Building trust in schools: A long game

source: pixabay @geralt

“Good schools are intrinsically social enterprises that depend heavily on cooperative endeavours among the varied participants who comprise the school community. Relational trust constitutes the connective tissue that binds these individuals together around advancing the welfare of children.”

Bryk & Schneider, 2002, p. 144

As the new school year begins in Australia, I have been reflecting on our staff days, on future professional learning and staff development, and on how the work we have done in this space has, over time, been shifting the culture of the school. In this post I describe some of the actions take over recent years towards a professional culture of growth, collaboration and trust.

As a school we have been clear in our goals for professional culture: that we are about growth and development, not deficit. We are about expecting and supporting our excellent staff to be better, not policing or fixing them. Each of us works to improve what we do, because no matter how good we are, we can always be better. Each member of our staff has the right and responsibility to develop professionally, and the school has the responsibility to support the development of our staff as professionals through ongoing professional learning. We know that teaching, and teacher professional learning done right, can improve student achievement. Our internal processes of professional learning and collaboration are important because we know that immersive, sustained and collaborative professional learning is more likely to have a positive, ongoing impact than one-off experiences.

Between 2012 and 2014, we researched, planned, piloted and refined a coaching model and trained all coaches and leaders in Cognitive Coaching. We used the Danielson Framework as a tool for teacher reflection on low-inference lesson data. In 2015 and 2016 we implemented and bedded down the coaching model across the school.

Since the implementation of the coaching model, we continue to work persistently on the underpinning philosophy, norms and protocols for professional conversations, shaping our organisation’s semantic space, or ‘how we talk around here’. We continue to iterate the ways in which professional learning happens within the school, in addition to supporting staff to pursue external professional development opportunities.

In 2017 I wrote a new professional learning policy and launched a refreshed professional learning application form in order to make clear the principles, practices, staff expectations and decision-making frame for professional learning for teaching staff. I worked to build a research culture. Coaching of teachers by trained coaches continued. Coaching and mentoring of leaders by senior leaders was trialed. A teacher mentor role was introduced that provides a more directed and consultative alternative to working with a coach. We have found our teacher mentors are appreciated by new graduates and by those staff wanting to work closely with an experienced, expert colleague on an element of their teaching practice. New leaders continued to be trained in Cognitive Coaching. Some leaders additionally completed Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability courses on having difficult or performance management conversations. We introduced a once-per-term leadership forum, an evening event during which all school leaders have the opportunity to come together around leadership. These forums have involved sharing the expertise of those leaders within our school and also external experts such as Dylan Wiliam, Pasi Sahlberg, Eric Sheninger, Professor Christian van Nieuwerburgh and school principals.

In 2018 we made a few more changes in response to the needs of our staff. We introduced GROWTH coaching training for coaches and leaders, especially to facilitate goal-setting conversations between managers and direct reports. This has spilled over into staff coaching one another informally, and in teachers and pastoral leaders using GROWTH coaching for student goal setting in subject and pastoral arenas. We moved away from a linear, chronological cycle of mandated internal professional learning processes and introduced negotiated internal professional learning pathways for teachers and for leaders. These allow for differentiation, voice and choice for our staff, acknowledging them as capable, self-reflective adult learners who know their own needs. This included the addition of professional learning groups around common areas of interest. It also included an internally designed and run leadership development program for new and aspirant leaders.

This year we are continuing to refine what we do for staff learning and culture, based on data. Senior leadership constantly seeks feedback—through both anonymous surveys and open conversations or focus groups—in order to iterate what we do to better serve the staff, students, and parents of the school.

Over these years as I have led the coaching model and professional learning at the school, I have noticed incremental shifts in culture. Coaching language and behaviours have seeped into daily conversations. Staff are increasingly willing to give honest and critical feedback, including to management, with a view that their views will be listened to, taken seriously and used to inform decision making. People have more tools for having tricky, sensitive or uncomfortable conversations. They are more often–gently and respectfully–holding their peers or their direct reports to account.

