Teachers and school leaders: Why write?

I challenged myself at the beginning of the year to do less good things in order to do even better things (thank you Dylan Wiliam, for the soundbite inspiration). I work full time as a teacher and senior leader in a school; have a young family, and am myself a human being with relationships, interests, and needs (this last one is something those of us in caring and teaching professions sometimes forget in our commitment to help others).

And I write. On this blog, for academic journals, for education books, for conference presentations. I have also been co-editing a book and a special issue of an academic journal. In order to give back to the machine of academic writing, I also peer review papers for academic journals. All of this is unpaid work and volunteered time, especially as my day job is to serve the students and community of my school. I do have an honorary academic position with a university, but it is just that: honorary. There is no financial reward or professional expectation that I engage in the world of academic publishing.

I’ve been reminded about the writing part of my life this week, as a couple of papers and a chapter have resurfaced from the academic publishing and peer review pipelines through which they have been traveling. Writing for academic journals and books is like that. It comes in peaks and troughs, with pieces disappearing for a time before reappearing to be re-thought, re-written, and re-submitted. There is the original writing of the paper, chapter, or conference abstract—sometimes an immersion or deep dive; sometimes a laborious stop-start process; and sometimes a collaborative dance between authors—followed by the first submission. Then there is the wait for peer reviews, which can take months at a time. By the time the reviewer comments appear, the paper can be looked at with fresh eyes and new energy. Then it’s revise, resubmit, repeat. Once an abstract is accepted it’s time to think about preparing the presentation (ok, maybe not until closer to the conference date); or once a paper is accepted and it goes into production, contracts, queries from copyeditors, and checks from typesetters follow.

So why do I spend time in these writing, co-writing, and revision processes? Why write at all when the job of a teacher or school leader is so busy already?

Here are my three top reasons for engaging in academic writing as a teacher and school leader.

  1. WRITING BEGETS READING

It may seem counter intuitive, but to engage in writing, I need to engage in reading. Each time I write or revise a paper, chapter, or a blog post, I return to research literature in order to check in with the current state of play in education research. So academic writing incites academic reading and engagement with research. It keeps my thinking current and keeps me on top of education debates, knowledge, and research findings.

  1. PEER REVIEW BUILDS MY CAPACITY TO RECEIVE FEEDBACK

The peer review process is usually double blind, which means that the reviewers don’t know who the author is, and the author doesn’t know who the reviewers are. This means that peer review feedback on academic writing is very honest. There is no sugar coating or euphemising of feedback. Reviewers tell you what they think: the good, the bad, and the brutal. They pull no punches.

Receiving peer review feedback has helped me to be a better receiver of feedback in my working life. It means that I have a process for considering critique. In the school environment this might be honest comments submitted to anonymous staff or student surveys, or verbal push back from staff about a change or a professional expectation.

I sit with difficult feedback for a while. I consider it and turn it over, step away from it, and return to it seeking to understand the perspective of the reviewer. I ask myself questions like: What didn’t they understand and why? What could be made clearer or more meaningful? What assumptions might I have made in my writing or decision making that need adjustment in order for the work or intervention to be improved?

Engaging in double blind peer review has meant that I actively seek out critical, candid feedback, and that I can sit with, consider, seek to understand, and then thoughtfully act upon that feedback.

  1. CONTRIBUTING A PRACTISING EDUCATOR VOICE TO EDUCATION NARRATIVES

There is a necessity for, and a credibility that comes from, teachers and school leaders having a voice in education narratives. We are the ones each day in classrooms, with students, communicating with parents, considering the hard and soft data of our practice and making hundreds of decisions per day. Writing about our work, our experiences, our thinking, our expertise, and our wisdom and problems of practice, promotes conversations between educators across contexts and contributes practitioner voices to education narratives, so often dominated by those not actually in the business of teaching.

The upcoming book I’ve co-edited, Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, is all about the importance of listening to, and inviting to decision making and policymaking tables, teachers and school leaders. It argues that education systems should not be top-down and driven by political election cycles and vote-grabbing, but by deep engagement with the teaching profession and those who actually work, every day, in schools.

I hope that my writing encourages others working in schools to speak out, and to write about their thinking, experiences, and expertise.

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4 years of blogging

I began this blog four years ago, on 23 August 2014. On reflection (thank you, WordPress stats), my five most-read blog posts of the last four years are as follows:

  1. What I now know about the doctorate: Illuminating the PhDarkness (2015)
  2. Can and should teachers be (viewed as) researchers? (2015)
  3. Doing PhD revisions: The last thesis embrace (2016)
  4. The Research Lead Down Under (2017)
  5. Evidence for Learning in Australia (2017)

Over the last four years my blogging has ebbed and flowed. I began writing monthly, increased that to fortnightly and then weekly for some time, and have this year given myself permission to blog more sporadically, in between work, family life and some bigger projects I am undertaking, such as co-editing the imminent Flip the System Australia book. Perhaps that’s why no 2018 posts have made it into my top 5: slower blog productivity.

