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

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Taking time to take stock

seeing the wood from the trees (source: pixabay.com)

It is the last day of term. The last day of first semester in Australia. And for me the last day of the first semester of full-time work in seven years, since the birth of my first child.

I spent much of the day pondering a couple of coaching style questions:

  1. As you reflect on the last six months in your role at work, what are some celebrations?; and
  2. Fast forward to the end of the year. What are the things you ideally see as having been achieved, and of what might you need to be mindful in order to get there?

Today I posed these to a couple of people with whom I work closely, and also to myself. These questions are a deliberate tool for looking back and looking forward. They use the aspects of mediative questions recommended by Cognitive Coaching:

  • Plural forms (What are some celebrations …?);
  • Positive presuppositions – the assumption that the person has been successful and has the capacity to reflect on their success (As you reflect …);
  • Tentative language (Of what might you need to be mindful …?); and
  • Open-ended (What are the …?, rather than, Have you …?).

Asking these questions on the last day of first semester was a mechanism for pausing to take stock. Schools move at a cracking pace, and those working in schools are often racing to keep up. Stopping to look back over our shoulder at how far we have come, and in what direction, can help us to realise what we have (or perhaps haven’t) achieved. It can help to anchor us in reality, to consider possibilities, and to re-orient us as we move into the future. I remember doing this from time to time during my PhD: looking back, wondering how I’d come so far, and remembering that it was just by taking one little step at a time.

My own reflections were around a shift in perceptions of my role between the beginning of the year and now. Mine is a new role to the school—Dean of Research and Pedagogy—and in January it felt a bit nebulous. A fuzzy outline of a role. A job description yet to come to life.

I initially spent a lot of time teasing out the crux of what this role was about; its strategy, its deliverables, and how I might gauge my progress in fulfilling its mandate. Looking back at my initial strategic and operational planning is gratifying; most of it has come to life, becoming breath in my work and in the life of the school, on which I can now build.

One of the indicators of how my role has evolved in this short time is the increasing list of those from across the school—from the classroom to the boardroom—who are approaching me for support in their area. I’m especially pleased at some of the unexpected impacts of my work.

Reflecting takes time, but it’s time worth carving out. I was recently reminded that my one word for 2017 was meant to be ‘nourish’. I have lost track of that along the way this year, but am hoping to regain some capacity for nourishment in this coming week when I’m with my family on a South-East Asian island for some time together and some time out.

Engaging the aesthetic

vignettes from home

It is perhaps when our lives are at their most problematic that we are likely to be most receptive to beautiful things. ~ Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Aesthetics is concerned with appreciation – of nature, of art, of that which we can experience through our senses. As a philosophy it explores how we perceive and experience beauty. There are studies that have looked at how aspects of aesthetics influence people’s lives. For instance, this one on how the colour of room walls impacts students’ behavior and learning performance in classrooms. Or this one that investigates the impact of hospital aesthetics—such as light, fresh air, nature, colour, sounds, smells and art—on patient wellbeing and recovery.

Like art, which is a culturally-embedded conversation over time, aesthetics is knitted with the fabric of society and culture. Anderson (2014) shows that while harmony and unification have often been seen as important aspects of interior design, this focus can curb individualism and lead to uniformity. She describes the Cult of Beauty of the 1870s and 1880s as “discriminating eclecticism guided by artistic sensibility” (p.345). At this time the homeowner became, according to Edmond de Goncourt, a décorateur or metteur-en-scène; a ‘scene-setter’; an artistic creator of spaces.

In the 19th century, colours and objects were linked to class, social standing and education. Partly as a reaction to mass production of objects and vividly-coloured synthetic fabrics, brightness and shininess were considered garish and distasteful, while subdued secondary or tertiary colours were seen to reveal distinguished taste. With the rare, the exotic and the expensive seen as ‘good taste’, decorating the home was saturated with inflections of societal, cultural and racial superiority.

