Multiple ways of being: Teacher, researcher, coach, vegetable, fruit.

this post's peer review comment, memefied on the advice of Rachel Buchanan

this post’s comment on peer review, memefied on the advice of Rachel Buchanan

Part of what I love about the work of research and academic writing is that it is brain-bendingly hard. There is always more reading to be done. There is always more writing. It can always be better. It can always be improved. Scholarly thinking requires a constant state of being open to critique from self and others, to finding new ways of knowing, understanding and communicating. This week I’ve received two first round lots of peer review comments. Receiving peer review feels to me like getting a high five and a punch in the face simultaneously. There is always something good, to be celebrated, and something that is mercilessly criticised. It’s both encouraging and brutal.

My thus-far-neophyte experience of academic work, is reflected in Inger Mewburn’s post today. She points out that a scholarly identity is a critical and questioning one. It is one in which the academic or researcher becomes someone always in progress, always learning, always working towards a never-finished goal. Becoming a scholar, Inger suggests, is an acceptance (or at least understanding) that the work is never done.

Pat Thomson this week blogged about research as embodied practices and awarenesses. Pat describes her research practice as being an ingrained part of her. Not grafted on or carried around, but deeply etched into the core of who she is and how she operates. An automatic-pilot way of being. This reminds me of my experiences of the internalisation of teaching, coaching and research, which I notice becoming a part of the ways I operate. Through deliberate practice, I find that I am internally transformed.

As someone who bestrides—and intends to continue to straddle—the dual worlds of teaching and research, not to mention the world of coaching, I am interested in discussions about and expressions of professional identity. (Professional identity was also part of my PhD thesis.) A few months ago, Greg Ashman wondered what it would mean if a person who teaches at a university level identified themselves as a teacher, a potato or Napoleon. Stewart Riddle, school-teacher-turned-academic, who identifies as both teacher and scholar, responded with this satirical one-act play. I also had a go, at that time, at exploring identities and who gets to decide who and what we ‘are’; my conclusion was that we get to shape and define our own identities. I do think, however, that when the voices of teachers are sought, the definition of what ‘teacher’ means, in that context for that purpose, needs to be made clear.

Fascinatingly, to my English teacher self, the word ‘potato’, originally used (flippantly, I think) in Greg’s blog post, gained momentum, taking on a life of its own. Linda Graham used it in this post about who might engage with debates in education, and Naomi Barnes used it in this post about what it means to be a teacher. Naomi proposes that “Who are teachers?” has become a radical question. Then, today, a Twitter conversation, in which one person attempted to attach a label to another, turned into a string of potato wisecracks accompanied by potato GIFs, all relating to the notion of identity. This humorous exchange seemed to engage with the question of who gets to attach labels to who.

I wonder about the humble potato amid this flurry of attention. It’s a staple food, seen as part of the tuber and nightshade families. It’s a reliable, fundamental ingredient in many households and restaurants, and can be prepared in many ways. There are over 100 varieties of potato (personally, I lean towards buying the Royal Blue). Yet despite its ubiquity and versatility, it has become an insult and a joke. (And not just on edu-Twitter. This month the Google car was called an ‘ugly potato’.)

If a potato is shorthand for an academic who works and teaches in a university, I don’t qualify. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be accepted as this kind of potato, should I choose to identify as one. While I do some academic writing, have recently completed a PhD and have an affiliation with a university, I cannot claim potato-academic status. Insert sad face emoji.

Perhaps I could adopt as my identity totem another member of the nightshade family. I love the nightshades for their glorious variety. From toxic to medicinal, from ornamentals to weeds, from fruits to vegetables, from spicy to delicious, this family of flowering plants (including the under-appreciated potato) displays the phantasmagoric splendour of the natural world. Perhaps I am an aubergine. Glossy, slightly bitter, smoky and a teeny bit addictive.

