What do activism and power look like?

Title slide for our AARE 2018 symposium

I have been thinking about a question from the audience during the AARE symposium I chaired and presented in yesterday. The symposium abstract (below) outlined the notion of flipping the education system as a thread connecting the five papers presented.

The education system, in Australia and around the world, has governments and policymakers at its apex, making decisions disconnected from those at the nadir: teachers and students. Schools in this system are highly bureaucratic institutional settings, and teachers are increasingly undervalued, constrained and de-professionalised. The individuals and groups that wield influence on education policy and practice operate bureaucratically are physically removed from schools. They construct narrow measures of the success of schooling, and these impact on teacher agency. This education policy environment was evident in the recent Gonski 2.0 report with its focus on PISA, NAPLAN, and rhetoric of ‘cruising schools’ failing generations of Australians. A focus on numbers and rankings contribute to the disconnect between bureaucracy and the profession, and to the tension between education’s vision for equity and the realities of competition, marketisation and a culture of performativity.

This symposium shares perspectives around the notion of ‘flipping’ the education system in ways that embrace human aspects of education, wrestle with the criticality of the task of schooling at the margins, and engage with multiple voices in education, especially those often side-lined in education discourse and education policy. This collection of diverse papers together makes a compelling case for change in education policy and practice by tackling: elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders; teachers’ perceptions of commercialisation in Australian schools; discourses that silence Indigenous voices in education; authentic engagement between teachers and Indigenous families and communities; and empowering educators to reclaim narratives of schooling.

During the symposium’s question time, an audience member suggested that if we were going to really ‘flip the system’ in education that there would need to be some sort of (Foucauldian) rupture, a traumatic breaking apart of the system in order to rebuild it. He told us that as presenters we were (too) measured and polite in our arguments, something he didn’t see as necessarily able to flip a system. Where was the rupturing, the eruption, the kapow of revolution?

I have wondered before about activism and the forms it takes. Who can be an activist? Is it only those with secure, late-career jobs? Can the early career teacher or researcher really challenge the system in which they work when that can put them at risk of unemployment or further precarity and uncertainty? Does an activist have to look, act and speak a certain way? Can an activist use the apparatuses of power in order to undermine that power, or does she need different tools?

donning the FEAS power dressing blazer

I also wonder what power looks like. This week at the AARE conference, I took part in the Feminist Educators Against Sexism (FEAS) power dressing project, which you can read more about here. Above are two photos a colleague took of me while I was wearing the FEAS symbolic power dressing blazer. In the first, I am laughing as I prepare for the photo, and in the second I am attempting a ‘power pose’. I like the first photo better. I love the symbolism and the gallery of images of the FEAS power dressing project, which show the range of ways women can appear powerful. What I am questioning here is my own discomfort with performing power in a way that might not be authentic. I wish I had worn my favourite red lipstick and laughed at the camera (although I did manage a sardonic raised eyebrow). Power doesn’t have to be a Rosie the Riveter bicep curl or a ferocious snarl. It doesn’t have to be loud, enraged or serious. It can be quiet, comfortable or joyful. Powerful women can and do smile, and enjoy the way they dress and the way they look, as well as their contributions to work and life.

my FEAS power dressing photo (credit: Linda Knight)

In the Flip the (education) System movement—explored in a variety of ways in yesterday’s symposium and in our new book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education—we believe that teaching, leading, researching and writing are political acts. In education, we are all activists. But activism does not have to be violent or deafening. Many of the arguments in the book and in yesterday’s symposium are measured and polite, as our audience member pointed out. Our intention is that a greater range of voices be invited to and heard at the decision making tables of bureaucracy and policymaking in education. In order to be invited in, we need to engage with system level decision makers in considered and convincing ways. We can do that with words and research, not just with placards and protests.

Our book chapters provide examples of resistance that is logical and beautifully articulated. In their chapter, Greg Thompson, David Rutkowski and Sam Sellar argue that international large scale assessments like PISA should not be dismissed. They have a place in the education landscape, but that teachers can be part of engaging with them in order to inform education systems. “Who,” the authors ask, “has better vantage point from which to shape the public debate about quality education than the educators who are constantly striving to deliver it in our schools?” (p. 62).

In her chapter, Rebecca Cody invites school leaders to abandon binary thinking that leads to schools embracing either performative accountabilities, or principles of holistic education. She argues that school leaders can and should ride both these ‘wild horses’ simultaneously.

