About Dr Deborah M. Netolicky

For more than 20 years—across independent schools in Perth, Melbourne, and London—I have led teaching, learning, staff development, staff wellbeing, and change management that is strategically aligned and based in context, research, and innovation. My research interests include professional learning, professional identity, school leadership, and leading change. I am currently Head of Teaching and Learning (K-12) at an independent school with 1800 students, Honorary Research Associate at Murdoch University, Chair of the Board of a local public school, and member of national and international advisory committees. I am author of the book ‘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'. Awards include the 2021 AERA Educational Change SIG Emerging Scholar Award, the 2021 Michael Fullan Emerging Scholar Award, the 2021 ACEL WA Certificate of Excellence in Educational Leadership, the 2018 ACEL WA Research in Educational Leadership and Management Award 2018, and the 2026 ACEL ‘New Voice’ In Educational Leadership Research Scholarship. My 'the édu flâneuse' blog narrates my thinking around education, leadership, professional learning, writing, and research. Photographs are mine except where a source is acknowledged.

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.

EXCELSIOR: 2021 #oneword

Source: timetoclimb.com

After choosing #oneword to set my intentions for the year ahead for five years—CONQUER in 2015, MOMENTUM in 2016, NOURISH in 2017, METAMORPHOSIS in 2018, and LIGHT in 2019—I was so immersed in travel last January that I didn’t get around to choosing a word for 2020, though the year taught me plenty!

14 days into 2021 I haven’t yet been willing or able to set goals or intentions for the year ahead. The events and experiences of the last year, and current realities around the world, are playing on my mind. What word or individual targets could possibly do justice to what we all need to focus on now? Humanity. Equity. Celebration of diversity. Democracy. Unity. The goals seem too big and the destinations too far. What can one person focus on that might make a difference? How might we, individually and collectively, move onward and upward from here?

To move onward and upward is to move deliberately. It is not rudderless, purposeless movement, but purpose-full, advancing towards a destination, anchored by values and vision. Yet the moving forward happens one step at a time.

Perhaps, step by little step, we can edge towards the future we want to see. Lao Tzu is attributed as writing, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s 1991 protest song about Aboriginal land rights in Australia notes that “from little things big things grow”. James Clear in his book Atomic Habits writes “success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.” Writing a PhD, and then a book, were examples of eating the proverbial elephant one bite at a time. When I wrote my book Transformational Professional Learning, I had a visible reminder to myself that simply said: “Start now.” Write. Begin. Do. I stuck a word count list in 5K increments on the fridge, and crossed off each milestone as I passed it. Training in powerlifting also reminds me how small consistent effort can accumulate into big results. Chipping away. Being disciplined rather than motivated. Turning up regardless of how I feel and just doing the work (mostly this looks like arriving at the gym at 5.15am and doing what my coach tells me). In 2020 I hit some powerlifting personal bests: 112.5kg squat, 110.5kg sumo deadlift, 140kg trap bar deadlift, 67kg bench press. In 2021 these numbers will go higher, not because of any big move or lofty goal, but because of small regular actions that add up to progress over time.

And so, I have settled on a word to guide me in 2021: EXCELSIOR.

Excelsior is a Latin word meaning ‘ever upward’ or ‘still higher’. It is about striving for better. A catchphrase of Stan Lee and reminiscent of Michelle Obama’s famous motto, “When they go low, we go high”, excelsior is about aiming high, going high, being part of the world as we wish it to be.

This early in the year I am focusing on habits. What achievable micro actions can I implement, teeny step by teeny step, to make a positive difference for myself and my circle of influence? How might I fill my own cup, and pour into the cups of others? I am starting small. Very small. The first week of January had me focusing on quality sleep (via a regular sleep time) and increasing my water intake. Simple and achievable habits on which I can build.

I was back at work today, so I am beginning to consider what kinds of habits I can integrate into my work day. Prioritising what matters over what consumes. Returning constantly to values, purpose and context. Continuing to listen widely and intently. Moving more. Engaging with positive and productive people and behaviours that will move our care for our students and our school forward. Baby steps to move us onward and upward in the direction of those things that will make a real difference for our community.

