, authoritarianism and surveillance capitalism. They make a case for what is needed now. They explore teacher strikes as a starting point for renewed professional collective pride and agency and belief in education as a public good. The teaching profession, they argue, should strive for a global awareness and counterforce striving for good education for all.

‘When we used our teacher voices, no-one listened: The paradox of escaping the system to dismantle the system’ – Lucy Rycroft-Smith (and JL Dutaut)

Lucy will represent herself and JL as editors of Flip the System UK. In this presentation, the authors reflect on the history of the UK’s (failed) education reforms. They outline how powerful voices simplify issues and reduce complexities, while the teacher population suffers the demands of hyper-accountability, at great mental, emotional and physical cost. Lucy and JL summarise the realities of the daily grind for UK teachers, exacerbated by the school quality review and systemic discrimination. In questioning the current landscape of apparent ‘expertise’ in education, the authors ask: Why, only now, do people care what we have to say? How can we leverage these new advantages without succumbing to the same fate?

Lucy and JL’s argument is that we must reject the current paradigm of success: ‘the most students with the highest grades at the lowest financial cost’. Rather, they propose substituting a vision for an education community that values teachers as both humans and professionals, with the common good at its heart.

‘Australian perspectives on flipping the education system from ‘what works’ to ‘what matters: Reclaiming education for and by those within the system’ – Deborah Netolicky, Cameron Paterson (and Jon Andrews)

Cameron and I will be presenting, on behalf of ourselves and Jon, as editors of Flip the System Australia. We explore the current realities of schooling in Australia, including policy, funding and high-stakes standardised testing such as NAPLAN, ATAR and PISA. We challenge the media narratives presented to the Australian public, the rise of celebrity teachers, and the demonising and deprofessionalising of the teaching profession. We rally—in the spirit of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart—against the silencing of Indigenous voices in education policy and practice.

While education is a deeply human endeavour, the complex work that teachers do around the world every day is threatened by the political, the commercial and the popular. We advocate for equity, democracy, plurality, collective responsibility and teacher agency. We argue against polarising and one-dimensional narratives of education, and for locally-produced solutions and teacher voices. We believe that the power to transform schools lies within schools. The system should enable teachers to go about the complex work of teaching with professional honour, acknowledgement of professional expertise, and support structures focused on wellbeing and growth.

‘Education as the foundation of healthy democracy: A perspective from the USA’ – Michael Soskil

Michael presents a perspective on flipping the system, based on the upcoming book Flip the System: US. In the USA, partisan political influence, substantial inequity and economic interests prevail. Instead of basing decisions on professional expertise of the teachers who are committed to meeting the needs of unique, individual children, the system defers to lobbyists and politicians who manipulate data to tell narratives that suits their interests. Michael reflects on the health of the USA’s education system and asks if—at this pivotal moment in our history, when democratic norms, personal liberties, respect for intellectualism, and economic opportunity are eroding—public education is supporting democracy, and if our democracy is supporting public education.

Reclaiming the public education system, Michael points out, must begin from the inside out by focusing on strengthening the teaching profession. He points to shining examples of educators leading movements to overcome the deficiencies in our system, providing nuanced and locally relevant solutions to complex education problems. The system, he affirms, should be shaped around teacher expertise.

Postscript: our symposium participants

2019: Year in review

2019 year in review

2019 may have been politically and environmentally tumultuous, but my year has personally been a good one. I began the year focusing on LIGHT and I think I’ve managed to find a lightness this year that I haven’t felt for some time.

As I look back across the year some highlights have been:

This year has felt really good partly because of what I haven’t done. I’ve said ‘no’ to more things which has meant that those things I have participated in are those I’ve been really excited about. I’ve tried to find more space in my life. Being more intentional about how I spend my time is a work in progress, as I focus on moving from doing all the things to doings things that matter.

