Trouble Me

“Trouble me, disturb me with all your cares and worries, trouble me, on the days when you feel spent”. 

Trouble Me – 10,000 Maniacs (1989)

How do we show a deep level of care and regard for our colleagues within our schools? How do we do it without appearing nosey, intrusive or insincere and respect our colleague’s right to privacy and sensitivity?

How do we KNOW that care is needed? What are the signs? What kinds of care might be required? Time, space, listening and seeking to understand? A knowing glance, a handshake, a chat over a coffee? A phone call? A text? A ‘how are you?’ It can be a job to know.

Care, I would suggest is linked to trust. Browning (2014) reminds us that trust has to be worked at and invited. Trust is a very personal thing and it can surface feelings of vulnerability and trepidation if someone is let into your life. In busy, emotionally-charged places like schools, this can be compounded because a core currency is relationships. I have no doubt that there are many places of work, maybe your place of work, where trust is engendered and flourishes. In trust-depleted environments, what we bring to the job and what happens to us in our lives can remain camouflaged.

Colleagues, I believe are not in the business of suturing relationships and actually want to show care and regard through professional issues and sometime personal ones. The problem is knowing how to.

Being trusted, being consistent, being confidential and being ‘present’ is very important. It is not always easy to be these things or to do them. Believing in trust and the benefits it can bring is a start. We have to commit to trust and hope that people ‘trouble us’ and develop levels of care and regard that make us feel a sense of worth and support.

 

28 Years Later

I’ve read some interesting materials about the role of personal narrative/personality in forming professional-identity. I often reflect on this and find myself grappling with the fact that our profession is forever under the microscope and people, both within and beyond it, make assumptions about us. I personally recoil at the thought of typecasting teachers, categorising and rating them in accordance to the outputs they generate (scores/value-add etc.), their ability to ‘prove’ or periodically hoop-jump or justify the strategies or interventions they employ, which may or may not be deemed ‘effective’ by some professional body.

I struggle sometimes to reconcile the judgements I hear made about lessons, teachers or schools when something as intangible as culture and personality are likely to play a critical role to success or otherwise. It is for reasons like this that I am wary about myself making assumptions or others making assumptions. I have thought long and hard about why I feel so strongly about this and find myself returning to the summer of 1987 … Indulge me please …

I pulled back the curtain slowly and peeked out of my bedroom window. The sun was coming up and that signalled it was time to escape. I tip-toed across the landing and snuck into my brother’s room which faced out onto our street. I checked his alarm clock. It showed 5:30am. I was late! I scanned the street and in the distance spotted my three mates perched on their bikes, backpacks on looking up at my brother’s window gesturing energetically for me to hurry up.

I returned to my room, retrieved the backpack from under my bed which I had hidden there the night before, and, in military fashion, slipped downstairs, desperate to not be heard or wake anyone up. I had rehearsed the route to the back door to avoid the creaky floorboards countless times and had it down to an art now. I clenched my fist and silently punched the air – I was outside and there was no sign of anyone being disturbed. I slung my bag on my back, grabbed my battered bike and sped round to the meeting point at the end of the street.

The four of us simultaneously slid our hoods over our heads, looked at each other knowingly and set off. We had our first argument by the end of the street, no less than 200m away from where we started. Gavin had forgotten to take his pegged Corn Flake packet wheel clickers off and had set the massive Rottweiler off at Mr Beech’s house. The painfully loud barking sparked a few bedroom lights to come on and curtains to be twitched. It was time to bolt across the fields and down to the river via the farm.

As we rode 4-abreast down the old lane through the avenue of trees, Gavin piped up. “Do you reckon we’ll get there in time? My brother said he’s there every day at 6:15am without fail. Do you reckon he’ll kick off if he sees us?” “Yes to all of those” I replied. We were all excited and curious. A few weeks earlier on a rainy Saturday afternoon, Gavin’s older brother had been to the local video store and got out Stand By Me, The Goonies and Karate Kid and we had a movie marathon in their family attic. By the end we were pumped and wanted to go on all manner of adventures. Gavin’s brother told us of this old farmer who lived near the river and every morning at 6:15am he would be out at the end of his garden practicing some slow, weird looking moves like Mr Miyagi. None of us believed it because we all knew him as the grumpy old man who would shout at us and tell us to ‘get off his land’.