I’m wondering, to what might I contribute this year outside of work that can be part of nudging education ever upward, to a more equitable, democratic, human, humane place? I’ve been editing a book that I hope will make a positive difference in the education world. Little by little it moves forward. Soon it will be time for me to consider: What more? What else? What next?

To move ‘ever upward’ means to advance, to move in a positive direction, to be part of creating what’s good (as in the common good, the greater good, good for all). Excelsior speaks to being in motion while focusing on the next steps as well as the big goal or distant horizon. Those hopes and dreams are there, but it’s the actions we all regularly take that will add up to making our world a better place.

20 things I learned in 2020.

I have written less in 2020 on this blog than in any other year since starting it in 2014. Like many, I have been busy, shell shocked, wrung dry, and spread thin by the events (personal, local and global) of this year. Before this one there have been 20 blog posts in 2020. I almost didn’t want to ruin that symmetry by writing post #21, but here it is: a brief run down of those things that this year brought into sharp relief for me.

Of course, I learned plenty things this year, such as how to dress for video calls, that living in the world’s most isolated city is a blessing during a pandemic, and that full toilet paper shelves in supermarkets can be symbolic of a community’s sense of psychological safety. But these didn’t make my list of 20 things I ‘learned’. Perhaps I should have titled this blog post ‘20 things I already knew but learned for real in 2020’. The experiences of this year have helped me understand their significance beyond their aphoristic ‘truthiness’. And here they are:

  1. We need to listen to research and science, not opinion, misinformation, and social media noise. But research and science can’t tell us everything. Sometimes we don’t know, or we don’t know yet. We need to make the best decisions we can with the best information we have.
  2. The Western world moves at a cracking pace that isn’t healthy, sustainable, or good for the planet. We need to rethink the ways in which we live and work, but it’s difficult to change our norms, assumptions, and ingrained ways of behaving and being in the world.
  3. We don’t need to be in the office or workplace to be working. We can lead more flexible and integrated work-home lives.
  4. Our world is full of inequities that become starker and more sickening during a crisis.
  5. Health and wellbeing are paramount, and are the responsibility of everyone. To ensure the health of populations around the world, governance and leadership matter, but so do the actions of each individual.
  6. We are relational, interdependent, social organisms whose biology draws us to one another – physically, emotionally, and cognitively. When we are forced to distance from one another, it hurts.
  7. Among the most important things in life are our family and friends. We must live our lives as though being with those we love is one of our essential needs.
  8. Wellbeing is more than being physically well. Anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness, loss, and trauma can have wide ranging and unexpected impacts.
  9. Meaningful work is crucial to wellbeing.
  10. Technologies can help us to connect with one another, but do not replace face to face connection.
  11. Webinars and virtual conferences allow greater breadth of participation but do not allow the time and head space of a physical conference held away from home.
  12. There are many in our societies who are undervalued but whose work is essential and often invisible. Cleaners, grocery suppliers, delivery drivers, facilities managers, nurses, doctors, care workers, pharmacists, and teachers deserve ongoing professional trust and respect.
  13. Teachers can’t be replaced by technology, but technologies can enhance teaching and allow students to display independence, resilience, and autonomy in their learning.
  14. Remote teaching and learning (like any major undertaking) requires careful design and responsive implementation if it is to be successful.
  15. 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.
  16. When leading during a crisis it is tempting to focus on the immediate, the problematic, and the measurable, but leaders must simultaneously consider the possible, the human, and the humane.
  17. Collaboration is key to a positive future: local, national, and global collaboration that is meaningful, transparent, and productive, and focused on the shared moral purpose of the greater good for all.
  18. It’s hard to support others when we are ourselves struggling. It’s hard for a community to support each other when many are struggling.
  19. Being kind to others means listening with empathy and taking positive action, sometimes without being asked.
  20. Being kind to ourselves means giving ourselves permission to say no, being present with our feelings and reactions, and prioritising what’s important to us.

As we near the end of 2020, I hope that, in amongst the challenges and difficulties this year, each of you experienced moments of hope, gratitude, and reflection.

‘Pracademic’: Just another made-up edu-word?