This isn’t just the end of the year. It’s also the end of a decade. At the beginning of the 2010s I was in the early stages of pregnancy with my first child. In this last decade I had my two children and raised them through their early years. I started and completed my PhD. I co-edited one book and wrote another. I presented at conferences and events, including AERA in Washington DC, AARE and ACEL. I travelled to NYC on a professional fellowship to investigate coaching in education and improving teacher practice. I started this blog. I won some awards. I contributed to some advisory boards and committees. I held a number of school leadership roles and taught English and Literature to hundreds of students.

Looking back is interesting, but looking forward is even better.

Here’s to the 2020s.

How driving a husky team is like school leadership

Husky 1

our husky team racing through the Lappish wilderness

Yesterday I had the absolute pleasure of driving or ‘mushing’ a team of Alaskan huskies in Rovaniemi, Finland, an experience run by the Bearhill Husky kennel. After some instructions from the guide, who would lead the convoy of husky teams, we were able to drive our own team. My husband and I both enjoyed turns as driver or ‘musher’ and as a passenger, with our children in the sled with us.

Learning about the dog teams and watching them work, and driving a team myself, had me reflecting on good school leadership and how it’s similar in many ways to training, running, managing and driving a husky team. (Of course, there are many ways in which these things are entirely dissimilar, but let’s not let that get in the way of this tangential reflection.)

  1. Know your people. Know your context.

An effective leader knows their team, knows their community and knows their clients. The husky guides knew each dog well, and watched them during the ride. Apart from the guide sled out front, the dog teams were being driven by novices like me, guests of the kennel entrusted to run a dog team for 90 minutes. Yet the staff from the kennel were always on the lookout for dogs, guests and terrain.

An effective leader needs to know the conditions they are traversing, and also how those conditions might change. At certain tricky checkpoints, staff from the kennel were there to ensure the smooth running of the ride. They zipped through the Lappish forest and across frozen lakes on snowmobiles to ensure the safety of dogs and passengers at all times. The ride was not without incident, but there were always personnel there to attend to any issues that arose.

  1. Trust the people. Trust the process.

The staff at the kennel had put in the hard work to train their dogs, to build relationships, to familiarise them with the tracks, to ensure the lead dogs could take direction, that the team compositions were optimal, that the strong wheel dogs at the back could pull the weight of the load. They know that the dogs want to run (and anyone can see and hear how excited huskies get when they want to take off). The staff at the kennel, in handing over the sleds to their guests, put their trust in their dogs to do their job well. Once it is time to run, they trust the dogs, trust the track, trust the process. As driver, I too needed to trust the dogs, the track and the process.

In schools, too, trust is key. We need to put faith in our teachers and school leaders. When we have put in processes for change, we need to trust the process and trust the people.

  1. Be agile.

There was a clear plan in place for our husky experience. An order of who went in which sled (families at the back, for instance). Rules to follow (like ‘no overtaking without permission’). Dog teams had been carefully put together with a knowledge of the dogs and of what makes an effective team. Yet there was still a need for agility and making snap decisions. A number of times, a dog was swapped out of one team to another because the team was not performing. Dogs were tied to each other, but these groupings were fluid and changed according to the need of the individual and the group.

There were also some incidents. One dog cut loose and ran up the track alone. He was soon caught and back to his team. One family’s sled tipped over and as they toppled out the driver went to help his family up, letting go of the sled’s handle bar in the process. The dog team took off, with the empty sled trailing behind it. Again, there was a contingency for this, and the convoy of teams and staff took action to reunite the family with their team, and get the convoy of teams and sleds back together again.

We may plan painstakingly when leading schools, but leaders need to be ready and willing to make quick decisions in the best interest of the individuals in their care and for their various stakeholders and wider communities. The best team leaders are focused and agile. They have their eye on their people, the conditions, for possible problems before they appear, for any danger that may lie ahead.