As we neared the river we deposited our bikes against a fence and crawled up the bankside to take up a position to see this creaky old farmer do his thing. We looked at our watches and sure enough at 6:15am, the farmer emerged from the back door of his house and trudged wearily to the end of his garden. He reached for some tarpaulin and slid it off what we thought must have been a folded-up washing line, but was in fact a strange looking tree object with pieces of wood poking out at different heights and angles. The farmer started staring at what we learnt later was a Muk Yan Jong (wooden dummy). From being completely motionless, within seconds his hands, elbows and forearms were flailing at lightning speed and ferocity. We crouched, absolutely transfixed, as this doddery old man demonstrated such dexterity and fluidity, the likes of which none of us had expected. We had made assumptions about his old frame and ability without any knowledge of him.

When the old man had finished, he grabbed the tarpaulin and covered the wooden dummy again and trudged the same track back to his house. I glanced at my watch and noticed that he has been at it uninterrupted for 45 minutes. Without saying a word, we stood up, walked back to our bikes and set off home. We were no longer interested in having our packed breakfast by the river. We had just seen the coolest thing ever and wanted to go and practice what we saw in Gavin’s garage to ‘The Eye of the Tiger’. Sad, very sad.

That was 1987. Twenty eight years later I spoke to Gavin via Skype and he told me that the farmer has passed on at the grand old age of 91. The village had congregated to celebrate his life in the local hall. Gavin had never left the local area and had been invited to the wake. While there he discovered that the old farmer had been practicing on the wooden dummy for nearly 40 years. A local Kung Fu teacher described his routines as remarkable, text-book and effortless, the result of dedication and a love-affair with his craft.

I reminded Gavin of how guilty we had felt making an assumption about the old farmer all those years ago. He asked me if I still held true to this view, to which I replied ‘yes’. As I reflect on that Skype call nearly one year later I remind myself of never doing this in my job. The extrovert, the confident teacher, the classroom-bound teacher, the part-timer, the 30-year service teacher, the graduate, the leader, the researcher … there is so much I don’t know, so much invisible, unquantifiable personal narrative they bring to their role and do day after day. I need to remember this. Do you?

 

 

Nostalgia – It Aint What It Used To Be. Or is it?

Have you ever bought a new car and from that moment on started spotting similar ones everywhere you go with seemingly improbable regularity?

I’ve been wondering if the same principle applies to things we hear. I have started noticing (and have been reflecting on) what seems to be a number of folk using particular phrases in settings where education is discussed; schools, conferences, on social-media. The phrases I hear often include ‘at my last school’, ‘in my last role’ and ‘in a former life’.

I admit I am guilty of having used them. All of them. I am now really conscious of the fact that I have and may still do. These phrases have really made me wonder about the value of our past professional narratives in the contexts or activity in which we find ourselves now; decision-making, opinion-forming, passing comment on something, comparing and contrasting approaches etc. I am curious about our motivations for recalling past exploits or experiences and how we feel when hearing other people’s recitations.  I feel that reconciling the differences between our former and current contexts is important to us but is certainly experientially located.

There have been situations when I have spotted a situation when ‘I knew’ person ‘X’ was about to unload a military-grade salvo of stories about ‘X’ and scrambled for the ‘evac-chopper’. I have also been privy to discussions amongst colleagues who have assembled in anticipation of a new staff member joining the school or a team and talked into existence the worry that new ideas or expectations would have the potential for organisational or team entropy. By the same token, I have enjoyed hearing people share stories or past experiences that have shed new light on a problem, helped inform a decision, present new perspectives or allow lessons to be learnt about how to achieve success or pitfalls to avoid.