Melitta Hogarth calls for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to “be more vocal and ‘stand on toes’”, to “unite in our concerns for our children’s futures, demanding a position at the table” (p. 113), but acknowledges the difficulties and complexities inherent in such a call.

These chapters reflect the point made by Nicole Mockler and Susan Groundwater-Smith in their new book, Questioning the language of improvement and reform in education: Reclaiming language, in which they suggest that it might not be fruitful to argue against concepts such as quality, standards and improvement, but that we can resist and reclaim the way these are used in education. We can focus on growth, collaboration, and professionalism, for instance, rather than using accountabilities as a stick with which to beat teachers and schools.

So, I have reflected on our audience member’s question about the need for a rupture in the system, in order to flip it, liquefy it, and democratise it. We speakers and writers are hyper aware that we are using the structures and language of the powerful in order to speak into this space. Book chapters written in fairly formal English and referencing academic texts could be seen to perpetuate the very system we are attempting to challenge. But we can work to change the system from the inside out.

Foucault, who was mentioned by our questioner, noted that there are occasional radical ruptures, but that more often there are smaller forces or moments of resistance. Those of us within the system can agitate in ways that are dramatic and fierce, but also be in ways that are eloquent and subtle. Revolution and power can come in the form of micro rebellions and the snowballing of a collective voice that is revolutionary in its strength in numbers, in its logic, and in its unwavering persistence to nudge the system towards positive change.

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Consolidation is not a dirty word

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Running off the Term 4 cliff

In Australia it is currently nearing the end of Term 4. We are a few weeks away from the end of the school year. Often at this time of year I see the exhaustion on my colleagues’ faces, the weariness in their bones. I used to look forward to Term 4 as a time when I assumed the work in schools would wind down. The sun would be shining with the promise of summer, and slowly I would be able to find slivers of time to luxuriate in thorough planning for the year beyond. In reality, finishing the school year as a teacher or school leader is like running full pelt off a cliff. You run as fast as you can until you realise that the year has ended and given way beneath you. But you are still running. Many schools are on an innovation trajectory that leaves casualties in its wake. The desire to be on the cutting edge sometimes leaves us bleeding. As Andy Hargreaves, Shaneé Washington and Michael O’Connor point out in their chapter in the upcoming Flip the System Australia book, there can be no student wellbeing without teacher wellbeing. They point out that wellbeing initiatives like yoga and meditation add-ons don’t fix the underlying factors eroding teacher wellbeing and morale.

We are in the here and now and then

The end of Term 4 is always a strange time in schools. We are finishing off one year (marking, reporting, preparing for final events), but we are simultaneously planning for the following year (writing course programs, organising staff days, finalising staffing, deciding on strategic foci). We are at once in the present, the future, and betwixt the two.

Education loves the future

In education we are always looking to the future. We are constantly reflecting on where our students are now, where they need to or could be, and how we can help them get there. We strategically plan innovations with the short and the very long term in mind. How will we assess the knowledge and skills we are teaching? What will our students need to know in the world into which they will eventually graduate? On what 21st century skills and capabilities should we be focusing? How might artificial intelligence, automation and data science change education and what do we need to know and do about it? What is the ‘next big thing’ in education?

Competition and short-term thinking

Ever since I started teaching almost twenty years ago I have been in the eye of this future-focused vortex and the relentless cycles of change that are propelled by it. It doesn’t help that education is hyper-focused on competition, or that schools and teachers are pitted against one another. Or that the media constantly runs fear mongering stories about the decline of [insert latest media education trend or most recent high stakes test or particular school sector]. Or that our political cycle perpetuates short termism, making education a card to be played in exchange for votes, rather than a long term priority deserving of deliberate, well-resourced action.

Focus on doing the last big thing properly

The phrase that is currently guiding my own strategic planning for 2019 is from Dylan Wiliam. He says it regularly, and it can be found on page 118 of his most recent book, Creating the schools our children need: What we’re doing now won’t help much (and what we can do instead). It is this:

We need to stop looking for the next big thing and instead focus on doing the last big thing properly.

I am focusing my 2019—and by ‘my’ I mean my portfolio of work including professional learning, pedagogy and research at my school—on consolidation. Embedment. Going deeper. Strengthening and enriching the work we are doing. Doing things better and more thoroughly. Spending time in deliberate practice followed by thoughtful reflection and refinement.

