Teachers and school leaders: Why write?

I challenged myself at the beginning of the year to do less good things in order to do even better things (thank you Dylan Wiliam, for the soundbite inspiration). I work full time as a teacher and senior leader in a school; have a young family, and am myself a human being with relationships, interests, and needs (this last one is something those of us in caring and teaching professions sometimes forget in our commitment to help others).

And I write. On this blog, for academic journals, for education books, for conference presentations. I have also been co-editing a book and a special issue of an academic journal. In order to give back to the machine of academic writing, I also peer review papers for academic journals. All of this is unpaid work and volunteered time, especially as my day job is to serve the students and community of my school. I do have an honorary academic position with a university, but it is just that: honorary. There is no financial reward or professional expectation that I engage in the world of academic publishing.

I’ve been reminded about the writing part of my life this week, as a couple of papers and a chapter have resurfaced from the academic publishing and peer review pipelines through which they have been traveling. Writing for academic journals and books is like that. It comes in peaks and troughs, with pieces disappearing for a time before reappearing to be re-thought, re-written, and re-submitted. There is the original writing of the paper, chapter, or conference abstract—sometimes an immersion or deep dive; sometimes a laborious stop-start process; and sometimes a collaborative dance between authors—followed by the first submission. Then there is the wait for peer reviews, which can take months at a time. By the time the reviewer comments appear, the paper can be looked at with fresh eyes and new energy. Then it’s revise, resubmit, repeat. Once an abstract is accepted it’s time to think about preparing the presentation (ok, maybe not until closer to the conference date); or once a paper is accepted and it goes into production, contracts, queries from copyeditors, and checks from typesetters follow.

So why do I spend time in these writing, co-writing, and revision processes? Why write at all when the job of a teacher or school leader is so busy already?

Here are my three top reasons for engaging in academic writing as a teacher and school leader.

  1. WRITING BEGETS READING

It may seem counter intuitive, but to engage in writing, I need to engage in reading. Each time I write or revise a paper, chapter, or a blog post, I return to research literature in order to check in with the current state of play in education research. So academic writing incites academic reading and engagement with research. It keeps my thinking current and keeps me on top of education debates, knowledge, and research findings.

  1. PEER REVIEW BUILDS MY CAPACITY TO RECEIVE FEEDBACK

The peer review process is usually double blind, which means that the reviewers don’t know who the author is, and the author doesn’t know who the reviewers are. This means that peer review feedback on academic writing is very honest. There is no sugar coating or euphemising of feedback. Reviewers tell you what they think: the good, the bad, and the brutal. They pull no punches.

Receiving peer review feedback has helped me to be a better receiver of feedback in my working life. It means that I have a process for considering critique. In the school environment this might be honest comments submitted to anonymous staff or student surveys, or verbal push back from staff about a change or a professional expectation.

I sit with difficult feedback for a while. I consider it and turn it over, step away from it, and return to it seeking to understand the perspective of the reviewer. I ask myself questions like: What didn’t they understand and why? What could be made clearer or more meaningful? What assumptions might I have made in my writing or decision making that need adjustment in order for the work or intervention to be improved?

Engaging in double blind peer review has meant that I actively seek out critical, candid feedback, and that I can sit with, consider, seek to understand, and then thoughtfully act upon that feedback.

  1. CONTRIBUTING A PRACTISING EDUCATOR VOICE TO EDUCATION NARRATIVES

There is a necessity for, and a credibility that comes from, teachers and school leaders having a voice in education narratives. We are the ones each day in classrooms, with students, communicating with parents, considering the hard and soft data of our practice and making hundreds of decisions per day. Writing about our work, our experiences, our thinking, our expertise, and our wisdom and problems of practice, promotes conversations between educators across contexts and contributes practitioner voices to education narratives, so often dominated by those not actually in the business of teaching.

The upcoming book I’ve co-edited, Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, is all about the importance of listening to, and inviting to decision making and policymaking tables, teachers and school leaders. It argues that education systems should not be top-down and driven by political election cycles and vote-grabbing, but by deep engagement with the teaching profession and those who actually work, every day, in schools.

I hope that my writing encourages others working in schools to speak out, and to write about their thinking, experiences, and expertise.

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The ‘Flip the System Australia’ book is in production

Flip the System

This week the book manuscript for Flip the System Australia: What matters in education, has moved from the editorial team to the production team at Routledge. It is ‘in press’, which means that the full manuscript will be copy-edited, typeset and a cover designed. You can check out the contents and pre-order it here.