I believe that drawing on the reservoir of a staff’s past experience, knowledge, skills and contributions are vital to a schools healthy functioning and there is much to be gained from our professional experiences, but I am also wary of ‘frequency fatigue’. When does it become too much and invert to become something that is counter-productive? I am not suggesting that we put clamps or gags on these phrases, but merely posing a few questions;

  • Have we any way of knowing whether our use of past experience (school, role, philosophy) in our current context elicits a positive response or frustration, sense of threat or some other emotion in those around us?
  • Which experiences do we tend to draw upon and what does that tell us about our attitude to our current context?
  • What do we stand to gain from the use of past experience? Acceptance, a sense of worth, to be heard or the feeling of making a sincere contribution?
  • Do we observe new staff at our schools comparing and contrasting more than existing or long-standing staff?
  • How do we REALLY know if those around us value what we have to say?
  • Do newer staff to a school compare and contrast more than those who have been around long enough to be enculturated and institutionalised?

From ‘my experience’ (here I go … :) …) we tend to use comparison or contrast quite frequently, especially when it comes to taking a position on something or striving to progress things. I have heard the usage between teachers who have hopped from one system to another, such as from a state to private school or vice-versa. I have heard these phrases when a teacher has migrated from one international system to another. I have heard them when teachers feel a philosophical misalignment between a past experience and current context. I have also heard usage when a colleague needed to feel a sense of self-worth by articulating what they actually think.

In my last post I wrote about how we can be susceptible to ‘fabrication’ as a result of internal school cultures, expectations and compliance with policy. We are also clearly influenced by the school cultures we have experienced. Some teachers are progenitors of culture, others a product of it. Experience (good or bad) can profoundly affect how we work, think and transmit what we value. How we move those beliefs around between jobs and contexts is fascinating. Is it actually possible to abandon a previous context and culture and start anew somewhere without re-articulation at some point?

I am left pondering something Ron Berger wrote in his book Ethic of Excellence; ‘How do you share a culture? An ethic?’ How can experience be shared productively and helpfully without feeling the sensation of having to suppress people’s mumbles of ‘oh no, here they go again!’

Fabrication

To what extent is your professional identity fabricated? Can you tell whether others we engage with have fabricated identities?

The notion of ‘fabrication’ is fascinating. It is couched with corporate discourses of accountability, performance and competition (Ball, 2003) and becomes pronounced when it is made manifest through people’s activity both within and on behalf of the organisations they work for. I would suggest that these fabrications are visible in structures and language and are in some way linked to ‘cruel optimism’. According to Ball;

“Fabrications are versions of an organization (or person) which do not exist; they are not ‘outside the truth’ but neither do they render simply true or direct accounts; they are produced purposefully in order ‘to be accountable’. Truthfulness is not the point; the point is their effectiveness, both in the market or for inspection or appraisal, and in the ‘work’ they do ‘on’ and ‘in’ the organization; their transformational and disciplinary impact.” (2003, p. 224)

It concerns me that organisational expectations and externally mandated processes fabricate our identities. Who teacher are and what they believe in is being distorted through fabrication as ‘auditable commodities’. Teachers work is increasingly being defined by auditable artefacts such as planning, lesson observations, assessment results and league tables. What interests me is how our professional identities can be influenced by other forms of fabrication through engagement with ‘edupreneurs’ (edubusinesses and self-promoting individuals) and their ideas and products.

I wonder if the practices and activities of edupreneurs are subject to the same levels of scrutiny and accountability that are applied to teachers? IS their impact on schools and children, and notably teachers evaluated, and if not, why not? I am not suggesting that all these folks are unscrupulous, unregulated free-marketeers, but I am concerned about how schools and teachers identify value for money and the best learning opportunities.

Teaching is a time-impoverished profession. It seems to be in a slow-dance and deep embrace with agendas of quality, improvement, targets and comparability This is a process that at once develops heroic teachers while attempting to diffuse excellence everywhere. Teachers work hard to make education work to meet the needs of children but their work often competes with open-market cartels of ‘providers and spruikers’ peddling products from a decontextualized space. How do schools and teachers discern what and who to engage with to support their growth and hard work? The ‘market’ for professional learning seems to magnetise all and sundry and create the conditions for ‘fabrication’ for edupreneurs. Schools and teachers provide a ‘rich seam to mine’ for edupreneurs with the inclination.