Doing even better things

A declaration at the beginning of the school year that ‘this year, we are going to consolidate’ may incite sighs of relief from teachers. What? they may think, Nothing new this year? I don’t believe it! Consolidation is a challenge in education, when there is so much more we could always be doing. At the beginning of this year, I was intentional about what I could let go of in order to do those things that really mattered to me. It is important in education that we decide where our efforts are best placed, and then work to do those things really well. We need to seriously consider what we can stop doing, or do differently, in order to pursue what it really worthwhile. Let’s do really good things well, not ‘all the things’ badly and in a state of blind panic.

The work of consolidation

Consolidation doesn’t mean there is no work to do. It doesn’t mean standing still or stagnating. It means doing better what we are already doing now. It means connecting in with one another to learn from each other, celebrate, challenge and share our expertise. It means continuing to develop shared understandings and shared practices, and looking back occasionally to remind ourselves of how far we have come.

Consolidation in 2019. Can it be done? Watch this space.

Redefining school leadership

Job descriptions for school leaders often encompass a range of strategic, relational and operational work, but the work of school leaders also involves enacting policy and performing for school communities and for governing bodies. The performative aspects of school leadership are often driven by data, testing and league tables. In Australia at around this time of year, schools receive their NAPLAN results, and around December of each year, these results become public on the MySchool website. Schools often publish reports on their NAPLAN data, drawing conclusions and setting goals around it. This is one example of how public data and high stakes testing is part of a school leader’s job. Other examples are the league tables of schools published at the beginning of each year around Year 12 student performance in tertiary entrance subjects.

In a previous blog post on resisting performativity, I wrote:

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.

Leading is political. As Amanda Heffernan (2018a, 2018b) reveals, principals can deliberately choose to accept or resist policy. School leaders can navigate the conflicting demands of the audit and performance culture by exercising autonomy (Gobby, Keddie, & Blackmore, 2017). In an upcoming chapter in Flip the System Australia, principal Rebecca Cody (2019) calls this ‘riding two wild horses’. She argues that school leaders can and must simultaneously pursue academic excellence (including as measured by public metrics), and a holistic education for each child.

While the seductive cliché of the charismatic central hero persists—from recruitment to media to memes—the more I investigate the theory and practice of school leadership, the more I see it as a constant navigation of tensions. Accountability and autonomy. Individual and wider group or organisation. Bottom line and greater good. This is why it is so important that schools have a clear idea of who and why they are. Values, shared vision, and strong culture can anchor decision making.

I have written before, on this blog and in a book chapter (Netolicky, 2018b), about challenging leadership tropes. Last month, a new academic paper of mine was published in the Journal of Educational Administration and History. This paper is to form part of a special issue on metaphors for educational leadership. The special issue will explore metaphors for school leadership including the punk rock principal, the Robinson Crusoe colonist leader, middle leaders as spies, and head teacher as storyteller.

My article—‘Redefining leadership in schools: the Cheshire Cat as unconventional metaphor’—uses the (as the title suggests) unusual metaphor of the Cheshire Cat to explore school leadership. This metaphor emerged from interviews with 11 Western Australian school leaders.

The crazy subterranean world of Wonderland—with its non-sense and word games—is actually a pretty good mirror to hold up to the world of education. The Cheshire Cat is a complex and mutable character, but is also highly deliberate in controlling its visibility and invisibility. It is the only character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that listens to Alice and helps her through a combination of listening, mentoring, travelling alongside her, a sense of humour, and sometimes stepping back to allow her to make her own decisions. It supports and trusts Alice. The use of this metaphor as emblematic of school leadership challenges traditional notions of leader as charismatic visionary hero leading the troops, or captain steering the ship. This leader is in control, but makes decisions from the perspective of what will have the best outcome or serve others (each student, staff, and the school community). The Cheshire Cat provides a creative reimagining of the school leader as someone who makes careful decisions about how to best serve their communities, how to foster trust, and how to distribute power and agency, including when to appear and disappear, when to step forward and step back, when to direct and when to empower.

