Teaching and leading schools in a #posttruth word of #altfacts

General Hux's speech in The Force Awakens (reddit.com)

General Hux’s speech in The Force Awakens (source – reddit.com)

Post-truth: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. ~ Oxford Dictionary

To my continued astonishment, we are living in a post-truth world. ‘Post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year. The Trump administration in its first week seemed to impersonate the Star Wars totalitarian First Order when it claimed that it was not lying but providing the public with ‘alternative facts’. Then, gag orders were placed on a number of government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services. (Hurrah for whoever tweeted rebelliously about inauguration crowds and climate change from the National Parks Service ‘Badlands National Park’ account.) 

For a Western government to blatantly deny reality is at once baffling and terrifying. Hello, propaganda. Hello, the invocation of untruths (sorry, ‘alternative facts’) to smother any unfavourable actuality.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The misuse and abuse of language and facts is something that dystopian and speculative fiction has been warning of for decades, and something that history tells us has the ability to tap into the hive mind and rally societies around a common, often chilling, cause or leader. 

In this post I’ll explore the notion of a post-truth world of alternative facts and empty emotive rhetoric, around two arenas in my own life: teaching English and Literature, and my new role at my school, which encompasses in part engagement with research across the school.

First, to teaching in a post-truth world …

With the school year beginning next week, my Year 12 English team are finalising the texts to be taught and studied this Australian academic year. We’ve been tossing up between two contemporary texts about modern issues like gender, sporting culture and bullying, but every day the news and my social media feed give me a nagging feeling, a tugging at my literary shirt sleeve, a whisper to pause, take stock, listen. And dig out a dystopian classic.

Last year we taught the 12s Fahrenheit 451, a text that portrays books as dangerous threats to government control and societal compliance. This year perhaps we should teach Orwell’s 1984. Its Ministry of Truth, that falsifies historical events, and Newspeak, a language that restricts freedom of thought, are more relevant than ever. In fact, Orwell’s novel has this week rocketed to number 1 on the Amazon best sellers list.

A more recent text also comes to mind. Lionel Shriver’s 2016 The Mandibles, set between 2029 and 2047, is an economic dystopia that imagines the USA’s collapse. In her novel, the bungling US government has little respect for its citizens. First world problems like gluten intolerance disappear as violence and poverty rise. It is Mexico that builds an electrified, computerised, constantly-surveyed fence to keep desperate Americans illegals out.

Of course as a teacher of English and Literature I teach versions of reality and multiplicity of perspectives, but that plurality doesn’t stretch to bald-faced lies for the purposes of propaganda, banning scientists from speaking, or removing language like ‘climate change’ from government policy and websites. Language matters. It shapes thought. It wields power. It’s our job as teachers to elevate our students’ capacities to engage critically with their world. To be sceptical consumers of what they see, hear and read, and to be empowered to use language as an agentic tool.

Next, to school leadership in a world of alternative facts …

I am also coming to terms with how schools might respond to this post-truth world. This is especially relevant to me as I have just begun a new role at my school (new to me and new to the school). It is a senior leadership role that encompasses the use of evidence and research to make informed decisions from the classroom to the boardroom, as well to underpin and frame pedagogy, professional learning, performance review processes and capacity building across the organisation.

In this paper published online on 18 January, Brown and Greany (2017, p.1)—thanks to Gary Jones, whose blog is a great resource in this space, for sharing it—write:

Educational evidence rarely translates into simple, linear changes in practice in the ways that what-works advocates might hope. Instead, … evidence must be combined with practitioner expertise to create new knowledge which improves decision making and enriches practice so that, ultimately, children’s learning is enhanced.

This focus on what Brown and Greany call ‘what matters’ as well as ‘what works’ resonates with me. As Jon Andrews (channelling Marilyn Cochran-Smith) reminds us, teaching is unforgivingly complex. If we schools and educators are to really engage with research, then we need to honour our own contexts and value our own wisdom of practice. Teachers and schools can and should engage with research. I’m grateful that my school is able to create a role like mine in order to elevate evidence and research, execute research initiatives, and further embed scientific thinking and data analytics into the fabric of the school a culture. I’m grateful that there are schools around the world bringing evidence, mindfulness and crticiality to their decision making and pedagogy.

