How driving a husky team is like school leadership

Husky 1

our husky team racing through the Lappish wilderness

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

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

  1. Know your people. Know your context.

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

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

  1. Trust the people. Trust the process.

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

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

  1. Be agile.

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

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

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

  1. Work hard.

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

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

  1. Encourage and support.

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

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

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

  1. Hold on.

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

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

Reflecting on the metaphor

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

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

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

Teachers and school leaders: well-being or ill-being?

Concern about teacher and school leader wellbeing

Teacher and school leader wellbeing is an increasing issue for education systems around the world. Some commentators call teaching a profession in ‘crisis’ or ‘distress’. Many sources point to the emotional, mental, and physical health of those working in schools as something that needs to be seriously considered.

Some literature suggests that one quarter of those who begin teaching leave the profession in the first five years, often citing mental health, emotional exhaustion, workload, and wellbeing issues as reasons.

The Gonski 2.0 report (Gonski et al., 2018) names unstable employment patterns, and a heavy and increasingly complex workload, as reasons for attrition in the teaching profession.

A week ago The Guardian published this article on increasing teacher workload, saying that according to one UK teacher wellbeing index, “nearly three-quarters of teachers and 84% of school leaders now describe themselves as ‘stressed’, and more than a third of education professionals have experienced a mental health issue in the past academic year. Almost half (49%) believe their workplace is having a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing.”

The longitudinal Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey of principals and deputy principals reveals worrying trends in school leader wellbeing. The 2018 survey (Riley, 2019) involved 5934 participants. Its findings include the following.

  • 53% of principals worked upwards of 56 hours per week during term with ~24% working upwards of 61-65 hours per week;
  • 40-45% of participants take prescription medication for a diagnosed condition.
  • Principals experience high levels of job demands (1.5 times the general population) emotional demands (1.7 times) and emotional labour (1.7 times) being the highest demands when compared to the general population. This is correlated with higher levels of burnout (1.6 times higher), stress symptoms (1.7 times higher), difficulty sleeping (2.2 times higher), cognitive stress (1.5 times higher), somatic symptoms (1.3 times higher), and, depressive symptoms (1.3 times higher).
  • The two greatest sources of stress for principals and deputies are Sheer Quantity of Work, and Lack of Time to Focus on Teaching and Learning.
  • Principals’ stress is caused largely by increasing Mental Health Issues of Students, Mental Health Issues of Staff, and Teacher Shortages.
  • The prevalence rate for Threats of Violence is 45%, with close to 1 in 2 principals receiving a threat.

In their chapter in Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, Andy Hargreaves et al. (2019) acknowledge that teachers struggle to collaborate effectively amidst the frenetic rate of reform in education and ever-increasing workloads and accountabilities. They assert that there is no student wellbeing without teacher wellbeing, so teacher wellbeing is something we need to care about.

Should teachers and school leaders be expected to put the needs of the children in their care ahead of their own health and their own children? Should they be expected to teach social, emotional, and life skills, as well as the curriculum? Should they be scored and performance managed based on limited and limiting accountability measures? Should they be pressured into spending their leisure time working and their own money on resources because it shows that they care and are ‘good teachers’? Should overwork, late night emails, and accessibility during weekends and holidays be normalised?

If wellbeing of staff is an issue in our education system, what can leaders do, and what can we each do for ourselves?

Leadership of staff wellbeing

School leadership is key to staff wellbeing. Just this week, WorkSafe has launched an investigation into one Australian school, its psychosocial environment, and the psychological and physical safety of its staff.

Wellbeing in schools is about more than meditation, yoga, fitness classes, and complimentary employee counselling. These have their place (and I enjoyed workplace yoga for years), but addressing teacher and school leader wellbeing also means seriously considering workload, expectations, and accountabilities.

Those leading systems and schools need to ask: How do our norms and culture contribute to wellbeing or ill-being? What is the work that is really important and that makes a difference? What can we take off teachers’ plates? How do we balance high professional expectations with high levels of support? What does it look like when we treat our staff as human beings with relationships, bodies, and lives?

Schools need to think carefully about teachers’ multiple, competing duties, and make time for meaningful collaboration around student work, student data, curriculum, and pedagogy, as well as time for teachers’ core business: actually teaching (and planning and assessing).

The Gonski 2.0 report suggests that “much greater assistance could be given to reduce their [teachers’] hands-on administrative workload, particularly in schools that are part of a larger system. This assistance includes: exploring reduction and/or simplification in administrative burdens placed on schools and their reporting requirements (including simplification of work health and safety requirements); appointing more dedicated administrative resources to schools; identifying quality external providers to which schools may be able to outsource some administrative responsibilities; and exploring new models for school management including chief operating officers or business managers accountable to the principal” (p.88).

School leaders can make transparent decisions, underpinned by organisational vision and clear principles. We can exercise compassion. We can resist hyper accountabilities, narrow frameworks for assessing teachers, and negative narratives of schooling. We can create our own measures of success for our schools, teachers, and students. We can enable flexible working arrangements, and ensure we listen to and encourage honest feedback from our staff.

We can also consider an approach to professional learning that is about growth. This can include staff voice and choice, and supportive processes such and mentoring and coaching. In this way, leaders can acknowledge the complexity and humanity of teaching and schooling, and facilitating staff autonomy and agency. Staff can feel like trusted, valued professionals and authors of their own learning and development.