  1. Work hard.

When it was my turn to drive the husky team, I realised what hard work it was. Focusing on the track and teams ahead, reading the conditions (a sharp corner, a high snowy bank, a rocky slope), being ready to brake, running with the team up hills and then jumping onto the foot boards again. Some of this work goes unnoticed. As the driver at the back, the passengers and dogs can’t see the strain on your face when making driving decisions, or the effort of running with the dogs while the passengers enjoy the view. It was worth it for the exhilaration of flying through the snowy wilderness with the icy fresh wind against my face, but it meant hard work of both the driver and their team.

Leaders in schools work hard. Their work is often different to that of the team they are leading. Like the driver of a husky team, their view is slightly different, and they can see more of the wider landscape and bigger picture. Some of their hard work or difficult decision making goes unnoticed. And that’s ok. It’s part of leading.

  1. Encourage and support.

Driving a husky team, you feel a connection between you as the driver and the dogs in your team. We had one dog, who my family called Snowy, who would nuzzle and roll in the snow every time we stopped, and would regularly take hearty mouthfuls of snow to hydrate. One of the younger, faster dogs, who we called Goldy after his golden fur, was so keen to run that every time the claw brake was pressed into the snow, he looked around to the driver with a questioning stare. ‘Why have we stopped?’ he seemed to say, “Let’s go!’ When my husband or I were driving, we could be heard talking to the dogs, encouraging them or telling them it was time to slow down or time to go.

The kennel staff, who were checking in on the teams throughout the trail, would applaud the dog teams and call out encouragement and praise as they passed. Not to the drivers, but to their dogs, with which they clearly have close relationships. The staff were both firm and caring, providing high expectations and also high support of the teams.

School leadership is all about high expectations and high levels of challenge for our staff, married with high levels of care and support. This ‘holding environment’ means that our teams feel ‘held’ while also being trusted, supported and expected to be expert professionals.

  1. Hold on.

The main instruction to those of us driving a husky team for the first time was: Always hold on and never let go. Because if the driver steps off the claw brake and lets go of the handle bar, her team will bolt off without her, sometimes with her family still sitting in the sled.

In school leadership we need to stick with our teams, hold on during challenging times, and also hold on to our purpose, holding the line on why we are doing what we’re doing. Part of ‘holding on’ is also about being responsible for those in your sled, and ensuring their safety and their experience.

Reflecting on the metaphor

Of course, like any metaphor, this one is flawed. Teachers are not trained dogs. Teaching and leading in schools is of course complex, multi-faceted work. But I still found this a useful reflection. The leadership of a husky team is less linear and hierarchical than it first appears. There is nuance and an ecosystem of relationships. All members of the team, from the driver at the back, to the lead dogs at the front have an important role to play and are integral to the team.

Bearhill Husky was an example, in my view, of good leadership in action. Leadership that is ethical and at once empathetic and firm, caring and cautious, meticulously organised and with the capacity for well-informed agility. It is ultimately about relationships and the way that everyone in the organistion works together, from the dogs and the team for each sled, to the wider Bearhill staff who ensured the smooth running of what was an inspiring and magical experience.

Our work in schools, too, is about relationships. In schools there are similar machinations behind the scenes by leaders, teachers and all staff to ensure the best, safest, most optimal learning and experience for students. We can benefit from knowing our people and our context; trusting the people and the process; being agile; working hard even and especially when that work is not being noticed; encouraging and supporting staff; and holding on to vision, purpose and process.

TES book review of ‘Transformational Professional Learning’

This week, the Times Educational Supplement published a review of my book by Clare Sealy. Clare is a prominent voice in education in the UK. After years as a primary school principal she is now Head of Curriculum and Standards for the States of Guernsey. She has a wealth of experience in school and system leadership in education. We agree about the importance of a knowledge-rich curriculum and of understanding cognitive load for learning and revision.

I thank Clare for taking the time to read my book and write a review. As the book’s author, I have reflected on some of her opinions about the book, which she describes as “useful but flawed”. I share these responses below.

False promises

Clare argues that by including the term ‘transformational’ in the book’s title—Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools—I was ‘setting myself up for a fall’.

