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.

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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.

Individualising staff performance development

doorway, Oia, 2008

This year at my school we are trialling a different approach to performance development and review processes. Historically, we have had a range of processes and each year staff have been assigned to the process they are ‘up for’ based on a chronological cycle. This has tended to mean that in the first year of employment at the school, staff go through a probation process. The next three years have involved a linear cycle of two years of coaching around teaching practice, followed by a year in which the staff member engages in reflection and performance review with their line manager around their role. And so on. Each year staff also have a reflection and goal-setting conversation with their line manager, which functions as an important check-in for the manager and a key feedback process for the staff member.

These processes aim to engender trust, build capacity, and provide support, while also facilitating a relationship between person and manager around performance, development, and needs. They are founded on a belief that our staff are capable professionals who have the capacity and the will to grow professionally; and an expectation that they will endeavour to improve, no matter how good they already are. Data, research, coaching, collaboration, mentoring, and self-reflection are all tools embedded into these processes.

Yet, despite the best intentions of these processes, and their basis in research, some staff have felt that the school-based development processes have not met their needs, or have not been meaningful. It has had me wondering:

How might school-based performance development be differentiated to meet the needs, aspirations and career stages of staff?

So this year we are trialling a non-linear, more individualised approach to our performance development. Teachers, for instance, will negotiate with their manager a choice from a number of options. Options for teaching staff include:

  • Coaching around practice with a teacher trained as a Cognitive Coach; involves using low-inference data for reflection and capacity building within a confidential and trusting space; leaders can opt to be coached by a peer or other leader
  • Working with an expert teacher who acts as a kind of classroom consultant; might include team teaching and mentoring with specific advice around classroom practice.
  • A reflection and feedback process with their line manager (which needs to happen every 3-4 years)
  • An internally-designed leadership development program for aspirant or early career leaders; includes leadership profiles, school leaders running sessions
  • A 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

All staff will continue to complete their yearly reflection and goal setting conversation with their line manager. In order to support this work, all our school leaders, many of whom have previously completed the Cognitive Coaching Foundation course, are undertaking GROWTH Coaching training. This training will help them to guide and enhance the goal setting of the people they manage, and it supports our organisational belief (based in research and knowledge of our own context) that coaching is a powerful vehicle for building individual, collaborative and organisational capacity. We will also continue to provide additional leadership support and development.

The above options do not cover everything that educators do to develop themselves and others. All managers regularly check-in on the performance of their staff; they do not wait until the rigorous formal process rolls around. We have staff who mentor pre-service teachers, contribute to professional associations, present at conferences, write textbooks, or complete post-graduate study. The above school-based options do, however, provide a more flexible suite of alternatives that honour where our staff are at in their career journeys. As always, we will ask for honest feedback from staff as we seek to find ways to serve our students, staff, and the shared purpose of the organisation.

Building a school research culture

source: pixabay.com @ninocare

This year has been my first in a new role, the oddly titled ‘Dean of Research and Pedagogy’. I have a broad portfolio, including such things as pedagogy from PK-12 and overseeing the work of the Library, but two major aspects of the role are:

  • Building a professional learning culture of continual improvement, data generation and analysis. This includes overseeing the professional learning agenda and staff development, overseeing teacher action research projects, supporting our staff doing post-graduate study, leadership development, coaching teachers and leaders, and refining performance and growth processes.
  • Research innovation and support. This is about disseminating and building a body of research that promotes quality pedagogy and teacher improvement, executing evidence-based strategic initiatives, and working to develop a data analytics culture.

I sat down at the beginning of 2017 to map out how I was going to address these aspects of my role. What was the underlying strategy? What were the deliverables? Who were the key stakeholders? At the end of each year, how might I know I had been successful? What evidence of my own influence might I see if I was being successful in nudging the ever-nebulous school culture?

I wrote a two-year strategic plan (a working document that I revisit regularly) and put some measures for myself in place.