In a post-truth world, how do we balance a respect for truth, evidence and reason, with an honouring of plurality, multiplicity and praxis? How might we use literature or research as vehicles for respecting perspectives, while exploring challenges and possibilities?

Managing a rotation curation Twitter account: My week hosting @EduTweetOz

source: gettyimages

source: gettyimages

This week I’m experiencing my first time in the host chair of a rotation curation, or #RoCur, account.

I have followed @EduTweetOz for some time and noticed how different educators seem to breeze through the host chair. I’d never considered the thought they may have had to put into hosting. But once I was invited and then appointed for a week, I felt a greater responsibility than just doing what I do with my personal account, @debsnet. Was what I did and said in my personal account appropriate in a shared account? Surely I couldn’t just dip in and out as I saw fit, jumping down rabbit holes and leaping off on tangents, as whims arose? I felt I needed to have some clarity for myself in terms of how I would approach an account that is not my own; I’m just slipping on the robes for a week.

I was also aware that I needed to manage my time and wellbeing during the week, while honouring the account administrators, the @EduTweetOz community and the commitment I made to hosting. This week I am doing my usual working (teaching! marking! reports! planning for 2017!) and parenting, plus copy editing a textbook, reviewing an academic paper for an international journal and co-authoring a book chapter. So for me, planning how I would approach the account was as much about protecting my mental and physical health in a busy week as it was trying to do a good job. I didn’t want to feel anxious and guilty for letting the account down.

The thing is, there isn’t a clear set of protocols or measures for what doing a good job of hosting @EduTweetOz might be. The host is given carte blanche to manage the account for a week as they see fit. How do the administrators or followers measure a host’s success? Number of new followers? Number of tweets per day? Amount of engagement from others? Tone? Humour? Enthusiasm? Availability? Responsiveness?

Know thy purpose

In the uncertainty that comes with the freedom to do as I saw fit, I set myself my own purpose for the week. I was hoping to engage educators in discussion, and also highlight some of those voices in social media that I rely on in my own personal learning network. What a great opportunity to share with others the value of educators, academics and thinkers who energise and buoy me.

I’ve also been happy to add some of my favourite educators to those followed by the @EduTweetOz account. These were people I think will bring a richness to the community and the account’s timeline.

Be prepared

I knew I wouldn’t manage this week well without a plan, especially considering my multiple commitments. So before my week on the account began, I sat down and scoped it out. To what topics might I draw attention? Which tweeters’ and bloggers’ thinking could I share? My plan was loose but it gave me a sense of direction and I knew I wouldn’t run out of steam or ideas as the week wore on.

I decided to ask a question per day and made up a (regrettably long) hashtag to trace the conversations: #EduTweetOzSlowChat. I pre-prepared slides for each question and scheduled the daily question to be tweeted out each day at 4am Perth time, which is 7am Melbourne/Sydney time.

Scheduling those questions for when I am sleeping allayed some of my worries about being unavailable during the East coast mornings when much of the country is up and ready to engage. Each morning this week, by the time I wake up on the West coast I already have tweets to respond to on the account.

Consider voice

In my own Twitter account I am comfortable with my voice, the way I ‘speak’ and communicate. While I was absolutely comfortable with being myself during my @EduTweetOz week, I also felt a different sense of obligation to the account administrators. Is my authentic social media voice appropriate in an account administrated by others and on which I am a guest? Can I say exactly what I want in precisely the way I want? To what extent do I need to be tactful or restrained?

On my second day I found myself in amongst a lot of humour and parody, and I was wondering if it was ok to indulge in that, or if it might be seen as flippant, and if that mattered, or to whom it mattered (oh, the overthinking!). I found myself, in the first couple of days, hyper aware of what others might think. I have found my groove, though, and settled into it.

Different educators have different styles: friendly, supportive, provocative, intellectual, colloquial, personal, academic. That’s the beauty of a #RoCur account. @EduTweetOz sets this diversity up nicely by posting an interview with the week’s host as a kind of introduction; here’s mine.

Engage with community             

I was aware of the opportunity and responsibility that comes with 10K+ followers, more than double the amount of followers I have on my personal account. I know that if I magnify voices, accounts or tweets across the week, they will have some reach. On what basis am I making decisions about what to project into the Twitterverse from this account to which I briefly have the keys?

I decided to retweet most responses to the account, in order to amplify the conversations being had in that space, and as a mark of respect and appreciation. Most people have been applying the @EduTweetOz Twitter handle to their own tweets for real dialogue rather than blatant self-promotion.

