What might ‘taking action’ for Reconciliation look like?

This week is National Reconciliation Week in Australia (27 May-3 June), a week that challenges all Australians to work towards a reconciled relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous peoples, for a unified, just and equitable Australia for all Australians.

It was only in 1962 that Indigenous Australians were granted the right to vote. And it was only in 1967, via referendum, that Australia’s First Nations peoples were recognised by the government as people. Previous to that, the Australian constitution stated that “in reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives should not be counted”. In 2008, then- Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology to Indigenous Australians for the Stolen Generations—children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families under parliamentary authority. The 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for the ancient sovereignty of First Nations Australians to be recognised through structural reform including constitutional change and a ‘Voice to Parliament’.

This year’s National Reconciliation Week theme is:

“More than a word. Reconciliation takes action.”

Reflecting on what reconciliation action looks like for me, it’s the macro and micro actions we take.

In my school our actions include a Reconciliation Action Plan working group who meet to consider what Reconciliation can look like in our school, and to plan how to bring our Reconciliation intentions to action. It’s building a meaningful relationship and mutually beneficial partnership of listening, seeking to understand identities and realities, and positive action with a remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community school. It is acknowledging Country in ways that are respectful, embedded and that show awareness of and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cultures and heritage. For my school, that means acknowledging the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we learn and work, recognising their continuing connection and contribution to land, waters and community, and paying our respects to them, their culture, and to Elders past, present and emerging. It means providing students and staff with opportunities to increase understanding, value and recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories, knowledges and rights. It means celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander days of significance. It means always working to improve the ways in which we and our community engage with the ideas and actions of Reconciliation, and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This year in my classroom, engaging with Reconciliation includes studying the poetry of Australian poet Samuel Wagan Watson who encourages his readers to consider the lasting impacts and trauma of Australia’s colonial past, land dispossession, historic and continuing violence towards Indigenous Australians, and the erosion, appropriation and commercialisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, language, identity and mythology.

In my academic writing, my actions include citing Indigenous authors and seeking out Indigenous ways of knowing, researching and communicating. In my editing, actions include inviting Indigenous authors to write for books and journal special issues. I can highly recommend engaging with the work of ‘Deadly’ Australian scholars Tracey Bunda, Melitta Hogarth, Marnee Shay and Janet Mooney. In the conclusion of the upcoming edited book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership, I call for those in educational leadership to openly engage with complex issues and uncomfortable debates, and to make space for the perspectives and knowledge systems of Indigenous and culturally marginalised groups.

During this week’s Q&A program on the ABC, Marnie Omeragic asked:

“It is Reconciliation Week. Is Australia ready to hear its truth? Are we brave enough to learn the atrocities of our past and our present? Deaths in custody, children being removed- it is happening at a faster rate today. The gap is not closing. How will Australia find its heart?”

The panel’s responses can be watched here from the 34-minute mark. The challenge remains for all Australians to consider how our thoughts, language and actions contribute to the aim of a reconciled, just, equitable and unified Australia.

Challenge is a choice: IWD 2021

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day (IWD) and this year’s theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’, focused on calling out gender bias and celebrating women’s achievements. It is about both speaking up when things are not ok, and seeking out a multiplicity of voices and perspectives, especially those often marginalised, ignored, or unrecognised.

In Australia, activist and advocate for survivors of sexual assault Grace Tame was named Australian of the Year in January. Yet the days leading up to IWD 2021 have been filled with despair and controversy around continuing cultures of misogyny and violence against women. Two Australian cabinet ministers are currently facing allegations of sexual assault, and a petition calling for earlier sexual consent education in schools led to thousands of testimonials of teenage experiences of sexual assault.

I continue to be surprised when panels continue to feature groups of mostly-male, mostly-white speakers, thereby excluding the voices of those less prominent and less privileged. The teaching and school leadership professions in Australia remain far from representative of our population’s gender and cultural diversity. Indigenous Australians are particularly under-represented and Indigenous students are especially disadvantaged by our systems and structures.

How do we ensure that diverse voices, and voices of those not in positions of power, are heard and listened to? How can we each be a part of a world where equity, diversity and inclusion are the norm rather than the exception?