IPDA conference virtual presentation – with Trista Holloweck and Paul Campbell

While the idea of the scholar-practitioner is not new, and the term ‘pracademic’ has been smattered in research literature across various fields, the concept of the pracademic is only recently beginning to gain traction in the education community. It remains scarcely documented and has not yet been comprehensively theorised. So, is the term ‘pracademic’ just another made-up edu-word, a senseless attempt to label and divide educators along research-practice lines, or a concept worthy of inquiry and elaboration?

In my view, the notions of pracademic and pracademia are worthy of exploration. In some ways, all educators are pracademics, whether that be scholars who engage practitioners in their research, or practitioners who engage with research and those working in the academe. It can include the myriad of collaborations and interactions between those operating mostly in schools and those operating mostly in universities. Yet, much scholarship still fails to make it to those working in schools, and the expertise and wisdom of practitioners is still often missing from research and policy conversations about education.

Pracademia might be seen as a space or spaces; or as a stance, a deliberate situatedness in the grey, messy in-between space. It encompasses a way of being that embraces the bridging or knotting together of research and practice in ways that engage with multiple stakeholders or influence in multiple directions.

In my book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference on Schools
(2020), I explored my own positionality as a pracademic, after hearing myself labelled as such by Professors Andy Hargreaves and Christian van Nieuwerburgh. I wrote in the Introduction:

“The unique perspective I bring to the field of professional learning is one of boundary-spanning teacher-leader-researcher who works to bridge the gap between research and practice. In the structure and writing of this book I model the way that I bring the lens of practising teacher and school leader to research, and bring a research lens to my daily work. I connect the dots between scholarly and practical domains, to operate in the space (or as the bridge) between the world of education research and that of classroom and school. This bridging work brings a research lens to schools, where teachers and school leaders enact theory into practice, tempered by their wisdom of practice and the emotional and human elements of education that shape their behaviours each day.”

In the Foreword to that book, Andy Hargreaves also described the emerging pracademic voice in education:

“Deborah Netolicky is part of a new breed of thought leader in education known as the pracademic. My autocorrect function on my laptop sometimes translates this as paramedic!! In fact, the two words and the worlds they capture are not all that far apart. … Pracademics span the worlds of research and practice. … the pracademic is here to stay, and Deborah Netolicky is providing us with an excellent example of what we can uniquely learn from this new kind of voice that has come onto the modern educational landscape.”

Moving beyond that book, and those reflections, led to more conversations with other pracademics, and further conversation around pracademic spaces, identities and behaviours. At the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) conference in January, my ‘extreme speech’ on the main stage explored pracademic identity, and I was part of a symposium on pracademia—with Trista Hollweck, Paul Campbell, Leyton Schnellert and Danette Parsley as discussant—titled ‘Pracademics: Exploring the tensions and opportunities of boundary-spanners who straddle the worlds of academia and practice’.

Now, as these conversations continue, tensions and complexities around pracademia in eduction continue to bubble up. Trista, Paul and I are now editing a Special Issue of the Journal of Professional Capital and Community on ‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’. Yesterday, we presented some of our thinking at the virtual International Professional Development Association conference. Questions with which we engaged include:

  • What is a pracademic and who decides?
  • What does it mean to be a pracademic in different educational spaces?
  • What issues and/or tensions arise in the complex negotiation of the dual worlds of practice and scholarship?
  • What role do identity and belonging play in pracademia?
  • What does pracademia offer the field of education? 
  • Is the term limiting or empowering, divisive or productive?

We also shared three metaphors we are playing with that represent the ways in which we are defining the concept of pracademia with all its plurality, complexity and multiplicity.

Watch this space as this work continues to grow.

Leadership in 2020

Source: Shutterstock

It is becoming increasingly apparent that, while leadership is about service, in order to lead we need to look after self. Familiar analogies–of fitting our own oxygen masks before we can help others, and filling our own cup before we can pour from it into the cups of others–apply. Leading involves difficult, complex, human, relational work. Leaders need to build in their own mechanisms for wellbeing, such as pauses, support, breaks, and doing those things that nourish and replenish us.

I have been quiet on the blog this year. There are a few reasons. 2020 (probably enough said). A new job. An exciting behind-the-scenes project. Prioritising the important stuff (including family and self-care, as well as work, writing, and advocacy) over feelings of obligation or guilt. Working on saying ‘no’ sometimes.