“Surely, thinks the reader,” she writes, “if I read this, I will experience a deep – nay, transformational – shift in my understanding. The earth will move, the scales will fall from my eyes, my cup will runneth over. Inevitably then, with the bar set so high, this book disappoints.”

The term ‘transformational’ in the title is defined in Chapter 1 as a way to describe a particular view of professional learning: one concerned with those experiences and processes that have an impact on what teachers and school leaders think, believe, feel, and do. I deliberately spend some time discussing and defining the term transformational professional learning. I differentiate the term ‘transformative’ (associated with Jack Mezirow’s transformative learning theory) from ‘transformational’ as it is used in professional learning literature in order to be as clear as I can about the framework for the book’s discussion.

It wasn’t my intention to promise readers that they will be transformed through their reading of the book, and this isn’t something I promise. I do say that the book makes the case for professional learning that positively shapes teacher practices that improve student learning. If, however, a reader feels that their cup has runneth over through their reading of the book, that’s a lovely bonus.

The optimist

Clare points out that I am “slightly more optimistic than the research” I cite. I can probably be described as a critical optimist or an optimistic skeptic. My optimism helps to sustain me through the often negative press the teaching profession gets, and propels me in the work and advocacy I do. My cautiousness and skepticism helps me to challenge claims, consider alternatives, and make careful decisions.

Underwhelming conclusion

Clare finds my conclusion ‘underwhelming’.

My conclusion that ‘it depends’ and ‘context matters’ may be underwhelming, but as a practising educator, I prefer this to overreaching promises of ‘what works’.

Today, Daniel Willingham tweeted the following:

DTW

“It depends.” This is the reality of much education research and is reflected in the conclusion where I write:

“As in other education fields, the answer to the question ‘What works?’ is often ‘It depends’. However, accepting the complexities and nuances of professional learning does not preclude us from knowing what is likely to be effective, and in what kinds of professional learning schools would benefit from investing” (p.131).

As I say in the book, there is no one-size-fits-all model for individual or organisational professional learning, although I hope that my book points educators in profitable directions likely to be advantageous for students, teachers, and school leaders.

Clare adds that, “the truth, however unpalatable, is preferable to false promises.” That is, as I understand it, it’s better to acknowledge the unsexy reality of what we do and don’t know about what works in professional learning, than to conjure up deliciously simple checklists that overpromise, underdeliver, and don’t take nuance into account.

My book deliberately rallies against the oversimplification of education problems and solutions. It puts trust back into the hands of those working in schools, who know their students, staff, and communities. It is those working in schools who are best positioned to put research evidence to work by applying it with professional judgement and knowledge of their context.

Issues with coaching

While I spend Chapter 5 defining and discussing mentoring, instructional coaching, peer coaching and cognitive coaching, Clare comments that she would have liked to see more discussion around the difference between instruction coaching, mentoring and self-directed coaching. She is particularly interested in a more detailed examination of instructional coaching. (For those interested, there are plenty of resources on Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching Group website.)

Coaching is indeed a slippery term. What we mean when we talk about coaching needs specificity and shared understanding. In my view, instructional coaching, peer coaching, cognitive coaching, GROWTH coaching, executive coaching, mentoring, and consulting all have a purpose and a place in the professional learning landscape. We need to fit the tool to the individual, the context, and the purpose.

I agree with Clare’s comment that novice teachers need modelling and scaffolding, while experienced teachers learn better from opportunities to reflect on their extensive experience. In Chapter 8, I describe the varying needs of teachers at different career stages and explain how my school differentiated staff development in order to meet the diverse needs, aspirations, and career stages of staff. This model included mentoring or instructional coaching for early career teachers and coaching or collaborative approaches for more experienced teachers, on a case-by-case basis.

The positives

As the author of the reviewed book, I was drawn to the more critical aspects of the review, but there is plenty there that is also positive. Some excerpts include the following.

“Most have some sympathy with Netolicky’s diagnosis of the problem with much that passes for professional learning.”