Individual wellbeing

wellbeing

some of my wellbeing spaces

Those of us working in education need to give ourselves permission to protect and nourish our own health and relationships. That means time to sleep, to exercise, to enjoy nutritious food, to be silent and still, to be with our families, to spend time with our friends, to attend our children’s events, to breathe. It means prioritising these things even when the work feels crushing or breakneck in ways that seem to squeeze out everything else.

Like many who work in education, I find putting work to the side a challenge, but the old adage applies: we need to fit our own oxygen mask before we can assist others. We need to look after ourselves if we are to effectively serve our staff, students, and school communities. Personal wellbeing is not optional.

When author, prison officer, social justice advocate and education powerhouse Celia Lashlie died in 2015, her family published some of her final words:

“We become complacent about the need to take care of ourselves… always something more to do. Some of this is driven by our desire to save the world, others driven by the desire we have to reach the many goals we have set ourselves – many of them superficial.

Late last year I slowly became unwell. The stress of the lifestyle I was living, the demands I made of myself, the demands the people made of me and expected to meet became too great and as 2014 closed I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to my liver. No treatment, no cure, only palliative care. I’d waited too long to look after myself and my body broke.”

For me, these words were a sober reminder to educators that while we may want to do our utmost to make a positive difference, we should also work hard at looking after ourselves.

 

References

Gonski et al. 2018. Through Growth to Achievement Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools.

Hargreaves, A., Washington, S., & O’Connor, M. (2019). Flipping their lids: teachers’ well-being in crisis. In D. Netolicky, J. Andrews, & C. Paterson (eds.), Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, 93-104. Abingdon: Routledge.

Riley, P. 2019. The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2018 Data.

Flip the System Australia: Launching the book

credit: Daniel Grant

At the Perth Flip the System Australia book launch, the audience contributed their ideas about the book’s sub-title ‘What matters [most] in education?’

Since its release, our Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education book has been the subject of online book clubs via Twitter and Adobe Connect. Some have blogged about the book. See this review by Darcy Moore and this blog post by Kay Oddone. The online reviews on goodreads and amazon call the book “timely”, “urgent”, “superb” and “life-changingly good”. On Twitter it has been called a “must-read”.

The book is having quite the spectacular and protracted entry into the education reading world. Part of the reason is because ‘Flip the System’ is more than a series of edited books on education. It is a movement and a way of actively engaging with and within the education system.

Before its publication, in October 2018, the three editors (myself, Jon Andrews and Cameron Paterson) presented at the ACEL conference in Melbourne on what it means to flip the system in education, and what our Australian book contributes to this global movement.

On the day of its publication, in December 2018, I chaired a symposium at the AARE conference at the University of Sydney titled ‘Education research that engages with multiple voices: Flipping the Australian education system’. Presenters included chapter authors Kevin Lowe, Melitta Hogarth, Bob Lingard, Greg Thompson and Scott Eacott.

In March 2019, co-editor Cameron Paterson hosted a TeachMeet in Sydney on flipping the education system in Australia. Presenters included Yasodai Selvakumaran, Kevin Lowe, Carla Gagliano, Scott Eacott, Mark Liddell and Corinne Campbell. Jelmer Evers, one of the editors of the original Flip the System book, Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up, Skyped in to speak to the Sydney audience. You can listen to the presentations from the night on this TER podcast episode.

In April 2019 we partnered with Fogarty Foundation’s EDfutures and the Innovation Unit for a Perth book event at The Platform Space. EDfutures’ Rebecca Loftus was the MC. As a co-editor, I introduced the series of Flip the System books and outlined our Australian Flip the System book in particular. Then each of the Perth authors–myself, Keren Caple, Tomaz Lasic and Ben Lewis–each explained our contributing chapter and our take on flipping the education system.

The panel was followed by a robust, energising, and at times emotional, discussion with the audience, who included teachers, school leaders, sector leaders, researchers, parents and students. This discussion revealed many of the challenges of the current system, but also the passion and appetite for positive action. It celebrated the great work already going on in our schools, the wonderful partnerships already in play within the education system, the excellent teaching in our classrooms, meaningful partnerships between schools and parents, possibilities for meaningful change, and ways to share the important voices and work of students, teachers and school leaders.

One comment that resonated with those in the room was Adam Brooks‘ argument that we (those in schools) are the education system. Therefore, we need to be active agents of the system reality we want to see.

We can and should nudge the system from the inside out. We can and should celebrate and elevate the good work being done in our schools and the voices and stories of those doing it. We can and should advocate for what is best for our students and our school communities. We can and should agitate for the inviting of all stakeholders–including students, teachers school leaders, and parents–into education discussions and to education decision-making tables.

As we editors write in the conclusion of the book:

Flipping the system is about flattening the system, while more tightly interconnecting the members of that system. We argue for a system in which multiple education voices and stakeholders can dialogue constructively, respectfully and representatively. Democratising the system means liquefying top-down power structures and fostering trust and collaboration. It means that those from within and across the education system work together for the good of the students and families being served by the system. This is ultimately a book about the human aspects of education, so often forgotten in our data-obsessed world of numbers and metrics. Flipping the system means focusing on lived experiences, nuances, contexts, and the humanity of education. It means trusting and listening closely to the people within the system. It means co-constructing a system—of distributed, webbed, non-hierarchical and productive networks—from the ground up and the middle out. (pp.245-246).

Below are some photographs of the Perth book launch. Photo credit to Daniel Grant.

Meanwhile, keep an eye out for news of a Brisbane Flip the System Australia event coming soon.

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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.

Consolidation is not a dirty word

Rope1

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.