The book is edited by Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson and I. It includes a collection of 27 chapters by a range of educators, mostly from Australia but also perspectives from around the world. The contributing teachers, school leaders, educators and scholars are: Jon Andrews, Gert Biesta, Susan Bradbeer, Paul Browning, Carol Campbell, Keren Caple, Kelly Cheung, Flossie S. G. Chua, Rebecca Cody, Benjamin Doxtdator, Scott Eacott, Melissa Fotea, Carla Gagliano, Ryan Gill, Dan Haesler, Gavin Hays, Andy Hargreaves, Adam Hendry, Anna Hogan, Melitta Hogarth, Tomaz Lasic, Ben Lewis, Bob Lingard, Rachel Lofthouse, Kevin Lowe, Cameron Malcher, Chris Munro, Deborah Netolicky (me!), Michael T. O’Connor, Cameron Paterson, David Perkins, David Rutkowski, Pasi Sahlberg, Sam Sellar, Yasodai Selvakumaran, Greg Thompson, Ray Trotter, Shaneé Washington, and Daniel Wilson.

What draws the book’s contributions together is their ‘flip the education system’ theme. The Flip the System movement is not our own. The first book in the series (preceded itself by other publications, which we explain in the book) was Flip the System: Changing education from the ground up, edited by Dutch teachers Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (2016). The Swedish version, Flip the system: Förändra skolan från grunden, was edited by Per Kornhall, Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (2017). The UK version, Flip the System UK: A teachers’ manifesto, was edited by teachers Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Jean-Louis Dutaut (2018). Flip the System is a loose kind of series in which the notion of ‘flipping the education system’ evolves as diverse international voices explore what this might look like.

In previous Flip the System books, the editors and authors have called for a reprofessionalising of the teaching profession; an education system in which teachers are empowered to influence the education system, rather than being dictated to by top-down bureaucracy. When I explained this theme to a colleague recently, their response was laughing out loud. Is the idea, of teachers being empowered to shape the education landscape, laughable?

Certainly it is easy to feel disempowered as a teacher in an education system obsessed with measurement and competition. Education appears to be a political football constantly booted around for votes. It is also an increasingly corporatised arena in which companies peddle solutions and generate relentless data.

Can those in schools—teachers and school leaders, and even students—be empowered agents in the system, rather than fodder for the education machine? We think so.

To give an idea of the kinds of material covered by the book, sub-themes of the chapters in Flip the System Australia include:

  • Democratising education and addressing inequity.
  • Resistance to mechanisms or systems driven by performance, dehumanised measurement, increased competition, and constant edu-surveillance.
  • Replacing top-down accountability with support for teachers and teacher-led, inside-out reform.
  • Teacher leadership, autonomy, empowerment, and professionalism.
  • Elevating the voices of those working in schools.
  • Learning and leading for a system that honours those who spend each day in our schools, including teachers, school leaders, students and families.

As Jon, Cam and I have edited this book, we have realised why teacher voices are often absent from education debates. It isn’t just that teachers are not usually invited to decision making tables, or that they are often placed at the bottom of education power structures. There are ethical dimensions to our work which mean that we cannot always share our stories or give the media newsworthy soundbites. Our stories are also those of our students and our communities, and we are responsible for protecting them. Also, teaching is complex and demanding work, and teachers and school leaders are in the service of their students. Where is the time for contributing to the system when we are busily working inside the system?

We three editors each work full time in our schools. We have written our chapters and edited this book in our ‘leisure time’ (note the ironic inverted commas). I was surprised to realise that while we have each met each other (I have met Jon; I have met Cam; they have met one another), at no point have the three of us been in the same physical room together. The magic of Skype, Zoom, Google Docs, Twitter, and Dropbox have meant that we could collaborate from afar, in our own timezones and our own time.

We have done this work, as Flip the System editors and authors have done before us, because we think that this book and these authors have something important to contribute to the conversation on education. We are thrilled to be able to give a platform to teachers, school leaders and education researchers. We are grateful for the generosity of the contributing authors. We know there are voices missing from this book, but we hope the book can be part of a move to diversify the voices to whom others listen around education.

Flip the System Australia is coming. And we can’t wait to hold a print copy in our hands.

You can follow the progress of the book on Twitter via @flipthesystemoz and #FliptheSystemOz.

Flipping the flippin’ education system

I have been thrilled in the last couple of weeks to be part of the Flip the System publishing movement. Its inception was the original 2016 book, dreamed up and brought to fruition by Dutch teachers Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber: Flip the System: Changing education from the ground up. In it, a number of contributors discuss the purpose of education. They urge schools and teachers to resist complying with the decrees of policymakers or kowtowing to external accountability measures. Rather, they promote trusting the teaching profession to influence the education system from the bottom up and the inside out. You can see Jelmer speak in his TEDX talk about how he and René conceptualised subverting the system to promote teacher agency and collaboration.