Aesthetic discourses and disputes continue today. For example, in 2015 the owner of a mansion in Queensland was ordered to undertake an ‘aesthetic overhaul’ after it was found that the architecture was a copy of a unique neighbouring house. This year, a woman was taken to the London high court for painting her Kensington terrace in ‘garish’ candy stripes. People continue to care about the aesthetic experience.

Kyle Chayka challenges us that current aesthetic tropes perpetuate cultural and social divides, describing the ubiquity of reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and refurbished industrial lighting (what he calls ‘AirSpace’) as providing ‘familiar, comforting surroundings for a wealthy, mobile elite, who want to feel like they’re visiting somewhere ‘authentic’ while they travel, but who actually just crave more of the same.’ Aesthetics, as it becomes globalised via social media sharing, continues to promote uniformity and entangle with social inequities.

Technology has changed notions of beauty, as well as who can access it. Now, the well-worn patina of an antique rug can be achieved via polypropylene and technology. Found treasures can be upcycled or new leather carefully distressed. A throw on the end of a bed should be artfully flung not neatly folded; it should appear luxurious without seeming to try too hard. Style appears just-so as if by accident.

These days anyone with an Instagram or Pinterest account is an aesthete. The interwebs are full of endless aesthetic noise, constant bombardments of staged and judiciously curated pictures in which the everyday person has become the composer of artistic, filtered images that show snapshots of life. Aesthetics is democratised and commodified in new ways. Influential Instagrammers make money by posting products in carefully cropped snaps. Chompoo Baritone’s photo series shows how real and imperfect details are often omitted in order to create a social media image of beauty.  Lindahl & Öhlund (2013) argue that using images on social media is part of identity marketing and developing a personal brand, and that this is limited and fake, as well as nuanced and expressive. They point to social media aesthetics shaping identities, especially through imitation. As life imitates art, so identity imitates Instagram. Social media allow aesthetics to be accessible across social divides, but also to be manipulated. The aim of uniqueness drowns in a sea of uniformity. There is at once aesthetic individualism and an aesthetic echo chamber of groupthink (or is that groupaesthetics?).

Yes, there are social, cultural, and technological complexities of aesthetics. But in a world in which we are often obsessed by perforance, measurement, fast everything, multi-tasking, and efficiencies, often it’s worth immersing ourselves in the aesthetic of the real, as opposed to the virtual, world. Walking barefoot on grass. Wrapping palms of hands around a warm mug of tea. Watching the sun rise. Listening. Smelling the (actual, paper) pages of a book, feeling them between the pads of fingertips, hearing the swooshing noise they make as they turn. Sinking a vinyl disc onto a record player. Painting. Sewing. Tinkering. Looking and actually seeing. Breathing slow and deep.

bookshelf mis-en-scène

As I’ve been nesting in my new home, I’ve been pulling tactile objects out of boxes and placing them on shelves. Cutting flowers from my garden, drinking coffee to the sunrise song of local birds, letting my eyes wander over vignettes in nooks and corners. And it’s been giving me pretty big doses of contentment, even while I’m aware of the first world nature of my collections – objets d’art from exotic travel locations, international textiles, inherited antiques and collectibles, lots of books. I know these are the accoutrements of a priveleged life, and yet they tell me stories and bring me joy.

Maybe it’s my Fine Art background or my love of the weird and wonderful, but aesthetics have always been important to me. It causes my husband no end of annoyance that the first thing I like to do on moving into a new home is to hang pictures and place ornaments. (We have moved together seven times, not counting house-sitting or being ‘in between’ homes when we’ve moved interstate or overseas). In any home – whether in a tiny rented London apartment full of Argos goods, or an owned home in Australia, big or small – the aesthetic quality of my surroundings have helped to ground me. As well as providing experiences of colour, texture and light, the way we shape our surroundings encapsulates a story about ourselves and can provide a safe or stimulating place for us to burrow, create, or connect.

References

Anderson, A. (2014). Harmony in the Home: Fashioning the “Model” Artistic Home or Aesthetic House Beautiful through Color and Form. Interiors, 5(3), 341-360.

