What matters in teaching and learning?

Teaching is incredibly complex. Source: FreeCreativeStuff pixabay

In this blog post I explore my thinking around what matters in teaching and learning. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but part of a wider conversation.

The student matters.

Students are our common purpose in teaching and learning; our who and our why; the core of our work. Not just ‘students’ plural, but each and every student (with their idiosyncrasies, circumstances, attitudes, abilities and identities).

The decisions we make from the classroom to the board room in schools should all come back to the student. Ultimately in education, we are in their service.

The teacher matters.

The teacher and their classroom practice can make a difference to student learning and achievement. Within schools, the quality of teachers’ teaching is the most influential school-based variable in terms of improving student learning and achievement. (Although more influential than what is within a school’s sphere of influence are students’ attitudes and abilities, socioeconomic context, parents’ education and peers.)

Knowledge matters.

In Australia, knowledge is central to one of our professional standards: ‘Teachers know content and how to teach it.’ Focusing on preparing students for their future pathways, and on character, skills and capabilities, doesn’t mean ignoring knowledge.

Australian Chief Scientist, Alan Fink, has spoken about teachers as trained experts who have a “fundamental duty to teach students content: concepts, facts and principles.” He adds that specialist knowledge is needed:

“No-one has ever said to me: ‘gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate’. No, what they say to me is: ‘we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down.’”

Cognitive load theory posits that the human working memory cannot process many new elements at any one time, but the human brain can process very large amounts of stored information. What this tells teachers is that we need to help students to bank knowledge in their long term memory, so that they can use their working memory to learn new things or do higher order thinking. For example, knowing things like times tables or phonics with automaticity and fluency leaves room in the working memory to be able to focus on more sophisticated aspects of problems or language.

Dylan Wiliam, in his book Creating the schools our children need: Why what we’re doing now won’t help much (and what we can do instead), points to long-term memory, arguing that:

“what our students need is more to think with. The main purpose of curriculum is to build up the content of long-term memory so that when students are asked to think, they are able to think in more powerful ways.” (2018, p.134)

Critical thinkers need knowledge on which to build, and creators need to know the foundations on which they are innovating.

Pedagogy matters

How we teach also matters. In schools we should be asking ourselves:

  • How do we decide which teaching strategies to deploy?
  • On what evidence do we base our decisions?
  • How do we know what is likely to be in the best interests of the student?

In a previous blog post I outline what research literature indicates about what effective teachers do. They:

  • Purposefully design learning opportunities;
  • Diagnose student progress to inform both teaching and learning;
  • Fight for their students’ learning;
  • Personalise learning for students;  and
  • Provide meaningful and appropriate feedback.

Barak Rosenshine’s principles of instruction give one list of teaching strategies likely to be effective:

  • Review previous learning.
  • Provide new material in small steps with student practice after each step.
  • Limit the amount of material students receive at one time.
  • Give clear and detailed instructions and explanations.
  • Ask good questions and check the responses of all students.
  • Provide models, exemplars and worked examples.
  • Guide student practice.
  • Check for student understanding.
  • Help students obtain a high success rate.
  • Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.
  • Require and monitor independent practice.
  • Provide timely, systematic feedback.
  • Engage students in regular review of their learning and self-assessment.

In my own classroom, I ask myself:

  • Who is doing the thinking in our classrooms?
  • Who is working harder: teacher or student?

These are questions are anchors that help me to consider my pedagogy in ways that empower and expect students to be doing the cognitive work.

But knowledge and teaching are not all that matters in teaching and learning. >>>

Relationships matter.

Relationships are also at the heart of learning.

In Australia one of our professional standards states that “Teachers know their students well.” Steve Biddulph says that “boys learn teachers not subjects.” An oft-quoted line, attributed to a number of people such as Carl Buehner and Maya Angelou, resonates with teachers and the student experience of teaching:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

When I threw the question ‘What matters in teaching and learning’ out to Twitter last night, I received more than 70 replies in 24 hours. Many of these tweets centred around relationships (student-teacher, but also staff and families). Cameron Paterson pointed me towards this video of Rita Pierson’s TED talk in which she says “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like” and “seeks first to understand rather than to be understood.” You can read what Twitter had to say in the thread here.