So far, I’ve been pleased with my daily chat questions as a way to begin conversation. Interestingly, my first daily question was the most positive, and has received the least response. The questions that have been around more controversial or complex issues have incited the most community engagement.

I also attempted my first Twitter poll, which is still open for voting at time of writing. I figured that with a large, diverse following, I could canvas a range of community opinion. The options I offered in the poll were crowd-sourced, emerging from the day’s responses to my question around what causes educators to feel skeptical or despairing about education.

………………………………………………..

I still have a couple of days left of hosting the @EduTweetOz account this week. I’m enjoying the foray into a different social media experience. In addition to my own reflections, I can recommend this post that Aaron Davis wrote after he hosted the account last month. Both of us reflect that a rotation curation account comes with ethical decision making and an opportunity to give back to the village.

Meanwhile, I’m here all week. Try the veal.

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.

Gloss and light: On PhDs and education debates

by @debsnet

I love a good metaphor. I really do. I blog around metaphors a lot – coaching as strawberry picking, PhD thesis as stone sculpture, selves as kaleidoscopes, connections as webs. Additionally, my PhD data revealed participants’ identity metaphors, which I found invigorating and fascinating to map and interrogate. Metaphors help us to think in different ways. They provide a powerful vehicle and a coherent frame for defining our realities.

So I was interested to read of Brett Salakas’ use of metaphor in his Education Nation keynote this week, ‘PISA Pipe Dreams’. I wasn’t at Education Nation, so only have Twitter and this blog post by Brendan Mitchell on which to base my response. I tweeted some thoughts to Brendan and Brett after I had read the blog post. In my tweets, I noted that I agreed with Brett’s points that education and what works is contextual, that reliance on external testing metrics like PISA needs continued critique, and that education should begin with and be guided by its core purpose. I also had some wonderings around two metaphors Brett used, a couple of which I flesh out below.

Metaphor 1: The glossy PhD

This one got me thinking. Brett had a slide in which he outlined what he was not. One thing he was not, according to this slide, was “someone with a glossy PhD”. As a newly-doctored PhD, I found this way of looking at the Doctor of Philosophy amusing and bemusing. I understand that Brett was outlining his perspective to the audience (and the English teacher in me loves a good adjective), but my experience of the PhD is anything but ‘glossy’.

Gloss suggests both shininess and superficiality. It is shiny and lustrous. A gloss can be a veneer covering a lack of substance or hiding something sinister below the surface. Certainly, I popped champagne and luxuriated in the joy of the beautiful final thesis document, and I’m kind of looking forward to donning my graduation regalia. Yet, the experience of much of the PhD is about being down and dirty, not glossy and sparkling. And certainly not superficial.

To explain the messiness and struggle of the PhD, the rabbit hole became a metaphor for me. I was Alice, tumbling deep into a new world, on a journey of sense-making and self-making. I was simultaneously the rabbit, burrowing into dark earth. Digging, digging, digging, the light far behind me and the unilluminated darkness ahead. The PhD is all about embracing discomfort. It’s about persistence, sweat, tears, keystrokes, insomnia, the pit of despair and occasionally the triumph when breakdowns turn to breakthroughs. It’s the ultimate in transformative learning. And it is hard. Stories of struggle abound. It’s the opposite of gloss and glamour. It’s wailing at a computer screen while wearing your least fashionable pajamas. It’s furrowing your brow for hours at a time as you pour over literatures in an attempt to understand the world in new ways and through new eyes. It’s spending years obsessing over an issue about which you feel passion deep at your core. It is reading and writing and deleting and re-writing and gnashing teeth.

Am I someone with a PhD? Yep. Is it glossy? I don’t think so (although I might buy some fabulous shoes to wear to graduation). I’m someone deeply marked with that experience in the way I think, read, write, learn, talk, assess evidence, and work through critical feedback from others. I know more now about all that I don’t know. I still have the dirt of the rabbit hole beneath my fingernails and the scrapes on my knees from a personal and intellectual journey that was rough and wonderful, not soft and silken.

Metaphor 2: Be the light in the darkness

In his blog post, Brendan shared that the takeaway message from Brett’s keynote was that we as educators need to be beacons of positivity to stave off the darkness and the negativity. In some ways I agree with the notion of ‘being the light’. I tend to be someone who is less combative and more co-operative. I advocate for compassionate and graceful debate, rather than divisive attack. I celebrate and advocate, rather than confront or complain.

