Doing even better things

My word for 2018 is metamorphosis, which for me is a lot about letting go. I’ve been thinking about what ingrained habits, automatic behaviours, and stale dreams, I can shed this year as I move towards my next zero birthday and my anniversary of ten years since I returned to Australia from the UK. To move into metamorphosis right now feels like I need endings before I can think about any butterfly-esque new beginnings.

I’ve been thinking on what Professor Dylan Wiliam often says:

We need to prevent people from doing good things, to give them time to do even better things.

It’s not that I am filling my days and nights with wasteful things. I do many fun, productive, worthwhile things. In fact, perhaps part of my problem is my constant feeling that every minute I spend must be worthwhile, as though an unproductive minute is a wasted minute. It was my personal trainer who challenged me to reconsider my downtime. He said my health is being affected by an unceasing stress response cycle and that my body is constantly overloaded with adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine.

I have gotten into some not-so-helpful habits, probably ones that working or studying parents often get into. It started in 2011 when I returned to work part-time after my first period of parental leave. My first child was 6 months old. I felt anxious that I might be perceived not to be working hard or long enough, or that I might be late responding to something, so I put my work email on my phone and responded to emails in the playground, in the supermarket queue, and in life’s cracks where I might previously have been daydreaming or looking around. Then in 2012, after having my second child, I returned to work again. I also enrolled full-time in my PhD (because: nerd bucket list!) and so I spent all my spare time (between work and parenting 2 children under 2) working on my doctorate. I managed to submit my thesis within 3 years of enrolling, and completed shortly afterwards, but I had set in motion a dangerous pattern. Once my PhD was done, I presented at more national and international conferences, and ramped up my academic and blog writing. I went from part-time work back to full-time work.

My downtime had become a different kind of work. I wasn’t having breaks. I was switching from teaching work to leadership work to domestic work to research work. Or I was using my non-work non-productive time to prepare for the next bout of work or productivity. Or I was so tired that in the evenings I would halfheartedly watch bad tv or trawl social media in the name of ‘time to myself’. I continued with all of this through some very rough personal patches and did my utmost not to let work, home, or doctorate, be affected. I had some good tricks, like seeing my PhD as intellectual ‘me time’, using calendars and to-do lists with military precision, and switching off from the rest of the world when I was playing with my kids. But is checking social media or writing a blog after the kids have gone to bed the best way to spend my time? Is it helping me to wind down for a good night’s sleep? Multiple work trips and conference presentations can be rewarding and invigorating, but can also negatively impact family time and lead to more stressful work weeks before and after. Is moving from the paid work of my days to the unpaid writing of my nights and weekends stoking my internal fire, or just exhausting me in a relentless cycle of Doing The Things.

What Things am I doing, and why?

I have begun to pare back my obligations. I have turned my email and social media notifications off and buried Facebook in the back of my phone. I’ve withdrawn from my Book Club. I’m reconsidering how often to post on this blog and am thinking perhaps ‘when it takes my fancy’ would be ok, rather than keeping myself to a schedule. I am figuring out how to protect my most productive time for my most important projects and how I might schedule in regular silence and stillness. My trainer has recommended flotation tank therapy.

I’m hoping that lightening my load will help me to stop doing some good things in order to do even better things. Some of those even better things are those I am passionate about (like writing what I’m burning to say, editing an important book, or serving the community via board-member type positions) and some are in the name of self-care, like getting a good night’s sleep, protecting a regular exercise schedule, and working out how to properly stop.

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The power of data for learning and growth

My school’s coaching model for teacher growth uses lesson data as the ‘third point’ in coaching conversations and as a non-judgemental tool for reflection, self-direction and empowered development of teachers’ classroom practices. I was reminded this week of the power of data, of video in particular, for learning, growth and reflection on practice. This reminder came while I was at the skate park with my children. Bear with me as I explain.

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my little guy on the quad bike: confident, focused, wind in his shirt

my little guy on the quad bike: fearless, focused, wind in his shirt

My youngest son is pushing towards 4 and his brother is a year and a half older. In the last week, the youngest has begun to ride his pedal bike, which doesn’t have stabilisers, or ‘training wheels’. Watching my boys each approach this learning challenge has reminded me of the differences in learners. My eldest basically taught himself to ride. I turned my back to attend to his brother, and when I looked back, there he was, doing it without any need for assistance or encouragement. He wasn’t deterred by falling over. He desperately wanted to master the skill and could taste the freedom that the wheels offered.