Edupreneurs use terms like ‘expert’, ‘certified’, ‘demonstrator’, ‘disruptor’, ‘author’, and ‘keynote speaker’ which are terms that have become rampant in the educational vernacular. The terms alongside companies and branded products create an allure for teachers and leaders. They’re terms that leaders may be attracted as, worthy of a name-drop, worthy of following, and worthy of teacher interest, time and investment. Guarantees are articulated that the time spent can be logged and recorded with respective professional bodies as professional learning or development. Do these edupreneurs get audited for the quality of what they offer? What agreements have been struck whereby professional learning providers satisfy what awarding bodies require to make themselves accountable?

I am not suggesting that we return to a vestige of yesteryear when all decisions for professional learning and development were prescribed for us as this would seem deprofessionalising and anti-agentic. There is something powerful about choice. Perhaps the dilemma lies in the duel tensions of what organisations want and the individual wants. Stating ‘what is best for all’ to me translates as ‘we will fabricate your identity to re-purpose and re-cast your efforts to the visible output part of the system’.

It is increasingly important in such an open market for educational that we are critical and reflective consumers of what the players in this space offer. It is easy to be swayed and fabricated and susceptible to groupthink. I suppose the key question is, are teachers’ fabricated identities better for students than their authentic ones?

Educational Cheeserolling

My father was a wonderful story teller. He would capture my imagination and attention with tales of his childhood, how he met my mother, how much he cherished his family and his hopes for our future. My father was also a man who enjoyed situational storytelling, often using a place or time to illustrate a point that he felt quite strongly about, not in an evangelical fashion, but one that would evoke reflection.

My father was as far away from misanthropic as it was possible to be, but one thing that did irritate him was when people blindly accepted what they heard or were told, bought into something without doing their research or made decisions about things that matter greatly without applying some criticality. Part of his contention is that too many similar views can heavily distort perspective, build pressure to follow consensus and after a while makes grasping the truth feel like trying to catch smoke. The more things are uttered the greater the possibility of speaking things into existence and belief.

To illustrate this point he would take us for a walk to one of our favoured walking spots, Cooper’s Hill (near the village of Brockworth in Gloucestershire, UK).

The view is a pleasant bi-product of the walk, but it is a peculiar annual event that is the story here, The Coopers Hill Cheese Rolling and Wake. This piece of local tradition is said to have pagan origins when farmers would tumble burning hay bales down the hill to herald the end of winter and the start of spring to resident villagers. Nowadays, hundreds of people from around the world make the pilgrimage to the site to witness dozens of competitors run 200 yds down a 1:2 gradient hill in an effort to catch the prize of an 8lb round cheese with a one second head start and can reach speeds of 70mph!

It is some sight to behold folk throw themselves down the hill with the foreknowledge that things could get very serious very quickly. Bayed on by the apoplectic cries of the watching crowd, some sceptically stand atop the hill watching others hurtle towards the bottom, but succumb to the pressure and throw themselves downhill any way. After the adrenaline floods subside, one can only imagine the possible pain and discomfort competitors feel in the days and weeks that follow.

In some way, this notion of people chasing after something, perhaps uncritically, reminds me of some activity we witness in education, sometimes online, e.g. on Twitter, especially if it’s about impact, solutions, products, rankings/ratings or certainty.

How often do we observe the effects of folk soaking up and spouting off conference jargon, chronic outpourings about policy that stinks, attempts to control (or not) all educational variables, gushing platitudes about the promise of technological innovation, one approach to research pushed over another, a smorgasbord of #chat waffle etc. turn heads and sway people? They seem to create a language and culture of their own rightly or wrongly. Is this attention based on who or what is spruiking it or how it collides with moments in time? I’m probably guilty of some of the above, hence this is a reflection.

Often those with the largest followings generate the greatest impact & spread stuff virulently and unquestioningly. I’m not saying here that I ‘know’ what is or isn’t right. I equally see how it can transform usually inert educational behaviour in some into enmity as the scale and proliferation of uncritical consumption becomes apparent.