The aubergine can be seen as a boundary spanner (a term recently introduced to me by Marten Koomen). It’s often seen as and cooked with vegetables, but is actually a fruit. It has a fancy French name as well as a number of alter egos (eggplant, guinea squash, melongene, garden egg). A vegetable-like fruit that is also called a squash, a plant and an egg! As a teacher-leader-coach-researcher-writer I feel an affinity with the aubergine, its multiple identities and its many labels. My boundary-spanning auberguine-esque self, sitting both astride and between worlds, wonders about my ways of being. Is it possible to embody multiple practices that belong to multiple roles?

If, as Will Durant said (in a quote often attributed to Aristotle),

“we are what we repeatedly do”

then what are we when we do multiple things as we move between multiple roles? How long does it take us to ‘become’ something in the first place? How long does it take for a researcher to stop being a researcher after they stop doing formal research? How long after a teacher’s last class, or coach’s last coaching conversation, or leader’s last formal moment of leading, before they are no longer teacher, coach or leader?

Or do some of our beliefs about the world, and ways of being in the world, become so much a part of us that we continue to embody them? Can we morph from one vegetable-fruit metaphor to another, shedding our potato-aubergine skins? Or do we carry them within us, always?

Liquid becoming: Reflections on post-PhD identity and momentum

Reflections on how

things can change across a year.

Liquid becoming.


Identities like

ice floes. Shifting. Writing self

into being. Flux.


Mutable quicksand

liquefying, swallowing.

Consumed or dissolved.


What does it mean to

be doctor me? One foot in

front of the other.

cherry tree trunk, Tidal Basin, DC

cherry tree trunk, Tidal Basin, DC

I’m finding myself in a moment of reflection, hence the above haiku-ification of my thoughts.

If I look back one year ago, I was blogging about blogging anonymously. I was introducing myself to people at conferences who knew my Twitter profile but would not have recognised my avatar, or my online name. Recently I have been letting go of that anonymity and this month updated my avatar and my name on my social media accounts, making myself identifiable and searchable. Although I’m still not sure entirely how I feel about that.

A year ago I was in the throes of struggling with my PhD thesis discussion chapter. Since then, the PhD is done. I am doctored. But my ‘doctor’ identity has yet to catch up with me. In changing my Twitter name and the title on my frequent flyer account (in-flight medical emergencies, here I come!) I’m hoping that my doctor-ness might start to feel like a part of who I am.

one of my favourite PhD memes

one of my favourite PhD memes

In the last year, wonderful unexpected things have happened in rhizomatic ways. I have been invited to speak at events. This blog was nominated for the Edublog Awards, and came fourth in the Best Individual Blog category. It was recommended by the likes of Professor Tara Brabazon, in this keynote podcast. I have had two peer-reviewed papers accepted for publication. My paper submission to the AERA conference was accepted, and so I went to Washington DC to present it and attend the conference. In the last eight months I have been involved in founding and co-moderating the monthly #educoachOC Twitter chat. The Times Higher Education blog asked to publish one of my blog posts (interestingly, one I would never have put forward). I’ve developed collegial, thinkerly and writerly relationships with people on Twitter and WordPress, many of whom I haven’t met in person. I’m in discussions with scholars about writing book chapters and co-authoring papers. These unforeseeable delights have shaped my year into something rewarding, interesting and surprising.

I write these things down partly to marvel at their coming into being, and partly to wonder about how it is that they have happened while I have quietly (or perhaps not so quietly) gone about my life and work.

In January I focused on a personal ‘one word’ for this year: ‘momentum’. The word ‘momentum’ continues to resonate with me. While I’m sure things will continue to happen and evolve, I have no Grand Plan. I continue to work at my Australian school. I continue to write papers from my doctoral dissertation. I continue to think about possibilities for work, research, presenting and writing that might serve my students, colleagues, school and the education community, while fuelling my own passion and inner nerd heart. I’m hoping that this one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach (the same approach I used to get through the PhD) will build momentum, and that rewarding partnerships and important work will continue to bubble up and come into being.

It is Fred Dervin who writes about identities as liquid. I imagine the liquid mirror in the film The Matrix, which I also talked about in this post on reflexivity. But that liquid mirror was one that consumed the person, rather than the person themselves being liquid, which is, I think, a more uncomfortable concept. To be always shifting, always fluid, always becoming and even unbecoming.

