Leadership lessons from school principals

source: pixabay.com by @ThinkTanks

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

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

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Embrace opportunities

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

Be yourself

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

Back yourself

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

Receive and give encouragement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What does it mean to be a leader?

leadership according to the internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Semantic space: ‘How we talk around here’

I’ve been thinking about talking and talking about talking. Last month I published this piece on my school’s blog about why and how we approach professional conversations as an organisation. The pictured infographic is one I designed to distil our school approach to professional conversations. While deceptively simple, it is the result of a lot of research, practice, and writing, over time. In that blog post, I talk about why we use Cognitive Coaching as a coaching model for developing a collaborative professional learning culture, but also when we might deliberately use consulting, collaborating, or evaluating as ways of talking. Rather than adopting deficit models of conversation aimed to fix or tell teachers, we base our professional conversations on a belief in the capacity of everyone in our community to grow and improve.

At the Australian National Coaching Conference in Melbourne last month, I was immersed in talking about coaching, and talking with coaches. I was delighted to be on a conference panel with Christian van Niewerburgh, Rachel Lofthouse, and Alex Guedes, discussing coaching in education research. One of the points I made was around the use of terminology within a community like the one in the conference room. 400 educators and coaches were all talking about coaching at the conference, but not necessarily with the same understanding of what ‘coaching’ means.

As Scott Millman points out in his blog, many of the conference attendees had what Christian van Niewerburgh calls a ‘coaching way of being’. A conversation with them is a coaching conversation. These individuals actively and intensely listen, paraphrase, pause, and ask thoughtful questions designed more for the benefit of the talker than the listener. These aren’t conversations where the other person is waiting for their turn to say their piece or pushing a personal agenda; they are ones in which the listener serves the talker via thoughtful and deliberate ways of talking and ways of being in conversation.

At the conference, Rachel Lofthouse talked about Kemmis and Heikkenen’s (2012) notion of a semantic space. I enjoyed this way of thinking about an organisation. Semantics is about linguistic meaning; the logic of language. In organisations I imagine a semantic space is about ‘how we talk around here’, the meanings of words, the way communication happens. Lofthouse and Elaine Hall (2014) define semantic space as one of professional dialogue, constituting tone, choice of words, routines of dialogue, and balance of participation in conversation. Semantic space interacts with organisional structures, physical spaces, and relationships.

Harvard academics and developmental psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (2001) say that our places of work are places in which certain forms of speech are promoted or encouraged, and places where other ways of talking are discouraged or made impossible. What kinds of talk are promoted in our schools? Which are limited or suppressed?

Can it ever be ‘just’ semantics? No. The words we use, the way we talk, and the way we interpret language are vital to our work, especially in education. Members of high-functioning teams, for instance, respectfully challenge one another in order to find the best ways forward. Something Rachel Lofthouse said in her conference keynote stuck with me: “Don’t talk less and work more. The talk is the work. So talk well, talk productively, talk to learn.” The way we talk can influence the way we think and the way we behave. In any organisation it’s important to figure out and work on ‘how we talk around here’ as well as why we talk, when we talk, what we talk about, and how we want to talk.

References

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work: Seven languages for transformation. John Wiley & Sons.

Kemmis, S. and Heikkinen, H.L.T. (2012). Practice architectures and teacher induction. In: H.L.T. Heikkinen, H. Jokinen, and P. Tynjälä, eds. Peer-group mentoring (PGM): peer group mentoring for teachers’ professional development. London: Routledge, 144–170.

Lofthouse, R., & Hall, E. (2014). Developing practices in teachers’ professional dialogue in england: Using coaching dimensions as an epistemic tool. Professional Development in Education, 40(5), 758-778.

Reflecting on the school leader

The bad leader is he who the people despise; the good leader is he who the people praise; the great leader is he who the people say, “We did it ourselves”. ~ Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Part of my PhD literature review encompassed what makes effective school leadership, and effective leadership of change or reform in schools. If you don’t fancy savouring all 300 odd pages of my dissertation, the summary of my literature search determined that effective school leaders:

  • Develop shared vision;
  • Have high expectations and clear accountabilities;
  • Develop an environment of trust;
  • Empower others and allow them autonomy, space, and support to lead;
  • Solve complex problems;
  • Engage with the wider community; act as storyteller and sense-maker; and
  • Balance instructional and transformational leadership.