I wonder why this phenomena occurs. The need to belong, to affirm, to simply connect people and ideas? Online, does groupthink, as it takes on a personality and entity of its own, serve to exclude rather than include others and arrest participation from outside? Again online, does groupthink slowly immunise itself from what it perceives as irrelevance from others? Does groupthink calcify its own attitudes or philosophies rather than welcome and accept that there is something good about variety?

Returning to Cooper’s Hill and the cheese rolling again, what I really wonder is what the role of the crowd is. What exactly are they there to do? Do they have any responsibility for what they are witnessing? They know there will always be a steep gradient, something to be chased and some chasers. Do they watch with wonder, admiration, curiosity or dismay? Do they ring-fence hopemongers by identifying and dismissing things as unscientific guff or compound the groupthink by creating a sphere of influence that disseminates and satisfies their bias? Maybe it’s somewhere in between or altogether different. I’m simply curious.

My father pointed something out to me the last time we saw the event together many years ago. He said, ‘son, watch the few hesitant ones who go off after the surge. Watch their eyes. Do they look down the hill at what is unfolding or do they watch the crowd? Despite the known risks and certainties, the crowd enjoys witnessing the spectacle.’ When you see something or hear something educationally interesting, uncertain or perhaps ill-conceived, what do you do? Why do you do it?

Panel Beaters

I can’t stomach conferences/events which are replete with platitudinous guff, peddling of all manner of gadgetry  or point out the deficiencies of education till the cows come home and offer no glimmer of hope. I want to converse, debate, share and be challenged and not constrained by veneer thin discourse or redacted notions of right or wrong. I also don’t want to be told what to do or think. I don’t think I’m alone.

ResearchED Melbourne was the second Australian visit for the UK-based outfit following Sydney in 2015. It was an opportunity for Chris Munro, Deb Netolicky, Corinne Campbell and I to meet (all together) for the first time. Ordinarily this would be difficult as we all live in different states thousands of miles apart. In such a vast country, we felt some time ago that connecting educators who coach in different contexts via a chat (#educoachOC) would be a good idea. We are keen to make the monthly confluence about sharing experiences, discussing new ideas and identifying where successes and challenges lie. We opted for a panel discussion to compare and contrast our stories and do our bit to arrest some misconceptions about coaching. We are all too aware that some might perceive coaching as something soft, placatory or, to the other extreme, conflated with performance management and/or supervision. We don’t see it that way.

Some might say we did an #educoachOC ‘live’ event – but no, we didn’t … no prizes, no educelebs, no additional ticket price, just four committed coaches wishing to share our work and research and engage with question from the audience.

It was a great honour to present as part the panel with these folk who I respect individually and collectively. The four of us have a shared belief that coaching can foster professional growth, honour and respect the identity and professionalism of teachers and can negate the need to both to be slave to, and implement the ‘performative’ apparatus (Ball, 2003) that we see many schools and systems succumbing to and which is having a crippling effect of teachers. The panel session also allowed us to wrestle with the theoretical frames and philosophical understandings implicit in coaching models, not just empirical evidence. It was our opportunity to interrogate the challenges and tensions on the individual and organisational level around reflection, identity and agency (Stenhouse, 1988, Biesta, Priestley and Robinson, 2015, Brookfield, 1995 and 2005).

Coaching, for us, as Chris beautifully puts it, ‘is NOT a cure to be administered or a tool to be manipulated’. Rather, it is an offer, a partnership that is rooted in trust, respect and objectivity. It is a great privilege to partner with colleagues to drill down and explore the granularity of practice. Speaking from our individual contexts, we have seen coaching as an entry point to accessing research, working intimately with data and naming and noticing the sometimes imperceptible effects of pedagogy, leadership and shifts in thinking and practice. Our stories gravitate around the notion of supporting teachers to ask questions of their practice; ‘what is it I would like to see work more effectively?’ ‘What do I need to do/research/observe etc. to better understand my problem of practice or area of interest?’ ‘How can a coach support me to enact interventions or protocols?’ ‘How will I know if anything is/isn’t working?’ A common theme on our panel was also that coaching is more than ‘what works’, in the truest sense it is about ‘for who, and for what purpose’.

