Leadership in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distance Learning 3.0: Ready to launch

source: pixabay WikiImages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education disrupted by COVID-19 and the role of education leaders

Yesterday I had the pleasure of contributing to the WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education) – Salzburg Global ‘Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined’ virtual convening.  With about 250 people on the Zoom call, and more than 2000 registered attendees from around the world, this was a rich, robust and international event.

The first day’s sessions can be found on this YouTube video. The panel in which I was involved—’The role of education leaders in times of crisis’, with Greg Moncada, Xueqin Jiang and moderator Simon Breakspear—begins at 1 hour 36 minutes and runs for about 45 minutes, but the whole two days is worth a listen.

It’s much more interesting to listen to the conversation via the YouTube link, but the points I discussed during the panel are captured briefly below.

The disruption of COVID-19 and physical school closures are prompting us to ask ourselves the following questions.

  • What is the purpose of schooling?
  • What is the role of teachers?
  • How could or should we measure learning and educational success?

These questions prompt us to consider how we might do things differently during this time, and how we might reimagine schooling beyond our current pandemic reality.

My advice to school leaders at this time is to:

  • Consider Maslow before Bloom. That is, put safety, health and wellbeing before formal education, curriculum, pedagogy and especially assessment. Be compassionate and kind. Start with humanity. Understand that those in your community are likely to have complex circumstances of which you may be unaware. For more see the independent report Thinking About Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic.
  • Put community, connectedness, intimacy and relationships at the forefront of decisions and practices.
  • Respond to your own context. Look to other nations and other schools. Look to research and advice, but ultimately trust yourselves–school leaders and teachers in your school–to know your own context. Generate data and feedback from your school community so that you understand the lived experiences of those in your care and can respond. Be agile and iterative. One size fits one. We need to think fast and slow at the same time, with simultaneous decisiveness, intentionality, and willingness to adapt to our community’s needs and to changing circumstances.

In considering our ‘next normal’ we can ask ourselves the following questions.

  • What is it that we’ve desperately missed that we want to bring back in to schooling and education (e.g. connectedness, relationships)?
  • What is it that’s been removed that we don’t want to return to (e.g. standardised testing and accountability measures)?

Finally, the current scenario has provided a fiery crucible for teacher agency and innovation. The teachers on the ground in our school systems around the world are the education system, and they are currently reshaping and flipping the system from the ground up, at pace, on the fly, and with professional expertise, integrity and heart.

5 anchors for leading in a time of crisis

image source: krystyna-rawicz.blogspot.com

At times of volatility, catastrophe and trauma, we often feel like ships in a stormy sea, searching for something to hold tight to, a way to steady ourselves. Here are five anchors to steady and guide school leadership in this time of pandemic-induced global emergency.

  1. Vision and values

In simpler times—when we could leave our homes for any reason at all, congregate in groups of any size, travel far and wide, and find any grocery on any shelf of any supermarket—school leaders thought a lot about vision. Schools have always sought to develop commonality of vision and purpose, while school staff have sought to align with their school contexts in terms of their own beliefs, identities and the purpose that propels them in their work.

Shared vision remains more important than ever, and school leadership in a time of crisis means holding strong to values, principles and vision, as anchors to our decision making.

  1. Navigating tensions

Leading during a pandemic has brought to the forefront of my thinking one of the findings of my PhD: that leadership involves a tightrope-walk between priorities. Leaders constantly navigate tensions: the collective and the individual, accountability and autonomy, the bottom line and the greater good.

Leaders simultaneously make decisions with a view of the dance floor as well as from the balcony, (or, if you like, from both the trenches and the war room). They must consider a range of impacts (individual, organisation, wellbeing, learning, service provision, performance, staffing, financial implications, management of resources, sustainability of business) while keeping all of their individual people in mind. To make effective decisions, they must know the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of their contexts, but also best practice occurring elsewhere and the best available evidence of what is likely to work.

In a time of crisis, leaders must act swiftly and with foresight, but also with careful consideration of options, consequences and side effects of actions taken. They must communicate with clarity and purpose, but also with empathy and humanity.

And in a crisis, perfection is the enemy of progress. As Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of WHO, recently explained in regards to emergency response:

“You need to act quickly … Be fast, have no regrets. You must be the first mover. … If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. … Speed trumps perfection. … Everyone is afraid of the consequence of error, but the greatest error is not to move. The greatest error is to be paralysed by the fear of failure.”