This year has served up a squall line of disruption and distress. Since March, leaders in all industries have been responding at pace to relentless changes and uncertainty. We have had to reconnect with one another and reimagine our fields. We have had to reconsider the foundations of leadership. We have asked: How have we historically done things? How could we do things now? How might we do things differently? How do we want our world to be? How do we each want to be? What really matters and how do we enable and protect what is most precious and pressing?

Recently, as part of the WomenEd Australia network group, I participated (from afar) in the WomenEd global virtual unconference (a participant-driven meeting). WomenEd—a global grass roots association and 35,000-strong international community, based out of the UK and co-founded by Vivienne Porritt, Jules Daulby, and Keziah Featherstone—is a movement that aims to connect and support women in education, and to advocate for diversity and inclusion in the education sphere. It encourages diverse educators to be ‘10% braver’, to shift out of their comfort zone little by little.

The team of WomenEd Australia prepared a video presentation that explored what influences our leadership, available on YouTube.

In my video reflection for the unconference, I discussed that my own practices of leading are anchored in working towards a shared vision and moral purpose. I begin from a base of trusting in the capacity of those throughout the organisation, and in the importance of supporting and investing in teachers. Good leaders build good leaders.

In the video, I also explain that my leading practices are underpinned by frameworks for action. These include:

  • Consciously navigating tensions. Switching between the ‘dancefloor’ and the ‘balcony. Being strategic while also working to understand the lived experience of those in the school and community. Communicating with clarity and also empathy. ‘Leading fast and slow’ – at once able to respond quickly but also to work strategically at the long game; implementing gradual change with the aspirational end in mind.
  • Applying clear frameworks for decision making with consistency and transparency. One thing we are desperately missing during 2020 is predictability; knowing what to expect and what is likely to come next. I really hope that 2021 can bring more certainty and less anxiety.
  • Meaningful collaboration and consultation. Working at ‘we’, ‘alongside’ and ‘together’. Seeking out dissenting voices and seeking to understand multiple perspectives. Some of the most exciting and uplifting parts of my leadership role are working with a range of diverse stakeholders on productive, positive change.
  • Marrying clear policy and process with responsiveness and adaptability, qualities brought into sharp focus by the constantly changing circumstances of 2020.

Recently, the Year 12s at my school had their final Valedictory celebrations. In their yearbook, I pointed them towards Mariannne Williamson’s words, in which she encourages us to be our brave, unique selves.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. … Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine.”

Shining has often felt out of the realms of possibility this year. Surviving is more likely to describe how many are feeling, even those who others may say have shone and been part of significant or invaluable work. Part of leading may involve demonstrating strength or holding the line, but leading also encompasses empathy, vulnerability, and sitting with discomfort. We can be powerful beyond measure, especially when we give ourselves permission to take time and care for ourselves, when we support and energise one another, and when we work towards a common goal, one tiny nudge at a time.

Book-versary: Transformational Professional Learning

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Yesterday marked one year since my book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools was published.

Thank you to Andy Hargreaves for writing such a wonderful foreword, that began with the following words.

Most Forewords begin with an invited expert in the twilight of their professional lives, setting out his or her wisdom on the state of the field that the ensuing text of the book addresses. Eventually, in the last two or three paragraphs, the expert then gets around to saying a few kind things about the book itself.

But in this case, we need to turn things around. This is, simply, an extraordinary book. I have never seen anything quite like it. I have read books by outstanding researchers, some of them former teachers, myself (at my best) included, who have and who can convey empathy and a studied grasp of the work of teachers and how it connects to their lives and their worlds. I have also read very engaging books by teachers and leaders about their own worlds and work that are full of ideas, absorbing anecdotes, practical wisdom, and a sprinkling of insights from researchers and thought leaders in the academic world to back them up.

This book is something else, though. As a synthesis of the field of professional learning and a critical exploration of its less fashionable and more unusual aspects—like self-directed learning, or attending courses—I can recall scarcely any better ones in the academic community itself. Unlike many researchers who collate all the evidence before them and draw circumspect conclusions about what it all means, Deborah Netolicky goes further and, in her own voice, as both academic and practitioner, she expresses it all from a constructively critical and also professionally candid perspective.

