"For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer, it's an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite: you're not at home, but you feel at home everywhere, you're at the centre of everything yet you remain hidden from everybody." Baudelaire
During the pandemic, professional learning, like everything else, needed to adapt. With many borders closed, air travel less available, and people experiencing varying stages of public restrictions and lockdowns around the world, more learning happened at home. Like remote learning for schools and higher education organisations, professional learning courses and conferences pivoted to online formats. Presenters presented from home, and participants participated from home. Education organisations capitalised on cost-effective online options for professional learning.
At my school we looked to the virtual, but also to the local and internal. We engaged consultants in targeted and ongoing work alongside our staff, provided opportunities for staff to present their expertise and practice to one another, and arranged time and forums for staff to engage collaboratively in whole-school strategic priorities. We continued, when and where possible, to provide opportunities for intentional and meaningful face-to-face professional learning and to connect with external experts and organisations.
Virtual professional learning, so ubiquitous in 2020 and 2021, has many benefits. It is better for the planet. Without travel and catering, it has lower carbon and economic costs, and a lower environmental impact. It allows greater equity of access for those who may not be able to afford travel, accommodation, and conference costs.
A 2021 paper in Nature Sustainability by Skiles et al. and a 2022 paper by Yates and colleagues in The Lancet confirm that virtual conferences provide environmental sustainability and participant equity benefits. The virtual format overcomes social, economic, and travel-related barriers for those most likely to be impacted by these. It increases participation and representation of those from institutions and countries with limited resources, women, professionals with a disability, and early career researchers and practitioners. It also provides opportunities for increased accessibility through the use of live captions, live chatbox Q&A, and recording sessions for participants to watch later.
However, virtual professional learning has its downsides. After a couple of years of online learning formats, there is a level of Zoom or virtual professional learning fatigue. Digital access in low income countries continues to be a barrier to participation in virtual conferences. Despite some sessions being recorded, time zones of global conferences often favour those in Europe and America. As someone in Western Australia, rarely have the times of international virtual conferences been friendly. Over the last couple of years, I have been scheduled to present at times such as 1am and 4am. Learning or presenting from home also requires the presenter or participant to manage competing demands, not to mention juggling the use of a stretched wifi network across the household’s multiple devices and technology needs. I have attempted to listen to virtual conference keynotes in my kitchen while cooking dinner and trying to focus on the words of the speaker rather than the sounds of my family.
There is something immersive and nourishing about the in-person conference experience. While I may have been able to attend more conferences virtually than I would have been able to in person over recent years, I have missed being there, in situ, with the sights, sounds and smells of another place. I have missed the time afforded by solo travel to sit with ideas, consider them, and think beyond the transactional busyness of the day-to-day. It is often ‘being away’ that allows the space for clarity and creativity of thought, moving us beyond the narrowness of the here and now, to broader perspectives and possibilities. Mostly, I have missed the human connection, including serendipitous meetings; and corridor, coffee, and dinner conversations with colleagues and presenters.
I have found in my own research (Netolicky, 2016a, 2016b, 2020), that professional learning is highly individualised, context-specific, and that the ways in which we professionally learn are many and varied. Experiences that shape our professional beliefs and practices can be professional and personal, formal and informal, in and out of so-called ‘professional learning’ contexts, solo or collaborative. Effective professional learning can cost a little or a lot. It can happen in person or online. It can take air miles, accommodation budgets, and well-known presenters, or be located on site at work, or in a car while listening to a podcast, or at home via a webinar. Professional learning is a core part of staff belonging and wellbeing. For schools, it should be judicious and simultaneously aligned with the individual’s professional goals and the school’s strategic priorities. It benefits from being ongoing in some way – whether that is a continuing partnership between professional learning provider and school, through a mentoring or coaching relationship, or by a small group of colleagues sharing and developing their learning together after attending a conference or course.
As the world opens back up, and previous models of professional learning become possible once more, Yates et al. challenge us to find new, innovative, and hybrid ways to provide professional learning. They challenge us to focus on planetary health and equity, as well as on effective learning, networking, and collaboration. Organisations can and should continue to consider in what ways they invest in and support the learning of their staff, the kinds of opportunities they provide and promote, their professional learning environmental footprint, and the inclusivity of their offerings and practices.
Netolicky, D. M. (2020). Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools. Routledge.
Netolicky, D. M. (2016a). Down the rabbit hole: Professional identities, professional learning, and change in one Australian school (Doctoral dissertation, Murdoch University).
Netolicky, D. M. (2016b). Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders. Journal of professional capital and community, 1(4), 270-285.
Skiles, M., Yang, E., Reshef, O., Muñoz, D. R., Cintron, D., Lind, M. L., Calleja, P. P., Nerenberg, R., Armani, A., Faust, M. K., & Kumar, M. (2022). Conference demographics and footprint changed by virtual platforms. Nature Sustainability, 5(2), 149-156.
Yates, J., Kadiyala, S., Li, Y., Levy, S., Endashaw, A., Perlick, H., & Wilde, P. (2022). Can virtual events achieve co-benefits for climate, participation, and satisfaction? Comparative evidence from five international Agriculture, Nutrition and Health Academy Week conferences. The Lancet Planetary Health, 6(2).
Term 1 2022 may have occurred at and for about the same time as it usually does in Australia, but it felt like an especially long for educators.
In Western Australia, with more restrictions in place than some other states, signature experiences of Term 1 included the following.
Mask-wearing for school staff, and for students in Years 3 and up.
Classrooms with air purifiers, CO2 monitors and open windows.
Schools taking on the role of contact tracing and communication.
Restrictions to gatherings at schools, resulting in parent information, parent teacher interviews, assemblies, and activities being held online, outdoors, or in small groups.