Women authors in Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership

One thing we can do is to work towards diverse representation. The upcoming book I have had the absolute pleasure of editing – Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Democracy – includes 15 exceptional chapter contributions from 25 authors from the UK, USA, South America, Canada, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East. 19 of those 25 authors are women. This IWD I’d like to celebrate and acknowledge those women: Pat Thomson, Christine Grice, Claire Golledge, Cecilia Azorín, Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Asmaa Al-Fadala, Suraiya Hameed, Marnee Shay, Jodie Miller, Vivienne Porritt, Karen Edge, Carol Campbell, Eugenie Samier, Liliana Mularczyk, Annie Kidder, Eloise Tan, and Christine Corso. I am incredibly proud to have worked alongside all of the book’s authors. The book’s representation isn’t perfect or comprehensive, but it is part of the ‘working towards’.

In Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson and I wrote in the conclusion that “flipping the education system is a vision for … a world in which the privileged few do not eclipse or speak for those pushed to the margins.” We asserted the following.

“Ultimately, education is a political act. We are all activists. We have no other choice. With this comes a responsibility to ensure that we are fairly representing the views, needs and aspirations of our communities rather than the prolific and vociferous few having their views exposed to politicians, sculpting the debate that may well be at odds with those who need representation the most.”

Actually, our every micro action and inaction is a political act. We decide when we look and when we look away. Who we invite. To whom we listen. Whose voices we amplify. Who we ignore. Who we cite. Who we celebrate. Who we oppose. Who we select. Who we defy. When we choose to speak or and when we decide to stay silent.

Choosing to challenge means challenging ourselves as well as others. It is on each and every one of us to choose to think deliberately, thoughtfully, and self-critically about how we can contribute to a world that is equitable for all, and in which a diverse range of voices are heard, even and especially if those voices are different to our own.

In education: To whom should we listen?

X speakers

Today I had the privilege of being part of the ‘Extreme After Dinner Speakers Club’, a main stage event at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement, held this year in Marrakech.

This session had me sharing the stage with Michael Fullan, Lee Elliott-Major, Cecilia Azorín, Dean Fink, Pooja Nakamura and Jihad Hajjouji.

Pierre Tulowitzki was the compare, revving up the audience and introducing each speaker. We each entered to a piece of music we had chosen, and we each spoke for 8 minutes on something in education about which we are passionate. There were no audio visual supports, and certainly no PowerPoint slides. It was just each speaker under a single spotlight.

I share my speech below. (You’ll need to imagine the strains of Roxette’s ‘Dangerous’ playing as I entered.)

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Teaching can be a personal, political and dangerous act.

I’m an English and Literature teacher, and an avid reader, so I love metaphors as a tool for making meaning. I often find myself comparing education to the worlds of various texts.

One metaphor that’s resonated with me is that being in education can feel like existing in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an 1865 novel about a girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world with strange creatures and absurd goings on. This metaphor is a playful way to consider education reform and examine to whom we should listen in education.

The novel is set simultaneously in Victorian England and in the imaginary world of Wonderland. The characters in the novel are constrained by the worlds in which they exist. The regimentations of Victorian England reflect the constraints of our current education systems. There are rigid rules of the education game, and inflexible, standardised and often externally imposed, indicators of success against which teachers, school leaders and schools are measured.

In Wonderland there’s a lack of equity, with some characters having huge amounts of power, and others existing without agency. The autocratic Queen of Hearts might be seen as the international culture of testing, accountability and performativity. She’s a force for panic and alarm, imposing a narrow focus of right and wrong. Characters race around anxiously in fear of her.

In our education systems, teachers might be seen as the White Rabbit: rushed, watching the time, constantly in a hurry to meet expectations and ever-increasing workloads. Teachers are mostly absent in the formulation of policy, on advisory boards, and on media panels. Often so-called ‘experts’ speak for or about teachers and schools. Everyone has an opinion on education and on teaching. Teachers themselves are often undermined or deprofessionalised.