Caspari, S., Eriksson, K., & Nåden, D. (2011). The importance of aesthetic surroundings: A study interviewing experts within different aesthetic fields. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 25(1), 134-142.

Lindahl, G., & Öhlund, M. (2013). Personal branding through imagification in social media: Identity creation and alteration through images (dissertation). Stockholm University.

Yildirim, K., Cagatay, K., & Ayalp, N. (2015). Effect of wall colour on the perception of classrooms. Indoor and Built Environment. Indoor and Built Environment, 24(5), 607-616.

On cognitive load

I’ve been thinking recently about cognitive load theory (CLT), a theory founded by John Sweller in the 1980s. Bear with me. I’m not intending to use seductive sounding terms like ‘cognitive architecture’; or to suggest that I am an expert on CLT; or to delve into discussions about intrinsic, extraneous and germane cognitive load; or to articulate the problems with self-ratings of perceived mental effort. This is more of a loose layperson’s pondering around the effects of the influence of new information on working memory.

CLT posits that human working memory cannot process many new elements at any one time. A couple of weeks ago I moved house and the resulting chaos had me realising the effects of putting a heavy load of novel information onto the working memory. Despite the mundanity of the challenges of moving into a new home (whitegoods don’t fit, furniture doesn’t work spatially, boxes crowd in threateningly, kids don’t sleep well, the house makes strange noises), in the first week at our new place I left my yoga clothes at home once and left my phone at home twice. I was constantly struggling to remember where I had to look to find plates, cling film, toiletries, members of my family. I had no sense of routine or stability.

For me, the mental work of existing somewhere new, without the automaticity that comes with entrenched habit (or, as cognitive load theorists might call it, cognitive schemata in my long term memory) was immense and intense. I felt that I was living in a fog, and existing at about 40% of my usual capacity. The simplest of tasks were arduous, time consuming, and took what seemed like excessive cognitive effort. My husband asked me what was wrong with me; I knew that the relocation had taken my working memory beyond its capacity to cope. I was moving as through wet concrete. I felt displaced.

Now, learning a new house isn’t the same as learning new, complex, domain-specific skills (although I could talk long and hard about the gurgling of the fishpond interrupting sleep, the mental effort required to drive in the right direction home from work, and the impossibility of finding a sensible place for everything in a new kitchen). No doubt there were aspects of my experience that were environmental and affective as well as cognitive. Yet, the disorder and discombobulation I felt in my first week in my new house were a stark reminder of what students might feel when confronted with new content in a classroom with which they are not yet familiar, or with a skill that they might approach without the appropriate embedded prior knowledge and automation required to succeed.

As Greg Thompson has recently blogged (channeling Derrida’s student Bernard Stiegler), writing (like this blog post) can construct a mental prosthesis, a kind of corporeal residue of an experience that, left to the memory, would fade in intensity over time. Unlike Greg in his story of being concussed in Banff, I will have no physical remnants of moving house, nor any of the entertainment value of the story. No doubt soon the uneasiness will fade into that vague unnoticed feeling of being at home in instinctive motion.

In this post on the doctorate I reflect that:

Once we have learned something, we cannot always remember what it was like to not know it, making it difficult to teach or help someone. By (b)logging my writing memories as they happen, perhaps I can archive my not-so-good-at-academic-writing self. Reflecting-on-writing by writing-about-writing – in a kind of meta-writing – helps me to document my academic writing journey. … blogging helps me to have a Hansel-and-Gretel breadcrumb trail back to my less capable self.