What follows is not my plan or those measures, but the kinds of things I have tried this year in my attempt at developing the research culture of the school.

  1. Harnessing internal and external expertise

As I explained in this recent blog post, staff development can include coaching, mentoring, consulting, courses, conferences and regular opportunities for goal setting and performance review. It includes collaborative learning experiences and those that occur over time. It includes harnessing both external and internal expertise.

This year a new initiative related to my role was called the Leadership Forum, a once-per-term cheese-and-wine event dreamt up and co-launched with the Director of Strategy. All of our school leaders, from Coaches and Year Co-ordinators to Heads of Faculty and the Executive, are invited each term to an early evening of cheese, wine, and connecting around leadership. This is an opportunity to connect the strategy of the school with the operational and relational work of our leaders.

The first Forum of the year was run by myself and the Director of Strategy, in which we took leaders through a process of reflecting upon research findings on effective school leadership, and then worked with them to set goals for themselves and their teams, aligned with the strategy of the organisation. For the second forum, we welcomed Professor Dylan Wiliam. For the third we ran a panel of three principals who spoke openly about their journeys of school leadership. And this final term, we welcomed Professor Pasi Sahlberg. This Forum provides one example of a way to engage teachers and leaders in current conversations around education, and with research and researchers.

Bringing experts into the school, and having them speak to our context, meant that their words and points connected more strongly with the people in the room. Also, staff enjoyed the collaborative experience of hearing them speak, together, so conversations have continued well after each presentation finished. Creating these kinds of crucibles of collaboration, and following up with books or articles that build upon the presentations, has been one way to nudge people’s thinking, especially when presenters are provocative or challenging.

  1. Research reports

I have published six of what I call the ‘Research Report’ to staff this year. The report is intended to provide all staff access to current thinking, research, and writing, around education. Across the year the report provides resources (from academic and theoretical, to popular and easily accessible) relevant to our specific school context, including to various sub-schools, faculties, and strategic priorities. The selected readings are a small selection rather than a comprehensive collection. Staff are encouraged to dip in and out according to their personal and professional interests.

I have been interested to note those people who have provided positive feedback about the report; many are non-teaching staff—from the Bursar to the administration staff—who have appreciated being able to immerse themselves in, or dip into, educational thinking, and have this shared in an accessible way. Making research accessible to all democratises the community and empowers everyone to have conversations around education. It has incited many corridor conversations, as well as more formal ones.

  1. Publishing on school platforms

Research is partly about communication and dissemination. In a school environment it is important that research can be made accessible for the community.

This year, on the school blog, I have written about things such as measuring success in education, professional conversations, and digital learning. In these posts I have referenced research in order to model how research can inform the thinking of educators and schools.

I was interviewed for the school podcast around the question, ‘What makes a great teacher?’, and I’ve written for and presented at other forums, in school and nationally.

Communicating in blogs, podcasts, and presentations, allows research to become alive and humanised.

  1. Keeping the staff professional reading library current

I am a card-carrying member of The Book Depository and have ordered plenty of resources for the professional reading library at school, in order to provide staff with the opportunity to engage with current research. At the end of each term, I promote a selection of books by emailing about them and placing them on a red trolley for the end-of-term staff morning tea in the Library.

I remind staff that professional reading can be counted as an informal professional learning activity under our Teacher Registration Board Professional Learning Activities Policy, so they can log it as part of their 20 professional learning hours per year for teacher registration.

  1. Keeping myself current

I could not do this role without keeping myself up to date with research. My adjunct position at a university helps to keep me current (as I have access to research literature behind the pay wall). It also allows me to do thorough literature reviews, such as those I have completed this year on digital learning and school libraries. I now have staff asking me to find current research literature for them to inform the work they are doing.

  1. Collaboration

It should go without saying that none of this happens without collaboration with a web of stakeholders. Relationships are key in this role. There’s no point me being in my office, reading away like the nerd I am, if no one is engaging with me or the work. Much of my day is spent in formal meetings or informal conversations.