The conclusion of my article reads:

It is important that … this article’s Cheshire Cat metaphor not become a new idealised version of leadership, a trope that perpetuates the dark shadow of leadership …. Rather, the Cheshire Cat can be a way into embracing and grappling with the complexities and nuances of leadership in schools. When the Cheshire Cat says to Alice, ‘we’re all mad here’ (Carroll [1865] 2014, 67), it reflects the nonsensical world of Wonderland. The notion of madness is resonant with the current topsy turvy land of education, in which the work of schools, school leaders, and teachers, is reduced to and driven by quantifiable data, measurable outcomes, and carefully monitored accountabilities (Ball 2016; Heffernan 2018b). When the Cat ‘explains the rules of the game, or rather the absence thereof’ (Nikolajeva 2009, 258) to Alice, it is akin to a Head of Department or senior leader helping their staff through the often absurd maze of judgement mechanisms operating in schools and education systems. The Cat can provide a frame for thinking about the slipperiness and complexity of the school leader’s work, the ways school leaders switch between ways of being and responding, and the tensions that school leaders constantly navigate.

… This article proposes a new way of thinking about the school leader through the unusual and lyrical metaphor of the Cheshire Cat. The inclusion of middle school leaders’ voices alongside executive school leader voices moves the conceptualisation of school leadership away from a focus on the principal and towards a more holistic view of leadership in schools. The stories of these leaders provide insights into school leaders’ perceptions of themselves as leaders, and their private processes of decision making. These leader stories, and the metaphor of the Cheshire Cat, challenge the notion of school leadership as an archetypal story of a central figure, showing that school leadership can instead be quiet, subtle, fluid, and even deliberately invisible. (Netolicky, 2018a, p.13)

References

Cody, R. (2019). Riding two wild horses: leading Australian schools in an era of
accountability. In D. M. Netolicky, J. Andrews, & C. Paterson (Eds.), Flip the System Australia: What Mattes in Education, 198- 203.

Gobby, B., Keddie, A., & Blackmore, J. (2018). Professionalism and competing responsibilities: moderating competitive performativity in school autonomy reform. Journal of Educational Administration and History50(3), 159-173.

Heffernan, A. (2018a). The influence of school context on school improvement policy enactment: An Australian case study. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 1-12.

Heffernan, A. (2018b). The principal and school improvement: Theorising discourse, policy, and practice. Singapore: Springer.

Netolicky, D. M. (2018a). Redefining leadership in schools: the Cheshire Cat as unconventional metaphor. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 1-16.

Netolicky, D. M. (2018b). The visible-invisible school leader: Redefining heroism and offering alternate metaphors for educational leadership. In O. Efthimiou, S. T. Allison & Z. E. Franco (Eds.), Heroism and wellbeing in the 21st century: Applied and emerging perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Teachers and school leaders: Why write?

I challenged myself at the beginning of the year to do less good things in order to do even better things (thank you Dylan Wiliam, for the soundbite inspiration). I work full time as a teacher and senior leader in a school; have a young family, and am myself a human being with relationships, interests, and needs (this last one is something those of us in caring and teaching professions sometimes forget in our commitment to help others).

And I write. On this blog, for academic journals, for education books, for conference presentations. I have also been co-editing a book and a special issue of an academic journal. In order to give back to the machine of academic writing, I also peer review papers for academic journals. All of this is unpaid work and volunteered time, especially as my day job is to serve the students and community of my school. I do have an honorary academic position with a university, but it is just that: honorary. There is no financial reward or professional expectation that I engage in the world of academic publishing.

I’ve been reminded about the writing part of my life this week, as a couple of papers and a chapter have resurfaced from the academic publishing and peer review pipelines through which they have been traveling. Writing for academic journals and books is like that. It comes in peaks and troughs, with pieces disappearing for a time before reappearing to be re-thought, re-written, and re-submitted. There is the original writing of the paper, chapter, or conference abstract—sometimes an immersion or deep dive; sometimes a laborious stop-start process; and sometimes a collaborative dance between authors—followed by the first submission. Then there is the wait for peer reviews, which can take months at a time. By the time the reviewer comments appear, the paper can be looked at with fresh eyes and new energy. Then it’s revise, resubmit, repeat. Once an abstract is accepted it’s time to think about preparing the presentation (ok, maybe not until closer to the conference date); or once a paper is accepted and it goes into production, contracts, queries from copyeditors, and checks from typesetters follow.

So why do I spend time in these writing, co-writing, and revision processes? Why write at all when the job of a teacher or school leader is so busy already?

Here are my three top reasons for engaging in academic writing as a teacher and school leader.