Collaboration and productive work doesn’t happen because we are a bunch of people in a room or a school together. We don’t do our best collaborative work when we are all getting along. High functioning organisational cultures have high levels of support for their people, but also high levels of challenge. They also have clear roles, expectations and norms. There is a sense of collegiality, shared purpose and shared identity, but also a willingness to work through honest feedback, respectful dissent and graceful disagreement. As I look back and look forward to the work we have done at my school, and continue to do, it is about incrementally moving the culture forward to one of increasing trust, productive collaboration, and a place of balance where all members of the community are at once respected, honoured, supported individuals, and an integrated, valued part of something bigger than themselves. Building trust in schools is a long game, and one in which the outcomes are slippery and hard to quantify. But it’s worthwhile and rewarding.


Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russel Sage.


Amplification in 2019 — #WomenEd Blog


By Deborah Netolicky @debsnet I teach and lead in a school, and write and present in my ‘spare’ time. As I reflect on 2018, I know I did plenty. For instance, I hosted incredible leaders and scholars at my school to speak to our current, emerging and aspiring leaders. I formally and informally […]

via Amplification in 2019 — #WomenEd Blog

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?


  • 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?

My 2019 #oneword: LIGHT

YeePeng Festival

source: John Shedrick on flickr

In recent years, I have been choosing one word to take into the new year as an anchor for my decision making and thinking for that 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 a 0.8 FTE at my school.

In 2016 it was MOMENTUM, as I tried to capitalise on my PhD through lots of presenting and writing from my thesis.

In 2017 it was NOURISH, as I worked to clarify my work and life by focusing on that which nourished me, and by saying ‘no’ to more things and ‘yes’ to those things that energised and sustained me.

On 2018

In 2018 my oneword was METAMORPHOSIS. I considered what skins to shed, and what to consolidate and move forward. I thought about what I could stop doing in order to do even better things. I thought about the things that were making me feel anxious or like I couldn’t keep up. I turned all notifications off the apps on my phone, including my work email and all social media. I quit book club and withdrew from direct message groups on Twitter, Voxer and Facebook. I gave up my blogging schedule and blogged much less regularly.

In the space I made in my life, I added flotation tank therapy about every 6-8 weeks. I started going to the movies semi-regularly with a girlfriend, something which, since having my children–like long visits to the hairdresser or exercise sessions longer than 45 minutes–has felt like a time-heavy luxury I haven’t been able to give myself permission to fit in. I read more fiction for pleasure. I finished co-editing Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, and eventually received a print copy of the book in my hands. I signed two book contracts and wrote the draft manuscript of my first solo-authored book, a monograph on professional learning that makes a difference in schools, written from my pracademic perspective. I look forward to submitting the finished manuscript in 2019 and seeing it published!

For a year when I was trying to do less, or do differently, I still managed to publish writing, although the work for many of these publications happened before 2018. As well as Flip the System Australia, my formal publications for the year were:

To 2019 and LIGHT

In 2019 my #oneword will be LIGHT. I want to experience 2019 the way I experience floating in flotation tanks: in control, mindful, and intentional, but also weightless, open, and in trusting surrender to the experience.

The above photo by John Shedrick–of people releasing hot air lanterns at the YeePeng Festival in Sansai Thailand–is an embodiment of my 2019 oneword: illuminating LIGHT that brightens darkness and reveals possibilities, physical and emotional LIGHTness, and a gentle dynamism as the lit lanterns are taken up and away into the sky. I love that the floating lights are a result of the collective efforts of many people working together to release them.

As someone who likes to have a plan, and my feet firmly on the ground, focusing on LIGHT will be an interesting challenge. LIGHT means finding LIGHTness in experiences, feelings, and my body. It might mean working on my box jumps at the gym to become springier. It might mean finding time and space to think, to be, to yield. It might mean taking life less seriously and being open to unexpected opportunities. It might mean being the helium balloon dancing on the breeze instead of the solid, static weight that holds it to the ground. Being the ephemeral paper boat on the river, instead of the solid rocks on the river bank. Being open to release and being lifted and carried away.

