Book-versary: Transformational Professional Learning

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Yesterday marked one year since my book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools was published.

Thank you to Andy Hargreaves for writing such a wonderful foreword, that began with the following words.

Most Forewords begin with an invited expert in the twilight of their professional lives, setting out his or her wisdom on the state of the field that the ensuing text of the book addresses. Eventually, in the last two or three paragraphs, the expert then gets around to saying a few kind things about the book itself.

But in this case, we need to turn things around. This is, simply, an extraordinary book. I have never seen anything quite like it. I have read books by outstanding researchers, some of them former teachers, myself (at my best) included, who have and who can convey empathy and a studied grasp of the work of teachers and how it connects to their lives and their worlds. I have also read very engaging books by teachers and leaders about their own worlds and work that are full of ideas, absorbing anecdotes, practical wisdom, and a sprinkling of insights from researchers and thought leaders in the academic world to back them up.

This book is something else, though. As a synthesis of the field of professional learning and a critical exploration of its less fashionable and more unusual aspects—like self-directed learning, or attending courses—I can recall scarcely any better ones in the academic community itself. Unlike many researchers who collate all the evidence before them and draw circumspect conclusions about what it all means, Deborah Netolicky goes further and, in her own voice, as both academic and practitioner, she expresses it all from a constructively critical and also professionally candid perspective.

Thank you to Alma Harris, Carol Campbell, Pasi Sahlberg, Ellie Drago-Severson, Bruce Wellman, Rachel Lofthouse, and Nicole Mockler for providing generous endorsements. Alma, for example, wrote the following.

Occasionally, a book comes along that a field desperately needs. Transformational Professional Learning is such a book. It is clear, accessible and profoundly practical. Cutting through the vast literature on professional learning, it reminds us that the ultimate end game is making a difference to learners. Put simply, this book is a must read.

Thank you to those who have read the book, reviewed it, invited me to speak about it, and shared annotations and photos of where you’ve read it around the world. Thank you to those who have engaged with me in discussions about its ideas.

Meaningful professional learning that makes a real difference to teachers and school leaders (and therefore students) remains an ongoing professional passion. The conversation and work continues.

Teacher expertise, voice and action

On Monday night I participated in my first ever TeachMeet, held online and hosted by Steven Kolber. I used my 8 minute speaking slot to explore something I’m wondering about: to what extent is the COVID-19 pandemic strengthening or diminishing the teaching profession?

The video is here on YouTube, and I speak at the 1.33 mark. Below, I explore this wondering and its tangents.

*            *            *

Governments have tightened their control over citizens and over teachers and schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools have been acted upon by new rules and a barrage of offers by technology companies for increased tracking, monitoring and surveillance.

The catch cry ‘We’re all in this together’ has been ubiquitous during this pandemic, but we are all experiencing the current reality in different ways. Those who are disadvantaged are more disadvantaged and at greater health, economic and educational risk during this time.

I am a teacher of over 20 years and a school leader, researcher, editor and author. The ripples of COVID-19 have brought into sharp focus just how important the work of teachers, school leaders and schools is, to individuals and to a functioning society.

I’ve never been prouder of my profession than this year when we have locally, nationally and globally addressed challenges unlike those I’ve seen during my career. It has been messy and uncomfortable at times, shining a spotlight on existing inequities and gaps, but teachers and school leaders around the world have worked tirelessly to do their best for their students and communities in constantly evolving circumstances and amid a swirling maelstrom of human complexities.

Expertise

Teachers are credible, professional experts. Teachers know what and how to teach. They are specialists in curriculum, in pedagogy and in their own students. During distance learning they may have been operating without the usual non-verbal cues they get in classrooms, and having to learn and experiment with new modalities, technologies and tools. During this period of upheaval and transformation, they remained experts in how to teach, generate evidence of student learning and provide constructive, often individualised, feedback.

There was a brief moment during the pandemic when teacher expertise was heralded and recognised  by the masses. Teachers were—momentarily—hailed as heroes and front line workers. The #teachersrock hashtag did the rounds on social media. The celebration of teachers was short lived, however, and we were soon back to hearing the tropes of schools failing students, teachers and parents at odds with one another, and teachers failing to live up to the expectations or the media and society at large.

In Australia, our Prime Minister said that the distance learning being provided by teachers was ‘child minding not teaching’. The Federal Minister for Education ordered all independent schools to ensure that they returned to face to face teaching. In my state, the Western Australian Premier said at a press conference that private school parents should ask for a reduction in fees if schools remained on distance learning plans when the state government had said that returning to schools was safe. A Western Australian principal was stood down after urging parents to keep children home because she was worried that the school would not be able to ensure hygiene and distancing requirements. She has been reinstated but it was reported that she had been ‘reminded of the limits of her authority’.

For the teaching profession, this public erosion of respect for teacher expertise is especially frustrating.