But my blog isn’t about readership. It isn’t even about me. It’s about being part of the global education hive mind in which we—educators and the education world—are better together. We are better because we propel one another, better because we connect with one another, and better because we challenge one another. Blogging is one way to engage in the networked web of knowledge and thinking in education. It is a way to reach out from our familiar daily contexts to find out what’s happening in the rest of the country and the world.

I began this blog for the purpose of documenting one professional trip. I continued blogging because of what it gave me: a space to explore my thinking and to connect with others around topics about which I am passionate and in which I am immersed. I have connected with teachers, educators, parents and scholars from around the world thanks to this blog. These interactions have enriched and influenced my thinking.

My first blog post, about my then-upcoming travelling fellowship to New York, opened with this quote from Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley’s 2009 book The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future of Educational Change:

It’s time to bring the magic and wonder back into teaching. It’s time to recover the missionary spirit and deep moral purpose of engaging and inspiring all our students. It’s time to put down the spreadsheets and look to each other and elsewhere for how to get beyond the present turning point so we can transform our society and our schools.

This quote still resonates with me four years on (which even then was five years on from when Hargreaves and Shirley’s book was published). It resonates because education continues to become more corporatised and more data obsessed. (Just look at Gonski 2.0’s observation that schools are gaming ATAR data, its recommendation that teachers have more data at their fingertips, and its proposed formative assessment tool to track student growth and progress). Buzzwords abound, thrown around often without a clear understanding of what they mean. ‘The research says’ is often an empty phrase used to justify the twists and turns of education directions. Teacher and school leader workloads continue to increase and student wellbeing is an ongoing concern. Relentless silver bullets, promising answers to education ‘problems’, are fired from think tanks, politicians and the media. The fast cycle of education policy, blame, and distrust presses in on a profession who often feel bruised and marginalised by the system in which they work.

Do educators need to be informed by a range of data and evidence? Yes. Should we to aim to continuously improve our practice and the learning of the students in our care? Yes. But we also need to be present with one another and with our students. To close our emails, step away from our spreadsheets, and look each other in the eye. To notice one another. To connect with the individuals within our communities, and with why we teach. To stop sometimes and celebrate what we’ve achieved or how we’ve grown. To be teachers energised by the difference we are making, not teacher-mice on perpetually-turning wheels of marking, data analysis and evaluation, who are always racing but never arriving.

So, as I look back to my maiden blog post, I think that we still need to remember our moral purpose as educators: education for the good of each individual and for the greater good.

Reference lists as sites of diversity? Citations matter.

Last year at the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) conference, I had a coffee urn conversation that has stuck with me. Professor Pat Thomson challenged me on my citation practices, specifically who I cite in my writing around education. I have thought about this brief interaction a lot since then, and it has influenced my academic writing.

I have found myself asking: Who am I citing? And why?

I realised that my academic reading is influenced by my pracademic life, in which I work full time in a school and hold a research adjunct position in a university. I am not situated in a university department, and often come across particular authors and publications because I am exposed to them as an education practitioner working in a school, who engages in professional learning marketed to educators. These kinds of publications are quite different from critical education scholarship that questions normalised knowledge theories and critiques entrenched social structures.

Who we cite positions our work in a field. It aligns us with particular epistemologies and ontologies; ways of knowing and of ways of being. It can polarise us from others. In this blog post, Pat Thomson puts it this way:

Who cites who is not a neutral game.

Since my conversation with Pat, I have been much more aware of my own lack of neutrality, of the ways in which my own citation practices amplify some voices and ignore others. I have been more aware of my potential responsibility as an author to be mindful of not only with whom I situate myself, but whose work I might be ignoring in the process.

This week is NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week in Australia, a week in which Australians celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year’s theme—Because of Her, We Can!—invites Australians to honour the often unacknowledged stories of Indigenous women. Three Indigenous education scholars whose work I follow are Professor and Ngugi/Wakka Wakka woman Tracey Bunda, Kamilaroi woman Dr Melitta Hogarth, and Wagiman woman Dr Marnee Shay. I wonder how non-Indigenous scholars can cite the work of Indigenous academics. UK independent researcher Dr Helen Kara reflects on her work with Indigenous literatures in this blog post, noting the long history of Indigenous scholarship and the ethical and relational dimensions of engaging with it as a Euro-Western researcher.

Previously I considered things like how recent my references were, or what kinds of texts they covered. I now ask some different questions of my reference list:

  • How does this list situate my work in the field? With what kind of scholarship am I aligning my work?
  • From what nations, cultures and classes do my references come? To what extent do they represent Euro- or Anglo- centric ways of knowing and being?
  • What is the gender mix of my reference list?
  • Whose voices are silent? Whose scholarship have I ignored or excluded?

