Trust and support teachers: My New Voice Scholarship panel speech

speaking yesterday at the Melbourne Convention Centre

speaking yesterday at the Melbourne Convention Centre

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel of ACEL New Voice Scholars (list of awardees here) at the Melbourne Convention Centre. As a representative of new Australian voices in educational leadership research, I spoke in front of an auditorium of 1200 educators in response to the provocation: ‘If you could wave a magic wand, how would you transform education?’

The following is a version of that speech (I tend to go off the cuff a bit, so it’s not identical). It is based on this think piece I wrote for the ACEL Perspectives publication which is more measured and referenced, and less rhetoric-laden than my speech. I’ve added links to other blog posts to this post, as feedback from those at the conference has been that they would like to know more about the school professional learning model about which I spoke.

Thank you to the Australian Council for Educational Leaders for offering me the platform-soapbox-orangecrate from which to speak passionately about what I think is important for leaders, teachers and students in our schools.

*                                                      *                                                      *

(Hello etc. …)

I am an English teacher by trade and have spent the last 17 years teaching and leading in schools in Australia and the UK. Most recently I have been leading a strategic project that developed a whole-school coaching model at my school, designed to do a number of things, including:

  • Improve teacher classroom practice;
  • Develop teachers’ capacities for reflection;
  • Depersonalise and open classrooms;
  • Develop a common language of practice; and
  • Improve the quality of professional conversation.

This intervention was strategically aligned, so it was top down in terms of being aligned with the strategic vision of the school, initiated by the principal and supported by the school board. But it was also middle out and bottom up, as the model was developed by teams of teachers, led by me. We took a deliberately slow process of prototyping, piloting, iterating and refining this context-specific intervention.

At the same time, while also parenting two small children, I completed a PhD in which I asked what it is that makes professional learning transformational and how school leaders can best lead professional learning for teachers.

(It was at this point that I said something like, “My doctorate was conferred in April, so if you see me around the conference, you can call me Dr Deb” which has resulted in everyone from the MC to delegates calling me ‘Dr Deb’ ever since!)

As someone who bestrides educational practice and research, I don’t believe there is a silver bullet or magic wand that can transform education, but I do believe we can work to positively influence it.

Two things we can focus on, in order to positively impact on our students’ learning, are the trust and growth of teachers.

At my school, we have developed a model for teacher growth that uses Cognitive Coaching, non-inferential lesson data, and the Danielson Framework for Teaching, to help teachers reflect on and grow their practice.

Non-inferential lesson data—that is, data that is, as much as possible, non-judgemental and informational—and shared standards of teaching, help our teachers to develop the depth and precision of their reflections on practice, while Cognitive Coaching helps teachers to surface their own thinking about how they can improve. Cognitive Coaching is not about solution-providing or advice-giving, but about mediating the thinking of teachers and helping them to find their own solutions to problems of practice, based on a belief in their internal capacity to do so. To paraphrase Dylan Wiliam: teachers know their own classroom and their own students best.

My PhD found that coaching, among other things, can transform teachers’ beliefs and practices. It also found that school leaders have an important part to play in leading the learning of teachers.

We need to avoid those policies and practices that pit teachers and schools against one another (such as merit pay), that promote competition and commodification, or that focus on external metrics, performative measures, rewards or punishments. These are all things that demotivate, de-professionalise and demean our profession.

To support teacher professional growth and improvement in practice, we need to focus on trusting teachers to be professionals with the capacity to grow. We need to properly support their growth through context-specific interventions for which we provide adequate training, sufficient time, appropriate resources, and processes to systematically review our effectiveness.

In this way, within our own schools, we can heighten teachers’ self-awareness, self-efficacy and collaborative expertise and positively influence student learning.

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Reflections on ACEL 2014: learning, leading, teaching

Effective change is a matter of both will and skill. People have to want to do it, and they have to know how to do it. ~ Levin

Passion & Purpose at ACEL conference Melbourne by @debsnet https://theeduflaneuse.wordpress.com/

2014 ACEL Conference lanyard on the Southbank boardwalk: passion & purpose

I have spent this week in Melbourne at the 2014 Australian Council for Educational Leadership Conference, including presenting a breakout session with colleagues about our school’s story so far: of building a professional growth model, based on our own context, vision and beliefs about learning, teaching and leading.