Many of these points are reflected in the Australian Professional Standards for Principals, which break school leadership down into the following components:

  • Leading teaching and learning;
  • Developing self and others;
  • Leading improvement, innovation, and change;
  • Leading the management of the school; and
  • Engaging and working with the community.

Both of these lists cross over one another, and each seems simple in its short-list nature (5 dot points! How hard can it be?), but looking closely at many of these aspects of school leadership quickly reveals the complexity of the mandate. On top of that, school leadership teams are under pressure from constant measures of their performance. Leadership itself becomes a quantified, evaluated performance. Meanwhile, on a daily basis leaders constantly code-switch as they move from the classroom, to the boardroom, to the parents’ committee, to the community event, to the performance management conversation, to the staff member or student who needs support.

My PhD study found that school leaders are constantly navigating internal, relational, and organisational identities. These complex and sometimes competing identities affect leaders’ experiences and decision making. The leaders in my study were moving, often deliberately and relentlessly, between leadership modes that were directive and empowering, hero and servant, visible and invisible.

Leading is a constant state of becoming and of identity work. Peter Gronn, in his 2003 book The new work of educational leaders: Changing leadership practice in an era of school reform, reminds us that leaders’ senses of who they are, and who they aspire to be, play a pivotal role in their engagement with their work. Having multiple leadership roles in my current school has meant that it is not only me who has had to shift my self-perceptions or identity enactments, but also my colleagues who have had to see me in new ways across my time at the school. Additionally, I have multiple, competing identities that exist simultaneously with my school identity; as parent, spouse, sibling, daughter, researcher. Boundary spanner and pracademic. Identities like plates precariously spinning atop spidery poles.

While Gronn suggests that individuals rework their perspectives in relation to their contexts, my PhD found that, while context does shape professional identity, individuals also choose their contexts to fit their own identities. My leader participants indicated that they stayed in schools that resonated with their senses of professional self, and left schools in which they did not feel aligned with organisational purpose and action. That is, school contexts shape leaders, and leaders shape their contexts. Leaders can and do choose schools with which they feel an identity fit, and leave schools in which they feel they do not fit.

Wellbeing is a real issue in school leadership, as reflected in the results of the longitudinal Riley study, which has found that Australian principals score lower than the general population on positive measures of wellbeing, quality of life, and mental health; but higher on negative measures such as stress, depression and sleeping trouble. Leaders need formal and informal support, as well as their own strategies for self-care and renewal. It might be that school leadership can be summarised in a series of dot points, but it is contextual, complex, and lonely. It is challenging and rewarding, exhausting and exhilarating.

Being bold, but for what change? #IWD17 #BeBoldForChange

Ms Marvel / Kamala Khan, Muslim-American superhero; source: dailydot.com

Ms Marvel / Kamala Khan, Muslim-American superhero; source: dailydot.com

Wednesday is International Women’s Day, with the theme #BeBoldForChange. While some might argue that there isn’t a need for an IWD, and men’s rights activists might cry, “Where is International Men’s Day?”, there is plenty of evidence that there remains a gender parity problem. Global events such as Brexit and the voting in of the Trump administration suggest that there are a multitude who do not value or champion diversity in gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity or ability.

Pay gaps, inflexible working arrangements, and representation of gender in media, film and the toy aisle, all point towards persistent social beliefs about gender. The wife drought, by Australian political reporter Annabel Crabb, is an excellent read on the ingrained gender disparities in Western society and the ways in which they disadvantage both women and men. Gender inequity is an issue for everyone, as evidenced by the around 2 million people – women, men, girls, boys – who marched around the world in the January Women’s March after Trump’s inauguration.

We live in a world where in the same month (February 2017) the US President can comment that he likes White House female staff to ‘dress like a woman’ and LEGO can release a Women of NASA series of figures to counter the highly gendered representations of girls and women in stores (to join LEGO’s female Legal Justice Team and Bioneers). The Gender Pay Equity Insights report can reveal ongoing gender pay gaps in Australia, and Australian Rules Football can introduce a Women’s League competition. The gender equity dance seems to be one of some steps backward, some inertia, some steps forward, and then a step to the side.