While during my PhD I tried to read everything I could get my hands on, and find a place for it in my literature review (Look, Examiner! I have read all these things!), writing for journals has helped me to be more judicious in selecting literature as part of an argument and part of a greater research conversation about education. Conferences now avoid all-male panels or all-white keynotes. Can we also approach our reference lists as sites of diversity and inclusivity?

The ‘Flip the System Australia’ book is in production

Flip the System

This week the book manuscript for Flip the System Australia: What matters in education, has moved from the editorial team to the production team at Routledge. It is ‘in press’, which means that the full manuscript will be copy-edited, typeset and a cover designed. You can check out the contents and pre-order it here.

The book is edited by Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson and I. It includes a collection of 27 chapters by a range of educators, mostly from Australia but also perspectives from around the world. The contributing teachers, school leaders, educators and scholars are: Jon Andrews, Gert Biesta, Susan Bradbeer, Paul Browning, Carol Campbell, Keren Caple, Kelly Cheung, Flossie S. G. Chua, Rebecca Cody, Benjamin Doxtdator, Scott Eacott, Melissa Fotea, Carla Gagliano, Ryan Gill, Dan Haesler, Gavin Hays, Andy Hargreaves, Adam Hendry, Anna Hogan, Melitta Hogarth, Tomaz Lasic, Ben Lewis, Bob Lingard, Rachel Lofthouse, Kevin Lowe, Cameron Malcher, Chris Munro, Deborah Netolicky (me!), Michael T. O’Connor, Cameron Paterson, David Perkins, David Rutkowski, Pasi Sahlberg, Sam Sellar, Yasodai Selvakumaran, Greg Thompson, Ray Trotter, Shaneé Washington, and Daniel Wilson.

What draws the book’s contributions together is their ‘flip the education system’ theme. The Flip the System movement is not our own. The first book in the series (preceded itself by other publications, which we explain in the book) was Flip the System: Changing education from the ground up, edited by Dutch teachers Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (2016). The Swedish version, Flip the system: Förändra skolan från grunden, was edited by Per Kornhall, Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (2017). The UK version, Flip the System UK: A teachers’ manifesto, was edited by teachers Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Jean-Louis Dutaut (2018). Flip the System is a loose kind of series in which the notion of ‘flipping the education system’ evolves as diverse international voices explore what this might look like.

In previous Flip the System books, the editors and authors have called for a reprofessionalising of the teaching profession; an education system in which teachers are empowered to influence the education system, rather than being dictated to by top-down bureaucracy. When I explained this theme to a colleague recently, their response was laughing out loud. Is the idea, of teachers being empowered to shape the education landscape, laughable?

Certainly it is easy to feel disempowered as a teacher in an education system obsessed with measurement and competition. Education appears to be a political football constantly booted around for votes. It is also an increasingly corporatised arena in which companies peddle solutions and generate relentless data.

Can those in schools—teachers and school leaders, and even students—be empowered agents in the system, rather than fodder for the education machine? We think so.

To give an idea of the kinds of material covered by the book, sub-themes of the chapters in Flip the System Australia include:

  • Democratising education and addressing inequity.
  • Resistance to mechanisms or systems driven by performance, dehumanised measurement, increased competition, and constant edu-surveillance.
  • Replacing top-down accountability with support for teachers and teacher-led, inside-out reform.
  • Teacher leadership, autonomy, empowerment, and professionalism.
  • Elevating the voices of those working in schools.
  • Learning and leading for a system that honours those who spend each day in our schools, including teachers, school leaders, students and families.

As Jon, Cam and I have edited this book, we have realised why teacher voices are often absent from education debates. It isn’t just that teachers are not usually invited to decision making tables, or that they are often placed at the bottom of education power structures. There are ethical dimensions to our work which mean that we cannot always share our stories or give the media newsworthy soundbites. Our stories are also those of our students and our communities, and we are responsible for protecting them. Also, teaching is complex and demanding work, and teachers and school leaders are in the service of their students. Where is the time for contributing to the system when we are busily working inside the system?

We three editors each work full time in our schools. We have written our chapters and edited this book in our ‘leisure time’ (note the ironic inverted commas). I was surprised to realise that while we have each met each other (I have met Jon; I have met Cam; they have met one another), at no point have the three of us been in the same physical room together. The magic of Skype, Zoom, Google Docs, Twitter, and Dropbox have meant that we could collaborate from afar, in our own timezones and our own time.

We have done this work, as Flip the System editors and authors have done before us, because we think that this book and these authors have something important to contribute to the conversation on education. We are thrilled to be able to give a platform to teachers, school leaders and education researchers. We are grateful for the generosity of the contributing authors. We know there are voices missing from this book, but we hope the book can be part of a move to diversify the voices to whom others listen around education.

Flip the System Australia is coming. And we can’t wait to hold a print copy in our hands.

You can follow the progress of the book on Twitter via @flipthesystemoz and #FliptheSystemOz.

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?

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.