I like to think about the concept, from psychology, of a ‘holding environment’ in which members of the community or organisation feel ‘held’ in a culture of high support and high challenge. How students feel and relate in our school and classroom matters. They need psychological safety.

Identity and belonging matter.

Like relationships, students need a sense of belonging and of being seen for who they are.

We can consider:

  • Who are our learners now, and who do they and we want them to become?
  • To what extent do our students feel and see themselves belonging in our school community?

Context matters.

Research can only tell us what has worked in particular situations. It doesn’t tell us what to do or what might work for our students. Research  can, however, help us to make better decisions about how best to serve our students.

Those teachers within a classroom and leaders within a school know their students and community. Those working with students and families each day are the people best placed to serve them.

Culture matters.

Cultures of trust and empathy are key to schools that are able to support the learning and wellbeing of their students and staff. Those cultures can be academic, pastoral, professional and community cultures.

We can ask:

  • How do we collectively approach teaching, learning and pastoral matters?
  • What are our students’ work habits and attitudes to school and learning?
  • How engaged are our families in student learning?
  • How well do we work together as a staff?

And we can work on culture as a foundation stone of the teaching and learning work we do.

Engagement matters.

Knowledge and skills are central to student learning, but we also want students to be lifelong learners who are curious and driven to learn and to solve problems.

  • How do we enhance student motivation and excitement about learning?
  • How do we facilitate learning that matters to students?

Finally, our moral purpose matters.

I recently heard Michael Fullan saying that it is today’s students who will change the world for the better, partly because of their education, and partly because of the anxiety and alarm they feel about the state of the world, that is propelling them towards being agents of positive change.

In 1947 Martin Luther King Junior wrote that:

“Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

Teachers and school leaders have a moral obligation to our students. We can consider our own moral purpose, and how we help students to develop character and their own moral compass and purpose.

  • How do we facilitate students as lifelong learners, ethical active citizens and empathetic constructive problem seekers and solvers?
  • How can and do we support students to contribute to a world that’s worth living in?

Asking ‘What matters?’, matters.

In our edited book, Flip the System Australia, my co-editors and I chose the subtitle: What Matters in Education. The book looked beyond a ‘what works’ agenda and asked (and in some ways proposed hopeful possible answers to) questions of what matters, what should matter, and how we can focus our education systems on equity, democracy and inclusion.

Teaching is difficult, complex, human, relational work. So much matters, but if we keep the student at the centre of our thinking, we’re off to a good start.

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.)

______________________________________

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.

ICSEI 2020 SYMPOSIUM – ‘Agency, democracy and humanity: Global perspectives on flipping the education system and empowering teachers’

Flip the System books

On Wednesday 8 January at 11 am, I have the privilege of chairing a symposium at the ICSEI annual congress at the Mogador Palace in Marrakech, featuring the editors of the Flip the System education books: Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (2015); Lucy Rycroft-Smith and JL Dutaut (2017); myself, Cameron Paterson and Jon Andrews (2018); and Michael Soskil (in preparation). Andy Hargreaves, who has written a chapter for each of the books, will be our discussant.

Our symposium explores what the notion of ‘flipping the education system’ means for each of us in our own contexts: Europe, the UK, Australia and the USA.

We challenge the status quo in which governments and policymakers make decisions disconnected from those at the nadir of the system: teachers and students. Schools in this system are highly bureaucratic institutional settings, and teachers are increasingly undervalued, constrained and de-professionalised. Those that wield influence on education policy and practice construct narrow measures of the success of schooling, and these impact heavily on teacher agency. Large-scale assessment, the use (and misuse) of big data at all levels of schooling, corporate investment, and new models of governance and technological innovation, are pervasive. A focus on numbers and rankings contributes 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 cultures focused on fear and narrow measures of performance.