Hidden Figures screen shot source: huffingtonpost.com

Hidden Figures screen shot; source: huffingtonpost.com

The teaching profession is dominated by women, but school leadership globally remains a male-dominated field associated with masculine qualities (Cunneen & Harford, 2016). I work at a school that is co-educational to Year 6, and single-sex boys to Year 12. We have gender balance in our leadership team, but like most schools in Australia with boys in the high school, the title of the principal is ‘Headmaster’, implying that only a man can hold that position.

In my career I have benefited from the generosity of women colleagues who supported me and women leaders who gave of their time and expertise to support me in my growth. Equally, I have profited from the collegiality and support of men who have played pivotal roles in my work and my career. In more recent years, my nerd herd, Twitteratti and Voxer squad have provided diverse global colleagues, coaches and accountability partners. My mentors, coaches, advocates, professional friends and cheerleaders have been so because of their capacity for empathy and their willingness to give of themsleves to others, to pay forward and to reach back. Each has offered me something unique.

Rogue One film still; source: blastr.com

Rogue One film still; source: blastr.com

I have made deliberate choices in my life, reflecting the IWD theme this year of being bold for change. For me, being bold has been to be true to my own intuition about what makes a good parent, a good educator, a good leader and a fulfilled individual capable of being present with her children, present in her work, and occasionally present in her relationship and present with herself. Of course this tenuous balance is not so easily enacted.

For my male high school students, I aim to be an example of empathy, teaching and leadership. For my male children, I aim to be a present, engaged parent who is also engaged in her own pursuit of personal excellence and contribution to a good greater than myself. By modelling an equitable partnership in concert with my husband, I hope our boys will grow up accepting notions of gender parity at home and feeling comfortable to choose paths that suit them as individuals. Teaching, modelling and leading social justice, diversity and equity, at home and at school, can help our students and our children accept these as given.

Ghostbusters promotional image; source: blastr.com

Ghostbusters promotional image; source: blastr.com

Annabel Crabb’s words still ring true for me, even though I read her book three years ago:

The obligation that evolves for working mothers, in particular, is a very precise one; the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job.

There is the constant tension between the obligations of work and home. My inner primal mama bear feels the umbilical tug of my children no matter how far from them I am. Yet there is also the underlying and constant hum of hunger for intellectual stimulation, professional exhilaration and personal challenge. It is the hunger that propelled me back to work after having each of my children, and that led to my doctorate. My PhD—submitted within three years of enrolling and completed while working and parenting two young children—is my most visceral example of being bold for change. As a sustained challenging endeavor, in which life events intervened along the way to make things at times crushingly difficult, it shaped me and made me feel stronger in the struggle and via the conquering.

LEGO's new Women of NASA figures; source: sciencealert.com

LEGO’s new Women of NASA figures; source: sciencealert.com

One of the great challenges for me is, to use an airplane analogy, fitting my own oxygen mask before I can help others. I have learned to prioritise exercise, yoga and self-care as non-negotiables, rather than the first thing to go when life gets busy or an optional add-on. My children, my husband, my students and my colleagues all benefit when I am in one piece physically, emotionally and mentally.

For girls and boys, men and women, being bold for change can mean apologising less or demanding more from ourselves and those around us. It can mean calling out casual sexism at school, work or at social gatherings. It can mean sharing unpopular opinions or having uncomfortable conversations. It can mean advocating for your child’s, your friend’s or your own non-stereotypical choices. It can mean putting yourself first, or making a sacrifice for someone else. It can mean saying ‘no’, or saying ‘yes’.

International Women’s Day provides us all with the opportunity to bring mindfulness to issues of gender, diversity and privelege.

Shepard Fairey's protest posters for the Trump inauguration; source: theverge.com

Shepard Fairey’s protest posters for the Trump inauguration; source: theverge.com

References

Crabb, A. (2014). The wife drought: Why women need wives, and men need lives. Ebury Australia.

Cunneen, M., & Harford, J. (2016). Gender matters: Women’s experiences of the route to principalship in Ireland. In K. Fuller and J. Harford (eds.). Gender and leadership: Women achieving against the odds. Peter Lang.