“Netolicky reminds us that you don’t change a teacher simply by giving them better information. What really changes people is not just informational learning but transformational learning, that is ‘actively changing how a person knows though shifts in cognition, emotion and capacity’.”

“The chapter on collaborative professional learning is perhaps the most useful. It blows away any easy assumptions that if we all just did loads of lesson studies and collaborative learning, then everything would be fine. Since this approach is often peddled as a panacea to top-down approaches, it is good to have a rigorous analysis of what needs to happen for this to be effective.”

“This book gives a useful overview of different approaches to professional development and their relative strengths and weaknesses.”

“Netolicky has done us a service in reading the research and sharing it with us.”

Teachers and school leaders: well-being or ill-being?

Concern about teacher and school leader wellbeing

Teacher and school leader wellbeing is an increasing issue for education systems around the world. Some commentators call teaching a profession in ‘crisis’ or ‘distress’. Many sources point to the emotional, mental, and physical health of those working in schools as something that needs to be seriously considered.

Some literature suggests that one quarter of those who begin teaching leave the profession in the first five years, often citing mental health, emotional exhaustion, workload, and wellbeing issues as reasons.

The Gonski 2.0 report (Gonski et al., 2018) names unstable employment patterns, and a heavy and increasingly complex workload, as reasons for attrition in the teaching profession.

A week ago The Guardian published this article on increasing teacher workload, saying that according to one UK teacher wellbeing index, “nearly three-quarters of teachers and 84% of school leaders now describe themselves as ‘stressed’, and more than a third of education professionals have experienced a mental health issue in the past academic year. Almost half (49%) believe their workplace is having a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing.”

The longitudinal Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey of principals and deputy principals reveals worrying trends in school leader wellbeing. The 2018 survey (Riley, 2019) involved 5934 participants. Its findings include the following.

  • 53% of principals worked upwards of 56 hours per week during term with ~24% working upwards of 61-65 hours per week;
  • 40-45% of participants take prescription medication for a diagnosed condition.
  • Principals experience high levels of job demands (1.5 times the general population) emotional demands (1.7 times) and emotional labour (1.7 times) being the highest demands when compared to the general population. This is correlated with higher levels of burnout (1.6 times higher), stress symptoms (1.7 times higher), difficulty sleeping (2.2 times higher), cognitive stress (1.5 times higher), somatic symptoms (1.3 times higher), and, depressive symptoms (1.3 times higher).
  • The two greatest sources of stress for principals and deputies are Sheer Quantity of Work, and Lack of Time to Focus on Teaching and Learning.
  • Principals’ stress is caused largely by increasing Mental Health Issues of Students, Mental Health Issues of Staff, and Teacher Shortages.
  • The prevalence rate for Threats of Violence is 45%, with close to 1 in 2 principals receiving a threat.

In their chapter in Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, Andy Hargreaves et al. (2019) acknowledge that teachers struggle to collaborate effectively amidst the frenetic rate of reform in education and ever-increasing workloads and accountabilities. They assert that there is no student wellbeing without teacher wellbeing, so teacher wellbeing is something we need to care about.

Should teachers and school leaders be expected to put the needs of the children in their care ahead of their own health and their own children? Should they be expected to teach social, emotional, and life skills, as well as the curriculum? Should they be scored and performance managed based on limited and limiting accountability measures? Should they be pressured into spending their leisure time working and their own money on resources because it shows that they care and are ‘good teachers’? Should overwork, late night emails, and accessibility during weekends and holidays be normalised?

If wellbeing of staff is an issue in our education system, what can leaders do, and what can we each do for ourselves?

Leadership of staff wellbeing

School leadership is key to staff wellbeing. Just this week, WorkSafe has launched an investigation into one Australian school, its psychosocial environment, and the psychological and physical safety of its staff.