Our symposium shares global perspectives around the notion of subverting, flattening, democratising and reimagining our education systems in ways that embrace human aspects of education, wrestle with the criticality of the task of schooling, and engage with multiple voices in education, especially those often sidelined in education discourse. The assembled presentations offer powerful insights about political, social and economic forces that influence numerous aspects of education, and also positive alternatives for the future of education.

The throughline or golden thread here is that teachers—their agency, professionalism, expertise and wellbeing—are central to flipping, strengthening and democratising our education systems. We all advocate for a focus on the GOOD in education. The greater good, the common good. Good for all students, everywhere, and good for the teachers who teach them.

The symposium presentations are described below. If you are attending the ICSEI conference, join us for a robust, and ultimately hopeful, discussion!

‘Striving for good education for all: The alternative offered by Flip the System’ – Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (via video)

As the originators of the Flip the System book series and education movement, Jelmer and René outline the history of Dutch education reform and how they came to the conclusion that the system needs to be flipped using six global guidelines for future action: trust, honour, finding purpose, collaboration, support and time. For teachers, they argue, this is a professionalising process of ‘self-emancipation’. Their books, The Alternative and Flip the System, have had powerful political impact, as well as sparking a global discourse that foregrounds practising teachers as a crucial voice in educational change.

Jelmer and René reflect on the current state of the profession globally in the Global North and South. They explore the continued struggle between democratic professionalism and privatisation, authoritarianism and surveillance capitalism. They make a case for what is needed now. They explore teacher strikes as a starting point for renewed professional collective pride and agency and belief in education as a public good. The teaching profession, they argue, should strive for a global awareness and counterforce striving for good education for all.

‘When we used our teacher voices, no-one listened: The paradox of escaping the system to dismantle the system’ – Lucy Rycroft-Smith (and JL Dutaut)

Lucy will represent herself and JL as editors of Flip the System UK. In this presentation, the authors reflect on the history of the UK’s (failed) education reforms. They outline how powerful voices simplify issues and reduce complexities, while the teacher population suffers the demands of hyper-accountability, at great mental, emotional and physical cost. Lucy and JL summarise the realities of the daily grind for UK teachers, exacerbated by the school quality review and systemic discrimination. In questioning the current landscape of apparent ‘expertise’ in education, the authors ask: Why, only now, do people care what we have to say? How can we leverage these new advantages without succumbing to the same fate?

Lucy and JL’s argument is that we must reject the current paradigm of success: ‘the most students with the highest grades at the lowest financial cost’. Rather, they propose substituting a vision for an education community that values teachers as both humans and professionals, with the common good at its heart.

‘Australian perspectives on flipping the education system from ‘what works’ to ‘what matters: Reclaiming education for and by those within the system’ – Deborah Netolicky, Cameron Paterson (and Jon Andrews)

Cameron and I will be presenting, on behalf of ourselves and Jon, as editors of Flip the System Australia. We explore the current realities of schooling in Australia, including policy, funding and high-stakes standardised testing such as NAPLAN, ATAR and PISA. We challenge the media narratives presented to the Australian public, the rise of celebrity teachers, and the demonising and deprofessionalising of the teaching profession. We rally—in the spirit of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart—against the silencing of Indigenous voices in education policy and practice.

While education is a deeply human endeavour, the complex work that teachers do around the world every day is threatened by the political, the commercial and the popular. We advocate for equity, democracy, plurality, collective responsibility and teacher agency. We argue against polarising and one-dimensional narratives of education, and for locally-produced solutions and teacher voices. We believe that the power to transform schools lies within schools. The system should enable teachers to go about the complex work of teaching with professional honour, acknowledgement of professional expertise, and support structures focused on wellbeing and growth.