School leadership and resisting performativity

Performativity is a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organisations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement. (Ball, 2003, p.216)

We live in an education world that is highly-metricised and focused on hyper-accountability. Students, teachers and school leaders exist in a world in which data and high-stakes testing rule with a policy-clad fist. Countries, schools and students are pitted against each other. The media creates polarising narratives – public vs. private schooling, parents vs. teachers, home vs. school, this country vs. Finland or China. Governments create policies like competitive performance pay for teachers and additional testing.

Sahlberg (2011) frames the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) as an viral force of accountability, performativity, and commodification. Ball (2003) notes the panopticism of managing schools; all are watched and simultaneously scrambling to be visible in the ‘right’ ways. Zhao (2016) acknowledges the strong desire for measuring students, teachers, and schools, but argues for treating numbers with suspicion and expanding what is measured in education. Biesta (2015) notes that the view of education as encompassing only academic achievement in a small and selective number of domains and subject areas, is a limited one. He warns:

The problem with excellence is that it very quickly leads to a competitive mind-set, where some schools or some education systems are supposed to be more excellent than others. In my view, the duty of education is to ensure that there is good education for everyone everywhere.

This notion of democratisation rather than contestation or commodification is radical in our current edu-climate. Ball identifies institutional self-interest, pragmatics and performative worth as the new ethical systems of education. Heffernan (2016) points out that principals’ behaviour has changed as the focus of schools has shifted towards one led by performative numbers and specific sets of data; principals work to improve data. She cautions against “focusing on improving these specific data sets to the detriment of other, holistic, pursuits in education that are not so easily quantified and measured” (p.389). Keddie et al. (2011) express concern that the narrowing of priorities due to performative schooling cultures has pushed to the margins schools’ focus on social justice and equity. Ball suggests that ‘values schizophrenia’ is experienced by educators whereby they sacrifice their commitment, judgement and authenticity for impression and performance.

Leading in schools is complex at the best and easiest of times. Plenty of scholars have identified the qualities of effective school leaders. One example is Gurr and Day (2014), who in their reflections on 15 stories of successful school principals across 13 countries, identify successful principals as: having high expectations; being both heroic and empowering in their leadership; developing collective, shared vision; taking on the symbolic role of storyteller and sense-maker; embodying integrity, trust, and transparency; being people centred; and balancing instructional and transformational leadership. Navigating these multiple and complex roles is challenging even when everything is going well and there is plenty to celebrate. When things get tough and demanding, leaders are really tested.

In a world that values metrics over stories and test scores over empathy, it takes courage to hold the line on egalitarianism, advocating for individuals with difficult circumstances, or mining richer seams of data than the popular ones of NAPLAN, PISA, TIMSS, tertiary entrance examination scores, and an ever-increasing litany of tests. It can be daring and dangerous to advocate for an education that does more than pander to market perception, external measures and competitive league tables.

Sometimes, leaders have to make difficult but unpopular decisions for the greater good of the organisation, for the many, or for the principles of education. Leaders’ decisions can be objected to by those without the big picture context or an understanding of a situation’s complexities. Leaders can listen to others’ feedback and take it on board in decision-making, and they can be as transparent as possible in their communication. (Academic writing, especially the blind peer review process, has helped to shape my acceptance of and willingness to learn from dissenting voices, brutal criticism and those who disagree with me. I’ve applied this in my school context by finding ways to ask for honest, sometimes anonymous, feedback from others in order to inform my practice and the education reform initiatives in which I have been involved.)

Can we adopt Biesta’s call to pursue ‘good education for everyone everywhere’ while also pursuing excellence? Can leaders of schools help to create counter- or simultaneous narratives to those of high-stakes accountability around narrow foci?  I think leaders can buck against the push for compliance, performance and the enterprise mindset. We can choose resistance to performative pressures, although not without a price.

*           *           *

Post-script: Interested in democratising education? This Re-Imagining Education for Democracy Summit, in Queensland in November, could be a great place for presentation and discussion of ideas. It’s being spearheaded by Stewart Riddle, who wrote this 2014 Conversation piece Education is a public good, not a private commodity.

References

Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228

Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On good education, teacher judgement, and educational professionalism. Eurpoean Journal of Education Research, Development and Policy, 50(1), pp 75-87.

Gurr, D., & Day, C. (2014). Thinking about leading schools. In C. Day & D.Gurr (Eds.), Leading schools successfully: Stories from the field (pp. 194-208). Abingdon, OX: Routledge.