My youngest, in contrast, is easily discouraged. Despite being a speed demon when beach quad biking recently, falling over or falling behind can send him into desolation. Part of his frustration comes from comparing himself to his older brother who is taller, faster, stronger and more experienced (although the younger of the two was the least cautious and most confident on the quad bikes). He also doesn’t like being told to do something, so any new skill is very much on his terms. It wasn’t until our New Year camping trip when he saw friends riding their bikes at the campground that he picked one up, deciding he wanted to figure it out.

The day after we returned from being away, we went to a local skate park. My youngest wanted to take his balance bike, with which he is comfortable, but we brought just the pedal bike along. If he wanted to ride, he’d have to ride the pedal bike. (You know, embrace your discomfort zone and all that.)

He was fantastic as he rode around the skate park, over the smaller rises and along some bike paths. After a couple of hours, he began to tire and his technique began failing. I offered to carry his bike back to the car but he refused. He was torn between wanting to conquer the bike and feeling like a failure. He collapsed and stomped and cried and wailed that he couldn’t ride his bike; that he was terrible at it. Not good enough. Not fast enough.

We got back to the car, one false start at a time, and I told him that he had done a great job and I was proud of him, to no effect. When he continued to be inconsolable about his riding I tried a different approach. I said, “I took some video of you riding your bike. Would you like to see?” All of a sudden, he perked up. Yes, he did want to see.

He watched the videos of he and his brother riding that I had taken on my smart phone.

“So, what do you think about your riding?” I asked.

“Good!” he beamed.

It was only in seeing informational evidence of his performance that he was able to reflect that he could ride his bike and was actually quite good at it. Of course, there was some selection of detail on my part – I didn’t video him crying and falling over – but the raw data allowed him to reflect on his performance.

My eldest son also watched the skate park videos. He was interested in watching the much older riders, scooters and skaters, who weren’t the purpose of filming the video, but emerged in the data. He was looking for their confidence and their technique. How did they get up the steepest ramps? How did they execute their tricks? So video was useful for analysing the mastery of others who do something well.

my boys at the skate park

my boys at the skate park

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This skate-park moment took me to my experiences as a cognitive coach, coaching teachers on their practice. Our school coaching model is based around non-judgemental paraphrasing and questioning, and around non-inferential lesson data. There is no critique or praise from the coach, and the data comprises of facts and information, not judgements, suggestions or critique. It is not the coach who reflects critically on the teacher’s teaching, but the teacher, with the coach guiding their cognition.

In my role as coach, it is always interesting to hear teachers’ reflections on their data, which might be scripts of classroom talk, maps of classroom movement, audio or video recordings. Often their feeling of how it went, post-lesson, is initially nebulous or contrasts to what they see in the data. Sometimes they are very critical of small details on their lessons, or unexpected information leads to fresh insights. Often, a teacher will find a video affirming, allowing them to see the positives in their practice, perhaps those things which have been automated over time or which they don’t even realise they do. I’ve yet to see a teacher who doesn’t find video a useful tool for their own professional reflection and learning.

Taking video footage of lessons, or excerpts of lessons, is a great way to allow teachers the opportunity to reflect on their craft. It is a seam rich with potential for improvement of instruction and professional discussions around practice. This data should be owned by the teacher and not used for performance reviews or appraisals. The thing about lesson data is that it can be a reward in itself; an opportunity to learn and see one’s practice and one’s teacher self in new ways, without the need for external praise, affirmation or critique.

Viva la boredom? A #blimage challenge post.

This blog post is part of the #blimage (blog-from-image) challenge recently set by Steve Wheeler and Amy Burvall. You can learn more about it on this video https://youtu.be/-7K8cA-Iub8. This particular image was set by Steve in this post.

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The past is for learning and letting go. You can’t revisit it. It vanishes. ~ Adele Parks

photo by Steve Wheeler

photo by Steve Wheeler

At first this image, provided by Steve Wheeler, sparked thoughts of learning environments. Here is a graveyard of old wooden desks. Scratched. Graffitied. All bunched together in some kind of storage space. Left. Forgotten. Abandoned. Past their used by date. The sad scrawled face in the bottom right corner, a symbol of the kind of soul-crushing 50s -industrialist schooling that Sir Ken Robinson champions against.

I thought about how the classroom of today has changed, and was reminded of my thoughts around flexible, comfortable learning spaces.

But when I look at this image what I really get is a rocket back to my own schooling. Wooden desks engraved by compasses and ball point pens, with lift-up tops revealing stationary and lunch boxes and gum and whole pieces of fruit.

I’m reminded of how my fellow students and I would sit, listen, mess around, or tackle boredom. There were no smart phones, no apps, no laptops, no Smart screens, no texting. We passed notes on actual paper. We looked out of the window. We scribbled onto or carved into the rough wooden surfaces of our desks which lay in rows, etching them with our individual markings, evidence of our existence.