As I simultaneously feel myself unravelling and re-forming, attempting to take some shape, I’m waiting for more stable internal identity ground for myself, post-PhD. In the meantime, I guess I can surf the shifting ice floes or try to luxuriate in the quicksand instability of feeling more inner liquidity than usual?

cherry tree trunk, Tidal Basin, DC

cherry tree trunk, Tidal Basin, DC

On (teacherly) identities: Who am I and who gets to decide?

Know thyself.

my multiple selves reflected back at me

my multiple selves reflected back at me

In policy, research and practice, the teacher voice is a vulnerable and vital one, but other perspectives (student, school leader, academic, parent) are also important in educational discourses. What or who is a teacher in terms of identity? I don’t mean job description, the kind of thing you’d find on a curriculum vitae or Twitter bio where people often label their current professional role. Teacher. Principal. Consultant. Advisor. Coach. Lecturer. Professor. Some might quibble over whether a teacher of teachers who used to teach in schools is in fact a teacher, as Stewart Riddle recently found. Yet labels don’t explain the complexities of self in terms of being a living human in the world.

The field of identity is sometimes lamented as being confused, contested and slippery, with different definitions meaning different things in different contexts. Theorisation of the self has a long history, appearing as early as 1902. At times identity has been seen as fixed and singular, but now more often it is seen as shifting and plural.

My PhD thesis defined identity as the “ongoing sense-making process of contextually-embedded perceived-selves-in-flux”. I see identity as process rather than product, as shifting rather than fixed, and as constructed and operated by the individual. It is a constant process of being and becoming. We are never finished. We don’t foreclose on an identity, but fluidly negotiate a variety of self-perceptions in a variety of contexts. We imagine and enact our identities by looking at past, present and potential future selves.

Additionally, identities are individual and collaborative. We construct our versions of ourselves based, not only on our perceptions and imaginings of self, but on our relationships with others, organisations and contexts. Costa and Garmston’s concept of holonomy is based on Koestler’s ‘holon’ which describes something which is simultaneously part and whole. Holonomy can be used to conceptualise the symbiotic interrelationship between individual and group or organisation.

My PhD looked at professional identity, in conjunction with professional learning and school change, in order to explore what it is that shapes educators’ development of professional identity perceptions, what shifts those self-perceptions, and in what ways schools and systems might work with a greater understanding of educator identities when designing and implementing education reform. My doctoral study found that professional learning deeply involves senses of self. Learning which taps into who educators see and feel they are, has the most impact on beliefs, thoughts, behaviours, and practices.

I often write on this blog about identity (look! there’s a tab for that). Writerly identity, doctorly identity, teacherly identity, researcherly identity, experty identity, parenty identity, coachy identity. I create stuff. I teach stuff. I tell stories. I learn stuff. I write stuff. I coach people. I lead teams and projects. I read. I am coached. I am led. I am a learner, a parent, a teacher, a researcher, a coach, a flâneuse.

So, as we are selves in action and in motion, can we decide when someone starts or stops being or becoming a teacher? I wonder about what makes a teacher identity. Surely it’s not something that enters a person as they set foot in their first school classroom and leaves them the moment they step out of their last taught lesson at a school. If I left the classroom for academia, would I no longer be a teacher? Well, maybe not a ‘current school teacher’, but I wouldn’t shed my teacherly-ness or my years of identity-forming teacherly-experiences. What about teachers who teach for decades and then retire? I guess those wanting labels might call them former teachers or retired teachers, but might they still identify as teachers? Many school leaders in my PhD study saw themselves as teachers first and foremost, and leaders/teachers of teachers second; for all, serving the student was at the centre of their senses of self.

Who gets to tell us what roles we can and cannot identify with? Who is the keeper of the labels? I’d argue that we are the constructors, operators and refiners of our own identities. Who am I and who gets to decide? Me.