Wellbeing in schools is about more than meditation, yoga, fitness classes, and complimentary employee counselling. These have their place (and I enjoyed workplace yoga for years), but addressing teacher and school leader wellbeing also means seriously considering workload, expectations, and accountabilities.

Those leading systems and schools need to ask: How do our norms and culture contribute to wellbeing or ill-being? What is the work that is really important and that makes a difference? What can we take off teachers’ plates? How do we balance high professional expectations with high levels of support? What does it look like when we treat our staff as human beings with relationships, bodies, and lives?

Schools need to think carefully about teachers’ multiple, competing duties, and make time for meaningful collaboration around student work, student data, curriculum, and pedagogy, as well as time for teachers’ core business: actually teaching (and planning and assessing).

The Gonski 2.0 report suggests that “much greater assistance could be given to reduce their [teachers’] hands-on administrative workload, particularly in schools that are part of a larger system. This assistance includes: exploring reduction and/or simplification in administrative burdens placed on schools and their reporting requirements (including simplification of work health and safety requirements); appointing more dedicated administrative resources to schools; identifying quality external providers to which schools may be able to outsource some administrative responsibilities; and exploring new models for school management including chief operating officers or business managers accountable to the principal” (p.88).

School leaders can make transparent decisions, underpinned by organisational vision and clear principles. We can exercise compassion. We can resist hyper accountabilities, narrow frameworks for assessing teachers, and negative narratives of schooling. We can create our own measures of success for our schools, teachers, and students. We can enable flexible working arrangements, and ensure we listen to and encourage honest feedback from our staff.

We can also consider an approach to professional learning that is about growth. This can include staff voice and choice, and supportive processes such and mentoring and coaching. In this way, leaders can acknowledge the complexity and humanity of teaching and schooling, and facilitating staff autonomy and agency. Staff can feel like trusted, valued professionals and authors of their own learning and development.

Individual wellbeing

wellbeing

some of my wellbeing spaces

Those of us working in education need to give ourselves permission to protect and nourish our own health and relationships. That means time to sleep, to exercise, to enjoy nutritious food, to be silent and still, to be with our families, to spend time with our friends, to attend our children’s events, to breathe. It means prioritising these things even when the work feels crushing or breakneck in ways that seem to squeeze out everything else.

Like many who work in education, I find putting work to the side a challenge, but the old adage applies: we need to fit our own oxygen mask before we can assist others. We need to look after ourselves if we are to effectively serve our staff, students, and school communities. Personal wellbeing is not optional.

When author, prison officer, social justice advocate and education powerhouse Celia Lashlie died in 2015, her family published some of her final words:

“We become complacent about the need to take care of ourselves… always something more to do. Some of this is driven by our desire to save the world, others driven by the desire we have to reach the many goals we have set ourselves – many of them superficial.

Late last year I slowly became unwell. The stress of the lifestyle I was living, the demands I made of myself, the demands the people made of me and expected to meet became too great and as 2014 closed I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to my liver. No treatment, no cure, only palliative care. I’d waited too long to look after myself and my body broke.”

For me, these words were a sober reminder to educators that while we may want to do our utmost to make a positive difference, we should also work hard at looking after ourselves.

 

References

Gonski et al. 2018. Through Growth to Achievement Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools.

Hargreaves, A., Washington, S., & O’Connor, M. (2019). Flipping their lids: teachers’ well-being in crisis. In D. Netolicky, J. Andrews, & C. Paterson (eds.), Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, 93-104. Abingdon: Routledge.

Riley, P. 2019. The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2018 Data.

Teacher research

Set up for today’s presentation via Zoom

Today I had the pleasure of being the opening speaker, via Zoom from Perth, at the King’s Institute Research Symposium at The King’s School in Parramatta. In this blog I outline some of the thoughts I shared.

The pracademic

Those working in schools doing post-graduate study or action research, might be considered a pracademics. The word ‘pracademic’ is used to describe those in their field who simultaneously straddle the dual worlds of practice and scholarship, industry work and research. In education, these are the boundary-spanners who operate as the bridge between the worlds of education research and that of classroom and school. We bring a research lens to our work in schools, and we bring lived experience to our writing and research.

