How driving a husky team is like school leadership

Husky 1

our husky team racing through the Lappish wilderness

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

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

  1. Know your people. Know your context.

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

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

  1. Trust the people. Trust the process.

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

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

  1. Be agile.

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

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

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

  1. Work hard.

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

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

  1. Encourage and support.

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

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

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

  1. Hold on.

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

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

Reflecting on the metaphor

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

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

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

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

Concern about teacher and school leader wellbeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leadership of staff wellbeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Individual wellbeing

wellbeing

some of my wellbeing spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

Flip the System Australia: Book club questions

Steven Kolber and others on Twitter have been discussing the possibility of a Twitter book club around the recently published (and excellent!) education book Flip the System Australia: What matters in education. Based in the unique Australian context, this book situates Australian education policy, research and practice within the international education narrative. It argues that professionals within schools should be supported, empowered and welcomed into policy discourse, not dictated to by top-down bureaucracy. It advocates for a flipping, flattening and democratising of the education system, in Australia and around the world. It brings together the voices of teachers, school leaders and scholars in order to offer diverse perspectives, important challenges and hopeful alternatives to the current education system.

As one of the editors, and author of Chapter 1, below  I share a first pass at some possible questions for readers, based around the sections of the book. My co-editors and the book’s various authors may have additional or alternative ideas.

Foreword and Introduction

  • What do you understand the editors to mean by the term ‘flip the system’? How is this relevant to education? Does the phrase connect with you, or would you describe it in a different way?
  • Why do you think this book might be important? What might Australia have to offer the education world?
  • What do you hope to get out of reading the book?

Part I: Teacher identity, voice and autonomy

  • How do the authors in this section focus on what matters, rather than what works? What does matter in education?
  • What comments do the authors make about commercialisation in education? Do these resonate with your own experience?
  • Why and where might teachers voices be shared? Do you think this is important and even possible? Why / why not?

Part II: Collaborative expertise

  • What kinds of collaboration do the authors present as effective and beneficial? Why is collaborative expertise something worth investing in and pursuing?
  • What warnings do the authors offer around collaboration in education? What differentiates good, productive collaboration from toxic or ineffective collaboration?
  • What is the role of wellbeing in collaboration between teachers, school leaders, schools and education systems?

Part III: Social justice

  • To what systemic inequities do the authors refer? Which of these reflect your own experience?
  • What is the role of voices and stories, versus policies and systems, in democratising education and addressing inequity? In what arenas could and should equity in education be addressed?
  • What are teachers, schools and systems already doing? What could they stop doing and what could they start doing to address social justice issues in education?

Part IV: Professional learning

  • What is the role of professional learning in a flipped education system? Why is it important?
  • How do the authors describe effective professional learning? How does this sit with your own experience of professional learning for educators?
  • What seem to be the necessary conditions for professional learning to be effective and make a difference? What points made by the authors should be considered by school and system leaders?

Part V: Leadership

  • What are the tensions and complex demands of school leadership, as described by the authors?
  • What do the authors of this section suggest as ways to effectively lead in schools and education systems? On what should leaders focus? What should they do and what should they avoid doing?
  • Do the authors in this section agree, or are there conflicting accounts of what is important in school leadership? What does this reveal about the complexities of leadership in education?

Conclusion

  • This is a book that shares diverse perspectives from a range of authors from a multiplicity of contexts. What threads and themes did you notice as you read the book? What draws the book’s contributions together? What differences did you notice?
  • What quote stuck with you from one of the chapters? Whose chapter stood out to you, spoke to you, or surprised you?
  • What is your overall response to the book? How are you left feeling?
  • What do you now understand the phrase ‘flip the system’ to mean? How might you flip the system in your own education context?

Redefining school leadership

Job descriptions for school leaders often encompass a range of strategic, relational and operational work, but the work of school leaders also involves enacting policy and performing for school communities and for governing bodies. The performative aspects of school leadership are often driven by data, testing and league tables. In Australia at around this time of year, schools receive their NAPLAN results, and around December of each year, these results become public on the MySchool website. Schools often publish reports on their NAPLAN data, drawing conclusions and setting goals around it. This is one example of how public data and high stakes testing is part of a school leader’s job. Other examples are the league tables of schools published at the beginning of each year around Year 12 student performance in tertiary entrance subjects.