Leaders must act quickly, and yet know that they may make mistakes and have to evolve and adapt as advice and conditions change.

  1. Safety before learning

In our independent report Thinking about Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic, my co-authors and I say that now is a time for ‘Maslow before Bloom’. What we mean, of course, is that a time of global crisis, grief, trauma and instability is a time to put health, safety and wellbeing first; before curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. At this time more than ever, we must consider humans before outcomes, students before results, wellbeing before learning.

Learning is, of course, important. Our jobs as school leaders, teachers and educators, are to ensure the very best learning outcomes for our students, within the parameters of the unusual emergency circumstances in which we presently find ourselves. But learning (and especially assessment) should not be prioritised above basic human needs.

As time goes on during this pandemic, all those in our communities will be touched by the social, emotional, physical, mental, financial and human impacts of COVID-19. We need to pull back on notions of accountability and focus our efforts on compassion and togetherness. We need to continue to know our people, check in with them even at a distance, and interrogate how we can best support them through this time. It’s also important for leaders to fit our own proverbial oxygen masks so that we can continue to help and serve those in our communities.

  1. Trusting and supporting teachers

Trust throughout the educational system, and of teachers, is key to ensure a collective approach on all fronts to best serve our school communities during this crisis. Rather than a top-down one-size-fits all approach to education, teachers can and should be trusted to lead.

There are challenges. Time and support are needed to help teachers develop the appropriate competencies and confidence to pivot to, and thrive in, distance learning models. Yet, the nature of a global pandemic is such that the pace of change is brisk and biting. There is little lead-in time and so decision making happens quickly, on the best advice of the day, which can change at any time. Just look at the pace of government announcements. It nonetheless remains important that teachers feel trusted and supported to make the best decisions for the students in their contexts.

In a time of crisis, we need to pare education back to its essentials. Doing less and expecting less goes against the grain of our normal ways of operating, especially in a our profession, in which teachers often measure themselves by how much they provide.

My message to teachers remains similar to my advice on Day 1 of distance learning at my school:

  • Do your best with what you know and can do. This isn’t like ‘normal’ school and it isn’t going to mirror ‘teaching as usual’. It’s teaching during a pandemic while juggling working from home and schooling our own children; while the parents of the children we are remotely teaching are working from home and possibly dealing with financial hardship, health challenges and family complexities we cannot imagine. Students, too, will be going through a multitude of challenges, many of which we will not know about as we lead and teach at a distance.
  • Keep it simple. Start with the learning intentions, pare back to essentials, rethink ways to gather evidence of student learning, find efficiencies and set professional boundaries and routines.  Less is more.
  • Trust your professional judgement. Teachers know themselves and their students. Do what works. Be ok with less. Be ok with easing back on expectations of yourself, students and parents.
  • Be kind to yourself and others. This is distance learning during a global pandemic. It is continuing our students’ education while in the midst of a major health, societal and economic crisis. There will be a multiplicity of very real challenges for students, teachers and parents during this time. Maslow before Bloom!
  1. Community

Schools are more than places where learning happens. The closure of schools around the world has highlighted the ways in which schools help to address inequities, and how schools act as spaces of safety, nourishment, connectedness and support for many. Everyone—students, teachers and parents—is missing ‘school’ and all that  it provides (much more, it turns out, than classroom lessons and assemblies). Video conferencing can provide some semblance of person-to-person check-ins, but there is nothing like being in a room with a class and gauging their responses with the rich data that being there together provides.

For many students, families and teachers, the loss of onsite schooling is felt deeply. We know, though, that we are staying at home to keep ourselves, those we love, and those who are vulnerable, safe. It needs to be done and so schooling must innovate.

However, enthusiasm for opportunities for education reform must not overtake the current conversation. Yes, we are rethinking education. Yes, we can later consider what kind of normal we want to return to, and what we are happy to leave behind. Yes, we can be deliberate about continuing some of the current crisis innovation into our future realities. Life, work, school, pedagogy, assessment and university entrance may never be the same again. But we must consider connectedness and community.

While crises can lead to individualistic thinking in which every person is looking out for themselves, we will best survive this by considering the ways in which we can continue to knit together as families, school communities and a global community.

Supporting one another, connecting in new ways and building a sense of solidarity and ‘we’re in this together’ is what will get us through (to use a Game of Thrones reference) The Long Night. So let’s be in this, together, with generosity of spirit, open communication and empathy.