Then, on 29 November 2017, a new book—Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto, edited by Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Jean-Louis Dutaut—was published. This book applies the notion of flipping the system to a UK context, offering a suite of voices intended to elevate teacher professionalism and empower teachers to effect change from within the education system. In this UK volume is a chapter I have co-written with Australian teachers Jon Andrews and Cameron Paterson, entitled ‘Flipping the system: A perspective from Down Under’. Here, we offer a way of thinking about flipping the system from an Australian perspective. That Flip the System UK sold out its first print run in its first night of publication says something about the magnetism of this movement. Editor Lucy Rycroft-Smith has been tweeting some excellent threads about the book from her @honeypisquared Twitter account. These are wonderful précis of the book’s contents, especially for those of us who have yet to receive our print copies of the book.

What these contributions to the Flip the System books so far show, are the commonalities amongst the global community of teachers. The Netherlands, the UK, Australia, and other countries around the world, are all facing reform agendas driven, not by those in classrooms or schools, but by those appointed to governments or catapulted to guru status, or those who might profit from their own reform recommendations (“Look! Education is in crisis. <Insert oft-wheeled-out-reason-for-education-crisis>. Here, buy my silver bullet / snake oil.“).

It was thrilling to have my first book chapter published in the last couple of weeks (hoorah! with more chapters in the long publishing pipeline). Even more exciting was that Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson and I also signed our own book contract for a Flip the System Australia book. In it, we, along with an arsenal of incredible authors, will situate the Australian context within the global milieu, standing on the shoulders of Evers, Kneyber, Rycroft-Smith, Dutaut, and the Flip the System contributors thus far. From an Austraian lens, we and our contributing authors will argue for the wisdom of practitioners and the agency of the teaching profession, and for allowing teachers to take the lead as a trusted and meaningful part of global education conversation, policy, and practice.

So, a book chapter, a book contract, and being part of a global movement to re-professionalise, re-empower, and re-claim teaching? I’m flipping excited!

Why I’m going to researchED Melbourne #rEdMel

Research evidence is essential to the task of improving outcomes for young people, but research will never be able to tell teachers what to do, because the contexts in which teachers work are so variable. What research can do is identify which directions are likely to be the most profitable avenues for teachers to explore. ~ Dylan Wiliam, Leadership for Teacher Learning, 2016

Why would a Western Australian fly to Melbourne for a one day conference? Here’s why researchED is drawing me to the East this May: cognitive conflict and robust discussion around educational matters.

In drawing together academics and education practitioners working in schools, researchED conferences are less about transmission of information and more about provocations and conversations. researchED’s tagline is ‘working out what works’, and those that gather at its events around the globe are interested in working out what works in education, for the benefit of the world’s children. The website tells us researchED’s mission:

researchED is a grass-roots, teacher-led organisation aimed at improving research literacy in the educational communities, dismantling myths in education, getting the best research where it is needed most, and providing a platform for educators, academics, and all other parties to meet and discuss what does and doesn’t work in the great project of raising our children.

Whether individuals come from Australia, Europe or the USA (all locations where researchED events have been held) they share the goal of bridging the gap between research and classroom practice.

As Dylan Wiliam points out, research cannot tell teachers and schools what to do, but it can inform the decisions educators make, and help them follow trails most likely to be beneficial for their students. Tom Bennett, the founder and director of researchED, says that researchED’s mission is to “to make teachers research-literate and pseudo-science proof.” That is, teachers need to be critical consumers, curators and questioners of information and of evidence.

Gary Jones, who is coming from the UK to present at and attend researchED Melbourne, has written an excellent guide to evidence-based decision making in schools. He points out a number of popular ideas in education that are not backed by evidence and reminds educators of the need to be conscientious, judicious and explicit in their use of evidence to make decisions and shape practices.

I’ve made my view clear that teachers can and should be researchers. Taking research into account, enacting practitioner-research practices, and engaging with scholarly literatures, is important in an educational world focused increasingly on accountability, performativity and rapid change. Sometimes, the best thing for a teacher or school to do is to press ‘pause’ and ask some critical questions of the evidence they are accepting or the practices in which they are engaging.