  1. WRITING BEGETS READING

It may seem counter intuitive, but to engage in writing, I need to engage in reading. Each time I write or revise a paper, chapter, or a blog post, I return to research literature in order to check in with the current state of play in education research. So academic writing incites academic reading and engagement with research. It keeps my thinking current and keeps me on top of education debates, knowledge, and research findings.

  1. PEER REVIEW BUILDS MY CAPACITY TO RECEIVE FEEDBACK

The peer review process is usually double blind, which means that the reviewers don’t know who the author is, and the author doesn’t know who the reviewers are. This means that peer review feedback on academic writing is very honest. There is no sugar coating or euphemising of feedback. Reviewers tell you what they think: the good, the bad, and the brutal. They pull no punches.

Receiving peer review feedback has helped me to be a better receiver of feedback in my working life. It means that I have a process for considering critique. In the school environment this might be honest comments submitted to anonymous staff or student surveys, or verbal push back from staff about a change or a professional expectation.

I sit with difficult feedback for a while. I consider it and turn it over, step away from it, and return to it seeking to understand the perspective of the reviewer. I ask myself questions like: What didn’t they understand and why? What could be made clearer or more meaningful? What assumptions might I have made in my writing or decision making that need adjustment in order for the work or intervention to be improved?

Engaging in double blind peer review has meant that I actively seek out critical, candid feedback, and that I can sit with, consider, seek to understand, and then thoughtfully act upon that feedback.

  1. CONTRIBUTING A PRACTISING EDUCATOR VOICE TO EDUCATION NARRATIVES

There is a necessity for, and a credibility that comes from, teachers and school leaders having a voice in education narratives. We are the ones each day in classrooms, with students, communicating with parents, considering the hard and soft data of our practice and making hundreds of decisions per day. Writing about our work, our experiences, our thinking, our expertise, and our wisdom and problems of practice, promotes conversations between educators across contexts and contributes practitioner voices to education narratives, so often dominated by those not actually in the business of teaching.

The upcoming book I’ve co-edited, Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, is all about the importance of listening to, and inviting to decision making and policymaking tables, teachers and school leaders. It argues that education systems should not be top-down and driven by political election cycles and vote-grabbing, but by deep engagement with the teaching profession and those who actually work, every day, in schools.

I hope that my writing encourages others working in schools to speak out, and to write about their thinking, experiences, and expertise.

Education research and the teaching profession: Barriers and solutions

Beware the great wall of research. Proceed with caution. (Taken in George Town, Penang.)

Tonight’s #aussieED Twitter chat has been advertised as talking about ‘bad research’ and ‘good research’, and also asking ‘where can a good teacher turn?’ for research. The topic of research in education is a popular one. Teachers are encouraged to use evidence-based and research-informed practices. They are encouraged to know what research is worth listening to, what is worth ignoring, and what has been misused or debunked (hello, learning styles and neuromyths like ‘we only use 10% of our brains’ and left/right brain learning). Education researchers seek to disseminate their research to the profession. Some organisations seek to bridge the gap between education research and practice. Yet a gap remains.

What barriers are in the way of the teachers and school leaders accessing research to inform their practice?

  1. Time. Teachers and leaders in schools are busy. So busy that often their wellbeing and mental health suffers. It is extremely difficult, especially in the face of multiple accountabilities, for those working in schools to find the time to trawl through academic journal articles and lengthy books in order to decipher research and ponder its relevance to their daily work.
  2. Access and cost. Most academic journal articles are behind a paywall and many academic books have a hefty price tag often well over $100. I have written for both, and the irony is that credibility in the academy is based on publishing in these kinds of texts, yet these are the least accessible for practitioners.
  3. Misrepresentation. The media often misrepresents education research, publishing catchy or sensationalised headlines and simple messages that ignore the complexities or realities of education research. For example, the Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that flipped learning was ‘a new teaching method’ that might be piloted in Australian schools, despite the fact that Australian educators have been using (or intentionally not using) flipped learning for more than ten years. Meanwhile, education terms like ‘growth mindset’ become ubiquitous and meaningless. That is, everyone uses them without ever having engaged with the original research or the responses that have come since.
  4. Simplification. There are dangers to pushing an evidence-based ‘what works’ agenda. Firstly, as Dylan Wiliam so often says, everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. But simple league tables of ‘what works’ in education abound. On the one hand these seem useful summaries of research for time-poor teachers, yet they are tools that can be misused and misunderstood if educators do not draw back the curtain to look behind the summaries to the research on which they are based. Meta-analysis mixes together multiple studies in a way that over-simplifies or misrepresents the research on which it is based. For a longer explication, see my extended discussion of meta-analysis in education.
  5. Commodification. There is money to be made in the big business of education. ‘Research’, ‘evidence’, and ‘data’ have become sloganised and used to promote books, professional learning opportunities and conferences. There is a fine line to walk between providing support to the teaching profession by making research accessible, and the corruption of message and purpose that happens when people seek to make money from it, focusing on sales and branding over the authenticity and credibility of what is on offer.