The latest iterations of remote and hybrid learning as students and teachers were absent from school due to isolation and illness.
Teacher absences and shortages.
Teachers classed as potential ‘critical workers’.
The hard border into WA softening.
The acting federal Education Minister making remarks about “dud teachers” “dragging the chain” and “not delivering the learning gains our children need”.
The administrative requirements of Covid-19 directions for schools, combined with restrictions on getting together in person, meant that educators’ experiences of the term were largely transactional, operational, and cumulatively exhausting. School leaders and teachers worked to keep school communities safe, informed, and with a sense of calm normalcy. We put one foot in front of the other, complied with requirements, and ensured that learning and pastoral care continued for students. But we missed some of those things that buoy us in our work: relationality, community, and connection.
At my school we employed as many relief staff as we could to take the pressure off our teachers. We offered opportunities for staff to work flexibly or from home when we could. We scaled back and reimagined meetings, doing these differently or not at all, according to their purpose and our community’s needs. We carefully considered administrative requirements and evaluated the effectiveness, efficiency, and flexibility of assessment tasks and feedback practices. We interrogated the reasons for our ways of doing things, generated alternate ways to achieve our aims, and questioned whether the aims themselves needed to be rethought or relinquished. What was important during this time? What could we do differently? What could be let go?
We found small ways to connect with one another. There were no whole-staff meetings or morning teas, but we met in smaller groups (on balconies, in the quadrangle, in well-ventilated spaces). We held some free coffee Fridays where drinks at the coffee van were paid for by the school, facilitating incidental outdoors conversations between colleagues, as well as offering a gesture of thanks to our hard working staff. We thanked individuals for specific contributions. I called most teachers who were home isolating or ill, to check in and see how they were. We introduced a Staff Appreciation Award so that staff could recognise colleagues for their support.
While it was tempting to hold off on all but the most essential work, we knew that engaging with our professional selves, professional goals, and core purpose was key to staying connected and uplifted. We held our annual goal setting meetings and booked into professional learning experiences. We provided opportunities for staff to collaborate in small groups and teams to have energising, productive conversations around practice, with each other and with external experts. As well as teaching our students, it was pockets of meaningful collaboration that sparked moments of professional delight. Working together with colleagues and engaging in robust dialogue, thoughtful reflection, and collaborative planning, provided a lightness, an energy, and a reminder about our shared moral purpose: educating each student in our school community.
None of this is perfect, but we are doing our absolute best. We remain committed to the learning, care, safety, and success of our students.
Someone asked me recently what I have been proud of, and the first thing that came to mind was: showing up. The challenge for those in schools is to maintain enough wellbeing, community, connection, kindness and belonging, to sustain us through what will continue to be a challenging year. During this break between terms, I hope that educators around the country are filling their empty cups by finding time to regenerate and to connect with themselves and with their families and friends.
I was invited to speak today as part of the Future Schools webinar series. In particular, I was asked to engage with the notion of flipping the education system, based in my work in co-editing the 2019 book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education.
That was then
Even though today’s conversation was for a group interested in future schools and the future of schooling, thinking about it required me to reflect back to 2018, when much of the work of the Flip the System Australia book was being done. Back then, my co-editors—Jon Andrews and Cameron Paterson—and I were experiencing the then- educational environment of measurement and surveillance. This included a distrust of schools and teachers, heightened accountabilities according to quantifiable measurables in education, policy rhetoric about educational quality assurance and effectiveness, competitive comparisons of performance in high stakes standardised tests, and a push for teachers to do ‘what works’ according to simplified and dehumanised lists of apparent best practice (although, as Dylan Wiliam says, everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere).
Our book built upon the Flip the System books that came before ours (from the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK) and sought to value and promote a diverse range of voices in education talking about what matters (or what should matter), over what works. We argued for the humanising of educational narratives, the democratising of educational policy and practice, and the development of deep and sustained trust in the teaching profession.
Teachers’ being and becoming
My Flip the System Australia chapter argues for elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders in educational research, practice, and policymaking. In the chapter, I explore the quantifying and performative measuring of teacher work as limiting the complexities of that work and reducing teacher identities to a limited range of options. I define identity in my book Transformational Professional Learning as “the situated, ongoing process through which we make sense of ourselves, to ourselves and others” (p.19). It is a constant, context-embedded process of being and becoming, with professional identities inextricably linked to personal identities; we are our whole selves at work, and our lives influence our teaching.
Teaching as a performance disconnected from identity and purpose is unsustainable. Teachers need to feel that their identities are aligned with the purpose of the profession, with shared school values, and with their daily work. Rather than being required to fit themselves to a school, teachers need to feel that they truly belong in a school community in which they share a common moral purpose and are valued for their individual selves, including their gifts and imperfections.
Embracing authenticity and embedding inclusive practices are becoming increasingly important in schools. More than that, as Jelmer Evers wrote in the Foreword to our Australian book, a shared professional identity can transcend borders and nationalities, and can form the basis of reinventing democracy and our schools.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
A focus on the humanity and the positive contribution of education to the lives of all young people remains the core purpose of education. In Flip the System Australia, Carol Campbell describes the purpose of education as “the betterment of humanity” (p.81). In my chapter, I say that “education is not an algorithm but a human endeavour” (p.16). The betterment and care of each child, and thereby the betterment of humanity, includes supporting children to be their best, most agentic and self-determining selves, able to make positive contributions to their communities and to the world.
In Australia, the 2019 Alice Springs Education Declaration, and before it the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, expressed two key goals:
Goal 1: The Australian education system promotes excellence and equity; and
Goal 2: All young Australians become: conﬁdent and creative individuals; successful lifelong learners; and active and informed members of the community.
Yet Australia remains far from an education system that promotes, for all young Australians, excellence and equity.