Voice

As I have written, particularly in Flip the System Australia, there is an absence of teacher voice in much formulation of policy, on advisory boards, and on media panels. Experts often speak for or about teachers. Sometimes, teachers are consulted, but rarely are teachers invited to the decision making or policy making table. Increasingly, teachers are invited onto media panels.

Teachers and school leaders operate in an environment of performance, constantly judged against—as co-presenter Ruth Smith said during the TeachMeet—by what can be measured rather than against what we might value. During this COVID-19 pandemic, the educational environment of performativity within which teachers and school leaders operate has shifted to alternate indicators of performance.

Parents and teachers continue to be pitted against each other, as adversaries rather than allies. Schools are judged on their social media posts about online learning, hygiene measures, virtual community events or wellbeing initiatives, rather than on standardised test scores. During periods of distance learning teachers were performing their work in front of parents and families, via screens that projected teaching into homes. Our normal measures of performance may have been disrupted, but education has remained a space of performance to be judged and commented on by others.

Voice is about value. Being heard. Having a say. Being an efficacious agent able to act and influence.

There are challenges to any call for teacher voice. There is the busy reality of the lives of teachers and school leaders. Time, vulnerability (risk to self) and ethics (risk to students) are all obstacles to teacher voice. We are representatives of our schools and have limitations to the extent to which we can be the public voice of our profession. We work with children and their families, entrusted to our care. Their stories are not ours to tell and our first mandate is to keep children safe. Our service is first and foremost to the students in our schools.

Action

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased teacher collaboration within schools and between schools, systems and countries. Teachers and school leaders have become more agentic decision makers in their own contexts, tasked more than ever with finding productive solutions to the challenges in their own schools. Grassroots teacher professional collaboration, job-embedded learning-as-we-go and anywhere-anytime professional resources have emerged as silver linings to the COVID crisis.

In schools, teachers can be consulted on decisions. Meaningful and honest feedback from all stakeholders can be used to inform decision making. Even better is ground-up change in which teachers collaborate around strategic and improvement goals.

Beyond schools, teachers can be offered seats on panels, advisory committees and at policy tables. Teachers can share their voices on social media, blogs, podcasts, and in books and research studies.

As Adam Brooks said at our Flip the System Australia Perth launch, as teachers and school leaders, ‘We are the system’. And as Reni Eddo-Lodge says, quoting Terry Pratchett in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, ‘There’s no justice. Just us.’ Teachers and school leaders are the system, it’s ‘us’ that can change that system from the inside. We need to be the change we want to see.

We can ask ourselves:

  • When are we choosing to speak?
  • Whose voices are we amplifying, elevating and seeking out?
  • What productive, positive action could we take?

Transformational professional learning: What, why, how and what now?

ie_magazine_1_2020-1_page_2-e1587548290345.jpg

Below is the text of a piece I wrote late last year for the Independent Education magazine on transformational professional learning (Issue 1, Vol 50, 2020, pp.32-33).

I am sharing it here because now, more than ever, teachers and school leaders are changing our practice. This global crisis–and our experiences of emergency teaching, rethinking schooling, distance learning, pandemic pedagogy, redesigning or cancelling assessments, isolation, sickness, empathy and community–is changing what we do and how we do it. We are revisiting the basics such as ‘Maslow before Bloom’, explored here in our independent report on Thinking About Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic (Doucet et al., 2020).

Ways in which professional learning is happening during this pandemic include:

  • Job-embedded ‘learning as we go’, trying, iterating and refining practice as we go.
  • Colleagues helping colleagues with planning, learning technologies, remote pedagogy, feedback strategies and ways of assessing.
  • Webinars offered by professional learning providers.
  • Schools, where possible, providing one-on-one, online, or telephone support from IT, either internally or from outside experts.
  • Social media platforms in which teachers, school and system leaders, and education organisations around the world are sharing resources, processes and learnings as they address education needs in this uncertain time.

Many may emerge from our current situation having also changed what we believe about teaching, learning, assessing and the purpose of school. As I note in the article, however:

“Teachers and school leaders won’t change practice unless they believe the outcomes for those in their care will be better.”

Are some of the things we are now implementing better for our students? Are we desperate to get back to our old ‘normal’, or are the things we are learning now enhancing equity, improving practice and helping us to make better decisions for students?

As I say in this previous blog post, in considering our ‘next normal’ we can ask ourselves the following questions.

  • What is it that we’ve desperately missed that we want to bring back in to schooling and education?
  • What is it that’s been removed that we don’t want to return to?

________________________________________

In 2019 my book—Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools—was published. The book weaves together what research literature says about professional learning, what my doctoral study found about professional learning, and the insights my own personal and professional experiences have provided about professional learning. This approach reflects my belief that we get the best outcomes in education when we consider research alongside context, lived experience and professional judgement. Education is, after all, a complex human endeavour, and the answer to the question ‘What works?’ is often ‘It depends’. As my co-editors and I suggest in Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, a better question might be: ‘What matters?’ or ‘What should matter?’ (Netolicky et al., 2019).