Recently my husband and I drove more than 800km in one day to this spectacular place, with Mr 3 and Mr then-4 in the car. We could have taken a dvd player. We could have hooked them up to please-keep-quiet digital devices most of the way. But we chose not to. We made a conscious decision that the very very long car trip (about 9 hours) was to be spent mostly old school. We sang songs. Listened to music. Talked. Played ‘eye spy’ (for the 3 year old we mostly played by colour instead of letter). Snacks, notebooks, a couple of monster trucks. C-o-n-v-e-r-s-a-t-i-o-n. It was a retro road trip.

There were 2 occasions in each car trip (we had to do the return 9-hour journey, too!) when we let them have an iPad. For 20 minutes they were able to have 5-minutely turns, so 10 minutes each; 20 minutes each all up per session. Sharing. Waiting. Practicing patience. Being grateful.

Parents might ask: Why would we do this to ourselves? Teachers might ask: Why aren’t we immersing our children in available technologies?

The answer is that we think it is good to be bored. Or rather, to have the self-capacity to figure out what to do with our selves or our brains when we are bored. Without a screen.

While I am a literature nerd who loves to read and smell books, and use old school tactile technologies, I’m also an educator who uses BYOD, the back channel, OneNote, virtual classrooms, discussion forums, Voxer, Twitter, personal and student blogging, podcasts, vodcasts, student created content, online surveys.

So when I look at Steve’s desk-graveyard image with its tactile wooden shapes and the student-made markings, I’m taken back to a classroom where a student’s main technology is their brain. With maybe some paper, ball point pens, and a compass.

It makes me think about letting the learning, not the tech, guide us. And ensuring that our children and our students see their brains as the best tech at their disposal.

Viva la boredom? Or at least viva la ability to use our brains and our character in ways that allow us to be still, be grateful, be learning, be creative. Like a blog post written around an image chosen by someone else, parameters can push us to creativity.

I love the idea of #blimage, so to end this post I’m throwing out another image, to ‘pay forward’ the challenge. So, bloggers, do your worst with this pic (just attribute the image back to me :)):

Shell Beach, by @debsnet

Work-family fulfilment: The elusive sweet spot

I have never met a woman, or man, who stated emphatically, “Yes, I have it all.” Because no matter what any of us has—and how grateful we are for what we have—no one has it all. ~ Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

Usually this édu flâneuse blog is focused on teaching, education, school leadership and research, although I have written about self, travel and gratitude. This post, which was incited by reading Annabel Crabb’s 2014 book The Wife Drought, is about partners, parents and families grappling to find collective fulfilment. What does it mean to be a partner and parent in a world where everyone is leaning in?

my two boys adventuring

my two boys adventuring

Recently, as the mother of a two and a four year old, I went on a work trip, my first solo travel since the birth of my eldest. Apart from the very occasional overnight (drop-off-at-bedtime pick-up-at-breakfast) sleepover, I had never been away from my children. My husband had travelled consistently since they were born, but this experience was new to me. As I strode at a grown-up pace through the airport, wheeling a single teeny carry-on, it struck me: this was the first time in five years, since first falling pregnant, that I had conceived of myself as a singular entity, a human being in my own right. Of course, there was still the invisible umbilical pull, but this experience of thinking-only-of-myself was both foreign and like slipping on my softest old comfies.

It got me thinking: What makes our lives whole? How do we prioritise family time, husband-wife time, career time, self-care time and home time? Can we be whole or can we only be compartmentalised parts? Is there a work-life-family-self sweet spot?

lean in to sandcastle building

lean in to sandcastle building

I like Jennifer Dulski’s concept of the Work-Life Mashup. Be with people you love and do the work that matters, she says. Focus on what’s important. I also resonated with Rosa Brooks’s response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: lean out! More is not always better. How about also leaning in to family, happiness and wellbeing?

A good friend recently leant me Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought: Why Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives. Crabb’s message is that, in order to achieve any semblance of work-family happiness, women need support in the home and men need more flexibility to step out of a traditional work model.

Men: supercharged by wives but missing out on lives

“Men’s careers rattle along uninterrupted,” says Crabb. Their wives are the “invisible power-pellet” which makes them more able to succeed in their own careers. “For fathers, having a family gave them a competitive edge,” while for women children make her, “less likely to be employed.” Men don’t tend to take time out from their careers when they have a family. As their children are born and grow, their work lives rocket forward on unbroken trajectories.