What do activism and power look like?

Title slide for our AARE 2018 symposium

I have been thinking about a question from the audience during the AARE symposium I chaired and presented in yesterday. The symposium abstract (below) outlined the notion of flipping the education system as a thread connecting the five papers presented.

The education system, in Australia and around the world, has governments and policymakers at its apex, making decisions disconnected from those at the nadir: teachers and students. Schools in this system are highly bureaucratic institutional settings, and teachers are increasingly undervalued, constrained and de-professionalised. The individuals and groups that wield influence on education policy and practice operate bureaucratically are physically removed from schools. They construct narrow measures of the success of schooling, and these impact on teacher agency. This education policy environment was evident in the recent Gonski 2.0 report with its focus on PISA, NAPLAN, and rhetoric of ‘cruising schools’ failing generations of Australians. A focus on numbers and rankings contribute to the disconnect between bureaucracy and the profession, and to the tension between education’s vision for equity and the realities of competition, marketisation and a culture of performativity.

This symposium shares perspectives around the notion of ‘flipping’ the education system in ways that embrace human aspects of education, wrestle with the criticality of the task of schooling at the margins, and engage with multiple voices in education, especially those often side-lined in education discourse and education policy. This collection of diverse papers together makes a compelling case for change in education policy and practice by tackling: elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders; teachers’ perceptions of commercialisation in Australian schools; discourses that silence Indigenous voices in education; authentic engagement between teachers and Indigenous families and communities; and empowering educators to reclaim narratives of schooling.

During the symposium’s question time, an audience member suggested that if we were going to really ‘flip the system’ in education that there would need to be some sort of (Foucauldian) rupture, a traumatic breaking apart of the system in order to rebuild it. He told us that as presenters we were (too) measured and polite in our arguments, something he didn’t see as necessarily able to flip a system. Where was the rupturing, the eruption, the kapow of revolution?

I have wondered before about activism and the forms it takes. Who can be an activist? Is it only those with secure, late-career jobs? Can the early career teacher or researcher really challenge the system in which they work when that can put them at risk of unemployment or further precarity and uncertainty? Does an activist have to look, act and speak a certain way? Can an activist use the apparatuses of power in order to undermine that power, or does she need different tools?

donning the FEAS power dressing blazer

I also wonder what power looks like. This week at the AARE conference, I took part in the Feminist Educators Against Sexism (FEAS) power dressing project, which you can read more about here. Above are two photos a colleague took of me while I was wearing the FEAS symbolic power dressing blazer. In the first, I am laughing as I prepare for the photo, and in the second I am attempting a ‘power pose’. I like the first photo better. I love the symbolism and the gallery of images of the FEAS power dressing project, which show the range of ways women can appear powerful. What I am questioning here is my own discomfort with performing power in a way that might not be authentic. I wish I had worn my favourite red lipstick and laughed at the camera (although I did manage a sardonic raised eyebrow). Power doesn’t have to be a Rosie the Riveter bicep curl or a ferocious snarl. It doesn’t have to be loud, enraged or serious. It can be quiet, comfortable or joyful. Powerful women can and do smile, and enjoy the way they dress and the way they look, as well as their contributions to work and life.

my FEAS power dressing photo (credit: Linda Knight)

In the Flip the (education) System movement—explored in a variety of ways in yesterday’s symposium and in our new book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education—we believe that teaching, leading, researching and writing are political acts. In education, we are all activists. But activism does not have to be violent or deafening. Many of the arguments in the book and in yesterday’s symposium are measured and polite, as our audience member pointed out. Our intention is that a greater range of voices be invited to and heard at the decision making tables of bureaucracy and policymaking in education. In order to be invited in, we need to engage with system level decision makers in considered and convincing ways. We can do that with words and research, not just with placards and protests.