Distance Learning: Day 1

with my Madonna headset about to run a live video meeting with Year 12 Literature

In recent days, the Australian Prime Minister indicated that schools in Australia will remain open. On Sunday 22 March his announcement was as follows.

“Schools will remain open through to the end of the current school terms to support students whose parents choose to send their children to school. Victoria’s school break will commence on Tuesday 24 March 2020.

If parents choose to keep their children home from school, parents must be responsible for the conduct of the children and to ensure they adhere to the social distancing arrangements in place.

Schools will be encouraged to provide access to online and distance learning.”

This statement seems to suggest that Australian teachers are expected to provide face-to-face teaching to those students at school, and also online and distance learning for those students staying at home. It is not a workable solution to ask teachers to provide, simultaneously, both in-school and distance learning models. The only viable option that came to my mind was to provide one model–a distance learning model–with which all students can engage at home or at school.

Then yesterday the commission that governs my school and a range of others made a decision: to urge parents to keep children at home, if they can, from today, and to transition to a distance learning model over the next few days. As a result, today my Western Australian school launched (a transition to) our Distance Learning Plan.

So, how did it go?

Here are my end-of-day reflections.

As this is not a government-directed school closure, staff are continuing to work from school, which remains open for staff and for those students whose parents need them to be at school. Continuing to work from school means that staff have access to resources, the school network, the IT department, a Microsoft remote learning expert we currently have on campus to help staff with just-in-time professional learning, and one another. Helping each other through this first day has been a real bonus in terms of morale and collaboration.

A small percentage of students turned up to school and were supervised by staff on a roster as they engaged in the distance learning model. This allowed most staff to enact distance learning in empty classrooms or their offices. Students on site expressed that the feeling of a near-empty school was ‘weird’ but that it was also calm and positive. Students at school were taken out for some physical activity and were able to space out at break times. Reduced numbers of students meant that physical distancing could be practised according to the government’s guidelines.

Students showed their adaptability as they began learning from home. As well as following their teacher’s instructions and their parents’ guidance, some students took their learning into their own hands, showing initiative and collaboration. For example, a group of primary students started their own live video meeting in order to work through their spelling activities. Students used the functions of Teams and OneNote to answer each other’s questions. Some of my Year 12s told me that they had been much more productive at home than they normally are at school. Parents sent in photos of their children engaged in at-home learning.

Teachers launched into our Distance Learning Plan, communicating with students and parents, setting the work for the day, creating content, rethinking assessments and checking in with students through Microsoft Teams. Even though we have been planning for this, a sudden pivot to distance learning meant teachers confronting change head on and being ok with the risk of ‘getting it wrong’. It meant troubleshooting technology. It meant finding ways to humanise the distance learning experience. It meant colleagues helping each other, students helping each other, and students and colleagues helping one another, in a variety of in-person and online ways.

One teacher told me that moving to purely distance learning was like becoming a parent:

“You’re never really ready until it happens, and then you figure it out as you go along.”

I have previously blogged some considerations for planning for distance learning and my message to our teachers this morning was this:

“We haven’t done this before and will be learning as we go, but my tips are:

  • Do your best with what you know and can do. This isn’t like ‘normal’ school and it isn’t going to mirror ‘teaching as usual’. Students will struggle with technology and motivation, as might we!
  • Keep it simple. Start with the learning intentions and find efficiencies. Not every lesson needs to be video, live, technology-based or amazing.
  • Trust your professional judgement. You know yourselves, your subject and your students. Do what works.
  • Be kind to yourself and others. This is distance learning during a global pandemic. It is continuing our students’ education while in the midst of a major health, societal and economic crisis. There will be a multiplicity of very real challenges for students, teachers and parents during this time. Reach out for help if you need it.”

I am grateful to be part of: a school and system acting with the health, safety and wellbeing of its community in mind; a staff who are working incredibly hard and with acrobatic agility and positivity in a constantly changing professional environment; and a community of students and families who are engaging with these changing circumstances in optimistic and open ways.

Thank you to all those educators around the country and the world sharing their resources and experiences. The education hive mind is alive and well. We’re in this together and we’re better together. Stay safe.