Melitta Hogarth’s Flip the System Australia chapter reveals the contradictory nature of policies and practices that appear to be unbiased, but that perpetuate conservative, colonial values, and the silencing of Indigenous voices in education. She argues for Indigenous representation at every level of education leadership and decision making in Australia. Kevin Lowe in his chapter argues for collaborative, productive engagement between schools and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. There remains ongoing disadvantage for Indigenous Australian children, in terms of education, social and health outcomes. Systemic inequities have been exacerbated by the pandemic and compounded by Western-centric curriculum and biased measures of educational success.
In Chapter 11 of Flip the System Australia, Andy Hargreaves, Shaneé Washington and Michael O’Connor shared findings on teacher wellbeing that now read as a prelude to the intensification of workload and the impacts of the pandemic that have followed. They commented that “teachers feel they are losing control over their professional decisions, … they are being asked to carry the mounting social problems of the world on their own shoulders, and, in the midst of all these things, they feel constrained and compromised by competencies and assessments they do not always believe in” (p.101). Their chapter asserts that there is no student wellbeing without teacher wellbeing. Since that chapter was written, wellbeing has escalated, making its way up the education agenda. Educators have been reminded of something we have always known that now needs our careful attention and action: that wellbeing is inseparably joined with learning and achievement.
This is now
Flipping the system is about flattening and democratising education. Three years on from the publication of Flip the System Australia, the world is facing unremitting and overlapping crises. We only need to turn on the news to see that our planet and democracy remain in peril. In education, governments are enacting fast policy (with teachers and school leaders often hearing about each new policy twist and turn during a press conference), with schools then quickly implementing the changing guidelines and protocols.
Although there are frightening data around teacher and school leader burnout and retention challenges, teachers and school leaders remain incredibly committed to serving their communities, through the most difficult of circumstances. There has been the need for, and therefore the rise of, school and teacher autonomy during the pandemic, as educators have made context-embedded decisions about what their students and communities need, and how to best work to meet these needs.
Schools have been revealed as places of connectedness, relationality, socialisation, and community, as well as learning. The last couple of years have led schools to develop innovative uses of educational technologies, flexible post-secondary pathways for students, and generous networks of educators collaborating together across countries and sectors to share, support and grow alongside one another. Effective leading has been shown to be an authentic practice of care and hope. Those working in schools have been literally changing education from the ground up, which was the catch cry of the original Flip the System book by Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber.
In Australia the academic year has just begun. We are in the ‘schools are first to open and last to close’ phase of the pandemic, with teachers considered essential workers (essential to keeping children in school and parents in the workforce, as well as to continuing the learning of and supporting the wellbeing of students). Schools have, of course, never been closed in Australia. There have been lockdowns during which schools remained open to the children of essential workers with teachers providing remote learning. There have been, and will continue to be, times when there are a number of students at school and a number at home. 2022 may well test the notion of being ‘open’, with staff shortages due to ill and furloughed staff a real concern for schools. Nonetheless, as they have throughout the pandemic, schools will continue to apply the government directions and do their absolute best.
A return to school after the summer break—even with masks, regular rapid tests of students and staff, open windows, air purifiers and CO2 monitors (for those schools that have received supplies)—brings with it uncertainty and the need for constant decisional responsiveness to changing circumstance. Yesterday on ABC’s The Drum, NSW school Principal Briony Scott talked about schools responding to the constantly changing government instructions as:
“like driving a huge ship liner and saying: turn left now. I can spin the wheel all I want, but you have to bring people’s hearts and minds with you.”
She described how schools encompass extensive communities that are cared for by the school, with students, parents and staff falling along a continuum of needs. That’s also my experience in a school of 1800 students and 300 staff, and their associated families. A school is a slice of society and so reflects wider issues and social complexities, with each individual in a school community bringing their own vulnerabilities, anxieties, family intricacies and idiosyncrasies of personal context.
One thing we have been discussing at my school is what we could alleviate in terms of teacher workload, as part of our approach to supporting teacher wellbeing. While we cannot control potential future staffing shortages and the effect this will have on workloads, what professional expectations and meetings can be rethought as the year unfolds? How might staff best collaborate or share tasks to increase efficiency in curriculum planning and preparation of resources? A 2016 UK report on effective marking practices, well before the pressures of a pandemic, noted that there are many ways to acknowledge students’ work, to value their efforts and achievement, and to celebrate progress. It added that:
“too much feedback can take away responsibility from the pupil, detract from the challenge of a piece of work, and reduce long term retention and resilience-building. … Accepting work that pupils have not checked sufficiently and then providing extensive feedback detracts from pupils’ responsibility for their own learning.”
We have encouraged our teachers to think deeply about how much assessing and correcting of student work they are doing, and what they might be able to let go of if they consider the purpose of learning activities, feedback, and evidence of learning. I have shared resources by Glen Pearsall on fast, effective feedback; by Kat Howard and Daisy Christodoulou on techniques such as whole-class feedback; and Dylan Wiliam’s work on what makes feedback effective, including ensuring students meaningfully act on feedback. I always ask: Who is doing the thinking? The student should be doing the cognitive work, facilitated by the teacher.
I have asked curriculum leaders to ponder the following questions as they begin work with their teams this year:
Is there anything your teachers are doing that they can stop doing?
Are there ways to be more efficient yet still effective in planning, marking, feedback and assessment? Are all planned assessments necessary?
Are there ways that teacher collaboration and technologies might help streamline teacher workload in your team?
Are there ways you can help to energise and sustain your team?
As someone who likes to be prepared well in advance (I like a long runway to change), I am challenging myself to be as prepared as I can while also being ok with uncertainty and accepting of what I cannot control. I am reminding myself that while forward planning, informed decisiveness and communication are key in an ongoing crisis, what’s most important is checking in with the people in our community, looking out for and looking after them as best we can in what are likely to continue to be difficult circumstances.