In a previous blog post on resisting performativity, I wrote:

In a world that values metrics over stories and test scores over empathy, it takes courage to hold the line on egalitarianism, advocating for individuals with difficult circumstances, or mining richer seams of data than the popular ones of NAPLAN, PISA, TIMSS, tertiary entrance examination scores, and an ever-increasing litany of tests. It can be daring and dangerous to advocate for an education that does more than pander to market perception, external measures and competitive league tables.

Leading is political. As Amanda Heffernan (2018a, 2018b) reveals, principals can deliberately choose to accept or resist policy. School leaders can navigate the conflicting demands of the audit and performance culture by exercising autonomy (Gobby, Keddie, & Blackmore, 2017). In an upcoming chapter in Flip the System Australia, principal Rebecca Cody (2019) calls this ‘riding two wild horses’. She argues that school leaders can and must simultaneously pursue academic excellence (including as measured by public metrics), and a holistic education for each child.

While the seductive cliché of the charismatic central hero persists—from recruitment to media to memes—the more I investigate the theory and practice of school leadership, the more I see it as a constant navigation of tensions. Accountability and autonomy. Individual and wider group or organisation. Bottom line and greater good. This is why it is so important that schools have a clear idea of who and why they are. Values, shared vision, and strong culture can anchor decision making.

I have written before, on this blog and in a book chapter (Netolicky, 2018b), about challenging leadership tropes. Last month, a new academic paper of mine was published in the Journal of Educational Administration and History. This paper is to form part of a special issue on metaphors for educational leadership. The special issue will explore metaphors for school leadership including the punk rock principal, the Robinson Crusoe colonist leader, middle leaders as spies, and head teacher as storyteller.

My article—‘Redefining leadership in schools: the Cheshire Cat as unconventional metaphor’—uses the (as the title suggests) unusual metaphor of the Cheshire Cat to explore school leadership. This metaphor emerged from interviews with 11 Western Australian school leaders.

The crazy subterranean world of Wonderland—with its non-sense and word games—is actually a pretty good mirror to hold up to the world of education. The Cheshire Cat is a complex and mutable character, but is also highly deliberate in controlling its visibility and invisibility. It is the only character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that listens to Alice and helps her through a combination of listening, mentoring, travelling alongside her, a sense of humour, and sometimes stepping back to allow her to make her own decisions. It supports and trusts Alice. The use of this metaphor as emblematic of school leadership challenges traditional notions of leader as charismatic visionary hero leading the troops, or captain steering the ship. This leader is in control, but makes decisions from the perspective of what will have the best outcome or serve others (each student, staff, and the school community). The Cheshire Cat provides a creative reimagining of the school leader as someone who makes careful decisions about how to best serve their communities, how to foster trust, and how to distribute power and agency, including when to appear and disappear, when to step forward and step back, when to direct and when to empower.

The conclusion of my article reads:

It is important that … this article’s Cheshire Cat metaphor not become a new idealised version of leadership, a trope that perpetuates the dark shadow of leadership …. Rather, the Cheshire Cat can be a way into embracing and grappling with the complexities and nuances of leadership in schools. When the Cheshire Cat says to Alice, ‘we’re all mad here’ (Carroll [1865] 2014, 67), it reflects the nonsensical world of Wonderland. The notion of madness is resonant with the current topsy turvy land of education, in which the work of schools, school leaders, and teachers, is reduced to and driven by quantifiable data, measurable outcomes, and carefully monitored accountabilities (Ball 2016; Heffernan 2018b). When the Cat ‘explains the rules of the game, or rather the absence thereof’ (Nikolajeva 2009, 258) to Alice, it is akin to a Head of Department or senior leader helping their staff through the often absurd maze of judgement mechanisms operating in schools and education systems. The Cat can provide a frame for thinking about the slipperiness and complexity of the school leader’s work, the ways school leaders switch between ways of being and responding, and the tensions that school leaders constantly navigate.

… This article proposes a new way of thinking about the school leader through the unusual and lyrical metaphor of the Cheshire Cat. The inclusion of middle school leaders’ voices alongside executive school leader voices moves the conceptualisation of school leadership away from a focus on the principal and towards a more holistic view of leadership in schools. The stories of these leaders provide insights into school leaders’ perceptions of themselves as leaders, and their private processes of decision making. These leader stories, and the metaphor of the Cheshire Cat, challenge the notion of school leadership as an archetypal story of a central figure, showing that school leadership can instead be quiet, subtle, fluid, and even deliberately invisible. (Netolicky, 2018a, p.13)

References

Cody, R. (2019). Riding two wild horses: leading Australian schools in an era of
accountability. In D. M. Netolicky, J. Andrews, & C. Paterson (Eds.), Flip the System Australia: What Mattes in Education, 198- 203.