Our book chapters provide examples of resistance that is logical and beautifully articulated. In their chapter, Greg Thompson, David Rutkowski and Sam Sellar argue that international large scale assessments like PISA should not be dismissed. They have a place in the education landscape, but that teachers can be part of engaging with them in order to inform education systems. “Who,” the authors ask, “has better vantage point from which to shape the public debate about quality education than the educators who are constantly striving to deliver it in our schools?” (p. 62).

In her chapter, Rebecca Cody invites school leaders to abandon binary thinking that leads to schools embracing either performative accountabilities, or principles of holistic education. She argues that school leaders can and should ride both these ‘wild horses’ simultaneously.

Melitta Hogarth calls for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to “be more vocal and ‘stand on toes’”, to “unite in our concerns for our children’s futures, demanding a position at the table” (p. 113), but acknowledges the difficulties and complexities inherent in such a call.

These chapters reflect the point made by Nicole Mockler and Susan Groundwater-Smith in their new book, Questioning the language of improvement and reform in education: Reclaiming language, in which they suggest that it might not be fruitful to argue against concepts such as quality, standards and improvement, but that we can resist and reclaim the way these are used in education. We can focus on growth, collaboration, and professionalism, for instance, rather than using accountabilities as a stick with which to beat teachers and schools.

So, I have reflected on our audience member’s question about the need for a rupture in the system, in order to flip it, liquefy it, and democratise it. We speakers and writers are hyper aware that we are using the structures and language of the powerful in order to speak into this space. Book chapters written in fairly formal English and referencing academic texts could be seen to perpetuate the very system we are attempting to challenge. But we can work to change the system from the inside out.

Foucault, who was mentioned by our questioner, noted that there are occasional radical ruptures, but that more often there are smaller forces or moments of resistance. Those of us within the system can agitate in ways that are dramatic and fierce, but also be in ways that are eloquent and subtle. Revolution and power can come in the form of micro rebellions and the snowballing of a collective voice that is revolutionary in its strength in numbers, in its logic, and in its unwavering persistence to nudge the system towards positive change.

My AARE 2018 slides

Flip the System Australia AARE 2018 symposium

Flip the System Australia AARE 2018 symposium

Today I chaired a symposium at the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) conference. The symposium was titled ‘Education research that engages with multiple voices: Flipping the Australian education system’. I presented alongside other authors from the just-published book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education: Dr Kevin Lowe, Dr Melitta Hogarth, Professor Bob Lingard, Associate Professor Greg Thompson, and Associate Professor Scott Eacott. You can get a sneak peek of our papers, which appear as chapters in the book, on Google Books.

Below I share the title, abstract, and slides from my presentation.


Elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders in educational research, practice, and policymaking


Flipping the system is not as simple as upending the current decision-making tower in education; it is about eking out, listening to, and elevating the voices of those on the ground in our schools.  Often the subjective voices and intricate identities of teachers and school leaders are absent, marginalised, or simplified in educational research, practice, and policymaking.

This paper analyses interview data from an empirical study of one Australian school in order to interrogate the nexus between teacher, school leadership, and school, from the perspective of those working in classrooms and schools.  It was crucial to include in this study those voices often at the nadir of the system: teachers and middle leaders who are frequently overlooked in school reform efforts.

The paper advocates for considering the identities, voices, and professional autonomy of teachers, and also considering the complex, unpredictable work of school leaders as they navigate fluid and multiple identities, and competing pressures.  It argues that the system has the potential to be an inclusive and collaborative crucible in which those working in schools are given platforms to speak, in which teacher and school leader experience and professionalism is trusted.


I used images of the kaleidoscope in my presentation, a metaphor for identity that I’ve explored in a previous blog post. The slides don’t tell the whole story of what I had to say, but they give a sense of it, and some people who attended have requested that I share them.