As someone becomes more expert, they often ‘black box’ their expertise, as Pamela Hinds explains in her 1999 paper ‘The Curse of Expertise’. Experts are unable to accurately predict the time and difficulty novices need to complete a task. Intermediate learners, Hinds finds, are more helpful for novices as they still remember and understand the problems of being a beginner. This is something I wonder about in terms of academia as well as teaching. Do doctoral supervisors ‘black box’ the PhD or EdD experience? Are they able to break down the steps of the doctorate for their students, or are veteran professors too far removed from the struggle and journey of the neophyte researcher? In a classroom, do teachers expert in their subjects have the capacities to break down the content and skills into accessible enough elements for struggling learners? Can an expert coach can break down the steps of coaching once they have internalised the philosophies, knowledge, and processes? Once the work of the mind is internalised and automated, much mindfulness and precision are needed if we are to teach others. Expertise may be a curse, but my house move has reminded me of the curse of the beginner. I yearn for repetitious automation.

So, as I use the daily practice of living in my new house as a way to build a long term memory schema, I am beginning to relax. Nothing yet feels automatic or fluid—and I still feel the newness and unfamiliarity of my surroundings—but I know that at some point I will forget the uneasy, cognitively prickly effort that came with moving house. I’ll happily float through the new place on auto-pilot, even in the dark of night or the first sleepy moments of the morning.

Stream of blogciousness

Aqua Fauna by Britt Mikkelsen, taken at the 2017 Cottesloe Sculptures by the Sea

It’s Friday. The day I’ve told myself I will post a blog piece each week. Often I have the post written by Wednesday. Or I sit with a wine on Thursday night and work through it, luxuriating in the writing, getting the post ready so that it can sit quietly in hiding, ready for posting the next day. Sometimes it’s times like now – once the kids are in bed on a Friday night – that I finally sit down with my laptop and begin my tap tap tapping. Brain and keyboard reconnecting. Sometimes I agonise and go tentatively. Sometimes the words explode in a cacophony of keystrokes.

Occasionally, I skip a post, despite this being like the sound of fingernails down the blackboard to my perfectionist tendencies. Who cares if you don’t post? says the sane voice in my head. If you shout into the blogging void and no-one listens, it’s like it never really happened, whispers another. Why have a self-imposed deadline if you can’t break it? mutters the voice of reason.

This post, tonight, is a bridge between not-posting and posting-to-deadline, Writing about writing. Blogging about blogging. Guilt blogging. Words on the screen. A deadline met.

It’s not that I’ve been dragging my feet. In the last week I have written four blog posts, two for this blog—on International Women’s Day and on E4L in Australia—and also two for my school’s blog. I had a co-authored paper published in the International Journal of Research and Method in Education (Wahoo!). I had one child with a broken arm, the other with a virus. Sleep hasn’t been great. I presented at an evening leadership event that I organised with a colleague for the leaders in our school. I held a 5th birthday party with a Star Wars theme, including making the cake from scratch (another self-imposed rule of mine). I attended two grown-up birthday parties. I danced. I worked full time. I missed two calls from my sister and have not managed to call her back. I attended parent teacher interviews for my two kids. I packed lunches for school and also boxes of belongings because I’m moving house soon. I have plenty more to pack. Plus forty Year 12 English essays to mark. Plus plus plus.

Star Wars cake for Mr 5

So I can probably just have a glass of wine and relax. Skip the blog. I doubt very much that my small readership wait with baited breath for my posts to ding into their WordPress reader or inbox each Friday. So why do I feel compelled to stick to my deadline?

I wonder if it is a fear that if I let my own schedule slip then it’ll be a slippery slope to the occasional lonely tumbleweed post blowing through an empty desert of a blog. Or an abandoned wasteland of once-prolific posts, words dried out like carcasses in a summer drought. That my writing muscles will atrophy. That I won’t make the time to use this blog space to think through the things that get stuck in my head. Those thoughts that need to be teased out like fine silk threads or rolled around and around in meditative contemplation. Those dilemmas that need thrashing out and that burn in my mind until I assault my keyboard to get them out.

Today I had a bunch of partly formed blog ideas. Mostly things in my work or research that I’m thinking about and around. But this is the post I have written. I can only assume that this is the post that I needed to write. Maybe it’s my way of giving myself a break.