In many ways 2021 has gone by in a flash. Milestones and special moments have come and gone in a maelstrom of work, a firehose of information, and a tumult of pandemic rules and restrictions. As the year winds down, and as I try to do the same, I want to take a moment to reflect on my professional highlights of 2021.
This year my school launched a new strategic plan, and in my role as Head of Teaching and Learning (K-12), I have been engaged in important work bringing that plan to fruition. We have developed our work in what we call ‘learning diversity and inclusion’, including professional learning for and collaboration among staff, adjusting for students with diverse learning needs, developing our shared understanding and practice of differentiation, and improving our reporting on individual learning outcomes. We have continued our focus on effective feedback, assessment, student action on feedback, student goal setting, and student self-reflection and self-regulation, as key ways to develop a learning culture of continual improvement and resilience.
My school aims to support our students to become good people – lifelong learners and leaders of rounded character, able to experience their best success and find their most appropriate pathway through school and beyond school. This year it is wonderful that our Year 12s achieved the best ATAR results in our school’s history, but we know that success is not measured by a number or a test. We will continue to do the work we know matters for the range of students in our care, providing opportunities for agency, voice and accomplishment appropriate to each individual, honouring each person’s story, goals, and gifts.
An exciting challenge has been collating and distilling years of consultation and feedback to inform redesigning the Secondary timetable for 2022 and beyond. In doing so we have made room for a heightened focus on wellbeing and child safety, and for teaching those things that will continue to set our students up for their best future success through our Future Ready programs.
While my role title names ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’, much of my work is immersed in recruiting, inducting, supporting, coaching, mentoring, and developing staff. It is my pleasure to work with staff new to our school, with graduate teachers, with Heads of Department, with cross-school strategic project groups, with middle and aspirant leaders, with classroom teachers, with the Executive team, and with administrative, IT, facilities and support staff. I especially enjoy my one-on-one chats in which I support staff to find learning opportunities relevant to them, position themselves for their next steps, win promotional roles, and make decisions about their futures that best serve them. This year’s launch of our Staff Development Suite, co-designed by a staff steering committee in 2020, allows staff to be supported in ways appropriate and individualised to them. Supporting our staff to thrive and to be their best, in turn supports our students.
A range of initiatives designed to support wellbeing for all staff include: ensuring predictable and well-in-advance calendar dates, timelines and deadlines; morning teas; soup in winter; meditation; seated massage; free flu vaccinations; COVID-19 vaccination leave; some early finishes to accommodate parent-teacher interviews during part of the school day where possible; investment in staff professional learning; support of staff professional goals; leadership development opportunities; a Distance Learning Plan that embeds planning time and realistic expectations of staff and students; supporting staff through life’s hardships; working to make part-time teachers’ timetables as life-friendly as possible; negotiating flexible working arrangements where possible and appropriate; and teacher recognition. I was pleased this year to spend time nominating colleagues for awards, and delighted that they were recognised for the outstanding contribution they make to the lives of the young people in our school and beyond. While teachers constantlynavigate professional responsibilities, marking loads, and administration, schools can continue to consider their role in creating cultures of trust and empathy. This of course involves more than tokens of appreciation and needs to be part of a whole-school culture of organisational, collective and individual care and responsibility, in which the school works to support staff, and staff work to support themselves and each other.
I am incredibly grateful to those who nominated me for awards this year. I was thrilled to receive three awards: the 2021 American Educational Research Association Educational Change Emerging Scholar Award, the 2021 Michael Fullan Emerging Scholar in Professional Capital and Community Award, and the 2021 Australian Council of Educational Leaders WA Certificate of Excellence in Educational Leadership.
I enjoyed presenting to national and international audiences this year (online thanks to the pandemic and travel restrictions) including:
On whether we need pracademics – as part of an Educational Leadership Special Interest Group panel at the Australian Association of Education Research conference, with Fiona Longmuir, Scott Eacott, Virginia Moller and Dorothy Andrews.
A Special Issue of the Journal of Professional Capital and Community ‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’, which I co-edited with Trista Hollweck and Paul Campbell. Its six papers include our paper Defining and exploring pracademia: Identity, community, and engagement.
The edited book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Written mainly during 2020, but released this year, it is edited by me and includes 15 outstanding chapter contributions from 25 authors from the UK, USA, South America, Canada, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East: Asmaa Al-Fadala, Cecilia Azorín, Carol Campbell, Christine Corso, Karen Edge, Michael Fullan, Claire Golledge, Christine Grice Suraiya Hameed, Andy Hargreaves, Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Annie Kidder, Jodie Miller, Richard Paquin Morel, Liliana Mularczyk, me, Viviennne Porritt, Santiago Rincón-Gallardo, Eugenie Samier, Marnee Shay, Dennis Shirley, James Spillane, Eloise Tan, and Pat Thomson, with a Foreword by Beatriz Pont. In my view, this is an incredibly important and forward-thinking book by some of the world’s best education thinkers, researchers and practitioners.
In the introduction to Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership, penned in January this year, I wrote:
It was late in January 2020 that I invited authors to contribute to a book exploring what leadership in education needs now and into the future. … Bringing this book’s authors together in that moment was about considering educational leadership in a time of climate crises, grave global humanitarian need, political unrest, displacement of peoples, and inequities affecting the education, safety, and success of young people around the world. On 30 January, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency. … Between March, when authors conceptualised their abstracts, and later months when they wrote their chapters, much changed for individuals, for schools, for universities, and for the world. …
As I write this Introduction in January 2021, more than two million people have reportedly died from COVID-19 as second and third waves of infections continue around the world. Violent pro-Trump rioters have stormed the US Capitol in Washington DC, numerous countries are in lockdown, hospitals around the world are overwhelmed, and schools in 17 countries are closed to all but essential workers as remote learning is again enacted for millions of students. History may or may not show the COVID-19 pandemic as a watershed event in socioeconomic and educational change. At the moment of writing this book, however, the opportunity to reconsider and reimagine the future of education and educational leadership seems imperative. The need for all of us to work for diversity, inclusion, equity, and democracy is more urgent than ever.