However, I also see some dangers in the notion that educators embrace being positive and shining light, without considering ‘the darkness’ or negativity. Some of the most famous stories have two sides, both deeply committed to their cause and believing that their position is right. Folk heroes like Robin Hood and Ned Kelly can be seen as criminal outlaws or people’s heroes, depending on point of view. The Star Wars Rebel Alliance can be viewed as the goodies, or as a rag-tag band of terrorists disturbing the order of the Galactic Empire. I’ve been in school leadership roles now for 15 years, and the more I have led, the more I have learned to value those who question or resist. I ask myself: What can we learn from the perspectives of those who don’t agree, don’t embrace new change, or who have negative things to say? Where are they coming from? How might this change be made meaningful for them? What might be missing? What might their points of view offer? Negative or oppositional voices are not ‘the darkness’, but rather alternate perspectives to be heard, understood and considered.

Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman, in The Adaptive School: A source book for developing collaborative groups, point out that high functioning groups are not happy agreeable places. In fact, they say that low functioning groups tend to be polite and reluctant to engage in dialogue about differences. High functioning groups are ones that embrace cognitive conflict and graceful disagreement.

But not all disagreement is helpful. Unproductive conflict, Garmston and Wellman argue, includes disagreements over personalised, individually-oriented matters which are destructive and lead to decreased empathy and poorer decisions. Productive conflict, on the other hand, is where substantive differences of opinion are thoughtfully thrashed out in order to increase empathy, develop understanding and make better decisions. In productive disagreement, the aim is to understand conflicting viewpoints and honour all perspectives while working together towards a decision.

If the education community is to be a high functioning one, it too needs to be ok with being challenged and with productive disagreement. We need to poke around in the darkness, trying to understand and illuminate it. Finding ways forward in education is less about divisive arguments or staving off those with whom we don’t agree. It’s more about seeking to understand competing perspectives in order to agree on the why, how and what of education, so we can do the best job for our students.

Thanks to Brendan and Brett for getting me thinking.

Reflections on researchED Melbourne #rEdMel

I’ve landed back in Perth after a whirlwind trip to Melbourne for this year’s researchED conference. This post is an attempt to unravel the tangled threads in my head, after what was a big day of thinking, listening and talking.

On coaching: Our panel

Being on a panel with Corinne Campbell, Chris Munro and Jon Andrews was the highlight of the day for me. That included not only the panel presentation but the opportunity to be in the same place, at the same time, able to flesh out our ideas about coaching together (as well as plenty of other educational issues).

Founder of researchED, Tom Bennett, saw the four of us working together early in the day and joked that it was like four Avengers coming together in one movie. That struck a chord with me, because we are four individuals deeply committed to making a difference in our own contexts, in four different Australian cities. But we’ve come together across social media time and space to collaborate on #educoachOC, a monthly Twitter chat on coaching in education, which aims to centralise, clarify and tease out the global conversation around coaching in schools. I met Corinne and Chris for the first time at last year’s researchED conference in Sydney, the first Australian iteration. I hadn’t met Jon until yesterday, yet we’ve been collaborating for months, and talking about practice, writing, leadership and coaching.

So getting together with my fellow Avengers was like landing in my nerd heartland for a day. We are, however, less about avenging and more about advocating for supporting teachers and trusting in their capacities for improvement. Coaching was revealed in the panel discussion as an enhancement and growth process, not a deficit model for fixing underperformers.

Our panel seemed well-received, and I learned from my fellow panellists as we covered what we mean by coaching, why each of our schools adopted coaching, what it looks like in each school, the impacts we’ve noticed, and the broader implications for coaching in schools. We explored issues of trust, implementation and mandation. We considered the conference theme: how coaching might fit with ‘working out what works’. On the one hand coaching does not prescribe ‘what works’ to coachees, and yet coaching has been shown to work. It is a researched but contested approach to learning and growth, with coaching models varying in intent and execution. Coaching is about practitioners being given the time and space to work out what works, for them, in their contexts.

On research ethics: My presentation

My individual presentation was on a topic I later described on Twitter as the unsexy undergarments of research: ethics. Necessary and crucial, but often viewed as unexciting. I looked at ethical considerations and decision making, for teachers researching their own schools, using my PhD study as an example.

I shared this quote from Helen Kara’s book Creative research methods in the social sciences:

Ethics should underpin every single step of research, from the first germ of an idea to the last act after dissemination. And ethical problems require ethical decision-making – which allows for creativity.

Here, Helen reminds researchers that ethics is creative problem solving. It does have to be well-considered, systematic, respectful and just (see the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research), but it doesn’t need to be tedious.

I outlined the ethical challenges in my PhD, and the ways in which I grappled with those and made decisions. My operationalising of ethical solutions included writing information letters and consent forms; using an independent interviewer to interview teacher participants (and a rigorous approach to protecting teacher identities); designing deliberate interview protocols; drawing data together into composite stories; and utilising metaphor to protect participants while making interpretive meaning.

I discussed the benefits and limitations to being a researcher embedded in one’s own context. Below are the implications and questions I ended with.

Evidence-based practice in education

Among other presentations, I saw two on using evidence and research in schools, one by Gary Jones and another by Ray Swann. What I enjoyed about both approaches to evidence-based and research-informed practice in schools, is that they promoted valuing of not only the ‘best available evidence’, but also the wisdom of practice of teachers and school leaders. That is, they valued tacit knowledge and the expertise that comes with lived experience. They also acknowledged the value-laden and culturally-influenced nature of using evidence in schools. I think these are important layers to understanding what works in schools, and how schools can work towards finding what is shown to work in other contexts, and how they might therefore pursue what works in their own.

What I enjoy about Gary’s work is that he provides explicit frames for applying systematic approaches to evidence-based practice. He manages to make sense of the complexities of evidence-based practice, in order to communicate it with clarity, and in a way that educators can understand and apply. I recommend reading his blog and his handbook for evidence-based practice.

The researchED Avengers?

Thinking back to Tom’s analogy of the Avengers, the crowd at researchED is kind of like a room of fantastical superheroes. Here were close to 200 educators—teachers, school leaders, researchers and professors, each with their own individual gifts, talents, passions, stories and arenas of expertise—spending their Saturday dedicated to learning, connecting and talking about working out what works in education. There were some great questions from the audiences in the sessions I attended. Those that got me thinking included:

“Who decides what the ‘best available evidence’ is and how do they decide?”

“Where should coaching happen and how long should a coaching conversation be?”

“If you were start your research again, would you make the same decisions?”

There were also great comments, questions and provocations from those educators on Twitter who were engaging with the conference hashtag from afar, adding another level of richness to the online and offline conversations.

When Dylan Wiliam popped into the speakers’ dinner, it added a further layer to discussions. Here was another educator coming out to talk education on a Saturday night, after coming straight from presenting at a national conference, and before getting up the next day to present all day again. For me, it was great to be able to discuss his new book, Leadership for Teacher Learning, the use of the Danielson Framework for Teaching, and performance pay.

Tom describes researchED as built on and powered by (I’m paraphrasing and embellishing here) blood, sweat, volunteers and fairy dust. That is, those supporting this conference, around the world—including participants, presenters and schools—care deeply about education. These are people dedicated to making classrooms and schools better places for better learning.

It was a pleasure to be part of the conversation for the second year in a row. I’ve been left with plenty to think about.

_____________________

And some more reading …

You can see my reasons for attending researchED Melbourne 2016 here.

Jon Andrews has shared his reflections on Melbourne’s researchED here.

Pamela Snow has written this post about her presentation at yesterday’s researchED on justice re-investment.

Greg Ashman wrote this post about his day at researchED.

Gary Jones wrote this post reflecting on Melbourne’s researchED.

Susan Bradbeer has written this post about her experience of researchED from afar, as someone who followed the conversation on social media and the blogosphere.

Tom Bennett had some reflections after the Melbourne event, published here on the TES blog.

You can see my reflections on researchED Sydney 2015 here.

Santa Claus Phenomenon: The hidden magic of coaching & leading

It’s not until you’re a grown up that you realise Christmas doesn’t just ‘happen’. That magical day was pulled together by the incredibly stressed adults in your family. ~ Rosie Waterland in this post about Christmas

Sometimes in adult life we engineer magic. With glee we secretly make the miraculous and enchanting happen for others.