Professional learning matters because it is a key way for us to make education better, but the way we define, implement, engage in, and seek to determine the effectiveness of professional learning also matters.

In this article I outline the what, why, and how of transformational professional learning for teachers and school leaders. What is it? Why care about it? How do we do it?

What is transformational professional learning?

Many professional learning providers offer certified hours of professional learning. But—just as our students haven’t necessarily learned because we’ve taught something—attending a professional development course or event  does not automatically mean that meaningful learning has occurred. In fact, my doctoral research found that professional learning for educators is highly individualised. Those experiences that shape our beliefs and practices can be professional and personal, formal and informal, in and out of educational contexts, and singular and collaborative (Netolicky, 2016a, 2016b).

Transformational professional learning—learning that makes a difference in and for schools—as I define it, is “learning that shifts beliefs, and thereby behaviours, of professionals. It is tied to an individual’s personal and professional identity” (Netolicky, 2020, p.18).

My framing of transformational professional learning draws on the work of Professor Ellie Drago-Severson and Dr Jessica Blum-DeStefano (2018) who describe transformational learning as that which actively changes how a person knows through shifts in cognition, emotion, and capacity. This learning influences our ways of knowing as well as what we know. My definition also resonates with the work of Associate Professor Nicole Mockler (2013) who argues that teachers’ professional learning is deeply tied to who we are, not just what we do or how we do it.

Transformational professional learning acknowledges the complexity and humanity of teaching. Learning that transforms what we do needs to also shape who we think we are as teachers, and what we believe is in the best interests of our students. Teachers and school leaders won’t change practice unless they believe the outcomes for those in their care will be better.

Why transformational professional learning?

It is important that we in education care about and work towards incorporating transformational professional learning in the practice of systems, schools and individuals.

Part of the argument for a focus on professional learning is that teacher professional learning is positively correlated to improvement in student learning and achievement. Teachers learning and improving their knowledge and skills, it is argued, reaps dividends for students in those teachers’ classrooms.

Teachers are additionally required to undertake professional learning as part of their work. In Australia the minimum figure is twenty hours per year. Teachers are required to reflect on and be assessed against professional standards. In Australia, the sixth of seven standards is to ‘engage in professional learning.’

Wellbeing is also a consideration for professional learning. We need to ask the question: Is the professional learning undertaken adding to workloads, or empowering teachers and school leaders to be valued, autonomous professionals? Processes such as coaching and effective collaboration have the potential to enhance and support the wellbeing of teachers and school leaders.

So not only is professional learning a way to improve student outcomes, it is also a professional requirement and a potential tool for wellbeing.

How do we ‘do’ transformational professional learning?

As I say on the Teachers’ Education Review podcast in an interview with Cameron Malcher (2019), knowing what might work best in professional learning helps us to make better decisions. Being informed about what research suggests is most likely to be effective in shaping teacher beliefs and practices, can constructively influence what kinds of professional learning we invest in, and how we go about implementing those for positive results for students, teachers, schools and systems.

The best professional learning—that is, learning most likely to be transformational—comprises a balance of high support and high challenge. It is targeted and ongoing. It is differentiated for context, sector, circumstance and the individual.

In schools and systems, effective professional learning interventions are underpinned by shared vision and are implemented slowly, initially using volunteers, applying judicious measures of success and generating honest feedback from stakeholders to inform, iterate and refine the model for its specific context.

Those professional learning forms backed by research and practice include:

  • professional learning communities;
  • observation and reflection processes, such as lesson study and instructional rounds;
  • post-graduate study;
  • mentoring; and
  • coaching.

Daily collaboration between teachers within and between schools also fits the brief of collaborative, targeted, ongoing learning, as do long-term relationships between schools and consultants or academics.

Professional learning is one-size-fits-one, so not all transformational professional learning is collaborative or ongoing. Attending a course or conference can also provide an ‘a-ha’ moment for a teacher. Deeply positive or negative professional experiences can change our beliefs and behaviours. Personal experiences, too, such as becoming a parent or travelling, can shape professional identities and shift the ways in which we interact with students and their families.

As is the case for our students, enjoying ourselves or having a nice time does not equal learning. We can feel engaged and energised without learning occurring. We can be in a room with colleagues without effective collaboration actually happening. One thing I have learned as a school leader is to seek out dissenting views and seek to understand them. We need to be okay with discomfort and with respectful, robust disagreement if we are to transform our beliefs and practices for the benefit of our students and communities.

What now?

There is a danger that professional learning is driven by political, corporate or school improvement agendas. Rather than surrendering our professional judgement to those citing league tables, standardised tests or products for sale, we must reclaim professional learning for teachers and school leaders in ways that makes a difference for and with students.