As a teacher and school leader who has recently completed a PhD, I can see the benefits of research thinking to the school environment. It means applying carefully considered and thoughtfully designed methodologies to decision making and innovation. It means trusting in teachers to be a core part of school reforms. Research becomes, not an add-on, but a way of being which is embodied and enacted by educators as they go about their important work.

researchED is part of a global movement to give teachers voice and agency in their work, their schools and their systems, while ensuring that school leadership and classroom practice is informed by research and evidence. Conversation between academics, researchers, leaders, policy makers and teachers can help all involved in education to best serve the students at the heart of our education systems. A wonderful publishing example of this kind of movement is Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber’s book Flip the System, which brings together the voices of teachers, academics and education experts in order to reclaim the space of education discourse for those working as cogs in the neoliberal machine.

So I’ll see you at researchED Melbourne. There will be interesting research and practice shared. There will be classroom perspectives and scholary ones. There will be graceful disagreement. I’m looking forward to presenting among the diverse voices, and learning from them.

(Here is my post on last year’s researchED conference in Sydney, at which I also presented.)

Brighton Bathhouses

Coaching: My state of play ~ #educoachOC

Let’s open the door for teachers to power us forward in defining the most promising paths for public school improvement. ~ Kim Farris-Berg & Edward Dirkswager, Flip the System

MET rooftop, by @debsnet

Tonight’s inaugural #educoachOC Twitter chat, of which I am a co-moderator, is titled ‘State of Play’. That is, my co-moderators and I are intending to gauge where our professional learning network are at in their coaching journeys and contexts, and to facilitate the sharing of stories.

In the lead up to the chat, I thought I would consider my own ‘state of play’; where I’m currently at with coaching.

My current role in my school involves, in part, bringing current research literature into the school context, and making it accessible to staff, leaders and the school board. My main brief has been to research, design and enact a bespoke, context-specific teacher growth model which brings that research to life. That is, I’ve been working with teachers, leaders and consultants to tailor evidence-based school-aligned professional growth practice, for and within my school’s context. This work has come both from the top down (initiated by the principal, and emerging out of the school’s vision and strategic intents) and the bottom up (driven, designed and piloted by teams of teachers).

In 2012, when I wrote a research paper for my school on how to improve teacher quality, I began looking seriously at coaching literature. In addition, in October 2012 I began my PhD study (I’m hoping to submit my thesis next month!) which asks what it is that shapes teachers and school leaders. What transforms professional identities and practices? What incites growth and change in educators? Part of the answer to these questions lies in coaching. I’m about to submit an article to an academic journal which outlines my research findings around coaching as a tool for professional growth.

As part of the training for the enactment of our teacher growth model, in 2013 I did the Cognitive Coaching Foundation course for the first time, as this was the model of coaching my school decided upon. I did the course again in 2014, and again this year. While I have repeated the course mainly for team-building reasons, I have found that re-visiting the material and the conversations has allowed me to add nuances and layers of complexity to my coaching practice. It has allowed me to internalise some of the skills and tools, and to refine others.

Our Teacher-Coaches (a small team of teachers trained and practised in Cognitive Coaching, lesson observation techniques and the Danielson Framework for Teaching – my elite squad!) and I began with piloting and iterative design-and-refine stages in 2013 and 2014. Across 2013-2014 there were 19 Teacher-Coach team members and an additional 11 teachers who volunteered to be coached; 30 teachers – from across year levels, subject areas and career stages – experienced the pilot model.

This year we have moved to a fully implemented model in which all teachers at our school are involved in a coaching cycle every year. The cycle is three-yearly, so in Years 1 and 2, teachers are coached by a Teacher-Coach, and in the third year, teachers are coached by their line manager. This third year is based in coaching, but managers also draw from consultative and evaluative toolboxes as appropriate.

My coaching dream is twofold. I have a ‘future perfect’ for myself as a coach, and also for my school. For me, I hope to continue to grow my own practice, to become a masterful coach who is able to paraphrase and craft questions in ways which clarify and extend a coachee’s thinking, while paying attention to where a coachee is operating and where they might be able to cognitively move. I’d like to be able to help even the most reflective practitioners to experience what Cognitive Coaching calls ‘cognitive shift’, in which the coachee has an ‘a-ha!’ moment of realisation which allows them to move beyond their current state.

For my school, I hope to see the continued development of a coaching model of teacher growth which is based in a positive belief in the capacities of teachers to choose their own trajectories of learning, to analyse and grow their own practice, to reflect deeply.

This year I have seen teachers take their own lesson observation data and share it with colleagues and line managers in order to start important conversations and share practice. I hope to continue to see the power of data to transform, not only individual practice, but collective capacity and professional community as an organic learning mass.

So, that’s a little about my own ‘state of play’. I look forward to hearing more tonight about where others are in their coaching journeys. The chat’s questions can be found here. Happy coaching!