I wondered, as I sent the book to production, if COVID-19 would be a barely-relevant memory by the time the book was published. As it turns out, the pandemic continues to transform the way we live, lead and learn, with connectedness and meaning keeping us all going during these unusual times. The need for all of us to work for diversity, inclusion, equity, and democracy is indeed more urgent than ever. As we enter 2022, I will continue to be buoyed in professional spaces by collaboration with others, and the feeling of working together for a common, moral purpose.
Rooted in the Latin word novus (meaning ‘new’), innovation has been a catch cry in education and other sectors for decades. But ‘new’ does not equate to ‘better’. Most would argue that to innovate is not to pursue only novelty, but change for added value and improvement. Educational innovation can: improve learning outcomes and the quality of education provision; help enhance equity in the access to and use of education, as well as equality in learning outcomes; improve the effectiveness and efficiency of educational practices and services; and ensure education remains relevant by introducing the changes it needs to adapt to societal needs (OECD, 2016).
Wu and Lin (2019) use the term ‘educational entrepreneurs’ to describe educators who analyse problems, recognise opportunities, and pragmatically create meaningful solutions. Couros (2015) talks about innovators needing to be empathetic, questioning, risk taking, networked, observant, creative, resilient and reflective, qualities we would like to see in our students, teachers and school leaders. Networks are becoming ever-more important in enhancing global education innovation (Azorín et al., 2021).
I explored on this blog, pre-COVID in 2019, whether we needed innovation in schools, and what being innovative might look like: growth-focused, student-centred change from the ground up that challenges accepted and dominant ways of thinking about education. I wrote (Netolicky, 2020) that the pandemic-forced education innovations we were living through in 2020 were not well-planned and deliberate models of best practice, but rather temporary crisis responses. In the introduction to the recently released book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership (Netolicky, 2021), I describe my perception of the educational experience of 2020, including constant emergency response planning and re-planning, remote teaching, remote leading, online professional learning, exacerbated inequities, and erosion of wellbeing.
COVID-19 did not reveal schools to be obsolete factories of irrelevant content, but hubs of community, engagement, relationships, values and care (AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group, 2021). We discovered that remote learning and online professional development have benefits and possibilities, but also pitfalls. We appreciated that schools are vital places of learning, belonging, support, friendship and safety for students, and for families. We learned what we already knew – that teachers are committed experts who work to serve their students no matter what the circumstances, and that teaching is a complex, nuanced practice of great value for reasons beyond academic achievement. Now, still mid-pandemic, after a period of necessitated innovation by educators around the globe, I continue to feel that we do not need innovation for innovation’s sake, but that we do need to constantly evolve, reflect, iterate, and respond to socio-economic local and global developments.
The pandemic silver linings in education include: a focus on flexibility in the how and when of learning, teaching and work; an acceleration in the meaningful and creative use of digital technologies; a reconsideration around what engagement, relevance and agency mean in teaching and learning; and an expansion of accepted learning pathways. Early offers to university and flexible university admissions processes have lifted the focus from university entrance examinations, opening up new ways for students to demonstrate suitability and gain entry. This allows schools to move further in the direction of inclusive, exciting and varied senior secondary and post-school pathways for students.
I agree with Zhao and Watterston’s (2021) argument for an educative focus on lifelong learning, student autonomy, self-regulation, happiness, wellbeing, opportunity, and contribution to humanity. I’m not convinced, however, about their suggestion that school subjects such as history and physics disappear, or that direct instruction be ‘cast away’. I feel now, more than ever, that what we need in education is to do our core business as well as we can. That means educating students, developing them as lifelong learners, helping them to be well people of curiosity, character, knowledge, skill, resilience, and adaptability who know who they are, who they want to be, and how to develop themselves and collaborate with others to address real problems.
The conditions need to be right for a mindset and culture of productive and collaborative innovation with students at its heart. The capacity for organisational innovation is influenced by leadership through values, structures, strategies, policies and practices, and by the collective culture of attitudes and behaviours (Amabile & Pratt, 2016). Those working in schools benefit from being helped to imagine possible futures and guided in choosing a preferred option (Jónsdóttir & Macdonald, 2019). Innovation that finds solutions to complex and previously unforeseen problems requires diverse, multidisciplinary teams with members who are resilient, capable of complex analysis, able to embrace others’ perspectives, and who trust one another (Kresta, 2021). It also requires well-considered and robust evaluation to guide future innovations and avoid being stuck at the level of well-intended but isolated pioneering efforts (OECD, 2016).
If we focus on the human, on learning, wellbeing and inclusion, we have a foundation stone on which to make decisions for the best interests of our students and the people within our school communities. If we build cultures of trust, psychological safety, high challenge and high support, we create the conditions for school-based innovation that is student-centred and context-respecting. If we apply consultative, systematic, evidence-informed and futures-looking processes of improvement, we have ways to move forward in productive, value-adding directions. If innovations—big and small—are to lead to the compelling education vision they seek to realise, school and system leaders need to approach any desired improvement with a balance of systematisation and responsiveness, with a deep knowledge of context and cultural readiness, and with clear and ongoing communication and feedback.