While there is a place for evaluation, we need to focus our efforts on growth, not systems of rewards and punishments that seek to pit teachers and schools against one another. Rhetoric of teachers, schools or education systems ‘failing’, ‘coasting’, ‘flat lining’ and ‘falling behind’, based on oversimplified measures, is unhelpful and harmful. Schools benefit from designing their own measures of the success of professional learning interventions in their own context. Schools can ask: How might we know that conversations are more productive, that teachers are more knowledgeable about teaching strategies, or that the student experience at our school is shifting? Rather than relying on the measures imposed by others, schools can look for indicators of the successes to which they are aspiring, which might be relational, conversational and emotional, rather than numerical or easily quantified.

As I write in Transformational Professional Learning, we teachers and school leaders “are not objects that need professional learning done to us, or incomplete entities requiring development by external forces acting upon us. We are capable professionals who are willing and able to take responsibility for our learning” (2020, p.123). We are not technicians enacting unthinking compliance, but experts looking to grow and develop over time.

In the conclusion, I argue that we need to do the following:

  • Consider identity and humanity, because those in schools are human beings and teaching is complex;
  • Offer voice and choice, differentiating professional learning for staff at different career stages and with different strengths and aspirations;
  • Focus on context, culture, and relationships;
  • Enable collaboration that is rigorous, purposeful, and sometimes uncomfortable;
  • Broaden our definition of professional learning; and
  • Invest time, money, and resources into professional learning.

Professional learning should empower, enrich and sustain our profession, not undermine, stifle or demoralise it. So, let’s focus on building and refining cultures of trust, collaboration, and vibrant professional conversation. Let’s give teachers the space, time and resources to identify and improve their knowledge, skills and understandings. Let’s work towards being and becoming the best educators we can be, by simultaneously pursuing individual goals, organisational goals, and the greater good.

References

Drago-Severson, E., & Blum-DeStefano, J. (2018). Leading change together: Developing educator capacity within schools and systems. Alexandria: ASCD.

Malcher, C. (2019). 2019, 27 October. Teachers’ Education Review [Audio podcast]. ‘TER #141 – Transformational Professional Learning with Deborah Netolicky’ Retrieved from: https://soundcloud.com/ter-podcast/ter-141-transformational .

Mockler, N. (2013). Teacher professional learning in a neoliberal age: Audit, professionalism and identity. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 38(10), 35-47.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020). Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools. Abingdon: Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (2016a). Down the rabbit hole: Professional identities, professional learning, and change in one Australian school (Doctoral dissertation, Murdoch University).

Netolicky, D. M. (2016b). Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders. Journal of professional capital and community, 1(4), 270-285.

Netolicky, D. M., Andrews, J., & Paterson, C. (Eds.). (2019). Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

INTERVIEW: Collaboration in schools

Deb WES pic

I was recently interviewed by Ben Reeves, ahead of the Wisdom in Education Summit to be held in May at Wesley College in Melbourne. At the conference, which aims to explore collaborative practices that enhance student learning, I will be speaking on collaboration that makes transformational professional learning possible. Other speakers include Andy Hargreaves, Summer Howarth, Tracey Ezard and Selena Fisk.

A snippet of the interview appears below.

This is the part where we talked about collaboration that might be transformational, rather than collaboration done as unthinking practice of being together as a group, or as a practice of feeling good rather than really doing good work together.

Ben: What makes collaboration a type of transformative learning, rather than merely a group meeting; or feeling good in a team; or perhaps least desirably, a toxic team environment?

Me: What is often called ‘collaboration’ doesn’t necessarily involve or incite learning, let alone that which is transformational. Putting a group of people in a room together does not mean collaboration is happening. Feeling good, enjoying doing something in a group, or experiencing something fun or memorable together, also doesn’t mean learning, growth or effective practice is happening. Politely agreeing with each other is another way that being in a team or group becomes about compliance and forced harmony, a kind of pretend collegiality where members nod or remain silent, waiting for a meeting to be over or avoiding conflict at all costs.

Our best and most transformational collaborative work comes when a group can engage respectfully in productive conflict with one another, using data analysis and dialogue to find a solution to a shared problem for which they take collective responsibility. High-functioning groups are those who can gracefully and robustly challenge one another within an environment of trust and psychological safety, while adhering to agreed norms of behaviour, using skills of effective collaboration, and employing deliberate collaborative structures.

So often in schools, teachers or leaders get together in meetings, teams or committees. However, these crucibles of apparent collaboration have no guarantee of actually allowing effective collaboration to occur. Sometimes we seem to be meeting because there is a meeting in the calendar, because it’s ‘what we do’, or because we’re expected to meet. How do we make meetings, team work or professional collaboration effective or even transformational? As I indicate in the response above, true collaboration requires skills, norms and intentionality.