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Consolidation is not a dirty word


Running off the Term 4 cliff

In Australia it is currently nearing the end of Term 4. We are a few weeks away from the end of the school year. Often at this time of year I see the exhaustion on my colleagues’ faces, the weariness in their bones. I used to look forward to Term 4 as a time when I assumed the work in schools would wind down. The sun would be shining with the promise of summer, and slowly I would be able to find slivers of time to luxuriate in thorough planning for the year beyond. In reality, finishing the school year as a teacher or school leader is like running full pelt off a cliff. You run as fast as you can until you realise that the year has ended and given way beneath you. But you are still running. Many schools are on an innovation trajectory that leaves casualties in its wake. The desire to be on the cutting edge sometimes leaves us bleeding. As Andy Hargreaves, Shaneé Washington and Michael O’Connor point out in their chapter in the upcoming Flip the System Australia book, there can be no student wellbeing without teacher wellbeing. They point out that wellbeing initiatives like yoga and meditation add-ons don’t fix the underlying factors eroding teacher wellbeing and morale.

We are in the here and now and then

The end of Term 4 is always a strange time in schools. We are finishing off one year (marking, reporting, preparing for final events), but we are simultaneously planning for the following year (writing course programs, organising staff days, finalising staffing, deciding on strategic foci). We are at once in the present, the future, and betwixt the two.

Education loves the future

In education we are always looking to the future. We are constantly reflecting on where our students are now, where they need to or could be, and how we can help them get there. We strategically plan innovations with the short and the very long term in mind. How will we assess the knowledge and skills we are teaching? What will our students need to know in the world into which they will eventually graduate? On what 21st century skills and capabilities should we be focusing? How might artificial intelligence, automation and data science change education and what do we need to know and do about it? What is the ‘next big thing’ in education?

Competition and short-term thinking

Ever since I started teaching almost twenty years ago I have been in the eye of this future-focused vortex and the relentless cycles of change that are propelled by it. It doesn’t help that education is hyper-focused on competition, or that schools and teachers are pitted against one another. Or that the media constantly runs fear mongering stories about the decline of [insert latest media education trend or most recent high stakes test or particular school sector]. Or that our political cycle perpetuates short termism, making education a card to be played in exchange for votes, rather than a long term priority deserving of deliberate, well-resourced action.

Focus on doing the last big thing properly

The phrase that is currently guiding my own strategic planning for 2019 is from Dylan Wiliam. He says it regularly, and it can be found on page 118 of his most recent book, Creating the schools our children need: What we’re doing now won’t help much (and what we can do instead). It is this:

We need to stop looking for the next big thing and instead focus on doing the last big thing properly.

I am focusing my 2019—and by ‘my’ I mean my portfolio of work including professional learning, pedagogy and research at my school—on consolidation. Embedment. Going deeper. Strengthening and enriching the work we are doing. Doing things better and more thoroughly. Spending time in deliberate practice followed by thoughtful reflection and refinement.

Doing even better things

A declaration at the beginning of the school year that ‘this year, we are going to consolidate’ may incite sighs of relief from teachers. What? they may think, Nothing new this year? I don’t believe it! Consolidation is a challenge in education, when there is so much more we could always be doing. At the beginning of this year, I was intentional about what I could let go of in order to do those things that really mattered to me. It is important in education that we decide where our efforts are best placed, and then work to do those things really well. We need to seriously consider what we can stop doing, or do differently, in order to pursue what it really worthwhile. Let’s do really good things well, not ‘all the things’ badly and in a state of blind panic.

The work of consolidation

Consolidation doesn’t mean there is no work to do. It doesn’t mean standing still or stagnating. It means doing better what we are already doing now. It means connecting in with one another to learn from each other, celebrate, challenge and share our expertise. It means continuing to develop shared understandings and shared practices, and looking back occasionally to remind ourselves of how far we have come.

Consolidation in 2019. Can it be done? Watch this space.