METAMORPHOSIS and emerging from the chrysalis: #oneword2018

taxidermy butterfly left to me by my scientist grandfather

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

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

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

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

On 2017 …

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

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

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

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

To 2018 …

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

On Twitter it was a close race ….

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

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

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

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

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

I have been thrilled in the last couple of weeks to be part of the Flip the System publishing movement. Its inception was the original 2016 book, dreamed up and brought to fruition by Dutch teachers Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber: Flip the System: Changing education from the ground up. In it, a number of contributors discuss the purpose of education. They urge schools and teachers to resist complying with the decrees of policymakers or kowtowing to external accountability measures. Rather, they promote trusting the teaching profession to influence the education system from the bottom up and the inside out. You can see Jelmer speak in his TEDX talk about how he and René conceptualised subverting the system to promote teacher agency and collaboration.

Then, on 29 November 2017, a new book—Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto, edited by Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Jean-Louis Dutaut—was published. This book applies the notion of flipping the system to a UK context, offering a suite of voices intended to elevate teacher professionalism and empower teachers to effect change from within the education system. In this UK volume is a chapter I have co-written with Australian teachers Jon Andrews and Cameron Paterson, entitled ‘Flipping the system: A perspective from Down Under’. Here, we offer a way of thinking about flipping the system from an Australian perspective. That Flip the System UK sold out its first print run in its first night of publication says something about the magnetism of this movement. Editor Lucy Rycroft-Smith has been tweeting some excellent threads about the book from her @honeypisquared Twitter account. These are wonderful précis of the book’s contents, especially for those of us who have yet to receive our print copies of the book.

What these contributions to the Flip the System books so far show, are the commonalities amongst the global community of teachers. The Netherlands, the UK, Australia, and other countries around the world, are all facing reform agendas driven, not by those in classrooms or schools, but by those appointed to governments or catapulted to guru status, or those who might profit from their own reform recommendations (“Look! Education is in crisis. <Insert oft-wheeled-out-reason-for-education-crisis>. Here, buy my silver bullet / snake oil.“).

It was thrilling to have my first book chapter published in the last couple of weeks (hoorah! with more chapters in the long publishing pipeline). Even more exciting was that Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson and I also signed our own book contract for a Flip the System Australia book. In it, we, along with an arsenal of incredible authors, will situate the Australian context within the global milieu, standing on the shoulders of Evers, Kneyber, Rycroft-Smith, Dutaut, and the Flip the System contributors thus far. From an Austraian lens, we and our contributing authors will argue for the wisdom of practitioners and the agency of the teaching profession, and for allowing teachers to take the lead as a trusted and meaningful part of global education conversation, policy, and practice.

So, a book chapter, a book contract, and being part of a global movement to re-professionalise, re-empower, and re-claim teaching? I’m flipping excited!

Blogging: 3 years on

Perth to NYC, 2014: A blog begins

This week theeduflaneuse.com turns 3. I began this blog on the 23rd of August 2014 with a post about a travelling fellowship upon which I was about to embark. It was to be a way for me to think through my experiences and record these as they happened.

In October 2014 I spent one week in and around New York City, visiting school leaders, researchers, professional development providers and educational experts, in order to gain insights to inform, refine, and shape the implementation of the  coaching-for-professional-growth model I was developing at my school.

The fellowship finished in October 2014, but I kept blogging. Now this blog has more than 200 posts and is read in more than 110 countries. It has become, for me, about much more than a record or recount. It is a place where I think out loud. Where I learn. Where I share experiences, in order to develop my own ideas, connect with others who might choose to engage with me here, and contribute to others’ thinking and work. The notion of contribution is one influenced by what I get from the blogs of others. During my PhD I found reassurance and solidarity in the blogs of PhD candidates. I found generous advice in the blogs of professors and post-docs. I broaden my understandings by reading the blogs of educators who openly articulate their own workings and wonderings. Others’ blogs challenge my thinking, engage me in conversations, reduce feelings of isolation, and break me away from silos of thought that limit me to my own context. As I have written previously, blogging is a way into personal evolution and community transformation on a global scale. These reflections aren’t so different to those I had after one year of blogging, although their scope is now larger.

I began this blog with the concept of ‘édu flânerie’, of being a flâneuse of the education world. I based this on Baudelaire’s flâneur, the (in the 19th century, male) Parisian stroller. Yet as Sainte-Beuve noted, to flâne is not to do nothing, but to casually and keenly experience and observe. In a world of ever-increasing accountabilities and busy-ness, this blog gives my flâneuse the permission to slow down, to notice, to wander, and to contemplate.