So, what’s the teaching profession to do? Where can we turn when much research is either inaccessible or so multitudinous that it is impossible for the average professional to wade through and find meaning? When the media and some companies or edu-experts are promoting and selling (often contradictory) silver bullets that are too good to be true?

  1. Provide teachers with the questions to ask about research. Context matters, for instance. Where did the studied intervention work? For whom? Under what conditions? Method matters, too. How many participants were in the study? From what school contexts? Via which methods were data generated? What were the ethical considerations and how were these dealt with? What can the study tell us, and what is it unable to tell us? For instance, randomised control trials (RCTs) minimise bias and are often cited as the gold standard of research, but have their own limitations and are not the most appropriate vehicle to answer every research question. A multiplicity of research approaches gives us diverse ways of understanding education, but we need to interrogate the approaches and arrive at conclusions with caution.
  2. Do post-graduate study. Of course this option is not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be a necessity for teachers, but being a Masters or doctoral candidate does provide library access as well as developing an understanding of a variety of research methods.
  3. Consider creating a research role for school, department, or district. While budget constraints might make this difficult for some schools or education departments, a role of ‘Research Lead’, ‘Head of Research’, or in my case ‘Dean of Research and Pedagogy’, can provide a conduit between a school or system and the world of education research. I have written here about some of the things I have been doing to build a research culture in my school.
  4. Build a professional reading repository for your school, district, or system. This might include subscriptions to practitioner or academic journals (e.g. Australian Educational Researcher, Learning & Instruction, Journal of Educational Change), as well as access to research-based practitioner books or academic books. There are also affordable subscriptions, like those of the Media Centre for Educational Research Australia (MCERA), the imminent researchED Magazine, Australian Educational Leader, and the UK Chartered College of Teaching’s journal Impact.
  5. Engage with blogging and online publications. Part of the reason I blog is to give back and contribute to the education community. I work in a privileged school that has the resources to put me in a role where I get to read, write, research, design professional learning opportunities, work with teachers, and help others to do the same. My blog, along with others such as that of the excellent and always-sense-making Gary Jones, seeks to illuminate and summarise research for a practitioner audience. Blogging also engages an audience of international colleagues whose feedback and challenges help to shape my thinking. Online publications such as the EduResearch Matters blogThe Conversation and the Times Education Supplement are also vehicles used by scholars to make research accessible to education practitioners.
  6. Engage with academics and universities, via professional learning or school-university partnerships in order to bridge the gap between those doing educational research, and those seeking to understand and enact it in practice.

At this time two years ago I was attending the American Educational Research Association conference in Washington DC to present on my PhD research. I have attended three Australian Association of Educational Research conferences. I am a research-immersed practitioner. Alongside my full-time school leadership role (in which I also teach English and Literature), I am a research adjunct at a university. I engage in both research and practice. This road, however, is always a winding and imperfect one. Teachers, school leaders, researchers and education commentators need to work together to understand and enact education research and its implications.

Voice and action on International Women’s Day

mural in George Town, Penang

Today is International Women’s Day. It is a day that is about raising mindfulness and action around parity, equality and inclusivity. In some ways, the world is changing. In the last week, a man in Belgium has been fined for a sexist comment towards a police officer. In October last year, Jacinda Ardern was appointed as the prime minister of New Zealand at the age of 37, making her the world’s youngest female head of government. Her first day in office, however, she was quizzed about whether she had plans to have children, and has since been the subject of plenty of opinion about her pregnancy, including during a 60 Minutes interview that focused on her pregnancy and her appearance, rather than her politics. Many have noted that male politicians would not be subjected to similar attention.