‘Education as the foundation of healthy democracy: A perspective from the USA’ – Michael Soskil

Michael presents a perspective on flipping the system, based on the upcoming book Flip the System: US. In the USA, partisan political influence, substantial inequity and economic interests prevail. Instead of basing decisions on professional expertise of the teachers who are committed to meeting the needs of unique, individual children, the system defers to lobbyists and politicians who manipulate data to tell narratives that suits their interests. Michael reflects on the health of the USA’s education system and asks if—at this pivotal moment in our history, when democratic norms, personal liberties, respect for intellectualism, and economic opportunity are eroding—public education is supporting democracy, and if our democracy is supporting public education.

Reclaiming the public education system, Michael points out, must begin from the inside out by focusing on strengthening the teaching profession. He points to shining examples of educators leading movements to overcome the deficiencies in our system, providing nuanced and locally relevant solutions to complex education problems. The system, he affirms, should be shaped around teacher expertise.

Postscript: our symposium participants

2019: Year in review

2019 year in review

2019 may have been politically and environmentally tumultuous, but my year has personally been a good one. I began the year focusing on LIGHT and I think I’ve managed to find a lightness this year that I haven’t felt for some time.

As I look back across the year some highlights have been:

This year has felt really good partly because of what I haven’t done. I’ve said ‘no’ to more things which has meant that those things I have participated in are those I’ve been really excited about. I’ve tried to find more space in my life. Being more intentional about how I spend my time is a work in progress, as I focus on moving from doing all the things to doings things that matter.

This isn’t just the end of the year. It’s also the end of a decade. At the beginning of the 2010s I was in the early stages of pregnancy with my first child. In this last decade I had my two children and raised them through their early years. I started and completed my PhD. I co-edited one book and wrote another. I presented at conferences and events, including AERA in Washington DC, AARE and ACEL. I travelled to NYC on a professional fellowship to investigate coaching in education and improving teacher practice. I started this blog. I won some awards. I contributed to some advisory boards and committees. I held a number of school leadership roles and taught English and Literature to hundreds of students.

Looking back is interesting, but looking forward is even better.

Here’s to the 2020s.

How driving a husky team is like school leadership

Husky 1

our husky team racing through the Lappish wilderness

Yesterday I had the absolute pleasure of driving or ‘mushing’ a team of Alaskan huskies in Rovaniemi, Finland, an experience run by the Bearhill Husky kennel. After some instructions from the guide, who would lead the convoy of husky teams, we were able to drive our own team. My husband and I both enjoyed turns as driver or ‘musher’ and as a passenger, with our children in the sled with us.

Learning about the dog teams and watching them work, and driving a team myself, had me reflecting on good school leadership and how it’s similar in many ways to training, running, managing and driving a husky team. (Of course, there are many ways in which these things are entirely dissimilar, but let’s not let that get in the way of this tangential reflection.)

  1. Know your people. Know your context.

An effective leader knows their team, knows their community and knows their clients. The husky guides knew each dog well, and watched them during the ride. Apart from the guide sled out front, the dog teams were being driven by novices like me, guests of the kennel entrusted to run a dog team for 90 minutes. Yet the staff from the kennel were always on the lookout for dogs, guests and terrain.

An effective leader needs to know the conditions they are traversing, and also how those conditions might change. At certain tricky checkpoints, staff from the kennel were there to ensure the smooth running of the ride. They zipped through the Lappish forest and across frozen lakes on snowmobiles to ensure the safety of dogs and passengers at all times. The ride was not without incident, but there were always personnel there to attend to any issues that arose.

  1. Trust the people. Trust the process.

The staff at the kennel had put in the hard work to train their dogs, to build relationships, to familiarise them with the tracks, to ensure the lead dogs could take direction, that the team compositions were optimal, that the strong wheel dogs at the back could pull the weight of the load. They know that the dogs want to run (and anyone can see and hear how excited huskies get when they want to take off). The staff at the kennel, in handing over the sleds to their guests, put their trust in their dogs to do their job well. Once it is time to run, they trust the dogs, trust the track, trust the process. As driver, I too needed to trust the dogs, the track and the process.

In schools, too, trust is key. We need to put faith in our teachers and school leaders. When we have put in processes for change, we need to trust the process and trust the people.