In my book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools I spend a chapter discussing collaborative professional learning and collaboration as a  vehicle for learning. In it, I explore examples such as professional learning communities and lesson study. On his recent trip to Australia, Michael Fullan pointed to the key takeaways from that chapter. In my book I outline them like this:

  • Professional collaboration can benefit students and teachers, but needs to be deliberately designed around research-based principles and practices. Putting educators in a room together is not enough!
  • Professional collaboration should be based on the clear shared purpose of improving outcomes for students, by developing teachers in meaningful and sustained ways.
  • Key to collaborative professional learning are relationships, norms, protocols, processes, and data analysis that allow productive conflict, collective responsibility, and peer accountability. Getting along, enjoying the process, or patting each other on the back, does not equal collaboration.
  • Examples of effective collaborative professional learning modes include professional learning communities, observation and reflection processes (such as instructional rounds and lesson study), moderation marking meetings, less formal peer observation, collaboration over curriculum planning, and interrogation of research literature in journal or book clubs.
  • Within school and between school collaboration should be considered.

Michael summarised these points in the following slide.

Fullan TPL pic

You can read the interview in its entirety on LinkedIn here. In addition to collaboration, Ben asked me about pracademia, praxis, identity and transformation.

TES book review of ‘Transformational Professional Learning’

This week, the Times Educational Supplement published a review of my book by Clare Sealy. Clare is a prominent voice in education in the UK. After years as a primary school principal she is now Head of Curriculum and Standards for the States of Guernsey. She has a wealth of experience in school and system leadership in education. We agree about the importance of a knowledge-rich curriculum and of understanding cognitive load for learning and revision.

I thank Clare for taking the time to read my book and write a review. As the book’s author, I have reflected on some of her opinions about the book, which she describes as “useful but flawed”. I share these responses below.

False promises

Clare argues that by including the term ‘transformational’ in the book’s title—Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools—I was ‘setting myself up for a fall’.

“Surely, thinks the reader,” she writes, “if I read this, I will experience a deep – nay, transformational – shift in my understanding. The earth will move, the scales will fall from my eyes, my cup will runneth over. Inevitably then, with the bar set so high, this book disappoints.”

The term ‘transformational’ in the title is defined in Chapter 1 as a way to describe a particular view of professional learning: one concerned with those experiences and processes that have an impact on what teachers and school leaders think, believe, feel, and do. I deliberately spend some time discussing and defining the term transformational professional learning. I differentiate the term ‘transformative’ (associated with Jack Mezirow’s transformative learning theory) from ‘transformational’ as it is used in professional learning literature in order to be as clear as I can about the framework for the book’s discussion.

It wasn’t my intention to promise readers that they will be transformed through their reading of the book, and this isn’t something I promise. I do say that the book makes the case for professional learning that positively shapes teacher practices that improve student learning. If, however, a reader feels that their cup has runneth over through their reading of the book, that’s a lovely bonus.

The optimist

Clare points out that I am “slightly more optimistic than the research” I cite. I can probably be described as a critical optimist or an optimistic skeptic. My optimism helps to sustain me through the often negative press the teaching profession gets, and propels me in the work and advocacy I do. My cautiousness and skepticism helps me to challenge claims, consider alternatives, and make careful decisions.

Underwhelming conclusion

Clare finds my conclusion ‘underwhelming’.

My conclusion that ‘it depends’ and ‘context matters’ may be underwhelming, but as a practising educator, I prefer this to overreaching promises of ‘what works’.

Today, Daniel Willingham tweeted the following:

DTW

“It depends.” This is the reality of much education research and is reflected in the conclusion where I write:

“As in other education fields, the answer to the question ‘What works?’ is often ‘It depends’. However, accepting the complexities and nuances of professional learning does not preclude us from knowing what is likely to be effective, and in what kinds of professional learning schools would benefit from investing” (p.131).

As I say in the book, there is no one-size-fits-all model for individual or organisational professional learning, although I hope that my book points educators in profitable directions likely to be advantageous for students, teachers, and school leaders.

Clare adds that, “the truth, however unpalatable, is preferable to false promises.” That is, as I understand it, it’s better to acknowledge the unsexy reality of what we do and don’t know about what works in professional learning, than to conjure up deliciously simple checklists that overpromise, underdeliver, and don’t take nuance into account.

My book deliberately rallies against the oversimplification of education problems and solutions. It puts trust back into the hands of those working in schools, who know their students, staff, and communities. It is those working in schools who are best positioned to put research evidence to work by applying it with professional judgement and knowledge of their context.

Issues with coaching

While I spend Chapter 5 defining and discussing mentoring, instructional coaching, peer coaching and cognitive coaching, Clare comments that she would have liked to see more discussion around the difference between instruction coaching, mentoring and self-directed coaching. She is particularly interested in a more detailed examination of instructional coaching. (For those interested, there are plenty of resources on Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching Group website.)

Coaching is indeed a slippery term. What we mean when we talk about coaching needs specificity and shared understanding. In my view, instructional coaching, peer coaching, cognitive coaching, GROWTH coaching, executive coaching, mentoring, and consulting all have a purpose and a place in the professional learning landscape. We need to fit the tool to the individual, the context, and the purpose.