Pracademics have a crucial role to play in connecting the dots between scholarly and practical domains in ways that empower those working in schools to meaningfully engage with research and to contribute outwards to narratives about education. This is about speaking out as well as bringing in.

As I reflect on my own pracademia, I realise that since completing my PhD in 2016, while continuing to work full time in a school, I have produced:

  • 8 peer-reviewed papers in academic journals;
  • 6 academic book chapters;
  • 1 co-edited book – Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education;
  • 1 monograph – Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools; and
  • blog posts and opinion pieces.

I have spoken regularly at conferences in Australia and overseas, on podcasts and in radio interviews. I also peer review papers for academic journals and write academic book reviews.

As someone who is employed in a school, this is a kind of moonlighting that occurs in volunteered time. These certainly aren’t things I would encourage all teachers to do, but engaging in or with research does meaningfully inform my practice in my school. My overlapping double roles inform one another. The hybridity of the pracademic provides credibility within the school environment, a  perspective that understands the realities of schools. Those of us engaging in research in our schools bring important contextual, relational and practical knowledge to research.

Teacher research is important

We are operating in an education world in which evidence-based practice is promoted and sometimes expected, and in which the field of medicine is seen as a benchmark against which education should measure itself. Schools, school leaders, and teachers are increasingly expected to be research literate, to be informed by research and evidence in our decisions and practices.

We are often presented with arguments that begin with sweeping and unsubstantiated statements like ‘the research says’. ‘Evidence-informed’, ‘research-based’ and ‘data driven’ are buzzwords. They appear in education reports, blogs, media, academic papers, speeches by consultants, books, in school staff rooms and in discussions on social media.

Teacher research and involvement with research is important, especially because so often education research knowledge remains separated from teaching practitioner knowledge. Much education scholarship is written in the structure and language of the academe. Often it resides behind a paywall (at USD$40 per article) or an expensive price tag (at upwards of $200 per book), making it inaccessible for many who work in schools.  Meanwhile, consultants and corporations promote often oversimplified, diluted or misleading solutions to education problems, while claiming that their solutions are based in research. However, as those of use working in schools know, context matters a lot. And the answer to ‘what works?’ is often ‘it depends’.

Teacher research helps us to:

  • make better decisions for our own contexts;
  • include student voice in school change;
  • listen to the voice and experiences of teachers;
  • engage teacher autonomy and agency; and
  • measure the impact of any changes we are making, setting our own success criteria, rather than relying on external metrics.

Teacher research seeks to understand and improve. It does not aim to provide prescriptions, mechanistic approaches, recipes, checklists or league tables. It is about engaging thoughtfully, critically and systematically with evidence, research, our own contexts and our own professional judgement.

Teachers engaging in research and research methodologies means we are applying these to our own contexts, and are also better placed to assess the relevance of other research and evidence we come across. We can make more meaningful sense of the research upon which advice and claims are based. It helps us to be careful of accepting simplified answers at face value. It gives us confidence in our own professional judgement and strengthens our willingness to interrogate claims of ‘the research says’.

Teacher research leads to better outcomes for students

Research cannot and should not tell teachers what to do, but research and other evidence has value in schools and can point us in directions worth pursuing. We improve our schools and our teaching when we integrate professional expertise with evidence and research. It is through practitioner research that we can marry the complex, human work of teaching with a critical, scientific mindset.

Teacher research can help those of us working in schools to make the best decisions for those in our classrooms and communities. It can help teachers and schools decide what is likely to be the best way to invest time and resources.

Practitioner research is an iterative, active, ongoing process that can hone our professional judgments and help to put us in a better position to bring about improved student learning and achievement, as well as other positive school-based results. It requires an ongoing, collaborative commitment to learning, understanding, critically examining what we think we know about what might work in schools to bring about the best outcomes for our students. That is ultimately what we are all here for.