As parents, we realise how engineered the magic of Christmas is. We kind of know it when we discover that our parents are really Santa, but it’s not until we create Santa for our own children that we appreciate the hard work that goes into it.

All the preamble, that constant constructing of stories of Santa and reindeer and the intricate goings-on of Christmas Eve. Answering questions about store Santas and how Santa gets into the house and where the reindeer park the sleigh. Stealthy gift shopping, gift assembling and gift wrapping. On Christmas Eve there’s waiting until the children are definitely asleep and then assembling the gifts, artfully nibbling a cookie, enthusiastically chomping a carrot, dusting snowy footprints to the tree (and then closing the pet out so they don’t ruin the footprints overnight). This is magic that requires long term planning and strategic operation. 

Then: Christmas morning! Children wake. Santa’s magic comes alive. The Santa narrative seems not only possible, but real and wonderful. The children shower gratitude on the mysterious and benevolent figure of Santa. There are joyous cries of, “Thank you, Santa!” and “Santa got me exactly what I wanted!” How they glow with appreciation for the jolly red fellow and his generosity. Somehow he knew exactly what they needed at this point in their lives.

Of course, I do all of this because I enjoy the looks of amazement on my children’s faces and the thought that they feel part of something fantastical. But sometimes, as a parent, I secretly think, ‘It was us! It’s us you should be thanking!’ In these moments, I want my children to realise that all that joy is down to my husband and I. We contrived and concocted this whole thing. Of course I don’t ruin the magic. I encourage their belief and enjoy their wonder (they are currently 4 and 5). But part of me still sometimes wants recognition for all the hard work of being Santa and providing the magic.

Christmas Eve vignette from our place

Christmas Eve vignette from our place

There are two professional roles where I think this Santa Claus Phenomenon (no, it’s not a thing; I just made it up) plays out in professional life: the coach and the leader. It’s not that these roles are magical, but both have a sense of hard work going on behind the scenes, potentially without recognition from the recipient. Like the parents acting as Santa, both roles require the person to provide others with what they most need in that moment.

Coaching is hard cognitive work. In this post, I used the metaphor of the duck to describe the coaching experience; the duck’s legs paddle manically below the surface while above the water, all seems serene. So the coach works hard, but in order to be effective, this work needs to be imperceptible to the coachee. In fact, in order to best serve the coachee, the work of the coach needs to draw out and draw on the coach’s inner resources, so that they shine brightly. The coach is the hidden passageway or the mirror to self.

Similarly, a leader who empowers their staff can sometimes feel like the unsung hero. This kind of leadership is the subtle and invisible kind. Stepping back so others can step forward. Subtly coaching and nudging and encouraging and scaffolding. This isn’t brave sword-wielding white-knight stuff, the celebrated charismatic leader on the public stage. It’s about believing in and nurturing others’ capacities, in sometimes imperceptible ways. It is hard work with plenty of setting up and engineering for successes, but it’s done quietly in the background and sometimes no one sees this leader’s careful preparation and toil.

How do coaches who want to build the internal resources of their coachees, and leaders who aim to build their organisations by developing their people, interact with the Santa Claus Phenomenon? How do coaches and leaders celebrate or measure their wins? One way in a coaching conversation is in the responses to the question at the end in which the coach asks something like “How has your thinking shifted from the beginning of the conversation to now?” Leaders can know their own impacts by tracking the progress of their teams and individuals. But perhaps in both cases, others won’t notice the impacts, or the careful steps the leader conducted to get there.

I’ve written a paper for the Heroism Science conference that explores the idea of the less-visible leader. The leader who empowers. The coach who helps develop the coachee’s self-efficacy through layered and complex, but barely visible, practice. I wonder how this kind of leadership plays out in reality. Is the knowledge of one’s own impact enough? What happens when others don’t recognise that a coach or leader is engineering the magic? What if, from outside, it seems like the coach or leader isn’t doing anything? Is that as it should be–the noble but unseen work of coaching and leadership–or is it problematic?

The index-cardification of education

This blog post (a kind of montage-pastiche of educational observations) was inspired by Jon Andrews’ wonderful post today, Trouble Brewing at Snake Mountain High, which used the characters of He-Man and Skeletor to make some very powerful comments about education.

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The following is a transcript of a podcast in which Dr Adora, school principal at Etheria College, speaks to Mr Hordak, head consultantpreneur at the Institute of Think Tankery and Toolkitisms.