I am fully aware that the notion of flânerie is one that indicates privilege. Being able to read, write, and immerse oneself in thought, is a first-world luxury. I am grateful for the opportunity to blog here, to toss out into the void my often unfinished musings, and to receive responses, whether here, on social media, at conferences, or in conversation. Blogging reveals diverse perspectives, sparks global conversations, and initiates relationships. It is these things, as well as the slightly addictive feeling that comes with carving out time and space to sit, think, and write, that act as the propulsive forces for theeduflaneuse.com. Roll on Year 4.

Feedback: It’s emotional

it’s emotional (Jeanne Moreau in Elevator to the Gallows)

The red pen is symbolic of marking. It’s viscous crimson ink, staining crisp white pages, is bedded in the history of giving feedback on written work. It stands out from blue or black writing, allowing corrections to be seen. That’s probably why the default colour for Microsoft Word tracked changes is red. It’s bold, noticeable, stark.

The red pen has also been at the centre of controversy. In 2008, 2013, and as recently as 2016, there were international articles arguing that marks made by red pens on student work were threatening and confrontational for students, and that teachers should stop marking with them. In 2010 Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris found that teachers using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than teachers using blue pens. A 2013 study by Dukes and Albanesi was central to renewed furore, arguing that marking with red pens can upset students and lead to weakened teacher-student relationships. Some educators retorted that the whole idea was silly and continued to wield their red pens. Some schools responded with ‘rainbow marking’ policies in which teachers armed themselves with red-free sets of highlighters and pens. Yellow! Pink! Purple! Green! Blue!

This week a student asked me to look over a practice exam response he had done in his own time. I was sitting next to him and asked if he had a pen I could use to give him feedback on it. His immediate response: “Do you want a red one?”

Pat Thomson yesterday published this post about the ‘bleeding thesis’, explaining that doctoral students can feel like the pages are bleeding when they receive red scrawling annotations and red tracked changes on their drafts. I have heard high school students complain similarly about the ‘bleeding pages’ of their marked work. “Oh, my essay looks like it’s bleeding!”

When I was editing my PhD thesis I had a swag of Artline finline pens. My personal favourites were green, purple, and dark pink. When I was in a self-flaggelatory mood, I would use red. It felt like punishment, a dark culling of my words, permission to be ruthless with my writing.

Yesterday a colleague emailed me a draft paper and asked me to ‘scribble on it’, so I annotated it with my reactions, thoughts, and suggestions. Part of their email response to my annotations was “I feel like I am getting your feedback on a Lit essay I’ve handed in, and admit to feeling a certain amount of pride at the ticks and double ticks!” Yes, I ticked those parts of the paper that resonated with me or I felt were important (a hard English teacher habit to break). I know my students scour their marked work, counting the ticks. They often call out “I got a double tick!” And now that I think about it, I annotated my colleague’s draft in green pen.

Of course, it’s not really the pen that is important. It’s the quality of the feedback that matters. A tick can be meaningless (but nonetheless emotion-inducing) praise, unless there is an understanding of why it’s there. This 1984 study by Semke found that teacher-written corrections do not increase writing accuracy, writing fluency, or general language proficiency, and they may have a negative effect on student attitudes. Dylan Wiliam points out that feedback can help or hinder learning, and that the feedback-giver/feedback-receiver relationship is key to feedback’s effectiveness.

It is neither possible nor desirable to give great quantities of feedback. As an English teacher, I have to constantly navigate the balance between giving meaningful feedback to help students move forward, and balancing my marking workload. Over my career I’ve developed a suite of varied strategies to ensure students are constantly engaging in feedback over their work, without me constantly collecting and correcting workbooks or homework. I’ve found I can give every student some brief, immediate feedback verbally if I check homework in a lesson once students are working. I can set peer and self assessments designed to engage students with the task and the work so that they are empowered to give themselves and each other relevant feedback. I can work with individuals and small tutorial groups to give targeted feedback. I constantly ask myself: Who is doing the mental work? It is the student who needs to be thinking and working to improve; my correcting errors ad nauseum is going to have little impact.

But feedback, written and otherwise, is emotional. Sometimes feedback can feel collaborative and inspiring and propulsive and nurturing (a thank you shout out to my co-authors on various projects, and some generous reviewers!). Sometimes it can feel brutal and visceral and dismissive and unforgiving. Sometimes it’s a warm embrace and sometimes it’s a swift kick in the guts.