The downside of man as breadwinner and woman as homemaker is that fathers are excluded from “a universe of experience … and that’s a sad thing.” Why is a dad looking after his own children called being “Mr Mum” or “Daddy Daycare”, instead of just ‘being a parent’?

My husband recently went to the weekday parent induction for our eldest son’s new school, and he was one of three dads there; the other forty-plus parents were mums. Hopefully he was seen as neither a hero nor a novelty; just a proud, interested and loving parent.

Half-crazed superwomen: doing it all not having it all

Crabb cites studies and statistics which show that women are the ones who tend to adjust their schedules and take on the lioness’s share of the caring and housework responsibilities. She describes this as the age of the “half crazed ‘superwoman’” who attempts to ‘do’ work and family in equal measure, all while having “that feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one does not have a job. To do any less feels like failing at both.” Women tend to step back, step out, or figure out acrobatically-flexible ways to scratch together a work life while their children are small, or pay others to care for their kids.

I have heard an employer say, “if you want efficiency, hire a part-time mum” and Crabb asserts that she uses “every scrap of the day like an Italian farmer uses all of the pig.” We all have our multi-tasking, time-saving routines. I wrote here about the way I approach my PhD schedule. And there are always circumstances under which the delicate ecosystem of childcare, work, family and self, tips on its axis and sends us sprawling.

Social media: help or hindrance?

Social media allows us all to connect to others and share our lives. While my professional social media is focused on my intellectual interests and cultivating professional conversations, I use my personal social media to share moments of beauty or delight which I’ve carved out or stumbled upon: a sunrise at the beach, my children playing happily, a wonky birthday cake I made from scratch. My aim is not to craft an image of work-life-mashup perfection, or to suggest that this social media output is my complete reality. This is the highlights reel, not the whole picture! Crabb warns, though, that women who try to make work-family-life juggling appear easy can’t complain when the world doesn’t notice how much they are struggling to maintain their appearance of effortless togetherness.

For some, social media posts are an additional pressure. Apparently there is a thing called ‘Facebook life envy’. The mother who sees others’ decontextualised posts might wonder: How will I assemble a perfect outfit, while making grain-free dairy-free sugar-free recipes from whole foods grown in my own garden, mixing my own eco-organic-fairtrade face scrub, engineering creative craft activities, hand making personalised Christmas cards, and take a ‘no filter’ photo of a house sparklingly clean from all-natural chemical-free cleaning products?

We need to remember that social media is not life. And our lives are our own to live. 

social media is not reality

the highlight reel: social media is not reality

Finding the Work-Family Fulfilment sweet spot

Crabb concludes The Wife Drought by suggesting that we become accepting of men taking time for family or working more flexibly to achieve their own work-life-family contentment. Men should be able to lean out, she says, without being the subject of ridicule or novelty.

I’m lucky enough to have the kind of mutually supportive relationship that Tanya Plibersek talks about in Crabb’s The Wife Drought. My husband and I support each other professionally and share what we do at home. My husband believes in me as a mother, a wife, a researcher and a professional. He supports me in my dreams: to nurture a happy, connected family; earn a PhD; build a satisfying career; have a love-filled joyful adventurous life. And I support him in his: to be a present, treasured father to our boys; build a family legacy with them; grow his own businesses; develop his reach and impact; nurture professional connections and make a difference to the industries in which he is immersed.

We need to believe in each other’s capacities for awesome, and in each other’s dreams.

It may not be easy or perfect, and my husband and I may live our weekday lives by the ding of an Outlook calendar, but we both want to actively parent our children and be – really be – in their lives. We both work a semi-flexible working week. We share housework. We both have times when one of us is parenting our children and the other is working or traveling. We have lots of time when we are all together. Our boys see us, I think, as equally their parents. They experience us as a whole family unit in which we all work together to support each other as we seek individual and collective happiness. These choices are based on our beliefs. I know many happy families who make different, equally fulfilling choices for their own circumstances and principles. Each family needs to find its own changing recipe for the sweet spot of ‘this works for us, for now’ and ‘this makes us happy’.

Perhaps discussions about work-family-life fulfilment should be less debates in which we tally the percentage of housework done or hours worked or dollars earned by each partner. Can we focus more on talking with our partners and our employers about how we can support each other in our dreams for our selves and our families? What might that look like for our particular family, based on our visions, dreams, opportunities and resources?

There is no “invisible power pellet” or perfect one-size-fits-all recipe for finding the work-family-life-happiness sweet spot. We can only make choices which work for each family at any given time, riding the ebb and flow of life’s messy randomness together, and with a view to serving each individual (parents and children) and the whole.

carve out time & space for joy & simple pleasures

carve out time & space for joy & simple pleasures