How driving a husky team is like school leadership

Husky 1

our husky team racing through the Lappish wilderness

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

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

  1. Know your people. Know your context.

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

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

  1. Trust the people. Trust the process.

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

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

  1. Be agile.

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

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

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

  1. Work hard.

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

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

  1. Encourage and support.

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

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

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

  1. Hold on.

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

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

Reflecting on the metaphor

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

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

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

Innovation in schools

Today I’m home from a thought-provoking day of professional learning workshops: Jan Owen on building the education ecosystem and Peter Hutton on creating an adaptive culture for school transformation.

An ecosystem is a complex community of interconnected organisms in which each part, no matter how seemingly small, has an active, agentic part to play in the community. There are constant interdependent relationships and influences. The notion of an ecosystem of education resonates with Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman’s third Adaptive Schools underlying principle of what they call ‘nonlinear dynamical’ systems: that tiny events create major disturbances. This principle reflects the way change often happens. The little things we change or do can have unexpected, chaotic, incremental effects that are difficult to quantify or not immediately noticeable.

As we consider the education ecosystem, to what extent is innovation needed in education?

Certainly, there is a case often made for the need for radical change in education and schooling. Often the future of work is cited, the jobs not yet invented, automation and artificial intelligence disrupting industry. Jan Owen today spoke of globalisation, the flexible economy, job clusters, the need for meaning and purpose in work, diversity, equity, enterprise skills, micro-credentialing and the need for ongoing workplace learning. The Gonski 2.0 report talks about individualised learning, tracking student data, increased emphasis on teaching General Capabilities, and community partnerships as ways to address ‘declining performance’ and improve apparently ‘cruising schools’.

Skills and capabilities are increasingly the focus of futures-focused thinking in education. But knowledge remains crucial. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel said in his speech to the 2018 Australian Science Teachers Association Annual Conference:

“I have had many, many meetings with employers, in my role as Chief Scientist and as Deputy Chair of Innovation and Science Australia; and 6 before that, as Chancellor of Monash University and President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering; and before that, as the CEO of a publicly listed company. In all my meetings with people actually hiring graduates, no-one has ever said to me: ‘gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate.’ No, what they say to me is: ‘we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down. They were asking for T-shapes, and getting flat lines – but the flat line wasn’t lifted up and anchored by that all-important vertical pillar.”

We need people with specialist knowledge as well as transferrable skills. As I say to my students: we need to know stuff and also be able to do stuff.

French artists around 1900 depict the future of school. Source: publicdomainreview.org

Those commenting on the need for innovation in education often shown slides of classrooms that have students sitting at desks in rows. The argument is made that we have an industrial-age factory model of schooling in which inflexible schools manufacture homogenised experiences for students with little regard for difference, readiness, prior learning, and the idiosyncrasies of the individual.

And yet.

My research into and practical experience of schools and education is that today’s schools and classrooms are not factory-esque machines focused on creating compliant workers and unthinking drones. Audrey Watters wrote in 2015 about the invented history of the factory model of schooling, which she argues is used to justify the need for an ‘upgrade’.

To accuse schools and teachers of rigidly and unimaginatively churning students through regimented, authoritarian, one-size-fits-one education, is to do teachers, schools and school leaders a great disservice.

As I wrote recently: education is not broken and teachers do not need fixing. Education is not operating in the deep deficit that is sometimes the subject of media headlines, reports or popular rhetoric. Teachers deeply know their students. They use a range of data to adjust planning, teaching and assessment to address their students’ needs. They are experts in their fields who know their content and how to teach it. They use a range of resources and technologies to deepen content knowledge and skills, and to allow individualisation and accessibility of learning. They give a range of meaningful feedback. They build productive relationships with students, parents, one another and those in the wider community. Our teachers are working hard every day to empower students and develop their capabilities, relationships and citizenship as well as their knowledge and skills.