It was affirming to hear the keynote speakers’ key messages reflect the real work that we are doing at my school. Some of those keynote takeaways, as aligned with my school’s work around professional growth and culture were …

We know that teaching is complex

Noel Pearson highlighted for the over 1000 delegates that effective instruction is at the heart of education.

Charlotte Danielson reminded the audience of over 1000 delegates that “teaching is so hard it can never be perfect” and that the complex, demanding cognitive work of teaching required educators’ ongoing quest to improve teaching practice, in order to improve students’ learning. She joked that, while doctors’ work is complex, they get to see one patient at a time; “I would call that tutoring.”

In his panel response to Charlotte’s keynote, Phillip Heath, Head of Sydney’s Barker College, emphasised the importance of focusing on celebrating the full, highly cerebral, in-the-moment and sacred nature of teaching, rather than on exposing and shaming failures, or ticking boxes.

Our school’s model of professional growth and culture is focused on a default position of meaningful teacher-owned growth.

Building minds, inspiring learners

Charlotte Danielson also reminded the audience about the constructivist nature of learning for students and teachers; that learning is done by the learner in an active intellectual process. Danielson pointed to conversations in which an observer or leader advises a teacher after a classroom observation, and in which the teacher passively endures the feedback. “Who is doing the work?” she asked. The Danielson Framework for Teaching, or as she pointed out, any framework for teaching, is a conduit for teacher learning which allows teachers to do the thinking for themselves.

Tim Flannery encouraged educators to encourage exploring, imagining and being open to organismic change.

John Medina shared his knowledge around increasing the brain’s executive function, the part of the brain (responsible for openness to cognitive and behavioural change) that we are attempting to access in our teachers by applying a Cognitive Coaching approach to professional conversation and reflection.

Richard Gerver talked passionately about the need for developing self-managing people and systems. Our model’s key aim is the development of teacher-driven, teacher-owned self-managing, self-monitoring and self-modifying teachers-as-learners.

Leading with clarity, coherence and collaboration

Richard Gerver highlighted the importance of the clarity and coherence in educational leadership.

Tim Flannery encouraged collective wisdom over individual genius, the harnessing of the informed community rather than the singular expert.

Linda Darling-Hammond reminded us that “teaching is a team sport” and that the greatest achievement gains are from those schools in which educators work together with a coherent approach. Beware ‘popcorn reform’, she said, with which we might innovate our way to edu-failure. What we need is to learn from each other’s successes and failures; teachers, schools, districts and nations.

Both Linda Darling-Hammond and Noel Pearson underlined the importance of backward design: having students’ learning outcomes and futures in mind when designing their education. For Pearson, this future was “giving people the capabilities to choose lives they have reason to value.” In particular, he advocates for Indigenous Australians to realise the potential, talent and creativity which afford them real choice and the mobility to orbit between external worlds and their indigenous homes, cultures, languages, traditions and peoples.

Charlotte Danielson reminded us about distributed leadership; it is not the principal but all teachers who are responsible for leading learning in schools. Leading and learning are about collaborative growth, not punitive measures. “We’re not going to fire our way to Finland,” she said. “We need to learn our way there instead,” by  coming together as communities of teachers which use a common framework as a scaffold to provide common definitions of good teaching, a common language with which to talk about teaching and shared understandings about what good teaching is and how teachers might enact it. This, Danielson says, helps to avoid conversations in which teachers and leaders use the same words but mean different things.

John Hattie challenged educators to “change the narrative” of education by building the profession and taking pride in teachers, rather than in buildings, resources, websites or canteen menus.

Yesterday, when presenting at the conference, my colleague described our school’s continuing journey as an “evolution not a revolution”, an ongoing, organic and iterative process which is based in our own context and the needs of our teachers and staff.