There remains gender disparity in leadership. Women currently account for 27% of ASX 200 board positions, up from the woeful 8% in 2009. In Australia, only one in four IT graduates and fewer than one in ten engineering graduates are women. In the education sector in Australia there remains a discrepancy between the amount of women in teaching versus the number of those in school leadership. 80% of primary teachers are female but only 57.5% of primary principals are female. 58.4% of secondary teachers are female, yet only 41.7% of secondary principals are female. Australia’s National Excellence in School Leadership Initiative has named 2018 the ‘Year of Women in Leadership’. They argue in their white paper that there are insufficient leadership opportunities for women, inadequate support mechanisms, and a paucity of role models for female teacher and students who aspire to leadership. I have reflected before about masculine models of leadership, in which the (often white) male leader (usually in a suit) is normalised as an image of ‘leader’, and what this tells people who are female, Indigenous, black, brown, or LGBQTI.

In her 2017 book, Women & Power: A Manifesto, Mary Beard writes that “we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man.” In advocating for a world in which power can exist in diverse ways, she adds:

“You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession.”

Social media has been the vehicle for much of the global solidarity and activism surrounding issues of discrimination and inequity, and a way that some use to try and think about power differently. It can be a democratised platform where everyone can speak, regardless of power or position.

There are those who use humour to shine a spotlight on the absurdity of how the world can see women. The spoof Twitter account @manwhohasitall, for example, tweets out advice such as:

“MY DREAM: That one day boys will become anything they want to be – male chairwomen, gentleman drivers, men writers or boys who code”; and

“I am interviewing a famous working dad who manages to juggle 3 kids and work outside the home for a magazine. What should I ask him?”

There are more serious movements on social media, too, such as the #MeToo and #TimesUp hashtags, which build on the work that activist Tarana Burke began as a grassroots movement in 2006 as a way to help young marginalised women feel safe to speak up about sexual assault, in order to support survivors. After Alyssa Milano’s 2017 tweet using the hashtag #MeToo, the hashtag was used more than 12 million times, helping to de-stigmatise speaking up about assault. TIME magazine named its person of 2017 as ‘The Silence Breakers’ of the Me Too movement. Then, early this year, a number of high-profile people from Hollywood founded the #TimesUp movement to build momentum from #MeToo by confronting discrimination, harassment and pay parity across industries. On a recent Q&A ‘MeToo Special’ on the ABC, however, the panel showed no understanding of the history of the MeToo movement, despite being directly asked by an audience member:

“The #MeToo movement was initially created in 2006 by social activist Tarana Burke as a means to promote empowerment for women of colour experiencing sexual harassment. How can we ensure that this campaign is inclusive of all forms of diversity going forward?”

Host Virginia Trioli responded with, “It started, of course, as you say, correctly, Janet, as a very privileged white conversation. But it doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way.” She and the expert panel showed no knowledge that this was originally a grassroots movement in a black community, not a ‘privileged white conversation’. On the one hand, these movements can be seen as powerful attempts to rally the world to address issues of inequity, and bring attention (and hopefully action) to issues of discrimination and inequity. On the other, I wonder what these movements say about power in our world when the words of Tarana Burke, a black woman activist working in her local Alabama neighbourhoods, only become legitimised and amplified when appropriated by those who have power and platform. Pleasingly, there are actions emerging from social campaigns. TimesUp members have set up a legal defense fund to help victims of sexual assault that has raised over $21 million. They are advocating for legislation that penalises companies that tolerate persistent harassment and that discourages the use of nondisclosure agreements to silence victims.

Meanwhile, I have been working on the Australian Flip the System book with my co-Editors Jon Andrews and Cam Paterson, and thinking on inclusivity. The book is an Australian take on the theme explored in Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up (Evers & Kneyber, 2016) and Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto (Rycroft-Smith & Dutaut, 2018). Flipping the system is about subverting power hierarchies in the education system, and elevating the voice, agency and influence of those often ignored or marginalised by the system. This involves sharing teacher perspectives and Indigenous perspectives, for instance, alongside the academic voices of scholars. What we have found, however, is that elevating the voices of those at the nadir of the system is full of challenges. Often there are vulnerabilities or ethical tensions that deter individuals and groups from sharing their stories. Like those voices who have brought prominent social campaigns to the fore, it is those who have the most power, stability and security that often feel most free to speak. Those who have the most to lose, or who are in the most precarious circumstances, can be wary about speaking up or speaking out. I wonder about how much career stage and level of influence make a difference to the extent to which it is possible to disrupt the status quo.