Being bold, but for what change? #IWD17 #BeBoldForChange

Ms Marvel / Kamala Khan, Muslim-American superhero; source: dailydot.com

Ms Marvel / Kamala Khan, Muslim-American superhero; source: dailydot.com

Wednesday is International Women’s Day, with the theme #BeBoldForChange. While some might argue that there isn’t a need for an IWD, and men’s rights activists might cry, “Where is International Men’s Day?”, there is plenty of evidence that there remains a gender parity problem. Global events such as Brexit and the voting in of the Trump administration suggest that there are a multitude who do not value or champion diversity in gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity or ability.

Pay gaps, inflexible working arrangements, and representation of gender in media, film and the toy aisle, all point towards persistent social beliefs about gender. The wife drought, by Australian political reporter Annabel Crabb, is an excellent read on the ingrained gender disparities in Western society and the ways in which they disadvantage both women and men. Gender inequity is an issue for everyone, as evidenced by the around 2 million people – women, men, girls, boys – who marched around the world in the January Women’s March after Trump’s inauguration.

We live in a world where in the same month (February 2017) the US President can comment that he likes White House female staff to ‘dress like a woman’ and LEGO can release a Women of NASA series of figures to counter the highly gendered representations of girls and women in stores (to join LEGO’s female Legal Justice Team and Bioneers). The Gender Pay Equity Insights report can reveal ongoing gender pay gaps in Australia, and Australian Rules Football can introduce a Women’s League competition. The gender equity dance seems to be one of some steps backward, some inertia, some steps forward, and then a step to the side.

Hidden Figures screen shot source: huffingtonpost.com

Hidden Figures screen shot; source: huffingtonpost.com

The teaching profession is dominated by women, but school leadership globally remains a male-dominated field associated with masculine qualities (Cunneen & Harford, 2016). I work at a school that is co-educational to Year 6, and single-sex boys to Year 12. We have gender balance in our leadership team, but like most schools in Australia with boys in the high school, the title of the principal is ‘Headmaster’, implying that only a man can hold that position.

In my career I have benefited from the generosity of women colleagues who supported me and women leaders who gave of their time and expertise to support me in my growth. Equally, I have profited from the collegiality and support of men who have played pivotal roles in my work and my career. In more recent years, my nerd herd, Twitteratti and Voxer squad have provided diverse global colleagues, coaches and accountability partners. My mentors, coaches, advocates, professional friends and cheerleaders have been so because of their capacity for empathy and their willingness to give of themsleves to others, to pay forward and to reach back. Each has offered me something unique.

Rogue One film still; source: blastr.com

Rogue One film still; source: blastr.com

I have made deliberate choices in my life, reflecting the IWD theme this year of being bold for change. For me, being bold has been to be true to my own intuition about what makes a good parent, a good educator, a good leader and a fulfilled individual capable of being present with her children, present in her work, and occasionally present in her relationship and present with herself. Of course this tenuous balance is not so easily enacted.

For my male high school students, I aim to be an example of empathy, teaching and leadership. For my male children, I aim to be a present, engaged parent who is also engaged in her own pursuit of personal excellence and contribution to a good greater than myself. By modelling an equitable partnership in concert with my husband, I hope our boys will grow up accepting notions of gender parity at home and feeling comfortable to choose paths that suit them as individuals. Teaching, modelling and leading social justice, diversity and equity, at home and at school, can help our students and our children accept these as given.

Ghostbusters promotional image; source: blastr.com

Ghostbusters promotional image; source: blastr.com

Annabel Crabb’s words still ring true for me, even though I read her book three years ago:

The obligation that evolves for working mothers, in particular, is a very precise one; the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job.

There is the constant tension between the obligations of work and home. My inner primal mama bear feels the umbilical tug of my children no matter how far from them I am. Yet there is also the underlying and constant hum of hunger for intellectual stimulation, professional exhilaration and personal challenge. It is the hunger that propelled me back to work after having each of my children, and that led to my doctorate. My PhD—submitted within three years of enrolling and completed while working and parenting two young children—is my most visceral example of being bold for change. As a sustained challenging endeavor, in which life events intervened along the way to make things at times crushingly difficult, it shaped me and made me feel stronger in the struggle and via the conquering.