COVID-19 forces educational and societal reform

cyclone-2102397_1280

The last couple of weeks have been hectic around the world and the pace of change at all levels has been rapid and relentless. In Australian schools, leadership teams and teachers have been preparing for distance learning. Parents have been making decisions about whether or not to send their children to school. Worry in households and panic in shopping centres have reached climactic levels. School leaders are doing their best to remain calm and methodical while preparing their schools for what seems like imminent closure in the near future.

It is surreal to watch corporate and education reform happen at such a rapid rate. We are reforming the workplace and rethinking how we go about our work. We are reimagining how we interact and collaborate. We are reframing education and redesigning schooling on the fly.

Those who have been calling for the abolition of standardised tests and the rethinking of university entrance are seeing education systems transform before their eyes. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant the cancelling of standardised tests (GCSEs and A-Levels in the UK; NAPLAN in Australia so far) and the consequent abolishing of league tables derived from these tests. Those who have been calling for the end of traditional schooling are seeing the swift move to remote learning and the upskilling of teachers in learning technologies and online platforms.

Australian teachers and school leaders, whose jobs are already incredibly complex, are supporting increasingly anxious students and parents. They are communicating work to students who are not coming to school. They are preparing for a move to teaching remotely. They are considering how learning might look different, authentic and meaningful when done from home. They are considering issues of equity and access for their communities. They are worrying about their own children, parents, families, livelihood, groceries.

Educators are collaborating within schools, they are collaborating with other schools. They are sharing their distance learning plans and teaching resources, because as a profession and as a society, we are better together.

We are one society, one humanity. All of our jobs and job descriptions are now in flux. What does our workplace, our clientele, our society need now, at this moment in time? Grounded flight attendants stocking supermarket shelves? Military personnel assisting surgical-mask-producing and toilet-paper-manufacturing facilities? Consultants training teachers to use online technologies? Office staff filling bottles with hand sanitiser and disinfecting workplace surfaces? All of us rearranging furniture and staying at a distance from one another?

We are needed in new ways, and there is an almost wartime redeployment of labour and a need for banding together as whole workplaces, as a whole society and as a whole world.

This is a time for us all to think about what leadership means, regardless of title or position. We can reach out (from a physical distance) to others and support one another as best we can, even though isolation feels like it goes against our biology. We can consider carefully where we get our information, and how we respond to that information. We can all lead by example, by clear communication with one another, and by clarity of purpose and cohesiveness of action.

During the current crisis, Canadians began a ‘caremongering not scaremongering’ campaign. This week is Kindness Week, a week to think about how we move beyond fear and individualism to compassion and courage. Australia has not yet seen the full force of COVID-19 and its real, human ramifications. There is no more important time to be kind to ourselves and each other than right now. We are in a time of adaptation and evolution, by necessity. When we come out the other side, society, work and education may be reformed for good.

Teachers and school leaders: Being better

We can always be better

As teachers, school leaders and those working in education, we have a moral obligation to the students we serve to commit to continuous improvement. We need to always strive to be better, because no matter how good we are, we can always improve. Not only is teaching so complex that it’s impossible to perfect (as Dylan Wiliam humorously explains in this short video), but with each new class or cohort, there are fresh idiosyncrasies and circumstances to consider that should influence our practice.

This idea is well worn. Charlotte Danielson explains that “teaching is so hard that it’s never perfect. No matter how good it is, it could always be better.” Dylan Wiliam asserts that “all teachers need to improve their practice—not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”

How we get better

Interestingly, Wiliam also suggests that what we should be getting better at is what we’re already good at, rather than our identified deficiencies. He writes:

“The greatest benefits to students are likely to come from teachers becoming even more expert in their strengths. … when teachers themselves make the decision about what it is that they wish to prioritise for their own professional development, they are more likely to ‘make it work’.”

That is, rather than focusing on deficiencies and finding fault, teachers should be empowered to drive our own improvement and leverage our strengths.

As educators we can improve by engaging in robust processes of self-reflection, goal setting, data generation, data analysis and action. We can use data and the best available evidence to reflect on what we know, and consider how to improve from where we are now, to where we want to be so that we can optimally educate our students.

Staff development processes can support teachers by being efficient, transparent, consistent and based on best practice. Schools can provide psychological safety and cultures of trust that support teachers to be and become the best they can be.

We can also support teachers and school leaders to engage in meaningful collaboration and transformational professional learning as levers for ongoing learning and improvement.

Questions we can each ask ourselves as our 2020 school year kicks off

  • What could be a focus for ‘better’ in my teaching, leadership or education work in 2020?
  • What are some things I could do to move this forward?
  • Who or what could I access for support?
  • What is my first small step towards ‘better’ in this area?