School leaders could also be seen as the Rabbit, buckling under deadlines, external pressures and challenges to their wellbeing. Leaders might alternatively be conceptualised as the Cheshire Cat, doing often invisible work and empowering others through just-in-time advice as they shift in and out of the spotlight, constantly code switching and operating in multiple contexts almost simultaneously.

In the novel, the Eaglet says,

“Speak English! . . . I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!”

Education buzzwords can become nonsense language devoid of meaning. Academic writing can seem impenetrable to practitioners. Contradictory advice abounds, and those of us working in schools and in research must make sense of multiple competing voices.

To whom should we listen?

As a teacher, school leader, coach and researcher, I feel a lot like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole and muddling my way through a foreign landscape. Belonging and not belonging. Betwixt and between. Constantly working to make sense of the education world, to sort through a sea of information, and to make my own voice, and the voice of my profession, heard.

I’ve taught in schools—in Australia and England—for 20 years. I’ve been a school leader for almost as long. In middle leadership positions, I shared the voices of senior leadership down, and the voices of teachers up. Now as a member of a school executive, I eke out the voices of teachers, students and families, in order that we can improve in ways relevant to our context. When I speak and write, I am a voice of my profession.

My voice comes from within the education system, yet as a pracademic, I am bestride both the practitioner world of schools, and the scholarly world of research. Alongside my full-time school day job, I am an adjunct at a university. My dual roles inform one another and give me a perspective quite different from those who advise from the sidelines. I am firmly embedded in what it feels like to be a cog in the school reform wheel. What I do every day in my lessons, meetings, professional conversations, and operational and strategic work, influences how I interpret education research. And the research I read and undertake influences my understanding of my daily work at school. In these ways I operate as a bridge betwixt and between research and practice.

Like Wonderland, which seems confusing to the newcomer Alice, schools and education systems are non-linear ecologies of complexity and interlocking relationships. In schools, we navigate competing demands with the needs of our students and the moral purpose of the greater good. In schools, change happens in ways that researchers and school boards don’t or can’t suppose. The work of schools is not easily quantifiable. In fact, measuring and ranking schools and education systems can diminish the humanity of education. Often what we can measure is not what actually matters.

Wonderland was perhaps Lewis Carroll’s way of pushing back against the regimentations of England at the time, a way of embracing chaos, surprise and wonder. Many teachers and school leaders, too, resist external demands or play the accountability game while working hard to protect and serve their students in ways that embrace their humanity.

Metaphors work because of their recognisability, but as I reflect on the metaphor I’m sharing today, I realise that it’s limited and potentially dangerous. There are so many versions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that meaning can get muddied and diluted. More worrying, however, are the biases inherent in metaphor. This metaphor has a Western origin. While the novel has been translated into almost 100 languages, it is a work of English-language fiction. It’s by a white male British author. It’s set in upper-middle-class England. How, I wonder, does this exclude particular views of education? Does it marginalise some from accessing its meaning? Does sharing this metaphor promote a linear, masculine, white and Western view of education, based on hierarchical structures and economic agendas?

So when I think about the question – To whom should we listen? – the answer is manifold.

We should listen to researchers who interrogate what we know about education. We should talk with policymakers who oversee the big picture. We should listen to parents. We should listen to students who are the core of our work and our why. We should certainly listen to teachers.They are experts whose professional experience and judgement should be a key part of education discourse.

In the book Flip the System Australia my co-editors and I worked to include a range of voices. Dr Kevin Lowe, one of our Indigenous authors, pointed out that Aboriginal contributions are often tacked on to the end of books, if they appear at all, as an afterthought. He challenged us to think carefully about not just who we included, but also where we situated particular voices.

We all do need to listen to each other. But this is not enough.

As we consider to whom we should listen in our work in school effectiveness and improvement, we need to carefully interrogate whose voices are being invited and amplified. We need to include those often marginalised by or excluded from the dominant narrative.  We need to embrace diversity rather than homogenisation. We also need to consider the risks to individuals and groups in sharing their views publicly. Often those who are the most vulnerable in our systems feel the least able to speak up and speak out. We need, however, to seek out, and make space at the highest levels, for voices that will move us towards democratic, equitable and inclusive education for all.