One of the indicators of my success is when people seek me out, such as for individual coaching around career or professional development or a staff issue, to work with a team around a problem of practice, to generate data to gauge their impact, or to help with a Masters dissertation or PhD application.

One challenge to anyone in this kind of Research Lead role is the reality of the lives of teachers and school leaders. Educators are busy, pressed on from all angles, constantly rushing to their next class, to mark their next assignment, to jump through the next accountability hoop. Leisurely time and space to sit back and drink from the fire hose of current research literature is a fantasy. In addition, as this Deans for Impact blog post explains, teachers have deeply held sets of cultural and personal beliefs about learning and about how to best serve their students.

Engaging in research, and in discussions and explorations about research, can help teachers to interrogate those beliefs and bring together science, evidence, and systematic thinking with their praxis (wisdom of practice). We should value teachers’ lived experiences of lessons, relationships, students, and bringing content to life through pedagogy. We can also work to incrementally develop school cultures in which research becomes a part of ‘the way we do things around here’.

Educators: Hold the line on voice, autonomy, and trust

Can we hold the line in the face of challenging circumstances?

This week I was thrilled to welcome Professor Pasi Sahlberg to my Western Australian school to talk to our leaders—from coaches and team leaders to Heads of Faculty, senior leadership and the Executive—about school leadership and what high performing education systems do. Pasi’s list covers things about which many of us leading in schools, and researching and writing about education, are concerned: collaboration, learning and wellbeing, trust-based responsibility, continuous improvement, and equity. They are also guiding principles for teachers in classrooms, who use what Pasi calls ‘small data’ every day. In my PhD, which was based around effective school change and transformational professional learning, these were also themes that emerged; in particular, my research surfaced trust, professional collaboration, and continuous improvement through a range of educator-centred experiences.

I am reminded of the chapter I have co-authored in the upcoming Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto book. In it, Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson, and I, cite Sahlberg’s concept of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and its destructive influence on teacher voice, power, and agency. We argue for a re-professionalising and re-humanising of teaching and education.

I am reminded, too, of my speech to the Australian Council for Educational Leaders conference last year about trusting and supporting teachers. In his new book, FinnishED Leadership: Four big, inexpensive ideas to transform education, Sahlberg supports the autonomy of teachers and schools. He writes:

Strengthen collective autonomy of schools by giving teachers more independence from bureaucracy and simultaneously investing in teamwork in your school. This enhances social capital that is proved to be a critical aspect of building trust within education and enhancing student learning. (p.43)

He notes that the Finnish government spends 30 times more funds on the professional learning and development of educators than on accountability procedures, such as tests and surveys.

We live in a time of compliance and performativity. Australian schools are like tin cans being crushed from the outside-in by a focus on the results external testing (NAPLAN, HSC, WACE, VCE, PIRLS, TIMMS, PISA, the upcoming Phonics Check) and on publicly published league tables and competition-based publications such as the myschool website.

When Pasi spoke to leaders at my school, robust discussion ensued. He challenged us to ask what is within our control, what it is that we can change, what we would do if we could enact our dream for the best way of serving our students, starting tomorrow. He challenged us to question the systemic and regulatory parameters within which we operate, and to hold the line on those things we know will make a difference to our students.

Sahlberg’s work is supported by that of others, such as Michael Fullan’s on the wrong drivers for education reform, and Fullan’s work with Andy Hargreaves on professional capital in their book, Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school, and in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community. The Flip the System movement, too, beginning with Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber’s book Flip the System, brings together and champions the voices of teachers, academics and education experts in order to reclaim the space of education discourse for those working within schools.

So, what can we do in our own contexts? How might we reshape the narrative of education, or advocate for the following?

Less testing

More collaboration

Less accountability

More equity

Less competition

More trust

Leadership lessons from school principals

source: pixabay.com by @ThinkTanks

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

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

……

Embrace opportunities

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

Be yourself

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

Back yourself

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

Receive and give encouragement

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

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

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

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

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

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