Thank you to Alma Harris, Carol Campbell, Pasi Sahlberg, Ellie Drago-Severson, Bruce Wellman, Rachel Lofthouse, and Nicole Mockler for providing generous endorsements. Alma, for example, wrote the following.

Occasionally, a book comes along that a field desperately needs. Transformational Professional Learning is such a book. It is clear, accessible and profoundly practical. Cutting through the vast literature on professional learning, it reminds us that the ultimate end game is making a difference to learners. Put simply, this book is a must read.

Thank you to those who have read the book, reviewed it, invited me to speak about it, and shared annotations and photos of where you’ve read it around the world. Thank you to those who have engaged with me in discussions about its ideas.

Meaningful professional learning that makes a real difference to teachers and school leaders (and therefore students) remains an ongoing professional passion. The conversation and work continues.

Distance Learning 3.0: Ready to launch

source: pixabay WikiImages

Today I shared with teaching staff our school Distance Learning Plan 3.0. While Western Australia continues—for now—in a bubble of semi-normality, we are aware, as other places in the country and the world show, that COVID-19 is an illness that can explode in a community at any time, despite the best precautions.

At my school, we enacted distance learning during Term 1 for a period of about three weeks, and then were ‘locked down’ during the two week school holiday break before students began returning to school for Term 2. We generated feedback from our community at that time, which suggested the following for our next round of distance learning.

  • We need to ensure we are differentiating our approach. Distance learning needs to look different for different ages and stages, and for different subjects. As a kindergarten to Year 12 school, students (and their parents!) require varied approaches to distance learning, relevant to developmental age and capacity for autonomy in learning. Older children are more likely to cope with increased opportunities for flexibility and independence; younger children need scaffolds, structures, technologies and resources appropriate to them. Subjects that are more content heavy and theoretical require different approaches to those that are more practical. We need to fit the pedagogical and technological tools to the learning purpose.
  • We need to support student organisation, structure and routine. For example, by setting out for students a clear structure to the day, and a clear plan for the day and week in advance so they can plan accordingly and be flexible and autonomous in their work.
  • We need to provide live video lessons and pastoral video check-ins, for learning and connectedness.
  • We need to provide a range of teaching and learning content, blending modes and approaches.
  • Predictable and streamlined communication works best. The Goldilocks approach is what we are aiming for here: not too little and not too much.
  • Workload needs to be manageable for students and teachers. My understanding from colleagues in Victoria and overseas is that long term lock down–including working, teaching and learning from home–is exhausting for all. Especially in the early years, set work for children needs to be manageable for parents.
  • Wellbeing is essential. Ill-being, trauma, anxiety and inequities have increased in our world during this global pandemic (which was preceded in Australia by a terrifying bushfire season). We need to build in time and encouragement for nutrition, hydration and physical activity, and regular breaks from screens and from the relentlessness of a life in constant lock down.

The main elements of our Distance Learning 3.0 model are the following.

  • Teacher instruction: in short bursts of 15-30 minutes, delivered synchronously (live) and asynchronously (for students to access in their own time).
  • Student collaboration: through virtual and online platforms.
  • Student independent work: in which students manage their own time and work autonomously.
  • Student reflection: in which they are encouraged to use metacognitive strategies, reflect on own learning and set clear targets for improvement.

All of these elements are underpinned by trust in the professional capacity and professional judgement of teachers as experts in curriculum (what they are teaching), pedagogy (how to teach so students learn), and their students.

key elements of our Distance Learning Plan 3.0 – wellbeing is central

Wellbeing is at the centre of our distance learning model. We have deliberately built in a focus on the wellbeing of our students, parents, and teachers by integrating the following.

  • Shortening lesson times and increasing break times during periods of distance learning.
  • Including one Student-Directed Learning Day per week for Years K-10. This day is a ‘non-contact’ day of learning in which students organise their time to complete set work, and teachers prepare, mark and respond to student queries. The day will be cycled through the days of the week, depending on when distance learning begins (e.g. Monday one week, Tuesday the next, and so on).
  • Paring back content to the essentials and rethinking the way students can engage with content.
  • Reconsidering the ways in which students can show their learning, and redesigning or rescheduling assessments where appropriate.
  • Continuing to act with kindness, compassion and empathy.