We have been taking the approach of ‘go slow to go fast’, deliberately unfurling a new initiative by allowing it to bubble up out of the school’s strategic vision and then be piloted, driven and owned by teachers. We have been attempting to distribute leadership in a project which is connected by clear, coherent, school-wide organisation-aligned threads of vision and practice.

Safety and challenge for growth

Charlotte Danielson talked about getting the balance right between support and challenge for teachers; schools need to provide an environment of trust in which it is safe to take risks in the spirit of ongoing professional inquiry.

This need for balance – between safety in which teachers feel supported and trusting, and enough discomfort to challenge practice and change thinking and behaviour – has been a cornerstone for us in providing the setting for transformation of classroom teaching, professional conversation and collaborative culture.

Thank you, ACEL for an affirming experience of layered, interlocking ideas.

Champagne at Crown Melbourne by @debsnet https://theeduflaneuse.wordpress.com/

champagne view from Crown Casino, Melbourne

Ideas to anchor school change

Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken. ~ Frank Herbert

NYC art journal page by @debsnet https://theeduflaneuse.wordpress.com/

One of my art journal pages: ‘Don’t quit your daydream’

I recently completed the Adaptive Schools Foundation Seminar during which some of Garmston and Wellman’s foundational ideas really resonated with me in terms of school change (these are outlined in the course and in the source book The Adaptive School: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups, 2nd ed., 2013).

1. Centrality of identity, beliefs and values

The Adaptive Schools book and course place emphasis on the importance of being conscious of teachers’ identities: their core beliefs, values and senses of self. These, rather than being set aside, are acknowledged and drawn upon in collaborative school practices. Graceful disagreement is seen as a path to developing group cohesiveness, empathy and shared identity. The teacher as person is honoured as an individual within the school, and a part of the school group.

2. The importance of talk

How we talk in schools, say Garmston and Wellman, influences our schools and our personal and collective experiences of them. Talk creates reality. This is why at my school we are using the Danielson Framework for Teaching (to provide a common language for talking about teaching) and Cognitive Coaching conversations (to provide a common way of encouraging teachers to think about their own teaching, in a way which allows the coach to facilitate the development of a teacher’s thinking, while at the same time getting out of the way of that thinking).

3. Tiny events create major disturbances

This is Garmston and Wellman’s third underlying principle of what they call ‘nonlinear dynamical’ systems, like schools. This principle affirms my experience of the unexpected, chaotic butterfly effects of incremental changes, which are sometimes unnoticeable or unmeasurable.

Teachers involved in our coaching cycle have commented that seeing another teacher’s lesson impacted their own practice in the following days; that reflecting on their teaching against the Danielson Framework brought foci and deliberate intent to their subsequent lessons; and that coaching conversations sometimes impacted their thinking long after the conversation had finished. Teacher coaches have noted that their Cognitive Coaching training has shaped the ways in which they communicate, not only with colleagues, but also with students and even with their own friends and families.

The Cognitive Coaching course has also impacted on my thinking around teacher growth and school change.

4. Holonomy

The notion of ‘holonomy’ is not from Adaptive Schools, but is from Costa and Garmston’s Cognitive Coaching (see Cognitive Coaching: A foundation for Renaissance schools, 2nd ed., 2006). It is the conceptualisation of the bringing together of individual (teacher) and organisation (school). The teacher is both influenced by and influencer of the school, involved in a continuously responsive relationship. The teachers as parts, and the school as whole system, work organically and symbiotically together.

For me, this notion of the interdependence between human individualism and organisational systems should be a key focus in school change initiatives. For my school, part of our approach has been designing a professional learning cycle based on the school’s strategic vision, and then having teachers pilot, drive and design the change. For us, the importance of honouring both organisation and teacher in a slow and deliberate process has been more important than fast change.

This coming week I will be at the Australian Council For Educational Leaders conference, sharing our story with other schools and departments who are working to develop the capacity of their teachers. And this time next month I will be in the middle of my visits to New York educators and researchers. I’m looking forward to having face to face conversations with those with whom I have connected via email and online, and seeing how they negotiate the tensions (and connections!) between teacher and school.

New York Is Always A Good Idea by @debsnet https://theeduflaneuse.wordpress.com/