I agree with Clare’s comment that novice teachers need modelling and scaffolding, while experienced teachers learn better from opportunities to reflect on their extensive experience. In Chapter 8, I describe the varying needs of teachers at different career stages and explain how my school differentiated staff development in order to meet the diverse needs, aspirations, and career stages of staff. This model included mentoring or instructional coaching for early career teachers and coaching or collaborative approaches for more experienced teachers, on a case-by-case basis.

The positives

As the author of the reviewed book, I was drawn to the more critical aspects of the review, but there is plenty there that is also positive. Some excerpts include the following.

“Most have some sympathy with Netolicky’s diagnosis of the problem with much that passes for professional learning.”

“Netolicky reminds us that you don’t change a teacher simply by giving them better information. What really changes people is not just informational learning but transformational learning, that is ‘actively changing how a person knows though shifts in cognition, emotion and capacity’.”

“The chapter on collaborative professional learning is perhaps the most useful. It blows away any easy assumptions that if we all just did loads of lesson studies and collaborative learning, then everything would be fine. Since this approach is often peddled as a panacea to top-down approaches, it is good to have a rigorous analysis of what needs to happen for this to be effective.”

“This book gives a useful overview of different approaches to professional development and their relative strengths and weaknesses.”

“Netolicky has done us a service in reading the research and sharing it with us.”

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.

Education is not broken. Teachers do not need fixing.

abandoned chairs

source: @MichaelGaida on pixabay

This week, New South Wales MP Mark Latham, of the Australian One Nation party, discussed the One Nation NSW education policy. The policy uses language like “embarrassing” to describe Australia’s performance on PISA testing, as well as constructing teachers as “substandard” and “underperforming”, arguing that many should be reported and “removed”. It states that “what gets measures [sic] gets done”. It advocates for introducing performance-based pay for teachers, based on measuring teacher performance; “for example, testing a class at the beginning and end of the year and assessing the improvement (or regression) in results over the 10-month period.” Of course, measuring so-called teacher effectiveness is notoriously unreliable and a teacher’s influence on the students in their care is multifaceted. Check out the Twitter hashtag #OurWorkCannotBeMeasured through which teachers describe student progress or teacher work that cannot be quantified through an oversimplified performance measure.

On Thursday, as a result of an article I wrote for The Conversation back in 2016 on performance pay for teachers, I was invited to comment on ABC New South Wales radio about Mr Latham’s proposal. The interview is online here, at about the 2 hour and 7 minute mark. I explained during the interview that performance pay for teachers has no evidence for improving student achievement. Rather, merit-based pay is damaging. It creates toxic cultures of fear, isolation and competition. It leads to reduced collegiality and collaboration, less innovation, exacerbated wellbeing issues and the dehumanisation of teachers and students to data points.

During the interview I was asked, “What will fix all these problems we have in our education system?” My response was that “while there are issues, part of the problem is this notion that the education system needs fixing, that the system is broken, that schools and teachers are failing and we need to fix them. We have excellent teachers doing incredible work in our schools. Part of what is going to help the system is trusting teachers to do their jobs and providing trust, support, resourcing and time, instead of punishments, rewards and accusations.”

The experience of this brief radio interview—squeezed into the school day in between lessons and meetings in the last week of Term 2—led me to reflect on themes in my upcoming book. Titled Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools, it includes chapters on collaboration, mentoring, coaching, self-directed learning, professional standards and leadership for professional learning.

When people ask me what my book is about I say, “professional learning for teachers and school leaders” (usually followed by a tongue-in-cheek “it’s a real page-turner”). It is about that, but it is also about significantly more.

My book is about trusting and supporting the profession through meaningful opportunities to grow. It is about why, how and on what education stakeholders can best spend time, money and resources, for positive outcomes. It is about treating those working in schools as professionals who are experts in their work but who can always improve, not because they are deficient, but because their work is complex and entangled with identities, relationships, society and humanity. It is about policy that takes the long view rather than aiming for quick wins, and about leadership that empowers rather than inspects or punishes.

It is about nurturing collaboration and collegiality, over surveillance and isolation. It is about those things that systems and organisations can do to develop the capacity of those within the system. It is about how to build productive organisational cultures that simultaneously value, honour and sustain each individual and the group as a whole. It is about meaningfully considering workload and wellbeing, so that teachers and school leaders can best serve their students and communities without sacrificing themselves, burning out or taking shortcuts to stay afloat. These themes are relevant to other organisations and systems, too, not just to education.

When I reflect on my upcoming book, one of its central messages is this:

Education is not broken. Teachers do not need fixing. There is outstanding work going on every day in schools around Australia and the world. We should focus on trusting and empowering the teaching profession.

Sharing research in schools through a Research Report

‘The research says’ is often an empty statement used as a basis for an argument for a particular education reform, approach or product. I encourage teachers to ask: What research? Whose interests are served by this claim? Where did the studied intervention work? For whom? Under what conditions? How many participants were in the study? From what school contexts? How were data generated? What were the ethical considerations and how were these dealt with? How relevant is this to our context?