As one of my children’s teachers once told me, education is about doing good, not looking good. Innovation in this sense is not about seeking newness, difference, radicalness or shiny edu-confections. We should always be working towards better serving our students, better preparing them for the changing and uncertain world, with the knowledge, skills, capabilities and character they need to find their best success, be their best selves, and contribute positively to their world. If innovation is constant, context-embedded iteration towards the best outcomes for students, then it should be our natural way of operating in schools.
I was recently interviewed for the American Educational Research Association’s Education Change SIG publication Lead the Change. The Q&A asked challenging and important questions about the field of educational change now and into the future, around the AERA 2021 theme of ‘accepting educational responsibility’. It’s wonderful to contribute to this publication alongside previous contributors such as Ann Lieberman, Yong Zhao, Pasi Sahlberg, Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, Alma Harris, Dennis Shirley, Diane Ravitch, Carol Campbell, Helen Timperley and Mel Ainscow. You can read my responses here in the Lead the Change publication, here in International Education News, and below.
Lead the Change (Ltc): The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions. For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?
Deborah Netolicky (DN): The rhetoric of education policy the world over is about the common good and quality, equitable outcomes for all. In Australia, we had the Melbourne Declaration (Barr et al., 2008) and now the Mparntwe Declaration (Education Council, 2019). Both declare an education goal of excellence and equity for all young people, and the building of a democratic, equitable, just, culturally diverse society that values Australia’s Indigenous cultures. Australia likes to imagine itself as a multicultural melting pot of inclusive diversity, yet, as in many countries, our rhetoric and our imagined national identity fall well short of our reality. As Suraiya Hameed, Marnee Shay, and Jodie Miller (Hameed et al., forthcoming) note, the concept of excellence in education for Indigenous students has been greatly under-theorised and requires a strengths-based rather than a deficit perspective. Racism, sexism, classism, religious discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, ableism, and the reverberations of our colonial past, persist. Inequities remain. Educational change is too often a political ball bounced back and forth, with governments making decisions based on short term political cycles and winning election votes, rather than on holding the line on sustained improvement for all.
Part of ‘accepting educational responsibility’ is working from a foundation of citizenship grounded in a shared moral purpose. Citizen-scholars and citizen-practitioners engage deeply with education committed to excellence, equity, and opportunity for all. We must not ignore the reverberations of past oppressions and the echoes of past violence in our current world. If we are to address the intensifying challenges that face society, education, and individuals, education scholars and practitioners need to make the implicit explicit, deeply interrogating systems, structures, policies, pedagogies, practices, and our own beliefs, behaviours, and language. Scholars, practitioners, and pracademic scholar-practitioners need to engage with, and provide safe spaces for, education debates, including, and especially, those that are uncomfortable and awkward, and that require us to examine our own motivations, biases, and privilege. As many authors argue in the forthcoming edited book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Equity, Democracy, and Inclusion(Netolicky, forthcoming), positive educational change requires challenging and providing alternatives to Western (that is, White, masculine, materialist, hetero) norms and paradigms.
Decolonisation—deconstructing dominant ideologies and dismantling educational structures—is not enough. What is needed is not just the breaking down of systems of power and privilege, but also the building up of what we would like to exist in its place. This means including, embracing, and investing in Indigenous, culturally diverse, and culturally marginalised ways of knowing, being, teaching, and leading in education. We need these ways of knowing and doing to understand and apply inclusive policies and practices that serve all those in our communities, especially the most vulnerable.
LtC: Much of your work is informed by your positionality as a “pracademic” and the special understandings and experiences that come as a result. What would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience sitting in this specific space?
DN: Much of my scholarly work has involved looking at education, educational change, professional learning, and educational leadership through the lens of identity (e.g., Netolicky, 2017, 2019, 2020a). I have defined identity as the “situated, ongoing process through which we make sense of ourselves, to ourselves and to others” (Netolicky, 2020d, p.19). Examining education through the lens of identity allows us to remain focused on education as a human endeavour, wrestling with multiplicities, complexities, and tensions. In our forthcoming chapter, Claire Golledge and I (Netolicky & Golledge, forthcoming) advocate for what we call a wayfinding approach to school leadership that balances intuition with strategy, improvisation with systematisation, empathy with policy, the individual with the whole. This approach, and awareness of the multiple tensions navigated constantly by those working in schools, could be considered and engaged with by those in the field of educational change.
In the book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools (Netolicky, 2020d), I utilise my positionality as boundary spanning teacher-leader-researcher who works to bridge the gap between research and practice. The structure of the book mirrors the ways I bring a practice lens to scholarship, and a research lens to my daily work enacting theory into practice. In our upcoming Journal of Professional Capital and Community Special Issue—‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’—Trista Hollweck, Paul Campbell, and I (Hollweck et al., forthcoming) explore the identities, spaces, and tensions of what can be called pracademia. The multipart identities and multiplicitous spaces of pracademia involve simultaneous active engagement in education scholarship and practice.
Democratic educational change benefits from those operating in different educational spaces and also those operating between and across various educational arenas and communities. The pracademic whose day job is in the world of practice is free from the metrics and pressures of academia, free to engage in scholarship in some ways on their own terms, but also often in or beyond the margins of the academe. The pracademic whose day job is in a university is active in the practice of school-based education through working amongst and alongside practitioners, immersed in the work of school contexts, and engaging in scholarship ‘with’ rather than ‘to’ or ‘of’ those in schools. Often the in-between spaces involve unpaid bridging, sharing, and collaborating work.
Identity work—of pracademics, practitioners, or academics—can be part of scholarship that is a political act, edging from the margins of the academe towards the centre, in which we challenge ourselves to do “writing that matters – to us, to our communities, to our nations, to social justice, to the greater good” (Netolicky, 2017, p.101). Education theory and practice are always intertwined, but embracing the concept of pracademia in educational change is about intentionally embracing nexus and community. It is about co-creating a collective space shared by teachers, school leaders, scholars, policymakers, political advisors, and community members. It is about working within and across education spaces, and working together.