  1. Be agile.

There was a clear plan in place for our husky experience. An order of who went in which sled (families at the back, for instance). Rules to follow (like ‘no overtaking without permission’). Dog teams had been carefully put together with a knowledge of the dogs and of what makes an effective team. Yet there was still a need for agility and making snap decisions. A number of times, a dog was swapped out of one team to another because the team was not performing. Dogs were tied to each other, but these groupings were fluid and changed according to the need of the individual and the group.

There were also some incidents. One dog cut loose and ran up the track alone. He was soon caught and back to his team. One family’s sled tipped over and as they toppled out the driver went to help his family up, letting go of the sled’s handle bar in the process. The dog team took off, with the empty sled trailing behind it. Again, there was a contingency for this, and the convoy of teams and staff took action to reunite the family with their team, and get the convoy of teams and sleds back together again.

We may plan painstakingly when leading schools, but leaders need to be ready and willing to make quick decisions in the best interest of the individuals in their care and for their various stakeholders and wider communities. The best team leaders are focused and agile. They have their eye on their people, the conditions, for possible problems before they appear, for any danger that may lie ahead.

  1. Work hard.

When it was my turn to drive the husky team, I realised what hard work it was. Focusing on the track and teams ahead, reading the conditions (a sharp corner, a high snowy bank, a rocky slope), being ready to brake, running with the team up hills and then jumping onto the foot boards again. Some of this work goes unnoticed. As the driver at the back, the passengers and dogs can’t see the strain on your face when making driving decisions, or the effort of running with the dogs while the passengers enjoy the view. It was worth it for the exhilaration of flying through the snowy wilderness with the icy fresh wind against my face, but it meant hard work of both the driver and their team.

Leaders in schools work hard. Their work is often different to that of the team they are leading. Like the driver of a husky team, their view is slightly different, and they can see more of the wider landscape and bigger picture. Some of their hard work or difficult decision making goes unnoticed. And that’s ok. It’s part of leading.

  1. Encourage and support.

Driving a husky team, you feel a connection between you as the driver and the dogs in your team. We had one dog, who my family called Snowy, who would nuzzle and roll in the snow every time we stopped, and would regularly take hearty mouthfuls of snow to hydrate. One of the younger, faster dogs, who we called Goldy after his golden fur, was so keen to run that every time the claw brake was pressed into the snow, he looked around to the driver with a questioning stare. ‘Why have we stopped?’ he seemed to say, “Let’s go!’ When my husband or I were driving, we could be heard talking to the dogs, encouraging them or telling them it was time to slow down or time to go.

The kennel staff, who were checking in on the teams throughout the trail, would applaud the dog teams and call out encouragement and praise as they passed. Not to the drivers, but to their dogs, with which they clearly have close relationships. The staff were both firm and caring, providing high expectations and also high support of the teams.

School leadership is all about high expectations and high levels of challenge for our staff, married with high levels of care and support. This ‘holding environment’ means that our teams feel ‘held’ while also being trusted, supported and expected to be expert professionals.

  1. Hold on.

The main instruction to those of us driving a husky team for the first time was: Always hold on and never let go. Because if the driver steps off the claw brake and lets go of the handle bar, her team will bolt off without her, sometimes with her family still sitting in the sled.

In school leadership we need to stick with our teams, hold on during challenging times, and also hold on to our purpose, holding the line on why we are doing what we’re doing. Part of ‘holding on’ is also about being responsible for those in your sled, and ensuring their safety and their experience.

Reflecting on the metaphor

Of course, like any metaphor, this one is flawed. Teachers are not trained dogs. Teaching and leading in schools is of course complex, multi-faceted work. But I still found this a useful reflection. The leadership of a husky team is less linear and hierarchical than it first appears. There is nuance and an ecosystem of relationships. All members of the team, from the driver at the back, to the lead dogs at the front have an important role to play and are integral to the team.