Our Distance Learning Plan 3.0 is the plan we hope to never have to use, but as I explained in my last post, it’s the plan we would be irresponsible to be without.

COVID-19 and distance learning: Preparing, not just reacting

I’ve lived through Melbourne winters. They’re cold, wet, and dark, but the great thing about them is all the warm, cosy places to socialise, connect, enjoy the arts, attend festival events, watch and play sports, eat delicious food, and drink a beverage of choice with friends, family, and strangers. Life in lockdown, in the middle of a Melbourne winter, must be incredibly hard for everyone. While the mist still rises off the Yarra in the early morning, and stormy colours swirl in Port Phillip Bay, most of what makes Melbourne winters great is currently cancelled. Adults are working from home. Students are learning from home. Everyone is staying home. Face masks have become part of daily life. I can only imagine what it feels to live a Melburnian’s current reality.

Over in Perth, Western Australia, life is different. We had about four weeks of lockdown, but are now in what our state government calls ‘Phase 4’ of restrictions easing. That means that the only restrictions are the two square metre rule indoors, 50% capacity at major venues, and a ‘hard border’ between the rest of the world and our WA bubble. Businesses are open as long as they have a COVID-19 plan for contact tracing, extra cleaning, and appropriate physical distancing for adults. Many are working back in their corporate offices. Community sport is being played. People are travelling around the state (at four times the size of Texas and twelve times bigger than the UK, that’s plenty of landscape to cover). Schools have full attendance of students and staff, with classes being taught face to face and assemblies and other school events being held in ways that are compliant with government regulations. Students—including those who are 17 and 18 years old like the Year 12s I teach—are considered exempt from the physical distancing rules.

Things feel strangely normal (apart from hand sanitiser at every turn, contactless greetings, half empty stadiums, holding meetings and events in rooms big enough to  allow for physical distancing,  and watching what is happening elsewhere in the world unfold). We know we are incredibly fortunate. We also know that COVID-19 is around for the mid to long term, and the government keeps telling us ‘we can’t be complacent’. The time lag between the virus being transmitted, symptoms, and test results, means that we won’t know the virus is circulating in the community until it may be too late to easily isolate it. After 102 days of no community transmission, New Zealand now has 56 active cases, including 37 from community transmission. A quarantine breach, followed by socialising in our current ‘Phase 4’ conditions, would be enough to send Western Australia back into lockdown and into a reality of anxiety, loneliness, ill-being, and the traumatic human, economic, and social costs of this virus.

As a school leader charged with leading teaching and learning, I know that we need to have a distance learning plan ready in case we need to move to it at short notice. Not being prepared for another bout of distance learning is irresponsible, like living in a tsunami-prone area and not having a tsunami evacuation map. We might not need it. But we might.

Rather than wheeling out our previous plan/s, we have been thinking about how we can do distance learning better, if and when there is a next time. So we have been working on our ‘Distance Learning 3.0’.

We had our original plan, pivoted to when students, apart from children of essential workers, were encouraged to learn from home at a day’s notice. We had Distance Learning 2.0, finalised in the first week of the Term 1 school holidays, only to be put in the file drawer when the government announced that schools would be welcoming back all, most, or some children sooner than originally planned. It was unclear; all students were encouraged but no-one was required to attend school, and parents were told by government officials that no child would be disadvantaged either way. That set of messages necessitated all schools to rewrite their plans at pace, and resulted in our 2.0 Hybrid Learning version, the plan that no school leader wants to unveil and implement because it means—no matter how carefully we try to set manageable parameters—that teachers are likely to have to straddle two modes of teaching for those students at home and those in the classroom.

Now, while we continue with business-as-usual-as-2020-will-allow, we are refining our distance learning model–and the ways in which it serves the learning, care, and wellbeing of our community–as best we can. We are honing our context-specific model for its implementation, which may come sooner, later, or never. Our 3.0 model is based on what we now know about the way distance learning is experienced by our community and by others in the world, as well as from emerging research. More about that in my next post.

I would love to hear from my Victorian colleagues about the realities of how distance teaching and home learning are going, and what your learnings are this time around. We in the west are thinking of you.