LtC: In some of your recent work regarding the future of education in a Post-COVID world, you speak to both the possibilities for a return to some practices and change for others. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice in the field, in educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students alike to create, as you say, reform for good?
DN: Injustices and deficiencies in our education and social systems are being revealed during the pandemic. Often multiple and intersecting disparities such as racial, gendered, socioeconomic, and cultural inequities became evident in, for example: the significantly increased risk to women’s employment and livelihoods compared to men’s; and the increased risk of mortality from COVID-19 of Indigenous Australians, ethnic minority groups in the UK, and Black Americans, as compared to their White counterparts. The pandemic also accelerated educational change, forcing innovation and introspection in education (Netolicky, 2020b). The person—child, student, teacher, leader—has come into sharper focus. Care and collaboration rose to the top of the priority list in education (Doucet et al., 2020), as did increasingly flexible ‘whole-person’ approaches to judging student success and providing student pathways for future success. What has receded is a focus on standardised testing as education systems are forced to reflect on how the apparent success of education is measured, and negative impacts of cultures of competition, surveillance, and hyperaccountabilities. While tertiary entrance examinations went ahead in Australia in 2020, alternate admissions pathways were also introduced by Universities. These include calculation of a predicted Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) based on students’ Year 11 results, and a Special Tertiary Admissions Test available to all students including those studying vocational pathways at school. In the UK, examinations (GCSE, A-Level, Scottish Highers, and Scottish Advanced Highers) were cancelled in 2020 and 2021, replaced with aggregated teacher-assessed grades that currently form the basis of UCAS applications. US universities have varying admissions policies, but most are currently ‘test-optional’ for a year or more (some permanently), meaning applicants do not have to sit the SAT or ACT standardised college admissions test. Rather, US applicants are submitting portfolios of achievements, employment, and community involvement to demonstrate their readiness for university. Universities leading flexible admissions criteria and processes (including portfolio entry, virtual tours, and online interviews) may help to change the focus of schools towards preparing students for beyond school, rather than on succeeding in examinations at the end of school. These increasing flexibilities may also go some way to democratising the university admissions process for marginalised groups.
During periods of remote learning, educators asked themselves: (1) What is it that we’ve missed during remote education that we want to bring back to schooling and education?; and (2) What is it that has been removed that we do not want to return to? (Netolicky, 2020c). Underpinning these questions are what we—those of us working, teaching, and leading each day in schools and universities—have come to realise are paramount: health and wellbeing, the importance of learning for all students regardless of circumstance, meaningful work, community, connectedness, adaptability, and resilience. We learned that governments, education systems, and schools need strong, clear leadership that can respond to crises with immediacy while considering the long-term view and the needs of the specific community. We learned that technologies can support teaching, learning, collaborating, and developing student autonomy, but cannot replace the connection, engagement, and learning that is possible when we are face to face. We learned that schools are more than places of learning. They are sites of community, relationships, society, values, and care. They also serve the practical, economic function of looking after children while parents go to work.
Teachers have missed seeing students in person, and the complex and important non-verbal communication of the classroom, in which the teacher can ‘read the room’, see how each young person is approaching the day and the lesson, re-engage a disengaged student, or re-teach a concept to those who aren’t getting it. Students have missed school as a place where they see their friends and their teachers. What we would benefit from continuing to develop are:
Curricula in which students are active agents;
Use of a range of technologies to enhance learning, collaboration, and communication, and to empower students in their learning;
The declining focus on high-stakes testing and cultures of competition between schools and education systems, replacing this with a focus on multiple pathways to success and flexible alternatives that address the needs of students and their families; and
Providing trust, support, and resourcing to the teaching profession so that educators can get on with the complex work of serving their communities.
LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?
DN: Transformational professional learning— “learning that shifts beliefs, and thereby behaviours, of professionals” (Netolicky, 2020d, p.18)—has the capacity to support schools and school systems to successfully propel fruitful educational change. I argue (Netolicky, 2020d) for professional learning for those working in schools that:
Is targeted and ongoing;
Is driven by educational (not corporate or political) agendas;
Considers identity and humanity, providing high support and high challenge;
Offers voice, choice, and agency to the adult learner;
Pays close attention to context, culture, and relationships, avoiding one-size-fits-most models;
Enables collaboration that is rigorous, purposeful, sometimes uncomfortable, and allows respectful disagreement;
Broadens our definition of professional learning beyond courses or conferences; and
Invests time, money, and resources in the learning of teachers and school leaders.
Those in the field of educational change can support practitioners through teacher training, partnerships, sharing their scholarship broadly, and supporting practitioners undertaking post-graduate study. In my literature class, we are currently studying Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and discussing the ways in which this 1985 novel continues to resonate with modern readers, dealing as it does with inequities; misuse of power to protect the needs of a few; unjust class structures; oppression due to gender, sexuality, race, and class; and reduction of individual freedoms with increased government control in the name of a ‘greater good’ (something we have experienced during the pandemic). One of the characters talks about the intention of the novel’s distressing dystopian reality as intended to be “better” but notes that “better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.” We need education that is good for all, not just good for some. It is imperative that we continue to consider the very purpose of education, and how we invest in what we value. I often talk in my workplace about changing culture and building trust ‘one conversation at a time’. We all have a responsibility to change education for the better for all students, one conversation, policy, study, action, paper, citation, webinar, social media post, at a time. Scholars can ensure that they are speaking not only to one another, but to communities, governments, and education professionals. We can communicate our scholarly work through accessible channels (such as open access, and popular, online, or social media) so that it is available to those working in schools.