Better together

I opened my presentation to staff this year with the following two artworks: M. C. Escher’s 1953 lithograph Relativity and Piet Mondrian’s 1908 painting The Red Tree.

M.C. Escher’s ‘Relativity’

The version of reality represented in Relativity has the appearance that everyone is going nowhere, round in circles, or in divergent directions. The figures are disconnected from each other. They don’t engage with one another, but rather accept their individual reality and head in their individual direction, on their own path, doing discrete and seemingly unconnected tasks.

There are three different forces of gravity operating in the artwork, and the characters within it exist simultaneously in their different gravitational worlds, without awareness of each other’s different situations. In schools our work can be like this: disconnected and ad hoc, with each of us moving in our own direction according to our own rules, preferences or perceptions of where we could be going and what we could be doing.

Piet Mondrian’s ‘The Red Tree’

In The Red Tree, each branch is going and growing its own way, yet each is connected at the trunk. The trunk may be seen as a metaphor for the shared vision of a school, and the branches as teams and individuals diverging off from, but still connected with, the solid central body of the organisation.

This is what I think we’re aiming for in schools: connection between stakeholders and a shared vision, while honouring individuality and what we each bring and can contribute.

We’re better together, especially when we can simultaneously unite in moral purpose, vision and direction, while allowing each individual to flourish, shine and explore their own path, supported by and integrated with the trunk.

What matters in teaching and learning?

Teaching is incredibly complex. Source: FreeCreativeStuff pixabay

In this blog post I explore my thinking around what matters in teaching and learning. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but part of a wider conversation.

The student matters.

Students are our common purpose in teaching and learning; our who and our why; the core of our work. Not just ‘students’ plural, but each and every student (with their idiosyncrasies, circumstances, attitudes, abilities and identities).

The decisions we make from the classroom to the board room in schools should all come back to the student. Ultimately in education, we are in their service.

The teacher matters.

The teacher and their classroom practice can make a difference to student learning and achievement. Within schools, the quality of teachers’ teaching is the most influential school-based variable in terms of improving student learning and achievement. (Although more influential than what is within a school’s sphere of influence are students’ attitudes and abilities, socioeconomic context, parents’ education and peers.)

Knowledge matters.

In Australia, knowledge is central to one of our professional standards: ‘Teachers know content and how to teach it.’ Focusing on preparing students for their future pathways, and on character, skills and capabilities, doesn’t mean ignoring knowledge.

Australian Chief Scientist, Alan Fink, has spoken about teachers as trained experts who have a “fundamental duty to teach students content: concepts, facts and principles.” He adds that specialist knowledge is needed:

“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.’”

Cognitive load theory posits that the human working memory cannot process many new elements at any one time, but the human brain can process very large amounts of stored information. What this tells teachers is that we need to help students to bank knowledge in their long term memory, so that they can use their working memory to learn new things or do higher order thinking. For example, knowing things like times tables or phonics with automaticity and fluency leaves room in the working memory to be able to focus on more sophisticated aspects of problems or language.

Dylan Wiliam, in his book Creating the schools our children need: Why what we’re doing now won’t help much (and what we can do instead), points to long-term memory, arguing that:

“what our students need is more to think with. The main purpose of curriculum is to build up the content of long-term memory so that when students are asked to think, they are able to think in more powerful ways.” (2018, p.134)

Critical thinkers need knowledge on which to build, and creators need to know the foundations on which they are innovating.

Pedagogy matters

How we teach also matters. In schools we should be asking ourselves:

  • How do we decide which teaching strategies to deploy?
  • On what evidence do we base our decisions?
  • How do we know what is likely to be in the best interests of the student?

In a previous blog post I outline what research literature indicates about what effective teachers do. They:

  • Purposefully design learning opportunities;
  • Diagnose student progress to inform both teaching and learning;
  • Fight for their students’ learning;
  • Personalise learning for students;  and
  • Provide meaningful and appropriate feedback.

Barak Rosenshine’s principles of instruction give one list of teaching strategies likely to be effective:

  • Review previous learning.
  • Provide new material in small steps with student practice after each step.
  • Limit the amount of material students receive at one time.
  • Give clear and detailed instructions and explanations.
  • Ask good questions and check the responses of all students.
  • Provide models, exemplars and worked examples.
  • Guide student practice.
  • Check for student understanding.
  • Help students obtain a high success rate.
  • Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.
  • Require and monitor independent practice.
  • Provide timely, systematic feedback.
  • Engage students in regular review of their learning and self-assessment.