Gobby, B., Keddie, A., & Blackmore, J. (2018). Professionalism and competing responsibilities: moderating competitive performativity in school autonomy reform. Journal of Educational Administration and History50(3), 159-173.

Heffernan, A. (2018a). The influence of school context on school improvement policy enactment: An Australian case study. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 1-12.

Heffernan, A. (2018b). The principal and school improvement: Theorising discourse, policy, and practice. Singapore: Springer.

Netolicky, D. M. (2018a). Redefining leadership in schools: the Cheshire Cat as unconventional metaphor. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 1-16.

Netolicky, D. M. (2018b). The visible-invisible school leader: Redefining heroism and offering alternate metaphors for educational leadership. In O. Efthimiou, S. T. Allison & Z. E. Franco (Eds.), Heroism and wellbeing in the 21st century: Applied and emerging perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Education research and the teaching profession: Barriers and solutions

Beware the great wall of research. Proceed with caution. (Taken in George Town, Penang.)

Tonight’s #aussieED Twitter chat has been advertised as talking about ‘bad research’ and ‘good research’, and also asking ‘where can a good teacher turn?’ for research. The topic of research in education is a popular one. Teachers are encouraged to use evidence-based and research-informed practices. They are encouraged to know what research is worth listening to, what is worth ignoring, and what has been misused or debunked (hello, learning styles and neuromyths like ‘we only use 10% of our brains’ and left/right brain learning). Education researchers seek to disseminate their research to the profession. Some organisations seek to bridge the gap between education research and practice. Yet a gap remains.

What barriers are in the way of the teachers and school leaders accessing research to inform their practice?

  1. Time. Teachers and leaders in schools are busy. So busy that often their wellbeing and mental health suffers. It is extremely difficult, especially in the face of multiple accountabilities, for those working in schools to find the time to trawl through academic journal articles and lengthy books in order to decipher research and ponder its relevance to their daily work.
  2. Access and cost. Most academic journal articles are behind a paywall and many academic books have a hefty price tag often well over $100. I have written for both, and the irony is that credibility in the academy is based on publishing in these kinds of texts, yet these are the least accessible for practitioners.
  3. Misrepresentation. The media often misrepresents education research, publishing catchy or sensationalised headlines and simple messages that ignore the complexities or realities of education research. For example, the Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that flipped learning was ‘a new teaching method’ that might be piloted in Australian schools, despite the fact that Australian educators have been using (or intentionally not using) flipped learning for more than ten years. Meanwhile, education terms like ‘growth mindset’ become ubiquitous and meaningless. That is, everyone uses them without ever having engaged with the original research or the responses that have come since.
  4. Simplification. There are dangers to pushing an evidence-based ‘what works’ agenda. Firstly, as Dylan Wiliam so often says, everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. But simple league tables of ‘what works’ in education abound. On the one hand these seem useful summaries of research for time-poor teachers, yet they are tools that can be misused and misunderstood if educators do not draw back the curtain to look behind the summaries to the research on which they are based. Meta-analysis mixes together multiple studies in a way that over-simplifies or misrepresents the research on which it is based. For a longer explication, see my extended discussion of meta-analysis in education.
  5. Commodification. There is money to be made in the big business of education. ‘Research’, ‘evidence’, and ‘data’ have become sloganised and used to promote books, professional learning opportunities and conferences. There is a fine line to walk between providing support to the teaching profession by making research accessible, and the corruption of message and purpose that happens when people seek to make money from it, focusing on sales and branding over the authenticity and credibility of what is on offer.

So, what’s the teaching profession to do? Where can we turn when much research is either inaccessible or so multitudinous that it is impossible for the average professional to wade through and find meaning? When the media and some companies or edu-experts are promoting and selling (often contradictory) silver bullets that are too good to be true?