The harshest feedback I’ve seen hasn’t been from the ink of a red pen, but from anonymous peer reviewers for academic journals. This Twitter account might give you an idea of the kinds of feedback some academics receive about their work. It cites reviewer comments like, “You have put in a lot of effort answering a question that should have never been asked” and “The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style.”

We need to be ok with failure, as suggested by this post on self-esteem that a friend shared with me this week, and as I explain in this post, in which I share some harsh verbal feedback from one of my PhD supervisors. As I said in this post, receiving peer reviewed feedback can feel like simultaneously getting a high five and a punch in the face. One thing that doing a PhD, receiving feedback during the journal double-blind peer review process, and being a reviewer myself, have taught me, is that we need to train ourselves (and our students) to be resilient and interested receivers of feedback. By ‘interested’, I mean we need to be curious about what we might learn and open to listening to even that feedback which might hurt at first. If I find that a reviewer or colleague ‘just doesn’t get it’, I need to be able to take that as a sign that I could make my intention clearer.

As marketing consultant Jay Baer would say, when it comes to feedback we need to hug our haters. Or as a colleague of mine says, we learn most when we welcome complaints. It is through seeing our work through the eyes of others, and by being open to criticism, that we can figure out how to push our work forward, improve it incrementally, take it in a new direction, or defend it more vigorously.

Tweeting and blogging: Selfish, self-serving indulgences?

Narcissus by Caravaggio http://totallyhistory.com/narcissus/

This week I’ve been mulling over a post in the TES written by Claire Narayanan in which she argues that teachers’ time is precious and they should quietly get on with their jobs, not spend time writing about it. In encouraging teachers to be ‘do-rus not gurus’ she writes:

In a world where self-promotion has rather shamelessly crept into education, the real heroes are not those who we may follow on Twitter, read about in leadership manuals or hear speak at conferences, but those who are at the chalkface.

These are the teachers who seek no recognition beyond a set of decent GCSE results; a thank-you from their headteacher every now and again and, best of all: “Thanks Sir/Miss, I enjoyed that lesson”.

They haven’t got time to attend every single TeachMeet in their region, read every piece of research written, attend every conference around the country on their subject area or update their blog. Does that mean they don’t care as much as those who do? No chance – they’re too busy marking and planning.

I found this interesting and a little challenging. Of course no-one attends ‘every’ TeachMeet, reads ‘every piece of research written’, or attends ‘every conference around the country’, but the suggestion that ‘real teachers at the chalkface’ are too busy marking and planning to entertain attending professional development, reading research, or blogging, implies that those who do make the time for these activities are perhaps neglecting their teaching jobs. Otherwise, how would they have the time? It also implies that these activities aren’t a valuable use of teachers’ time.

I agree with Claire that we shouldn’t pursue gurus and heroes in education. My PhD reveals the importance of leadership that is deliberately invisible and empowering, rather than visible, focused on the leader, or driven by outward performance. I’ve spoken of the silent work of coaches and leaders. And as a full-time teacher and school leader who also tweets, blogs, and writes peer-reviewed papers and chapters, I know the tricky balance between self care, time with family and friends, and service to the profession and to my students.

I wonder, though, about the implication that those who are on Twitter or presenting at conferences are shameless self-promoters or narcissists seeking heroic guru status. Many of those who tweet and blog, I would argue, do so because they are interested in learning from others, sharing their own perspectives and experiences, and engaging with educators from around the world.

Part of what keeps me blogging is that it helps me think through ideas and get feedback from others. Another part is how useful I find the blogs of other people in helping or challenging my thinking. I also see blogging and academic writing as a service to the profession and a way to reclaim the narrative of education from those normally at its apex. It is why I am involved in the Flip the System series of books, which offer and value the voices of school practitioners—those working at the whiteboard, in the playground, and in the boardroom—that are often ignored in education reform, and yet are crucial voices to drive change in education. As Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber suggested in the first Flip book, teachers and school leaders can be agentic forces in changing education from the ground up by participating in global education conversation.

When I asked Claire on Twitter whether she saw all who tweet, share, blog, and present as shameless self-promoters, she responded, “Not at all. I’m all for sharing and learning. We all get on with the job in the way that suits us.” We seem to agree that different things work for different people. I don’t expect everyone to use their time as I do. There are benefits and costs to choosing to spend evenings, weekends, and holidays on professional activities or presenting at conferences. Last year I paid the price of going too hard for too long without a break.