Those working with, and alongside, schools and school systems can do so with an understanding of the realities of the lived experiences of school-based educators, including: intensification of workload; increasing job complexity; and escalating emotional stresses resulting from family and social issues impacting students such as violence, financial difficulties, discrimination, and mental health. We can resist the short termism of fast policy change that follows election cycles, in which politicians present education policy quick fixes or simplistic solutions to win votes, rather than playing the long game of education. We can all advocate for sustained educational change focused on common good and long-term improvements. We can challenge deficit media narratives around teaching and schools when they are accused of ‘failing’ or ‘falling behind’ and instead work to instil trust in, offer alternate narratives of, and engage in scholarship that shares the voices and complexities of, the teaching and school leadership profession.
LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?
DN: One exciting thing I see happening in the field of educational change is the global, networked approach fortified and amplified by the pandemic. Collaboration—local, national, and global collaboration that is meaningful, transparent, productive, and focused on the shared moral purpose of the greater good for all—is key to a positive future. Now, more than ever, we are talking, researching, and working together, across societies, countries, systems, sectors, and fields, to co-design solutions to injustice, inequity, and discriminatory structures and practices.
An ongoing development in educational change and other fields is an increasing diversity of voices, perspectives, and representations. As Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson, and I noted in Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education (Netolicky et al., 2019), and as is evident in my experience as editor of two books aiming to share diverse perspectives, this is not easy to achieve. It is often those with important perspectives to offer—from a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, genders, sexualities, classes, belief systems, and (dis)abilities—who are least able to contribute, for a range of complex reasons. It remains important for all scholars, educational leaders, and organisers of conferences and events, to consider who is cited, who is invited, and who is excluded, and to pursue the ongoing work of diversity and inclusion. We need to ask ourselves what behaviours and language we accept without challenge. We need to speak against microaggressions in our own professional and personal contexts. We need to consider how measurements of educational ‘excellence’ might perpetuate discrimination, favouring some and disadvantaging others. What do our measures measure, and what do our methods of research reinforce?
We need to seek out and seek to understand Indigenous and non-Western knowledges, ways of knowing, theories, and theorists. Including diverse cultural positions and approaches to research moves from problematising and othering cultural minorities, to expanding perspectives and the current knowledge base (Shay, 2019). What is exciting is the increasing valuing, reclaiming, and development of Indigenous research methodologies. Australian examples include Melitta Hogarth’s Indigenous Critical Discourse Analysis (Hogarth, 2017, 2018) and Marnee Shay’s Collaborative Yarning Methodology (Shay, 2019). Drawing simultaneously on Indigenous and Western methodologies—learning, working, and researching at ‘the interface’ (Ryder et al., 2020)—can challenge societal norms (Hogarth, 2017) and lead to innovation, the formation of new knowledge, and the development of culturally safe methodologies (Ryder et al., 2020). It is this work at the boundary, the interface, or the nexus that offers possibilities, as it means not binary thinking but both/and thinking in which new spaces, communities, and knowledges are formed, that can move educational change forward, while honouring and acknowledging its past.
Hameed, S., Shay, M., & Miller, J. (forthcoming). “Deadly leadership” in the pursuit of Indigenous education excellence. In D. M. Netolicky (Ed.), Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Routledge.
Hogarth, M. (2017). Speaking back to the deficit discourses: A theoretical and methodological approach. The Australian Educational Researcher, 44(1), 21-34.
Hogarth, M. D. (2018). Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy. (Doctoral dissertation, Queensland University of Technology).
Hollweck, T., Campbell, P., & Netolicky, D. M. (forthcoming). Defining and exploring pracademia: Identity, community, and engagement. Journal of Professional Capital and Community.
Netolicky, D. M. (2019). Elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders in educational research, practice, and policymaking. In D. M. Netolicky, J. Andrews, & C. Paterson (Eds.) Flip the System Australia: What matters in education. Routledge.
Netolicky, D. M. (2020a). Being, becoming and questioning the school leader: An autoethnographic exploration of a woman in the middle. In R. Niesche & A. Heffernan (Eds.) Theorising Identity and Subjectivity in Educational Leadership Research, pp. 111-125. Routledge.
Netolicky, D. M. (2020b). Leading from Disruption to ‘Next Normal’ in Education. In Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Thoughts and Responses from Education’s Frontline During COVID-19 (e-book). World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in partnership with Salzburg Global Seminar.
Netolicky, D. M., & Golledge, C. (forthcoming). Wayfinding: Navigating complexity for sustainable school leadership. In D. M. Netolicky (Ed.), Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Routledge.
Ryder, C., Mackean, T., Coombs, J., Williams, H., Hunter, K., Holland, A. J. A., & Ivers, R. Q. (2020). Indigenous research methodology – weaving a research interface. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 23(3), 255-267.
Shay, M. (2019). Extending the yarning yarn: collaborative yarning methodology for ethical Indigenist education research. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 1-9.
ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung Kim, Graduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.
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.
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:
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.
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.
We don’t need to be in the office or workplace to be working. We can lead more flexible and integrated work-home lives.
Our world is full of inequities that become starker and more sickening during a crisis.
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.
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.
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.
Wellbeing is more than being physically well. Anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness, loss, and trauma can have wide ranging and unexpected impacts.
Meaningful work is crucial to wellbeing.
Technologies can help us to connect with one another, but do not replace face to face connection.
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.
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.
Teachers can’t be replaced by technology, but technologies can enhance teaching and allow students to display independence, resilience, and autonomy in their learning.
Remote teaching and learning (like any major undertaking) requires careful design and responsive implementation if it is to be successful.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Being kind to others means listening with empathy and taking positive action, sometimes without being asked.
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.
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.
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.