Dylan Wiliam has recently noted in a TES article that:

“classrooms are just too complicated for research ever to tell teachers what to do. Teachers need to know about research, to be sure, so that they can make smarter decisions about where to invest their time, but teachers, and school leaders need to become critical consumers of research – using research evidence where it is available and relevant, but also recognising that there are many things teachers need to make decisions about where there is no research evidence, and also realising that sometimes the research that is available may not be applicable in a particular context…. Evidence is important, of course, but what is more important is that we need to build teacher expertise and professionalism so that teachers can make better judgments about when, and how, to use research.”

I agree that teachers and school leaders need to become critical consumers of research. A number of us additionally participate in research degrees. While research can inform our decision making in classrooms and schools, the teaching profession is a profession of experts, who should be trusted to serve their students and respected for their expertise. Teachers can and should engage with research.

There are a number of ways via which schools can engage in research. I have written on this blog and in my upcoming book about what I call the ‘Research Report’ at my school. I introduced this Report in 2017 as one approach to developing a research culture in a school. It is a document that I regularly publish to the whole staff. This involves everyone—including administration and operations—in our core purpose of education. It illuminates current debates, incites corridor discussion about teaching, and provides bite-size, user-friendly resources for busy teachers and school leaders. I love getting bailed up by a member of the administration team, finance department, executive or teaching staff for a discussion about one of the references from the Report.

The Report is not a place for only long reads or complex academic papers, although these are included when relevant. Often, the research I share is easily accessible via links, and sometimes via podcasts and videos. The report is not a panacea or an echo chamber; I include controversial and sometimes conflicting resources to spark thinking and encourage dialogue.

My Research Report is one small attempt–among a suite of protocols, practices and collaborative structures–to engage staff with research findings, and with systematic and scientific ways of thinking. It is a cogitation and conversation starter, intended to develop a rich and robust professional culture.

While I began in 2017 with two reports per term, I found that this was too much for staff, so now each term I populate one Report that includes three Report sections with around three resources each. Foci are based around strategic priorities and/or current issues. For instance, to align with NAIDOC week, this term’s report included a section on intercultural understanding. I use PowerPoint to collate these together and publish ‘teaser’ quotes for each resource.

I have had some people ask me what these Research Reports look like, so below I have included an example slide deck with snippets of previous Reports. Let me know if it’s of use, or if your school does something similar.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Flip the System Australia: Book club questions

Steven Kolber and others on Twitter have been discussing the possibility of a Twitter book club around the recently published (and excellent!) education book Flip the System Australia: What matters in education. Based in the unique Australian context, this book situates Australian education policy, research and practice within the international education narrative. It argues that professionals within schools should be supported, empowered and welcomed into policy discourse, not dictated to by top-down bureaucracy. It advocates for a flipping, flattening and democratising of the education system, in Australia and around the world. It brings together the voices of teachers, school leaders and scholars in order to offer diverse perspectives, important challenges and hopeful alternatives to the current education system.

As one of the editors, and author of Chapter 1, below  I share a first pass at some possible questions for readers, based around the sections of the book. My co-editors and the book’s various authors may have additional or alternative ideas.

Foreword and Introduction

  • What do you understand the editors to mean by the term ‘flip the system’? How is this relevant to education? Does the phrase connect with you, or would you describe it in a different way?
  • Why do you think this book might be important? What might Australia have to offer the education world?
  • What do you hope to get out of reading the book?

Part I: Teacher identity, voice and autonomy

  • How do the authors in this section focus on what matters, rather than what works? What does matter in education?
  • What comments do the authors make about commercialisation in education? Do these resonate with your own experience?
  • Why and where might teachers voices be shared? Do you think this is important and even possible? Why / why not?

Part II: Collaborative expertise

  • What kinds of collaboration do the authors present as effective and beneficial? Why is collaborative expertise something worth investing in and pursuing?
  • What warnings do the authors offer around collaboration in education? What differentiates good, productive collaboration from toxic or ineffective collaboration?
  • What is the role of wellbeing in collaboration between teachers, school leaders, schools and education systems?

Part III: Social justice

  • To what systemic inequities do the authors refer? Which of these reflect your own experience?
  • What is the role of voices and stories, versus policies and systems, in democratising education and addressing inequity? In what arenas could and should equity in education be addressed?
  • What are teachers, schools and systems already doing? What could they stop doing and what could they start doing to address social justice issues in education?

Part IV: Professional learning

  • What is the role of professional learning in a flipped education system? Why is it important?
  • How do the authors describe effective professional learning? How does this sit with your own experience of professional learning for educators?
  • What seem to be the necessary conditions for professional learning to be effective and make a difference? What points made by the authors should be considered by school and system leaders?