Bearhill Husky was an example, in my view, of good leadership in action. Leadership that is ethical and at once empathetic and firm, caring and cautious, meticulously organised and with the capacity for well-informed agility. It is ultimately about relationships and the way that everyone in the organistion works together, from the dogs and the team for each sled, to the wider Bearhill staff who ensured the smooth running of what was an inspiring and magical experience.

Our work in schools, too, is about relationships. In schools there are similar machinations behind the scenes by leaders, teachers and all staff to ensure the best, safest, most optimal learning and experience for students. We can benefit from knowing our people and our context; trusting the people and the process; being agile; working hard even and especially when that work is not being noticed; encouraging and supporting staff; and holding on to vision, purpose and process.

Teachers and school leaders: well-being or ill-being?

Concern about teacher and school leader wellbeing

Teacher and school leader wellbeing is an increasing issue for education systems around the world. Some commentators call teaching a profession in ‘crisis’ or ‘distress’. Many sources point to the emotional, mental, and physical health of those working in schools as something that needs to be seriously considered.

Some literature suggests that one quarter of those who begin teaching leave the profession in the first five years, often citing mental health, emotional exhaustion, workload, and wellbeing issues as reasons.

The Gonski 2.0 report (Gonski et al., 2018) names unstable employment patterns, and a heavy and increasingly complex workload, as reasons for attrition in the teaching profession.

A week ago The Guardian published this article on increasing teacher workload, saying that according to one UK teacher wellbeing index, “nearly three-quarters of teachers and 84% of school leaders now describe themselves as ‘stressed’, and more than a third of education professionals have experienced a mental health issue in the past academic year. Almost half (49%) believe their workplace is having a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing.”

The longitudinal Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey of principals and deputy principals reveals worrying trends in school leader wellbeing. The 2018 survey (Riley, 2019) involved 5934 participants. Its findings include the following.

  • 53% of principals worked upwards of 56 hours per week during term with ~24% working upwards of 61-65 hours per week;
  • 40-45% of participants take prescription medication for a diagnosed condition.
  • Principals experience high levels of job demands (1.5 times the general population) emotional demands (1.7 times) and emotional labour (1.7 times) being the highest demands when compared to the general population. This is correlated with higher levels of burnout (1.6 times higher), stress symptoms (1.7 times higher), difficulty sleeping (2.2 times higher), cognitive stress (1.5 times higher), somatic symptoms (1.3 times higher), and, depressive symptoms (1.3 times higher).
  • The two greatest sources of stress for principals and deputies are Sheer Quantity of Work, and Lack of Time to Focus on Teaching and Learning.
  • Principals’ stress is caused largely by increasing Mental Health Issues of Students, Mental Health Issues of Staff, and Teacher Shortages.
  • The prevalence rate for Threats of Violence is 45%, with close to 1 in 2 principals receiving a threat.

In their chapter in Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, Andy Hargreaves et al. (2019) acknowledge that teachers struggle to collaborate effectively amidst the frenetic rate of reform in education and ever-increasing workloads and accountabilities. They assert that there is no student wellbeing without teacher wellbeing, so teacher wellbeing is something we need to care about.

Should teachers and school leaders be expected to put the needs of the children in their care ahead of their own health and their own children? Should they be expected to teach social, emotional, and life skills, as well as the curriculum? Should they be scored and performance managed based on limited and limiting accountability measures? Should they be pressured into spending their leisure time working and their own money on resources because it shows that they care and are ‘good teachers’? Should overwork, late night emails, and accessibility during weekends and holidays be normalised?

If wellbeing of staff is an issue in our education system, what can leaders do, and what can we each do for ourselves?

Leadership of staff wellbeing

School leadership is key to staff wellbeing. Just this week, WorkSafe has launched an investigation into one Australian school, its psychosocial environment, and the psychological and physical safety of its staff.

Wellbeing in schools is about more than meditation, yoga, fitness classes, and complimentary employee counselling. These have their place (and I enjoyed workplace yoga for years), but addressing teacher and school leader wellbeing also means seriously considering workload, expectations, and accountabilities.

Those leading systems and schools need to ask: How do our norms and culture contribute to wellbeing or ill-being? What is the work that is really important and that makes a difference? What can we take off teachers’ plates? How do we balance high professional expectations with high levels of support? What does it look like when we treat our staff as human beings with relationships, bodies, and lives?

Schools need to think carefully about teachers’ multiple, competing duties, and make time for meaningful collaboration around student work, student data, curriculum, and pedagogy, as well as time for teachers’ core business: actually teaching (and planning and assessing).

The Gonski 2.0 report suggests that “much greater assistance could be given to reduce their [teachers’] hands-on administrative workload, particularly in schools that are part of a larger system. This assistance includes: exploring reduction and/or simplification in administrative burdens placed on schools and their reporting requirements (including simplification of work health and safety requirements); appointing more dedicated administrative resources to schools; identifying quality external providers to which schools may be able to outsource some administrative responsibilities; and exploring new models for school management including chief operating officers or business managers accountable to the principal” (p.88).

School leaders can make transparent decisions, underpinned by organisational vision and clear principles. We can exercise compassion. We can resist hyper accountabilities, narrow frameworks for assessing teachers, and negative narratives of schooling. We can create our own measures of success for our schools, teachers, and students. We can enable flexible working arrangements, and ensure we listen to and encourage honest feedback from our staff.

We can also consider an approach to professional learning that is about growth. This can include staff voice and choice, and supportive processes such and mentoring and coaching. In this way, leaders can acknowledge the complexity and humanity of teaching and schooling, and facilitating staff autonomy and agency. Staff can feel like trusted, valued professionals and authors of their own learning and development.

Individual wellbeing

wellbeing

some of my wellbeing spaces

Those of us working in education need to give ourselves permission to protect and nourish our own health and relationships. That means time to sleep, to exercise, to enjoy nutritious food, to be silent and still, to be with our families, to spend time with our friends, to attend our children’s events, to breathe. It means prioritising these things even when the work feels crushing or breakneck in ways that seem to squeeze out everything else.

Like many who work in education, I find putting work to the side a challenge, but the old adage applies: we need to fit our own oxygen mask before we can assist others. We need to look after ourselves if we are to effectively serve our staff, students, and school communities. Personal wellbeing is not optional.

When author, prison officer, social justice advocate and education powerhouse Celia Lashlie died in 2015, her family published some of her final words:

“We become complacent about the need to take care of ourselves… always something more to do. Some of this is driven by our desire to save the world, others driven by the desire we have to reach the many goals we have set ourselves – many of them superficial.

Late last year I slowly became unwell. The stress of the lifestyle I was living, the demands I made of myself, the demands the people made of me and expected to meet became too great and as 2014 closed I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to my liver. No treatment, no cure, only palliative care. I’d waited too long to look after myself and my body broke.”

For me, these words were a sober reminder to educators that while we may want to do our utmost to make a positive difference, we should also work hard at looking after ourselves.

 

References

Gonski et al. 2018. Through Growth to Achievement Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools.

Hargreaves, A., Washington, S., & O’Connor, M. (2019). Flipping their lids: teachers’ well-being in crisis. In D. Netolicky, J. Andrews, & C. Paterson (eds.), Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, 93-104. Abingdon: Routledge.

Riley, P. 2019. The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2018 Data.

Innovation in schools

Today I’m home from a thought-provoking day of professional learning workshops: Jan Owen on building the education ecosystem and Peter Hutton on creating an adaptive culture for school transformation.

An ecosystem is a complex community of interconnected organisms in which each part, no matter how seemingly small, has an active, agentic part to play in the community. There are constant interdependent relationships and influences. The notion of an ecosystem of education resonates with Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman’s third Adaptive Schools underlying principle of what they call ‘nonlinear dynamical’ systems: that tiny events create major disturbances. This principle reflects the way change often happens. The little things we change or do can have unexpected, chaotic, incremental effects that are difficult to quantify or not immediately noticeable.

As we consider the education ecosystem, to what extent is innovation needed in education?

Certainly, there is a case often made for the need for radical change in education and schooling. Often the future of work is cited, the jobs not yet invented, automation and artificial intelligence disrupting industry. Jan Owen today spoke of globalisation, the flexible economy, job clusters, the need for meaning and purpose in work, diversity, equity, enterprise skills, micro-credentialing and the need for ongoing workplace learning. The Gonski 2.0 report talks about individualised learning, tracking student data, increased emphasis on teaching General Capabilities, and community partnerships as ways to address ‘declining performance’ and improve apparently ‘cruising schools’.

Skills and capabilities are increasingly the focus of futures-focused thinking in education. But knowledge remains crucial. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel said in his speech to the 2018 Australian Science Teachers Association Annual Conference:

“I have had many, many meetings with employers, in my role as Chief Scientist and as Deputy Chair of Innovation and Science Australia; and 6 before that, as Chancellor of Monash University and President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering; and before that, as the CEO of a publicly listed company. In all my meetings with people actually hiring graduates, no-one has ever said to me: ‘gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate.’ No, what they say to me is: ‘we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down. They were asking for T-shapes, and getting flat lines – but the flat line wasn’t lifted up and anchored by that all-important vertical pillar.”

We need people with specialist knowledge as well as transferrable skills. As I say to my students: we need to know stuff and also be able to do stuff.

French artists around 1900 depict the future of school. Source: publicdomainreview.org

Those commenting on the need for innovation in education often shown slides of classrooms that have students sitting at desks in rows. The argument is made that we have an industrial-age factory model of schooling in which inflexible schools manufacture homogenised experiences for students with little regard for difference, readiness, prior learning, and the idiosyncrasies of the individual.

And yet.

My research into and practical experience of schools and education is that today’s schools and classrooms are not factory-esque machines focused on creating compliant workers and unthinking drones. Audrey Watters wrote in 2015 about the invented history of the factory model of schooling, which she argues is used to justify the need for an ‘upgrade’.

To accuse schools and teachers of rigidly and unimaginatively churning students through regimented, authoritarian, one-size-fits-one education, is to do teachers, schools and school leaders a great disservice.

As I wrote recently: education is not broken and teachers do not need fixing. Education is not operating in the deep deficit that is sometimes the subject of media headlines, reports or popular rhetoric. Teachers deeply know their students. They use a range of data to adjust planning, teaching and assessment to address their students’ needs. They are experts in their fields who know their content and how to teach it. They use a range of resources and technologies to deepen content knowledge and skills, and to allow individualisation and accessibility of learning. They give a range of meaningful feedback. They build productive relationships with students, parents, one another and those in the wider community. Our teachers are working hard every day to empower students and develop their capabilities, relationships and citizenship as well as their knowledge and skills.

Yes, we can consider how to better structure schools and build in further agility. Yes, we can develop the ways in which we harness technologies to do education better. Yes, we can all work to improve our policies, processes and practices, to serve our students and communities more effectively. Yes, we can challenge the measures of success in education and the ways in which students, teachers, school leaders and schools are judged in terms of their positive impact. We can resist external pressures and consider what really matters. We can imagine and enact better ways of doing things. We can consider relevance, authenticity, values, purpose, agency, identity. We can respectfully challenge one another and those leading education systems. We can advocate for our students, families, communities, teachers and school leaders, their learning, their voice, their wellbeing.

Flip the System Australia argues for equity and democracy, and for the elevation and amplification of those in schools and classrooms: students, teachers, school leaders. As Adam Brooks said at the Perth launch of the book: We (teachers and school and system leaders) are the system. We can drive change from the ground up, as the original Flip the System book argues. Peter Hutton today challenged those educators present to “do what you can do now.” “Do what you’re allowed to do,” he said, “and then do a little bit more.”

For me, innovation in education is about interrogating where voice, power and agency reside. It is worth asking: who has power and influence? Who has control of measures, expectations, systems, norms and processes? Who has autonomy, voice and ownership? And what can we each do, now, that is productive and meaningful for our students?