Webs & chrysalises: Metaphors for learning & connection

Naomi Barnes, in her recent article in the digital journal, Hybrid Pedagogy, writes that “we need to start paying more attention to the random thoughts because when learning is conceptualised as a web, rather than a line, randomness becomes more meaningful.” She refers to the unanticipated blogging conversation, sparked by Steve Wheeler’s #blimage (blog+ image) challenge, that she, Helen Kara and I became involved in as we voluntarily responded to each other, layering our ideas and connecting our words.

My own experience of learning is non-linear and rhizomatic. The findings of my PhD were that this is an experience shared by individuals, groups and organisations; learning happens in surprising ways, in unexpected places. I agree with Naomi that embracing non-linear randomness might lead us to interesting places of knowledge collaboration, reimagining and production (although I do think we should acknowledge our sources of inspiration).

I mentioned in my blog post (part of the above-mentioned blogversation) on the spider-web connectivity of networked learning that metaphors, including of the spider’s web, emerged from my participants as ways to explain and explore their understanding of their professional selves, roles and relationships.

As it edges towards summer here in Australia, at home I recently found a redback spider (latrodectus hasseltii for the arachnid nerds), an Australian relative of the American black widow spider. The redback female is venomous, formidable and self-sufficient. Her web is messy. Males live on the periphery, eating her scraps. And after mating, she eats them, storing the sperm for later.

I’ve felt a little recently like a web-weaving spider. My PhD thesis is submitted, and suddenly, papers, journal articles and conference presentations are materialising. My PhD work has formed a web which widens and thickens, and in which these prey are being caught. The learning I’ve been doing from the network of scholars with whom I connect on Twitter and in the blogosphere has continued to take me to new thinking and into interesting conversations.

Now, I don’t see myself as a poisonous, man-eating widow spider, but I like that the redback is autonomous, a beacon of feminine power. I like that her web is messy and functional, not pretty and symmetrical. As well as the weaving of the physical web, the species itself has spread its tendrils out from Australia to reach New Zealand, Japan and Belgium. She has even made it into two DC comics as a supervillain who fights Robin. Unexpected places. Unpredictable influence.

The other insect creature I’ve recently been reflecting upon is the chrysalised caterpillar-butterfly. After I submitted my thesis, I wrote the following title in a Word document and saved it: “Emerging from the chrysalis: PhD as transformative learning.” It was a blog idea for later, after proper completion, maybe. I was remembering a post I had read which argued that the PhD is not a transformative experience, but a thing to be done, a process to be completed, a means to an end. This wasn’t my experience so I thought it might be worth writing about.

And then I set the November #HDRblog15 challenge, and Kathryn Davies wrote this post about the life of a butterfly as a metaphor for the cycle of the PhD. Kathryn explores the chrysalis-PhD metaphor so thoroughly and thoughtfully, my own post idea seemed redundant. Yet my experience was affirmed by reading Kathryn’s. For me the PhD was transformative. I began my doctorate as someone who hadn’t written an academic paper or dissertation for 14 years. I was a vulnerable, soft-bellied slow-moving academic creature, my newness shiny and green. Over the course of the PhD, it has changed the way I think, the way I write and the way I read. It has changed how I perceive my identity, how I behave and how I respond. Some of these feelings I’ve written about, including a crisis of scholarly confidence, taking flight in the discussion chapter, and on being (or identifying as) a writer. And while I’ve recently said that I feel frozen in examination limbo, perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that I’m quietly growing, wriggling inside and pushing at the edges of my PhChrysalis, still a neophyte but transformed by my PhD journey.

So, I offer out to the blogoverse another post, another moment of my thinking suspended in time, another layer, another thread, another voice, another tendril reaching out to others. To be ignored, observed or grasped.

Front load your work. Be an expert. Own your contribution.

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go. ~ Dr Seuss

by @debsnet

sometimes the words slowly bleed onto the page

As a mid-career professional I often feel comfortable in my work in teaching and school leadership. I might come up against challenges, but I do so with a sense that I know what I’m doing and have a sense of how to make my way through them. ‘This is what I know how to do,’ I think to myself. And forward I go without a second thought.