Part V: Leadership

  • What are the tensions and complex demands of school leadership, as described by the authors?
  • What do the authors of this section suggest as ways to effectively lead in schools and education systems? On what should leaders focus? What should they do and what should they avoid doing?
  • Do the authors in this section agree, or are there conflicting accounts of what is important in school leadership? What does this reveal about the complexities of leadership in education?

Conclusion

  • This is a book that shares diverse perspectives from a range of authors from a multiplicity of contexts. What threads and themes did you notice as you read the book? What draws the book’s contributions together? What differences did you notice?
  • What quote stuck with you from one of the chapters? Whose chapter stood out to you, spoke to you, or surprised you?
  • What is your overall response to the book? How are you left feeling?
  • What do you now understand the phrase ‘flip the system’ to mean? How might you flip the system in your own education context?

Opt-in interest groups for teacher professional learning

Source: pixabay.com by @rawpixel

I wrote earlier this year about the individualised professional learning pathways model that my school is trialing this year. Teachers and leaders are now able to have more voice and choice in the internal process of professional learning in which they engage. Where before staff were allocated a school-based development process (such as coaching) based on their place in a three-to-four year cycle, we have in 2018 opened up a range of new options and each staff member negotiates with their line manager the one most appropriate to their career stage, interest and development needs.

One of these options is what we are terming ‘Professional Learning Groups’. These groups have been opted into by staff from PK to 12, from various faculties, and in a variety of roles including teachers, leaders and staff from libraries or co-curricular arenas. This year, of our 140-odd teaching staff, 40 chose to be involved in one of these groups, so each group includes about ten people. The following groups were on offer.

  • Teaching best practice
      • Members of this group have a particular interest in teasing out classroom teaching. From evidence-based methods to transfer to ensuring that they are able to ‘reach’ all students in their classes, they have come with a desire to focus on their core business as teachers: teaching!
  • Pedagogies of learning spaces
      • This group is made up of a range of teachers and leaders working in various learning spaces across the school, some of which are newly refurbished and some of which are well-established. There has so far been vibrant discussion and sharing of the practices, challenges, and benefits of co-teaching and teaching in open or flexible spaces.
  • ICT for teaching and learning
      • Members of this group have a range of expertise and needs surrounding the use of technologies for teaching and learning. They have so far been very interested in one another’s expertise and also in the targets each person is setting for themselves, and challenges each is facing. They have been able to offer one another advice.
  • Post-graduate study
      • My idea for this group came about when I was doing my PhD. Working in a school while moonlighting as a post-graduate student can be incredibly isolating as you rush from work to study. There are often few people with whom teachers and leaders can discuss their study, especially when it involves self-directed research. This group is as much about solidarity, support, recognition and acknowledgement of those engaged in further study as it is about research methods or dissertation writing.

As the recent Gonski 2.0 report surfaced, teachers would like time to talk about and collaborate around teaching. Groups like these can provide this opportunity. While from the outset I had a loose idea of what these groups would do—such engage in scholarly literature, reflect and workshop problems of practice together, share practice, visit one another’s classrooms, collaborate in online spaces—I am facilitating them in a way that allows the group’s interests and needs to lead the way the group operates. This means employing structures for collaboration and coaching-style language, but in a way that is open to the groups operating in ways that are unexpected or taking directions that are surprising. These are not groups at which I am the expert at the helm or the instructor filling colleagues with my knowledge. They are groups of expert practitioners whose value is in the rich expertise around the table, and the potential of professional conversation and collaboration about our daily work.

Each person has come to each group with a particular intention, and we fleshed these out in our first meetings. The opt-in nature of the groups has meant that staff have generally arrived with enthusiasm for being involved; they have chosen this pathway for themselves. As my leadership role is PK-12, and in a previous role I coached classroom teachers across the school around their classroom practice, I get to see the potential symbiosis between disparate areas of the school (like the co-teaching in Year 3 and in Year 11 Physics, literacy approaches from PK-12, common strategies for behaviour management and developing classroom culture or addressing students with particular learning needs), but many staff do not have the opportunity to see the connections between themselves and others in the organisation. How might a Year 12 Design and Technology teacher know that their design thinking process mirrors that of the Pre-Primary classroom? The luxury of spending time with colleagues who share similar interests and challenges cannot be underestimated, especially in the environment of a PK-12 school where so often we can be siloed in our year level or faculty teams. So far there seem real benefits to those from vastly different areas of the school workshopping similar challenges and goals, ones they may not have known they shared with colleagues until coming together.

Teachers and school leaders need professional learning opportunities that are at once self-chosen and self-directed, but also collaborative and supported. Often internal expertise goes unrecognised and untapped in schools. Looking outside and borrowing others’ practice has its benefits, but schools can and should consider the expertise of those within their own walls, rather than looking tirelessly to external ‘experts’. Teachers are experts in their own classrooms. School leaders are experts in their own school contexts. They deserve to be recognised as such, and to be given time and permission to deeply and collectively engage in the core aspects of their work.