Educators: Being better together

2020 has heard the catch cry ‘we’re all in this together’. In some ways we are all experiencing a strange new normal together, and yet we are seeing how different our experiences of the current reality are for each of us. Inequities are amplified. Still, amidst shared adversity and collective vulnerability, togetherness and our common humanity prevail as golden threads holding our world together.

The education world’s incredible response to the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded me of the concept of Indra’s Net, which has multifaceted jewels at each point, and each jewel is reflected in all the other jewels. In any school all members of staff are interconnected, and we reflect and rely on one another. Often the work of colleagues is invisible or subtle. It’s like air – we don’t know it’s there until we don’t have it. COVID-19 has taught us to value much of what we have previously taken for granted.

I’ve been reflecting on a podcast I listened to over the holiday break in which Habits of Leadership’s Tim Perkins interviewed Antarctic expedition leader Rachael Robertson. The tagline of the podcast was ‘being liked is overrated’. Rachael talked about the importance of respect, a common goal, teamwork and constructive conflict if a team is to be successful. Her message is: “Respect trumps harmony.” We don’t need to like each other, but we do to respect each other.

Another theme from the podcast that resonated was the idea of leading without a title. Leadership is not a position, but behaviour, action, a way of being. Focusing on the practices of leading is something I explored in my recently-published chapter ‘Being, becoming and questioning the school leader:  An autoethnographic exploration of a woman in the middle’ in the edited book Theorising identity and subjectivity in educational leadership research. I wrote the following.

“A focus on leading over the leader allows the work of leading to be considered beyond the domain of autonomous individuals, focusing instead on ways of leading throughout organisations (Grice, 2018; Wilkinson & Kemmis, 2015). This enables a focus on the doing of leadership rather than on being a leader. … Considering leadership as practice rather than person encompasses the deliberate choices of anyone participating in the act of leading; it opens up leadership theorising beyond the individual or the principal to anyone behaving in leaderly ways.” (Netolicky, 2020, p.105)

The other point in the podcast that resonated was Rachael’s mantra of ‘no triangles’, which essentially means having direct conversations with colleagues. “The best way to deal with an issue is directly with the other person,” says Rachael. “You don’t talk to that person about me, and I won’t talk to them about you.”

While Rachael bases her leadership commentary around her unusual and intense experience leading in the isolation of Antarctica, there is much for us to reflect upon in education. I was reminded of Andy Hargreaves and Michael O’Connor’s concept of collaborative professionalism, in which they highlight the importance of demanding dialogue, candid feedback, and continuous collaborative inquiry. They also highlight the importance of support for and solidarity with each other. Care and camaraderie have really come to the fore during the COVID-19 crisis, and can be seen in the ways educators have banded and knitted together within and across schools.

I also revisited Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman’s Adaptive Schools work in which they note that conviviality does not equal collegiality. That is, surface harmony can mask underlying tensions and differences. What we need to aim for, they argue, is constructive conflict, collective responsibility and peer accountability.

Of course, openness, honest feedback, demanding dialogue and respectful disagreement cannot exist without an environment of trust, which Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider assert, in their book Trust in Schools, is the connective tissue that binds those of us working in schools together.

There are many trust relationships operating in and around schools. Students need to trust teachers. Parents need to trust teachers and leaders. Teachers need to trust each other. Teachers and leaders need to trust each other. Teachers, leaders and the School need to be trusted by the wider community and by society!

But as Megan Tschannen-Moran points out in her book Trust Matters, more trust is not always better; there are negative ramifications to in trusting too little or too much. Using the Aristotelian golden mean, she points out that an optimal ‘Goldilocks’ level of trust paves a middle way in which innovation, adaptability, productive risk taking, openness, high expectations of all, and psychological safety can thrive.

In our schools, then, we can each focus on the following if we are to be better together.

  • Leadership. We can each lead within our sphere of influence. We can each be the change we want to see.
  • Peer support. We can check in on each other. Collaborate. Provide support. Uplift and champion each other.
  • Collective responsibility. We can gently nudge each other. Gracefully disagree. Give honest and respectful feedback. Try direct conversations. The standard we walk past is the standard we accept, so from the little things to big things we can all make sure we act ethically and with integrity, and speak up when something isn’t ok.