Tarana Burke said in an interview with The Guardian that “having privilege isn’t bad, but it’s how you use it, and you have to use it in the service of other people.” Those of us with a privilege and a platform to be heard can ask ourselves: Who gets to speak? What voices are heard and what voices are ignored, drowned out, or silenced? How might we resist power structures, rather than perpetuating them? Are we participating in slacktivism, self-aggrandisement and self-congratulation, or are we taking positive action?

To ‘Press for Progress’ in issues of discrimination, opportunity and diversity, we can be mindful of those things that are normalised in our world in terms of who gets to speak, where power resides, and (when the social media storm melts away) what is actually getting done.

Middle leaders: The forgotten stratum

willow tree, Denmark, Western Australia

School leadership is full of tensions and complexities. As I discovered while reviewing literature for my PhD, middle leadership is the forgotten realm of research in education. There is plenty of research on pre-service teachers (no doubt these participants are easy for those working in universities to recruit), a lot on teachers, and loads on principals. There is much less on those in the middle. The principal, even when not touted as the charismatic hero, is the focus of much school leadership discourse, despite the popularising of distributed leadership and teacher leadership. Of course, the principal of any school is central. They set the tone, lead the vision, directly manage senior leaders, deal confidentially with sensitive issues, and much more. But a school’s leadership culture does not begin and end with the principal. Those in the middle manage up and down, in and out, and are often sandwiched between being advocates of the teams they lead and a cohesive voice of management. They are pressed upon from below and above.

If school vision is to be enacted or school culture is to be shifted, middle leaders who directly lead teams of teachers, are key. These middle voices are often ignored in scholarly literature and in media narratives. This gap was why it was important to me (having been myself a middle leader in schools for many years) to draw on the voices of middle leaders in my doctorate.

In my last post I outlined what my school is trialing for teachers in terms of development options within the organisation (complimentary to, but not to be confused with, professional learning offered within the school and also outside of school through courses and conferences). Below I outline the options we have available to middle leaders. That teacher and middle leaders have similar-but-different options acknowledges their varied needs. Even within the middle leadership stratum, there are a diverse range of needs and experiences, from early-career or new leaders, to very experienced veterans more suited to giving back to the profession. The options this year for our middle leaders are as follows.

  • Coaching with a coach who might be a peer, another leader from the within school, or possibly an external person. Unlike the teachers, who are coached around their teaching practice, leaders are likely to be coached around their leadership.
  • A reflection and feedback process with their line manager (which needs to happen every 3-4 years). For leaders, this occurs around their role description, and may dip into the AITSL Standards for Principals rather than only the Standards for Teachers, as appropriate.
  • Working with an expert teacher who acts as a kind of classroom consultant. This is likely to be most relevant for instructional leaders such as Heads of Faculty.
  • An internally-designed leadership development programfor aspirant or early career leaders; includes leadership profiles, senior and executive school leaders running sessions.
  • professional learning group, bringing staff together from across the school to engage in scholarly literature, reflection, and shared practice.
    • Teaching best practice
    • Pedagogies of learning spaces
    • ICT for teaching and learning
    • Post-graduate study

Additionally, leaders at my school attend coaching training and a once-a-term Leadership Forum (examples from last year include presentations from Dylan Wiliam and Pasi Sahlberg, a panel of local principals, and an internal session on goals and strategy). These initiatives are intended to develop leaders’ knowledge and skills, and also a shared culture of how we approach professional conversation, our own learning and collaboration with one another.

This approach to staff development, one that is bedded in the organisation but also flexible to individual needs, reminds me of a quote from one of my middle leader PhD participants. Theirs is a metaphor that sticks with me as I go about my work in staff development and professional learning.

“I see the vision as more like the trunk of the tree; it’s the main thing that we all sort of hang off, and we do.  But we’re all going to be branches that come out from that trunk, and we do have our own little sub-branches occasionally that we can then look at as well, but we still are connected to that trunk of that tree.”

The notion of a school as a tree is resonant with the concept of holonomy (see Costa and Garmston, Koestler, or other posts on this blog). Deep roots, a strong shared trunk, thick team branches, and spindlier individual branches diverging out in idiosyncratic directions. Individual and school are simultaneously together and apart, different and one, part and whole, connected and separate. It is my hope that in my work I can at once support the growth of individual and school, as well as their complex and symbiotic interrelationship.