LEGO's new Women of NASA figures; source: sciencealert.com

LEGO’s new Women of NASA figures; source: sciencealert.com

One of the great challenges for me is, to use an airplane analogy, fitting my own oxygen mask before I can help others. I have learned to prioritise exercise, yoga and self-care as non-negotiables, rather than the first thing to go when life gets busy or an optional add-on. My children, my husband, my students and my colleagues all benefit when I am in one piece physically, emotionally and mentally.

For girls and boys, men and women, being bold for change can mean apologising less or demanding more from ourselves and those around us. It can mean calling out casual sexism at school, work or at social gatherings. It can mean sharing unpopular opinions or having uncomfortable conversations. It can mean advocating for your child’s, your friend’s or your own non-stereotypical choices. It can mean putting yourself first, or making a sacrifice for someone else. It can mean saying ‘no’, or saying ‘yes’.

International Women’s Day provides us all with the opportunity to bring mindfulness to issues of gender, diversity and privelege.

Shepard Fairey's protest posters for the Trump inauguration; source: theverge.com

Shepard Fairey’s protest posters for the Trump inauguration; source: theverge.com

References

Crabb, A. (2014). The wife drought: Why women need wives, and men need lives. Ebury Australia.

Cunneen, M., & Harford, J. (2016). Gender matters: Women’s experiences of the route to principalship in Ireland. In K. Fuller and J. Harford (eds.). Gender and leadership: Women achieving against the odds. Peter Lang.

Workload and anxiety

grass tree panorama

grass tree panorama

I have tonight breezed in the door to home with dirt caked in my nostrils and shoes, smelling of sweat and the Australian bush, utterly dishevelled after five days of Year 9 camp. Going on camp was important; it was an opportunity for me to get to know more closely my pastoral group, the class I’ll be travelling with on their high school journey for the next four years.

The group built cohesion and relationships across the week. Individuals and the team were challenged by everything from expedition hiking, camping, eating and toileting, to abseiling over cliff faces into caves, surfing big Margaret River swell, and completing a high ropes course.

I recognise the significance of the week of camping for my students, while simultaneously trying to quell the rising panic that comes from a week away, ‘out of the office’. Not only was it a lot of work to prepare to be away—planning a week’s worth of lessons and resources, shopping and packing for camp, making sure the things required for our house sale-and-purchase were in order before I left, getting through the Famous Five novel I’ve been reading with my kids—but I’m returning to being (at least) a week behind my work.

Yes, lessons will have been taught while I’ve been away, but the double pile of marking I left behind wasn’t marked by marking fairies while I was away (darn those marking fairies; never there for you when you really need them!). Deadlines remain as they were, despite me being unable to make progress for a week (although I did take a notebook on which to scribble ideas). I feel in debit with my family, like I need to spend extra time with my kids and husband, like I somehow owe ‘extra’ because I left them for five days.

So I am feeling behind in my work and behind at home. I am pulled between the tension of wanting to do the right thing at home by immersing myself in time with my family; to do the right thing by work by catching up on marking, policy-writing and strategic project implementation plans; and to do the right thing by myself by painting my chipped toenails, exercising my aching body and finding time for solitude and seeing friends.

Workload and homeload as a working parent are always a tricky balance that can easily tip on their delicate axes. While I currently feel sucked into a vortex of mild anxiety, I know rationally that I will catch up. Sometime, I will catch up. In the meantime, I’ll breathe, do my best with the time I have available, and remember some of the stunning vistas I enjoyed while on camp in the West Aussie great outdoors.

my home for the week

my home for the week

Redgate Beach

Redgate Beach

abseiling into Brides Cave

abseiling into Brides Cave

Karri forrest