In my own classroom, I ask myself:

  • Who is doing the thinking in our classrooms?
  • Who is working harder: teacher or student?

These questions are anchors that help me to consider my pedagogy in ways that empower and expect students to be doing the cognitive work.

But knowledge and teaching are not all that matters in teaching and learning. >>>

Relationships matter.

Relationships are also at the heart of learning.

In Australia one of our professional standards states that “Teachers know their students well.” Steve Biddulph says that “boys learn teachers not subjects.” An oft-quoted line, attributed to a number of people such as Carl Buehner and Maya Angelou, resonates with teachers and the student experience of teaching:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

When I threw the question ‘What matters in teaching and learning’ out to Twitter last night, I received more than 70 replies in 24 hours. Many of these tweets centred around relationships (student-teacher, but also staff and families). Cameron Paterson pointed me towards this video of Rita Pierson’s TED talk in which she says “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like” and “seeks first to understand rather than to be understood.” You can read what Twitter had to say in the thread here.

I like to think about the concept, from psychology, of a ‘holding environment’ in which members of the community or organisation feel ‘held’ in a culture of high support and high challenge. How students feel and relate in our school and classroom matters. They need psychological safety.

Identity and belonging matter.

Like relationships, students need a sense of belonging and of being seen for who they are.

We can consider:

  • Who are our learners now, and who do they and we want them to become?
  • To what extent do our students feel and see themselves belonging in our school community?

Context matters.

Research can only tell us what has worked in particular situations. It doesn’t tell us what to do or what might work for our students. Research  can, however, help us to make better decisions about how best to serve our students.

Those teachers within a classroom and leaders within a school know their students and community. Those working with students and families each day are the people best placed to serve them.

Culture matters.

Cultures of trust and empathy are key to schools that are able to support the learning and wellbeing of their students and staff. Those cultures can be academic, pastoral, professional and community cultures.

We can ask:

  • How do we collectively approach teaching, learning and pastoral matters?
  • What are our students’ work habits and attitudes to school and learning?
  • How engaged are our families in student learning?
  • How well do we work together as a staff?

And we can work on culture as a foundation stone of the teaching and learning work we do.

Engagement matters.

Knowledge and skills are central to student learning, but we also want students to be lifelong learners who are curious and driven to learn and to solve problems.

  • How do we enhance student motivation and excitement about learning?
  • How do we facilitate learning that matters to students?

Finally, our moral purpose matters.

I recently heard Michael Fullan saying that it is today’s students who will change the world for the better, partly because of their education, and partly because of the anxiety and alarm they feel about the state of the world, that is propelling them towards being agents of positive change.

In 1947 Martin Luther King Junior wrote that:

“Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

Teachers and school leaders have a moral obligation to our students. We can consider our own moral purpose, and how we help students to develop character and their own moral compass and purpose.

  • How do we facilitate students as lifelong learners, ethical active citizens and empathetic constructive problem seekers and solvers?
  • How can and do we support students to contribute to a world that’s worth living in?

Asking ‘What matters?’, matters.

In our edited book, Flip the System Australia, my co-editors and I chose the subtitle: What Matters in Education. The book looked beyond a ‘what works’ agenda and asked (and in some ways proposed hopeful possible answers to) questions of what matters, what should matter, and how we can focus our education systems on equity, democracy and inclusion.

Teaching is difficult, complex, human, relational work. So much matters, but if we keep the student at the centre of our thinking, we’re off to a good start.

In education: To whom should we listen?

X speakers

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

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

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

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

______________________________________

Teaching can be a personal, political and dangerous act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the novel, the Eaglet says,

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

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

To whom should we listen?

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

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

My voice comes from within the education system, yet as a pracademic, I am bestride both the practitioner world of schools, and the scholarly world of research. Alongside my full-time school day job, I am an adjunct at a university. My dual roles inform one another and give me a perspective quite different from those who advise from the sidelines. I am firmly embedded in what it feels like to be a cog in the school reform wheel. What I do every day in my lessons, meetings, professional conversations, and operational and strategic work, influences how I interpret education research. And the research I read and undertake influences my understanding of my daily work at school. In these ways I operate as a bridge betwixt and between research and practice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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