There are times, however, when I cannot forge forward confidently. Becoming a parent, for instance, threw me into a new situation and a new role in which I had to start from scratch. I was a newbie who had to find my way into my parent-identity and a way of parenting which worked for me. The PhD is another something which throws people into a new deep end. I have written about my realisation that my discomfort zone is my place of growth, but that doesn’t make the experience of discomfort any more … comfortable!

I type this post from the throes of my current nemesis: the PhD Discussion chapter. I wrote last month about my feelings of paralysis before beginning this chapter, and how I eventually got started. And yet here I still am, four or so iterations later and still wrangling, dancing with, building and un-building my discussion.

Part of my struggle is around scholarly confidence, reflected in the notes from my last PhD supervision meeting which read a bit like this: ‘too much other people’, ‘less others, more you’, ‘put your ideas up front.’

It seems I am clinging to the literature. I still want to prove to my reader that I have read everything I can get my hands on and I know my stuff. That I’m not a masquerader or pretender. And it seems I do this by citing and paraphrasing and putting up front the work of Others.

You know Others. In the mind of the novice researcher they deserve capital letters of knowledge because they are experienced, frequently-published, well-renowned academics, not researchers-in-training or Doctors-in-waiting.

And yet in the Discussion and Conclusion of the PhD I know I must identify myself as an expert. A person worthy of a capital letter (like a ‘Ph’ or a ‘D’). I keep reminding myself that I am an expert in my own research and that I can stand on the front foot when I discuss my findings and what they mean in the world.

So my current notes-to-self for the Discussion chapter are:

– Stop trying to prove my worth through literature.

– More me. Less others.

– Front load my work.

More than just a process of writing, this is a process of becoming. Becoming a researcher. Becoming a researcher who knows she is a researcher, feels like a researcher and makes knowledge claims like a researcher. It’s taking me many molasses-slow drafts to find my expert voice and a way of writing which foregrounds my own research and my own academic voice, while still situating my research within the existing literature. But step by step I am getting closer.

And I’ve been reading Dr Seuss’s Oh the places you’ll go! to my children recently so I am armed with the mantra that with brains in my head and feet in my shoes, I can move mountains. One painstaking word at a time.

You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way! ~ Dr Seuss

You're off to great places, by @debsnet

the édu flâneuse atop an Icelandic glacier


When imagination & hard work collide: making something amazing

Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet

If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all. ~ Michelangelo Buonarroti

Today is International Women’s Day and as a woman trying to balance parenting, working, PhD and being a person, I have recently felt overwhelmed. I don’t believe in men or women ‘having it all’ but I do want us all to have the freedom and power to make our own choices. Sometimes, though, the choices we make can feel like difficult paths to walk, especially when something surprising tips us off balance and throws our delicate ecosystem of relationships, roles and responsibilities out of its precarious equilibrium.

On top of the usual teaching, parenting and life stuff, my work at school is currently focused on school-wide implementation of a strategic project focused around teacher growth. My PhD is centred around pulling 300 references, reams of data and over 200 pages of words into a coherent thesis, in time to meet my own personal deadline for submission (of course, this deadline is four months ahead of the official deadline required by the university.) Along the way, I am trying to keep the magic, spark and creativity in my thesis. It is a bit weird, a bit whacky, and a lot me. Part of me is thrilled that I have been able to craft a research project and document which so authentically aligns with my own (lovably weird) identity, and part of me is anxious about the work still ahead. I need to ensure it resonates with what I value in research while also being acceptable (even significant?) in the world of academia.

So, much of what I am presently in the midst of working on requires daily commitment, laser-like focus and hard grafting work. Perhaps this, combined with piles of marking and lesson preparation, has contributed to me feeling drawn to the creative and the crazy. I have been seeking out connections with things which capture my imagination and buoy me with their colour and magic.

As a follow-up, then, to my experience of gigantic marionettes walking the streets and this post on my friends’ amazing interactive sculpture-on-the-beach, here are some more shots from this year’s Sculpture by the Sea exhibition.

Perhaps you will also find solace and escape in the wonder-full, the unexpected and the strangely beautiful. How is a PhD like a sculpture? These sculptures, while capturing imagination, are also the outcome of commitment, dogged determination and hard, systematic work.

Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet