End of an era

farewell gifts.jpg

a selection of farewell gifts

Friday was my last day at my current school.

I still remember a friend messaging me in August of 2008 about the position while I was travelling through the Balkans. I wrote my job application in an internet café in Sarajevo. The Bosnian keyboard made it a bit tricky! After a few phone interviews from my apartment in London I was offered the job. I arrived back in my Australian hometown of Perth in December of 2008, after seven years away in Melbourne and London, not yet having seen or met anyone from the school. I met the principal on 22 December 2008 and began in January 2009.

In my 11 years of service to the school, I taught English and Literature to hundreds of students. In particular, I took about 250 Year 12 students through their English course. I held three leadership positions, worked for two principals and two line managers, had ten sick days, started and completed my PhD, co-edited a book and wrote a book. I also had my two children in that time; so far, it is the only place their mum has ever worked.

I am proud of and excited by the work I have done at the school, much of which I have written about on this blog. Examples include:

I leave a place where I have felt a sense of belonging, an alignment of moral purpose, a deep connection to people.

This was a week of public and private farewells, of reminiscing, of gifts and messages given and received from students, parents and colleagues. Cards, emails, notes, chocolates, wine, jewellery, books, flowers, plants, and … a lab coat. I was told that I worked in the shadows and as the glue to connect and positively influence strategy, individuals, teams and practice. That I was a voice of respectful challenge and healthy skepticism. One colleague said I was an ‘institution’ at the school. Others shared reflections on my contribution to the people and the place.

It was a week of high emotion, especially because it coincided with Year 12 Valedictory celebrations (and also World Teachers’ Day celebrations in Australia). My last day was the Year 12s’ last day. My last event at the school was their Valedictory dinner, which ended with a standing ovation for the College Captain’s moving speech.

My advocacy for teacher voice and agency emerges partly from my daily experience of the care and expertise of those with whom I work. I worked alongside colleagues and leaders who have had a significant influence on me professionally and personally. I know that I have made a difference in the lives of many students. I’ve been a valued part of an exceptional team, a part of something special. The ‘me’ leaving is certainly different to the ‘me’ who arrived.

Finishing up at a school community is such an odd feeling, especially as I am now on long service leave until the end of the year. It’s great to have a break between leaving this position and starting my next one, but my identity is so caught up in work—in being a productive professional who makes a difference in my school—that stepping away from that for a couple of months feels strange and even difficult. Still, this is a problem I am willing to work through! I have plenty to occupy my time: training at the gym, walks along the coast, leisurely coffees, reading fiction, and travel. I also have some conference preparation as I am looking forward to presenting four times at ICSEI 2020 in January, in three symposia and one main stage event.

The thing about endings is that they coincide with beginnings. I’m excited about this break and, beyond it, the new community, new role and new contributions to follow.

Pause

Bigurda Trail by Deborah Netolicky

walking alone on the Bigurda Trail last week (Kalbarri, Western Australia)

Last year I worked with a coach. During one of our first conversations, he said, “It sounds like what you need is to pause.”

That sounded right.

“Yes!” I said. “I do pause, though. I often pause, see where I’m at, re-assess, and make a new list for what to do next.”

My coach’s wry smile stopped me. He said, “That’s an active pause, but I think you’re talking about the need for a non-active pause.”

A non-active pause? An actual pause where nothing happens but the act of pausing? I wondered what that looked like. I had spent so long working on habits and systems for efficiency and productivity that I struggled to consider the why and what this kind of pausing.

My coach emailed me the goal of ‘finding pause and energy’ after our conversation. He additionally suggested the following actions.

  1. Take moments through the course of the day to pause and just be present—not think about what’s just happened or anticipate the next step.
  2. Identify and prioritise some opportunities to just ‘be’ with husband and friends—put some energy back into those aspects of life.
  3. Identify what ‘energises’ in work and outside—perhaps identify moments in the past (at various stages) when you felt most energised.

He also sent me Adam Fraser’s framework for finding the ‘third space’ and a link to this youtube clip on ‘the third space’ (the micro transition between one activity or role and the next).

Ok, I thought. I can work on pausing. I immediately changed the mini-blackboard message in my office from ‘start now’ to ‘pause, breathe, be’. It reminded me about finding pauses in my day, but the challenge was actually taking them!

Yoga has always helped me tap into ways to be present. Last year, I began flotation tank floating, which showed me the power of sensory deprivation, of unplugging from sounds, sights and from the feeling that at every moment I should be doing something useful and productive.

Yet while I could schedule gym sessions and floats, I still found it difficult to find small ways each day to tune in to pausing or being present.

At the beginning of this year I talked to a friend whose motto for ordering coffee was to ‘have it there’. That is, when he orders coffee from a café, he takes the time to sit and enjoy it there, before moving on to the next part of his day. I wondered about the impact of ‘have it there’, instead of ‘drink it on the run’, or ‘multi-task to save time’, or ‘have it while driving or engaging with a computer or device’.

I committed this year to eating lunch away from my desk. When I’m feeling under pressure I tend to eat and work, but I decided it was important that I find 15-40 minutes per day to sit, alone or with colleagues, and mindfully eat something. I have broken that commitment twice only so far this year. I told colleagues about my lunch promise, so they have helped to keep me accountable. More than once someone has walked past my office and either invited me to sit with them, or asked, “You’re not eating lunch at your desk, are you?” So I have ended up with a little lunchtime community, as well as a pause in my day.

I have also tried to find a few minutes each day to breathe mindfully. Sometimes I find these minutes at work, sometimes at home, and sometimes just before I go to sleep. On occasion I turn off the music in my car and drive in silence. I go to the gym three times per week and try to find other activity on other days, with varying degrees of success. I have been floating in flotation tanks about every 6 weeks.

Despite my attempts at finding pause, and my focus on light-ness, I finished Term 1 feeling rushed and frantic. Last week I took leave from work, during the school holidays. During the week I tried to focus on slow, deliberate living focused on relationships and experiences, rather than goals and actions.

I read fiction in the sun. I walked. Contemplated. Embraced stillness and movement. I stayed out of social media discussions about education. I didn’t write. I didn’t read for work. I gave myself permission to eat a nutritious breakfast, and to sit and enjoy it. I played board games and had long conversations with my husband and children. I spent time outside, in nature, and alone. I hung out with friends and family. I enjoyed going to the gym and having a leisurely coffee afterwards, looking out over the ocean.

Pausing is difficult but what is even more difficult is prioritising it as important rather than ‘nice to have’. What seems so possible during a holiday is challenging to bring into the busyness of everyday working-parenting-living life.

Where do you, or where could you, find a pause in your day, your week, your month?

How to #BalanceforBetter this International Women’s Day?

IWD2019

I realise that this year’s International Women’s Day theme #BalanceforBetter is focused on advocating for more gender balance for a better world. It’s about more women as leaders, on boards, and in STEM. It’s about closing the gender pay gap and accelerating gender equity.

But I keep seeing the #BalanceforBetter hashtag and thinking about my personal battles with ‘balance’ as a woman. I have over the last 12-18 months been working on the notion of balance in my life. Redressing the balance towards self-care, wellbeing, health and mental space, factors that have been crowded out by busyness, work, commitment to family, wanting to make a difference. I have written about trying to say ‘no’ to more things and to prioritise what matters.

I’ve been writing a book as part of my push to be ‘10% braver’ as the #WomenEd squad would say. Two other projects are examples of my advocacy for women; as co-editor of the recently-published book Flip the System Australia: What matters in education, we ensured that more than half of the chapters were contributed to by women authors, and I have co-edited a special issue of the Journal of Educational Administration and History in which we offer female-authored papers on re-imagining school leadership. I’ve been lifting heavy weights to feel physically stronger and floating in floatation tanks to feel mentally lighter. I know this is a first-world take on the notion of ‘balance’. I’m in a privileged enough position that I can consider my writing, wellbeing, family and leisure time. I have choices available to me, which is not the case for all women.

This week I saw the following sculpture at Perth’s Cottesloe beach as part of the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition.

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It is by Hamish McMillan and is called ‘Internment’. The wire figure interned within the cage slumps over his desk, met by the words, ‘Nice work, Jeff!’ on his computer screen. He is surrounded by boxes with messages of those things perpetuating his imprisonment in a toxic work culture: “obligation to colleagues”, “I make a difference”, “credit card due”, “mortgage due”, “failure is not an option”. How many of us are chained to our devices or caged within our work worlds because of obligation, inspiration, ambition, bills to pay, or the desire to make a difference? At what cost? Is it being a ‘bad feminist’ if a woman does not aspire to a powerful, well-paid management position? Or is it just making good choices that suit us, even if it does nothing to balance gender roles at the highest levels of the workforce? Three female politicians have recently left the Australian Liberal Party. Sticking it out in an unsatisfying, harmful or misogynistic work environment may not be worth the power, pay and prestige it provides.

In my field of education, the longitudinal Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey of principals and deputy principals has found that in these top school roles, a disproportionate number of women are consistently paid less than their male colleagues. It also found that physical violence towards principals and deputy principals is now 37% or 1 in 3 principals (9.3 times the rate of the general population). Women are most at risk with 40% experiencing violence compared to 32% of men. So women principals and deputy principals in Australia are more likely to be paid less and also more likely to experience physical violence in their work than their male counterparts. This survey also reveals worrying trends in work hours, mental wellbeing and physical health for principals and deputy principals, something that dissuades potential candidates, particularly women, from aspiring to and applying for these roles.

Those who lead organisations or who stand on the stage normalise ideas about who can lead, who should speak and to whom we should apparently listen. Often in leadership roles, keynote presentations and film, advertising or media representations of leadership, women are under-represented. So what can we do to #BalanceforBetter?

Organisations can consider how to advance women in their ranks, including into top jobs, governance positions and roles traditionally held by men. Conference organisers, event planners and awards panels can continue to work on broadening the diversity of those who present, sit on panels (no manels, please!) and receive awards. The media can stop asking women how they cope with juggling work with family, while not asking the same of men. Colleagues can refuse to tolerate off-hand remarks that are sexist or demeaning to women, even when masked as ‘jokes’. Men can question those things they take for granted or see as normal, that perhaps work in their favour, but do not benefit the women around them. Researchers can consider the diversity of their citation practices. Women can consider how to equalise and advocate for gender balance in their organisations, and also how to find a sense of balance and wellbeing in our own lives. We can all take positive, even micro, actions towards more balance.

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.

Doing even better things

My word for 2018 is metamorphosis, which for me is a lot about letting go. I’ve been thinking about what ingrained habits, automatic behaviours, and stale dreams, I can shed this year as I move towards my next zero birthday and my anniversary of ten years since I returned to Australia from the UK. To move into metamorphosis right now feels like I need endings before I can think about any butterfly-esque new beginnings.

I’ve been thinking on what Professor Dylan Wiliam often says:

We need to prevent people from doing good things, to give them time to do even better things.

It’s not that I am filling my days and nights with wasteful things. I do many fun, productive, worthwhile things. In fact, perhaps part of my problem is my constant feeling that every minute I spend must be worthwhile, as though an unproductive minute is a wasted minute. It was my personal trainer who challenged me to reconsider my downtime. He said my health is being affected by an unceasing stress response cycle and that my body is constantly overloaded with adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine.

I have gotten into some not-so-helpful habits, probably ones that working or studying parents often get into. It started in 2011 when I returned to work part-time after my first period of parental leave. My first child was 6 months old. I felt anxious that I might be perceived not to be working hard or long enough, or that I might be late responding to something, so I put my work email on my phone and responded to emails in the playground, in the supermarket queue, and in life’s cracks where I might previously have been daydreaming or looking around. Then in 2012, after having my second child, I returned to work again. I also enrolled full-time in my PhD (because: nerd bucket list!) and so I spent all my spare time (between work and parenting 2 children under 2) working on my doctorate. I managed to submit my thesis within 3 years of enrolling, and completed shortly afterwards, but I had set in motion a dangerous pattern. Once my PhD was done, I presented at more national and international conferences, and ramped up my academic and blog writing. I went from part-time work back to full-time work.

My downtime had become a different kind of work. I wasn’t having breaks. I was switching from teaching work to leadership work to domestic work to research work. Or I was using my non-work non-productive time to prepare for the next bout of work or productivity. Or I was so tired that in the evenings I would halfheartedly watch bad tv or trawl social media in the name of ‘time to myself’. I continued with all of this through some very rough personal patches and did my utmost not to let work, home, or doctorate, be affected. I had some good tricks, like seeing my PhD as intellectual ‘me time’, using calendars and to-do lists with military precision, and switching off from the rest of the world when I was playing with my kids. But is checking social media or writing a blog after the kids have gone to bed the best way to spend my time? Is it helping me to wind down for a good night’s sleep? Multiple work trips and conference presentations can be rewarding and invigorating, but can also negatively impact family time and lead to more stressful work weeks before and after. Is moving from the paid work of my days to the unpaid writing of my nights and weekends stoking my internal fire, or just exhausting me in a relentless cycle of Doing The Things.

What Things am I doing, and why?

I have begun to pare back my obligations. I have turned my email and social media notifications off and buried Facebook in the back of my phone. I’ve withdrawn from my Book Club. I’m reconsidering how often to post on this blog and am thinking perhaps ‘when it takes my fancy’ would be ok, rather than keeping myself to a schedule. I am figuring out how to protect my most productive time for my most important projects and how I might schedule in regular silence and stillness. My trainer has recommended flotation tank therapy.

I’m hoping that lightening my load will help me to stop doing some good things in order to do even better things. Some of those even better things are those I am passionate about (like writing what I’m burning to say, editing an important book, or serving the community via board-member type positions) and some are in the name of self-care, like getting a good night’s sleep, protecting a regular exercise schedule, and working out how to properly stop.

METAMORPHOSIS and emerging from the chrysalis: #oneword2018

taxidermy butterfly left to me by my scientist grandfather

It’s that time of year when we’re recovering from the holiday season and gearing up, or regenerating, for the new year. It’s a time, often, of reflecting on the year that’s been and planning for the year ahead. For the last few years I have used a ‘oneword’ to clarify my intent for my year. While I sometimes forget the oneword intentionality I have set, especially when life is at its busiest or most pear-shaped, mostly I find that choosing a single word allows me to bring a mindfulness to my year that is based on an essential focus to which it is easy to return across a year.

In 2015 it was CONQUER, as I worked at a ruthless pace to submit my PhD in between parenting my two young children and working 0.8 at my school.

In 2016 it was MOMENTUM, as I tried to capitalise on my PhD through lots of presenting (including at AERA) and writing from my thesis, still in the spaces between life and work.

In 2017 it was NOURISH, as I worked to clarify my work and life by focusing on that which nourished me.

On 2017 …

In 2017 my oneword embodied itself in multiple aspects of my life. As my youngest child entered full-time school, I returned to full-time work that has been nourishing in its focus. That is, I’ve been grateful to spend my time in areas of passion and purpose: teacher professional learning, building a research culture, focusing on staff development, and leading the Library, as well as teaching English.

In 2017 I have said ‘yes’ to projects because they are nourishing experiences for me, or because I have been burning to say something. My formal 2017 publications, for example, have been:

I have also joined the Board at my children’s school, and become a member of Evidence for Learning’s Research Use and Evaluation Committee. These commitments are about contribution, giving back, and making a difference; through them I receive the nourishment that comes from doing something worthwhile.

In 2017 I have spent nourishing time with my family, including a couple of lovely holidays. I have been seeing a new personal trainer whose strength and conditioning sessions have meant that my regular three-day-long headaches seem to have disappeared. Working with him has meant looking after my body, paying more attention to it, and getting stronger.

To 2018 …

2018 is around the corner and I’ve been considering what might be my fundamental intention for a year that already feels like an ending before it has begun. The end of 2018 will mark 10 years since I returned to Australia from the UK. That decade is a time in which I have had my two children, from pregnancy to babies to primary school students. It’s the decade in which I completed my PhD. The end of 2018 will mark a full decade of working at my current school (well and truly my longest ever period of employment). And at the end of next year I will have a zero birthday. The years from 2009-2018 feel like a chrysalis from which I will emerge at the end of next year. (I’m no doubt influenced here by the book I’ve just finished: Stephen and Owen King’s 715-page novel Sleeping Beauties in which women around the world are falling asleep indefinitely and being cocooned in mysterious chrysalides.) This seems a perfect time for looking back and looking forward.

On Twitter it was a close race ….

For 2018 I have considered the word CREATE because I have some projects I’m keen to progress. I have considered STRENGTH because I would benefit from focusing on the strength of my body as well as the strength of my advocacy for others and perhaps for myself. But I am going to tackle a more complex and messy word this year: METAMORPHOSIS.

It’s not that I think 2018 will be filled with transformation. In fact, it’s more likely to be about consolidation and simplification (think Marie Kondo’s KonMari method applied to life, or perhaps Sarah Knight’s life-changing magic of … ahem … figuring out what not to worry about). METAMORPHOSIS isn’t just about change. It isn’t that I think I’ll grow proverbial wings in the space of a year. But it is about development and moving on to another stage. For me that stage is mid-teaching-career, post baby-having, post-PhD stage. It’s time to figure out what ‘mid’ and ‘post’ look like when they are my ‘now’.

METAMORPHOSIS is also about letting go. It is about shedding old skins, old bodies, old habits, old values, old dreams. It is about considering what I want to take into my next decade, and what I’m willing to leave behind. After a few packed but fragmented years, full of simultaneous, competing, overlapping commitments (teaching! school leadership! PhD! academic writing! presenting at conferences! pregnancies! parenting! moving house! all at the same time!), it’s about re-assessing how I am spending my time and considering where it might be that all my endeavour is leading me.

The questions I will ask in 2018 in order to be mindful of METAMORPHOSIS in 2018 are:

  • What might flight, freedom, joy, and purpose look like and feel like for me?
  • How might I imagine the next decade and what might I need to do to get there?
  • What do I want to focus on doing and what can I stop doing, or do less of, in order to fulfil that focus?

Out of office reply

I am on holiday in Penang, Malaysia, spending time with my family and myself.

I have set my automatic out of office reply.

I have turned off my iPhone work email notifications for the first time since I went back to work after my first period of parental leave, six and a half years ago. Perhaps I won’t turn them back on.

I am not going to write an education blog today.

I am going to luxuriate in my present time and place.

I am going to remember that my oneword for 2017 is nourish.

Enough said.

Some of my pics (below) tell a little of our holiday.

Monkey Beach

Lanterns on Lebuh Armenian

George Town mural

fishing boat

George Town street art

Batu Ferringhi sunset