  1. Provide teachers with the questions to ask about research. Context matters, for instance. Where did the studied intervention work? For whom? Under what conditions? Method matters, too. How many participants were in the study? From what school contexts? Via which methods were data generated? What were the ethical considerations and how were these dealt with? What can the study tell us, and what is it unable to tell us? For instance, randomised control trials (RCTs) minimise bias and are often cited as the gold standard of research, but have their own limitations and are not the most appropriate vehicle to answer every research question. A multiplicity of research approaches gives us diverse ways of understanding education, but we need to interrogate the approaches and arrive at conclusions with caution.
  2. Do post-graduate study. Of course this option is not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be a necessity for teachers, but being a Masters or doctoral candidate does provide library access as well as developing an understanding of a variety of research methods.
  3. Consider creating a research role for school, department, or district. While budget constraints might make this difficult for some schools or education departments, a role of ‘Research Lead’, ‘Head of Research’, or in my case ‘Dean of Research and Pedagogy’, can provide a conduit between a school or system and the world of education research. I have written here about some of the things I have been doing to build a research culture in my school.
  4. Build a professional reading repository for your school, district, or system. This might include subscriptions to practitioner or academic journals (e.g. Australian Educational Researcher, Learning & Instruction, Journal of Educational Change), as well as access to research-based practitioner books or academic books. There are also affordable subscriptions, like those of the Media Centre for Educational Research Australia (MCERA), the imminent researchED Magazine, Australian Educational Leader, and the UK Chartered College of Teaching’s journal Impact.
  5. Engage with blogging and online publications. Part of the reason I blog is to give back and contribute to the education community. I work in a privileged school that has the resources to put me in a role where I get to read, write, research, design professional learning opportunities, work with teachers, and help others to do the same. My blog, along with others such as that of the excellent and always-sense-making Gary Jones, seeks to illuminate and summarise research for a practitioner audience. Blogging also engages an audience of international colleagues whose feedback and challenges help to shape my thinking. Online publications such as the EduResearch Matters blogThe Conversation and the Times Education Supplement are also vehicles used by scholars to make research accessible to education practitioners.
  6. Engage with academics and universities, via professional learning or school-university partnerships in order to bridge the gap between those doing educational research, and those seeking to understand and enact it in practice.

At this time two years ago I was attending the American Educational Research Association conference in Washington DC to present on my PhD research. I have attended three Australian Association of Educational Research conferences. I am a research-immersed practitioner. Alongside my full-time school leadership role (in which I also teach English and Literature), I am a research adjunct at a university. I engage in both research and practice. This road, however, is always a winding and imperfect one. Teachers, school leaders, researchers and education commentators need to work together to understand and enact education research and its implications.

Middle leaders: The forgotten stratum

willow tree, Denmark, Western Australia

School leadership is full of tensions and complexities. As I discovered while reviewing literature for my PhD, middle leadership is the forgotten realm of research in education. There is plenty of research on pre-service teachers (no doubt these participants are easy for those working in universities to recruit), a lot on teachers, and loads on principals. There is much less on those in the middle. The principal, even when not touted as the charismatic hero, is the focus of much school leadership discourse, despite the popularising of distributed leadership and teacher leadership. Of course, the principal of any school is central. They set the tone, lead the vision, directly manage senior leaders, deal confidentially with sensitive issues, and much more. But a school’s leadership culture does not begin and end with the principal. Those in the middle manage up and down, in and out, and are often sandwiched between being advocates of the teams they lead and a cohesive voice of management. They are pressed upon from below and above.

If school vision is to be enacted or school culture is to be shifted, middle leaders who directly lead teams of teachers, are key. These middle voices are often ignored in scholarly literature and in media narratives. This gap was why it was important to me (having been myself a middle leader in schools for many years) to draw on the voices of middle leaders in my doctorate.

In my last post I outlined what my school is trialing for teachers in terms of development options within the organisation (complimentary to, but not to be confused with, professional learning offered within the school and also outside of school through courses and conferences). Below I outline the options we have available to middle leaders. That teacher and middle leaders have similar-but-different options acknowledges their varied needs. Even within the middle leadership stratum, there are a diverse range of needs and experiences, from early-career or new leaders, to very experienced veterans more suited to giving back to the profession. The options this year for our middle leaders are as follows.