Adora: Hello Mr Hordak. Thank you for joining me for this week’s Education Newsroom podcast.

Hordak: Thanks, Dr Adora. It’s great to be here. I’m looking forward to clearing up some common misconceptions about our work and sharing some of the great things we’re doing at the Institute.

Adora: Your work at the Institute has caused some backlash in the educational community …

Hordak: Well, we at the Institute of Think Tankery and Toolkitisms are getting a bit sick of being called ‘the Evil Horde’ in the media. We are doing excellent work. We have developed toolkits which really distil the business of teaching down to its essence. There’s no reason for teachers and schools to get caught up in worrying about research and innovation and such. We’ve done all the hard work for you! Our toolkits each provide a one-page summary which tells you all you need to know. About teaching literacy in the early years for instance. Or about instruction in the sciences. Or assessment. It’s index cards for the profession, if you like.

Adora: But Mr Hordak, you aren’t listening to the profession. Those working in schools want to engage in thinking about, reflecting on and interrogating our practices. We want to engage in research literatures and what insights these might offer to our own contexts. We enjoy engaging in robust debate that teases out our understandings or challenges us to think differently and act deliberately. As a principal, I don’t want a one-size-fits-all straightjacket or a one page simplification of the complex work my staff and I do. I want my teachers to consider the needs of their students, the idiosyncrasies of our school and the ways in which we might work together to serve our students.

Hordak: Let me interrupt you there, Dr Adora. We at the Institute make your work easier. We make sure your people are doing teaching right. We cut through the mumbo jumbo and the disputes between educational factions who are constantly warring and disagreeing about what should and shouldn’t be done. You can say goodbye to having to listen to experts and academics and teachers banging on about their apparent knowledge and expertise and, ahem, research studies. We’ve done the analyses and the diagrammatic representationising and the product researchervisation. We are experts in education thinkification and edu-preneurial-innovationism. You don’t need to do all that time consuming thrashing about with ideas, or unproductive action research in professional learning communities. For too long the concept of teaching has been spiralling out of control into some kind of overblown and meaningless discussion. We’ve given it meaning again. Clear, indisputable meaning.

Adora: But as you noted, Mr Hordak, those actually on the ground, teaching and leading in schools, don’t like the way you’ve distilled teaching down into atomised parts. Teaching and school leadership aren’t things you can streamline into wafer-thin pieces. School culture isn’t something you can cook up from a shake-and-bake packet. These things are contested for a reason. They are complex. They are nuanced. They are contextual.

Hordak: Types like you won’t ever come to understand what we at the Institute understand. Overthinking, egomaniacal principals like you will continue to ‘lead’ your schools into the ground. Why overwork your teachers when you have the short, sweet recipes for success at your fingertips? Even now my Think Tankery minions are finialising our brand management and commodification procedures. My Toolkitists are reassessing our pictorial illustrations for their effective cognitive impactiness and persuasivity.

Adora: To me your toolkits and pictures-of-practice sound like Orwell’s totalitarian Newspeak, in which the complexities of thought and action are deliberately limited through the distilling of language down to parts. This no longer allows the kinds of thinking we want teachers and leaders to be doing. You are attempting to control teaching in order to make money. In doing so, you are destroying the profession, not helping it.

Hordak: That’s where you’re wrong, Dr Adora, so very very wrong. We are purists. Our index-cardification of education allows not only the guidance of practice, but also its measurement. You can have all the data you’ll ever need. Our one page summaries aren’t just index cards, they’re score cards. Everyone from principals like yourself to education ministers can easily and quickly score teachers against our simple formulae in order to determine their effectiveness and punish or reward them as appropriate. Failing teachers and failing schools have never been easier to identify. This is the future of education! At this very moment we are in discussions with the Ministry of Education in order to distribute the work of the Institute throughout the country. We will influence every school and every teacher. Mwahahahahhh!

Adora: Well, that’s all we have time for today, Mr Hordak, but I’m sure there are many educators around the nation despairing at the thought that organisations like yours might have power over the important work that they do.

End of transcript.

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An afterword …

Since writing this post, the following blog posts have been written by other bloggers exploring satire and/or 80s icons as lenses into educational issues. They are well worth a read.

A pedagogy of Astro Boy, by Stewart Riddle

The Missing Superheroes, by Corinne Campbell

Eye on Education, by Mark Johnson