Heffernan, A. (2016). The emperor’s perfect map: Leadership by numbers. Australian Educational Researcher, 43(3), 377-391.

Keddie, A., Mills, M., & Pendergast, D. (2011). Fabricating an identity in neo-liberal times: Performaing schooling as ‘number one’. Oxford Review of Education 37(1), pp. 75-92.

Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons. New York, NY. Teachers College.

Zhao, Y.  (2016). Numbers can lie: The meaning and limitations of test scores. In Y. Zhao (Ed.), Counting what counts: Reframing education outcomes (pp. 13-29). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

The power of clear messaging

Cervantes sign

Cervantes sign

While professional learning is the internal process of knowing, learning and becoming, professional development tends to refer to activities, courses, sessions, talks or conferences that teachers attend, voluntarily or otherwise. While it’s more trendy now to say ‘CPD’ (continuing professional development) than ‘PD’, one-off rather than sustained learning continues to pepper the lives of teachers as they and their schools attempt to improve themselves, keep up to date with the profession and meet legal and professional requirements.

The Australian school year has begun, which means that teachers have been given the opportunity to enjoy or endure staff days. Staff days prior to the commencement of the academic year tend to include time for planning, collaboration and setting up classrooms, as well as guest speakers, seminars or the kind of scattergun PD that hopes to land somewhere in the audience and maybe make a difference.

How do schools make decisions as to what kinds of development, collaboration and individual growth they facilitate for their staff? Especially in light of provocative reports like that from the TNTP (2015), The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development, which suggested that we do not yet know what helps teachers to improve the quality of their instruction? The TNTP report (of a two year study into teacher professional learning of over 10,000 teachers and 500 school leaders in three USA public school districts) found that, despite schools and systems investing time and money into professional learning of teachers, no clear patterns emerged to suggest which deliberate efforts improved teacher performance, as measured by teacher evaluation scores (using the education district’s final evaluation score, calculated using the district’s official methodology).

The TNTP report did note one school system whose teachers and students consistently performed better and improved more than the three public school districts. The report states that this better-performing, teacher-developing system had a more disciplined and coherent system for teacher development, a clear vision of success, and a network-wide culture of high expectations and continuous growth. Coherent system. Clear vision. Cohesive culture.

This year, my school decided not to invite a dizzyingly inspirational guest speaker or enlist the services of an external expert to run PD with our staff on those days. Instead our focus was on honouring, respecting and utilising internal expertise, and on communicating clear messaging around the school’s strategic priorities for the year. Valuing tacit knowledge and lived professional experience was important, as the strategic priorities were not new, either for the school or in education. The message, from the school executive and senior leadership team, to teachers, psychologists, education assistants and non-teaching staff, was that there are three key priorities for the year, summarised as three simple words. And that none of these was new, but rather things that teachers and non-teachers engage in every day, in and out of their classrooms.

What we aimed to do on our staff days was what Hargreaves and Shirley describe in their book The fourth way: The inspirational future for educational change as “explore the nitty gritty challenges of their practice through thoughtful exchanges with colleagues and in relation to relevant research” (2009, p. 93). We provided presentations from internal experts and leaders, including a panel of community members, as well as accessible readings and time for colleagues to collaborate with one another, both in their teams and with others from across the school.

The sense I got from our staff days was that staff were:

  • Relieved at the lack of new initiatives and the deliberate slowness in rolling out current projects; we continue to move forward, but in a measured way.
  • Comfortable with the clarity, simplicity and consistency of the messaging.
  • Grateful to be informed of and included in the strategic direction of the school.
  • Energised by the opportunity to work in a structured way with colleagues, around how the school’s strategic priorities would come alive in their own contexts.

I am often inspired by Ellie Drago-Severson’s work on adult learning, and the notion of the ‘holding environment’ as one of high support and high challenge, where people feel both ‘held’ and encouraged to be their best. Additionally, plenty of literature around school change talks about the need for shared vision, as does the 2016 ACER Professional Learning Community Framework for Australian schools. It is worth considering at length how to share school vision with the community so that it is lived, breathed, understood and propelled by those across the organisation. Everyone from the principal to parents and students have a part to play in knitting a community together around a common purpose. This year, those three words communicated from the executive down are helping to bind our community more closely together with common vision and shared purpose.