For me, social media provides an avenue for sharing, learning, and connecting. I can tweet out my thoughts into the nighttime abyss, and somewhere, someone in the world is there to respond. I found this especially useful during the isolation of my PhD. I connected via social media with generous, supportive academics, researchers, and doctoral candidates from around the world who provided crucial advice and moral support.

My understanding of the world is broader for the conversations I have with those around Australia and the world, on social media and at conferences. These conversations and relationships allow me to see outside of my own context and my own perspective. They spill sometimes into productive collaborations that shape my thinking. I wrote here that:

In a world in which we are more connected than ever, we can be buoyed, empowered and supported by our connections…. We can pay forward and give back. We can … share our knowledge, contribute our time to help others on their journeys, listen to others’ stories, and celebrate others’ milestones.

Do I think we should acknowledge and celebrate the quiet daily work of committed teachers? Absolutely. Do I think we should encourage teachers to be mindful of workload, wellbeing, and self care? Yes, yes, yes. Do I think this is mutually exclusive from professional learning, engaging with research, interacting on social media, or writing blogs? No, I do not.

The oasis of writing

Sometimes we need an immersion in a cooling, calming place of our choosing. That might involve turning off our devices, turning away from social media, turning towards what nourishes us. It might be sitting in silence, or playing music loud. It might be the catharsis of working with our hands, or the release of letting them rest. It might be solitude or connection, work or play, stillness or movement, mindful or mindless.

School is currently out in Western Australia, and while I am working, I have been taking time out across the break to bathe in oases of sorts. I’ve been on a brief holiday with my family, pottered around the house, seen friends and indulged in another haven of mine: academic writing.

Those of you who write for a living or are in the throes of a PhD (Oh, the unicorn-dancing-in-a-champagne-waterfall highs! Oh, the despairing bottom-of-the-dark-pit lows!) might roll your eyes or baulk at writing as an oasis. But after a term of working full-time in an exciting but challenging newly-formed role in a school, selling a house, buying a house, moving house, parenting my two lovely children, and trying to maintain relationships with family and friends, I was ready for a break from the relentlessness. From feeling like the mouse on the wheel, full of urgency and repetitive motion. Not only that, but both social media and real life have had their share of challenges lately. Academic writing has been a welcome and nurturing reprieve; simultaneously mental work and a mental break. Academic writing continues to be like my PhD, which I sometimes managed to think of as a holiday from all-the-other-things, or intellectual me-time, although without the weighty pressure or looming examination. Papers and chapters are more bite-size and more varied, and pleasingly always at different stages; just as one becomes difficult, another is coming together or being accepted.

Of course academic writing is not easy or necessarily enjoyable. With it comes challenge, struggle, sometimes brutal feedback. It helps that the acwri I’m doing at the moment is writing I want to do. I’m engaged, interested, motivated, intrigued. I’m learning, growing, pushing at the boundaries of what I know and can do. Academic writing allows me to extend myself in different ways to my school role.

Some of this writing is solo, but I’m also writing papers and chapters collaboratively, something still pretty new to me. Perhaps the collaboration is the coolest part because working with others takes me out of my usual groove, my usual ways of thinking and writing. It gets me engaging with others’ words and these spur my words on. Our words are like gifts from a science fiction world; they shapeshift and take on different lives as they are passed back and forth between authors.

This kind of writing and collaboration is somewhere for a writer to luxuriate. Nestle in. Be cocooned by the writing while at the same time deliciously confronted by it. I brace for feedback but at the same time allow myself to be vulnerable and to be shaped. To read unfamiliar theory, try alternate approaches, or to tinker with new ways of theorising, researching and writing. To have one or more other writers to generate and energise.

It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s a welcome distraction from the daily rush of work during term time and the barrage of angry educators slinging accusations at one another on Twitter (thank goodness for my arguing on EduTwitter bingo card!). This holiday break I’ve worked on a solo-authored journal paper and a collaborative chapter so far. I’ve got one more collaborative chapter to look at over the next few days. I’m looking forward to it. Like a cup of tea at the end of the day after the kids have gone to bed, for my pracademic self, straddling as I do the worlds of school and academia, academic writing can be a moment of ‘aaaaaahhhh’, of indulgence, of me-time.

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.