  • Coaching with a coach who might be a peer, another leader from the within school, or possibly an external person. Unlike the teachers, who are coached around their teaching practice, leaders are likely to be coached around their leadership.
  • A reflection and feedback process with their line manager (which needs to happen every 3-4 years). For leaders, this occurs around their role description, and may dip into the AITSL Standards for Principals rather than only the Standards for Teachers, as appropriate.
  • Working with an expert teacher who acts as a kind of classroom consultant. This is likely to be most relevant for instructional leaders such as Heads of Faculty.
  • An internally-designed leadership development programfor aspirant or early career leaders; includes leadership profiles, senior and executive school leaders running sessions.
  • professional learning group, bringing staff together from across the school to engage in scholarly literature, reflection, and shared practice.
    • Teaching best practice
    • Pedagogies of learning spaces
    • ICT for teaching and learning
    • Post-graduate study

Additionally, leaders at my school attend coaching training and a once-a-term Leadership Forum (examples from last year include presentations from Dylan Wiliam and Pasi Sahlberg, a panel of local principals, and an internal session on goals and strategy). These initiatives are intended to develop leaders’ knowledge and skills, and also a shared culture of how we approach professional conversation, our own learning and collaboration with one another.

This approach to staff development, one that is bedded in the organisation but also flexible to individual needs, reminds me of a quote from one of my middle leader PhD participants. Theirs is a metaphor that sticks with me as I go about my work in staff development and professional learning.

“I see the vision as more like the trunk of the tree; it’s the main thing that we all sort of hang off, and we do.  But we’re all going to be branches that come out from that trunk, and we do have our own little sub-branches occasionally that we can then look at as well, but we still are connected to that trunk of that tree.”

The notion of a school as a tree is resonant with the concept of holonomy (see Costa and Garmston, Koestler, or other posts on this blog). Deep roots, a strong shared trunk, thick team branches, and spindlier individual branches diverging out in idiosyncratic directions. Individual and school are simultaneously together and apart, different and one, part and whole, connected and separate. It is my hope that in my work I can at once support the growth of individual and school, as well as their complex and symbiotic interrelationship.

Taking time to take stock

seeing the wood from the trees (source: pixabay.com)

It is the last day of term. The last day of first semester in Australia. And for me the last day of the first semester of full-time work in seven years, since the birth of my first child.

I spent much of the day pondering a couple of coaching style questions:

  1. As you reflect on the last six months in your role at work, what are some celebrations?; and
  2. Fast forward to the end of the year. What are the things you ideally see as having been achieved, and of what might you need to be mindful in order to get there?

Today I posed these to a couple of people with whom I work closely, and also to myself. These questions are a deliberate tool for looking back and looking forward. They use the aspects of mediative questions recommended by Cognitive Coaching:

  • Plural forms (What are some celebrations …?);
  • Positive presuppositions – the assumption that the person has been successful and has the capacity to reflect on their success (As you reflect …);
  • Tentative language (Of what might you need to be mindful …?); and
  • Open-ended (What are the …?, rather than, Have you …?).

Asking these questions on the last day of first semester was a mechanism for pausing to take stock. Schools move at a cracking pace, and those working in schools are often racing to keep up. Stopping to look back over our shoulder at how far we have come, and in what direction, can help us to realise what we have (or perhaps haven’t) achieved. It can help to anchor us in reality, to consider possibilities, and to re-orient us as we move into the future. I remember doing this from time to time during my PhD: looking back, wondering how I’d come so far, and remembering that it was just by taking one little step at a time.

My own reflections were around a shift in perceptions of my role between the beginning of the year and now. Mine is a new role to the school—Dean of Research and Pedagogy—and in January it felt a bit nebulous. A fuzzy outline of a role. A job description yet to come to life.

I initially spent a lot of time teasing out the crux of what this role was about; its strategy, its deliverables, and how I might gauge my progress in fulfilling its mandate. Looking back at my initial strategic and operational planning is gratifying; most of it has come to life, becoming breath in my work and in the life of the school, on which I can now build.

One of the indicators of how my role has evolved in this short time is the increasing list of those from across the school—from the classroom to the boardroom—who are approaching me for support in their area. I’m especially pleased at some of the unexpected impacts of my work.

Reflecting takes time, but it’s time worth carving out. I was recently reminded that my one word for 2017 was meant to be ‘nourish’. I have lost track of that along the way this year, but am hoping to regain some capacity for nourishment in this coming week when I’m with my family on a South-East Asian island for some time together and some time out.