Yes, we can consider how to better structure schools and build in further agility. Yes, we can develop the ways in which we harness technologies to do education better. Yes, we can all work to improve our policies, processes and practices, to serve our students and communities more effectively. Yes, we can challenge the measures of success in education and the ways in which students, teachers, school leaders and schools are judged in terms of their positive impact. We can resist external pressures and consider what really matters. We can imagine and enact better ways of doing things. We can consider relevance, authenticity, values, purpose, agency, identity. We can respectfully challenge one another and those leading education systems. We can advocate for our students, families, communities, teachers and school leaders, their learning, their voice, their wellbeing.

Flip the System Australia argues for equity and democracy, and for the elevation and amplification of those in schools and classrooms: students, teachers, school leaders. As Adam Brooks said at the Perth launch of the book: We (teachers and school and system leaders) are the system. We can drive change from the ground up, as the original Flip the System book argues. Peter Hutton today challenged those educators present to “do what you can do now.” “Do what you’re allowed to do,” he said, “and then do a little bit more.”

For me, innovation in education is about interrogating where voice, power and agency reside. It is worth asking: who has power and influence? Who has control of measures, expectations, systems, norms and processes? Who has autonomy, voice and ownership? And what can we each do, now, that is productive and meaningful for our students?

Keynote: Key coaching concepts from the perspective of a pracademic

Yesterday I presented a keynote to the National Coaching in Education Conference in Sydney.

My presentation explored key concepts that, in my experience, underpin the use of coaching in schools. I drew together insights from my reading, research, practical and personal experience of coaching in schools, with a particular focus on the organisational conditions necessary for coaching, and the effects of coaching on individuals and schools. I interrogated the complex interlocking elements that schools need to balance when working to build a coaching culture, including contexttrust, rapportway of being, differentiation, holonomy and semantic space.

Here is my slide deck.

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Book cover design for ‘Transformational Professional Learning’

Netolicky BOOK COVER

My book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools has a cover design!

For me, the image on the cover speaks to transformation, collaboration, the interaction between the individual and the organisation, the fluidity of identities, the complexity of learning, the non-linearity of growth, and the humanity of education.

It is available for pre-order from the hyperlink above (due for release on 20 September), where you can also read the table of contents and the book’s first reviews.

It is also available for pre-order–in paperback, hard back and eBook versions–from other online booksellers like bookdepository and Amazon.

My editor and I have worked with the publisher to reduce the price of the book from AUD$60 to the more teacher friendly AUD$39.99 (already reduced further by some sites), although some sellers don’t yet have the updated price.

Education is not broken. Teachers do not need fixing.

abandoned chairs

source: @MichaelGaida on pixabay

This week, New South Wales MP Mark Latham, of the Australian One Nation party, discussed the One Nation NSW education policy. The policy uses language like “embarrassing” to describe Australia’s performance on PISA testing, as well as constructing teachers as “substandard” and “underperforming”, arguing that many should be reported and “removed”. It states that “what gets measures [sic] gets done”. It advocates for introducing performance-based pay for teachers, based on measuring teacher performance; “for example, testing a class at the beginning and end of the year and assessing the improvement (or regression) in results over the 10-month period.” Of course, measuring so-called teacher effectiveness is notoriously unreliable and a teacher’s influence on the students in their care is multifaceted. Check out the Twitter hashtag #OurWorkCannotBeMeasured through which teachers describe student progress or teacher work that cannot be quantified through an oversimplified performance measure.

On Thursday, as a result of an article I wrote for The Conversation back in 2016 on performance pay for teachers, I was invited to comment on ABC New South Wales radio about Mr Latham’s proposal. The interview is online here, at about the 2 hour and 7 minute mark. I explained during the interview that performance pay for teachers has no evidence for improving student achievement. Rather, merit-based pay is damaging. It creates toxic cultures of fear, isolation and competition. It leads to reduced collegiality and collaboration, less innovation, exacerbated wellbeing issues and the dehumanisation of teachers and students to data points.

During the interview I was asked, “What will fix all these problems we have in our education system?” My response was that “while there are issues, part of the problem is this notion that the education system needs fixing, that the system is broken, that schools and teachers are failing and we need to fix them. We have excellent teachers doing incredible work in our schools. Part of what is going to help the system is trusting teachers to do their jobs and providing trust, support, resourcing and time, instead of punishments, rewards and accusations.”

The experience of this brief radio interview—squeezed into the school day in between lessons and meetings in the last week of Term 2—led me to reflect on themes in my upcoming book. Titled Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools, it includes chapters on collaboration, mentoring, coaching, self-directed learning, professional standards and leadership for professional learning.

When people ask me what my book is about I say, “professional learning for teachers and school leaders” (usually followed by a tongue-in-cheek “it’s a real page-turner”). It is about that, but it is also about significantly more.

My book is about trusting and supporting the profession through meaningful opportunities to grow. It is about why, how and on what education stakeholders can best spend time, money and resources, for positive outcomes. It is about treating those working in schools as professionals who are experts in their work but who can always improve, not because they are deficient, but because their work is complex and entangled with identities, relationships, society and humanity. It is about policy that takes the long view rather than aiming for quick wins, and about leadership that empowers rather than inspects or punishes.

It is about nurturing collaboration and collegiality, over surveillance and isolation. It is about those things that systems and organisations can do to develop the capacity of those within the system. It is about how to build productive organisational cultures that simultaneously value, honour and sustain each individual and the group as a whole. It is about meaningfully considering workload and wellbeing, so that teachers and school leaders can best serve their students and communities without sacrificing themselves, burning out or taking shortcuts to stay afloat. These themes are relevant to other organisations and systems, too, not just to education.

When I reflect on my upcoming book, one of its central messages is this:

Education is not broken. Teachers do not need fixing. There is outstanding work going on every day in schools around Australia and the world. We should focus on trusting and empowering the teaching profession.

Sharing research in schools through a Research Report

‘The research says’ is often an empty statement used as a basis for an argument for a particular education reform, approach or product. I encourage teachers to ask: What research? Whose interests are served by this claim? Where did the studied intervention work? For whom? Under what conditions? How many participants were in the study? From what school contexts? How were data generated? What were the ethical considerations and how were these dealt with? How relevant is this to our context?

Dylan Wiliam has recently noted in a TES article that:

“classrooms are just too complicated for research ever to tell teachers what to do. Teachers need to know about research, to be sure, so that they can make smarter decisions about where to invest their time, but teachers, and school leaders need to become critical consumers of research – using research evidence where it is available and relevant, but also recognising that there are many things teachers need to make decisions about where there is no research evidence, and also realising that sometimes the research that is available may not be applicable in a particular context…. Evidence is important, of course, but what is more important is that we need to build teacher expertise and professionalism so that teachers can make better judgments about when, and how, to use research.”

I agree that teachers and school leaders need to become critical consumers of research. A number of us additionally participate in research degrees. While research can inform our decision making in classrooms and schools, the teaching profession is a profession of experts, who should be trusted to serve their students and respected for their expertise. Teachers can and should engage with research.

There are a number of ways via which schools can engage in research. I have written on this blog and in my upcoming book about what I call the ‘Research Report’ at my school. I introduced this Report in 2017 as one approach to developing a research culture in a school. It is a document that I regularly publish to the whole staff. This involves everyone—including administration and operations—in our core purpose of education. It illuminates current debates, incites corridor discussion about teaching, and provides bite-size, user-friendly resources for busy teachers and school leaders. I love getting bailed up by a member of the administration team, finance department, executive or teaching staff for a discussion about one of the references from the Report.

The Report is not a place for only long reads or complex academic papers, although these are included when relevant. Often, the research I share is easily accessible via links, and sometimes via podcasts and videos. The report is not a panacea or an echo chamber; I include controversial and sometimes conflicting resources to spark thinking and encourage dialogue.

My Research Report is one small attempt–among a suite of protocols, practices and collaborative structures–to engage staff with research findings, and with systematic and scientific ways of thinking. It is a cogitation and conversation starter, intended to develop a rich and robust professional culture.

While I began in 2017 with two reports per term, I found that this was too much for staff, so now each term I populate one Report that includes three Report sections with around three resources each. Foci are based around strategic priorities and/or current issues. For instance, to align with NAIDOC week, this term’s report included a section on intercultural understanding. I use PowerPoint to collate these together and publish ‘teaser’ quotes for each resource.

I have had some people ask me what these Research Reports look like, so below I have included an example slide deck with snippets of previous Reports. Let me know if it’s of use, or if your school does something similar.

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How to #BalanceforBetter this International Women’s Day?

IWD2019

I realise that this year’s International Women’s Day theme #BalanceforBetter is focused on advocating for more gender balance for a better world. It’s about more women as leaders, on boards, and in STEM. It’s about closing the gender pay gap and accelerating gender equity.

But I keep seeing the #BalanceforBetter hashtag and thinking about my personal battles with ‘balance’ as a woman. I have over the last 12-18 months been working on the notion of balance in my life. Redressing the balance towards self-care, wellbeing, health and mental space, factors that have been crowded out by busyness, work, commitment to family, wanting to make a difference. I have written about trying to say ‘no’ to more things and to prioritise what matters.

I’ve been writing a book as part of my push to be ‘10% braver’ as the #WomenEd squad would say. Two other projects are examples of my advocacy for women; as co-editor of the recently-published book Flip the System Australia: What matters in education, we ensured that more than half of the chapters were contributed to by women authors, and I have co-edited a special issue of the Journal of Educational Administration and History in which we offer female-authored papers on re-imagining school leadership. I’ve been lifting heavy weights to feel physically stronger and floating in floatation tanks to feel mentally lighter. I know this is a first-world take on the notion of ‘balance’. I’m in a privileged enough position that I can consider my writing, wellbeing, family and leisure time. I have choices available to me, which is not the case for all women.

This week I saw the following sculpture at Perth’s Cottesloe beach as part of the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition.

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It is by Hamish McMillan and is called ‘Internment’. The wire figure interned within the cage slumps over his desk, met by the words, ‘Nice work, Jeff!’ on his computer screen. He is surrounded by boxes with messages of those things perpetuating his imprisonment in a toxic work culture: “obligation to colleagues”, “I make a difference”, “credit card due”, “mortgage due”, “failure is not an option”. How many of us are chained to our devices or caged within our work worlds because of obligation, inspiration, ambition, bills to pay, or the desire to make a difference? At what cost? Is it being a ‘bad feminist’ if a woman does not aspire to a powerful, well-paid management position? Or is it just making good choices that suit us, even if it does nothing to balance gender roles at the highest levels of the workforce? Three female politicians have recently left the Australian Liberal Party. Sticking it out in an unsatisfying, harmful or misogynistic work environment may not be worth the power, pay and prestige it provides.

In my field of education, the longitudinal Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey of principals and deputy principals has found that in these top school roles, a disproportionate number of women are consistently paid less than their male colleagues. It also found that physical violence towards principals and deputy principals is now 37% or 1 in 3 principals (9.3 times the rate of the general population). Women are most at risk with 40% experiencing violence compared to 32% of men. So women principals and deputy principals in Australia are more likely to be paid less and also more likely to experience physical violence in their work than their male counterparts. This survey also reveals worrying trends in work hours, mental wellbeing and physical health for principals and deputy principals, something that dissuades potential candidates, particularly women, from aspiring to and applying for these roles.

Those who lead organisations or who stand on the stage normalise ideas about who can lead, who should speak and to whom we should apparently listen. Often in leadership roles, keynote presentations and film, advertising or media representations of leadership, women are under-represented. So what can we do to #BalanceforBetter?

Organisations can consider how to advance women in their ranks, including into top jobs, governance positions and roles traditionally held by men. Conference organisers, event planners and awards panels can continue to work on broadening the diversity of those who present, sit on panels (no manels, please!) and receive awards. The media can stop asking women how they cope with juggling work with family, while not asking the same of men. Colleagues can refuse to tolerate off-hand remarks that are sexist or demeaning to women, even when masked as ‘jokes’. Men can question those things they take for granted or see as normal, that perhaps work in their favour, but do not benefit the women around them. Researchers can consider the diversity of their citation practices. Women can consider how to equalise and advocate for gender balance in their organisations, and also how to find a sense of balance and wellbeing in our own lives. We can all take positive, even micro, actions towards more balance.