ResearchED Melbourne was also a chance to catch up with and learn from other folk about what was ‘working for them’ in their contexts and also what is not. This is equally important. Research is very exciting, so celebrating and sharing new possibilities and exciting new developments is important.

It was wonderful to share time with Dr Linda Graham, Dan Haesler, Donnelle Batty, John Bush, and Gary Jones among others. I also regret not seeking out a few people I would have been keen to meet and sessions I would have liked to attend.

So, 2017, back here again??? Where next?

A Problem with a Taxidermy of Practice

I still remember the patterns and blemishes on the linoleum floor. Fit-Bit’s weren’t around back then but I reckon we would have racked up some Km’s as we silently paced up and down the corridor anxiously awaiting our turn to discover the fate of our best efforts. The creak of the door in desperate need of WD40 heralded another long face trudging slowly towards the rain-soaked playground.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of my colleagues exiting the Ofsted ‘hot desk’ temporarily set up in Principal’s office. Some events leave an indelible mark on our professional career and some pretty caustic memories.

My turn came quicker than anticipated. The inspector called my name and I followed him into the room. There was one seat the far side of the desk. He sat down, asked me to confirm my name and the class I taught which was observed for 20 minutes. He then passed down his judgement. The inspector identified one element of my lesson which he felt was effective and suggested I ‘bottle it, preserve it and put it on show for others to see.’ Put it ‘on show’? What did that even mean? That was the sum total of my feedback. I exited poker-faced and did my level best to avoid the glances of my colleagues.

I fully support sharing and dialoguing about practice, but the notion that others should have replicated what I did made me feel deeply uncomfortable and like I was being asked to perform pedagogic taxidermy. The assertion that my strategy or approach could be transplanted in anyone’s classroom without real thought or compensation for a myriad of variables and nuances just because it worked this once felt equally uncomfortable. One’s practice is one’s own, something we craft over many years of hard work, reflection, research, refinement and learning. I wasn’t even convinced that what we had learned about that lesson had necessarily been effective.

Soon after that Ofsted inspection, the inevitable exchange of feedback and ‘grading’s’ ensued. I remember vividly overhearing conversations littered with comments such as ‘he’s not like that for me’, ‘that works really well in my classroom’, ‘there’s no way I would do that’ and the like. I remember the acrid aftertaste of the inspection, the return to closed classrooms, the deafening silence on the research front and scramble for learning analytics to set KPI’s for students and staff alike.

For those who were undertaking further study, engaged in designing and delivering professional development and conducting action research, their exciting work and thinking was submerged by the hubris of colleagues who hit targets, executed interventions with absolute precision and were afforded the platforms to laud their achievements. The illustrations of practice they created that were given viral-like exposure went unchallenged. The benchmarks they created internally, which were presumed to be an extension of external metrics, left some disenchanted and devoid of confidence despite years of experience and wisdom.

What I learnt from this chapter in my career is that evolving ones practice takes time and patience. It can be supported by models of proven effectiveness but ultimately shouldnt require the homogenisation of the heterogeneous. I feel there is excitement and liberation in exploring and researching ones own practice, sharing what we are discovering and collaborating on finding out what might work for our children in our contexts.

When our practice is so regularly under the microscope, no inspection, test or accountability mechanism can fully understand the atomic levels of detail and care we invest in our craft.

Cruel Optimism – Pay, Performance and Promises

Hearing today’s news about the Federal Government’s $1.2 billion spending plan for education (2018-2020) in the form of additional testing and the much maligned notion of performance-related pay (cash for results incentive) is enough to stir the educational community into uproar.

As if schools and teachers weren’t working hard enough to support students to achieve the best they can using whatever experience, research, evidence and resources they can (done with a steely resolve that doesn’t necessitate incentives to squeeze the last grade point and ounce of energy out of ourselves and students), today’s announcement smacks of mistrust and an ‘educational promise’ which Laurent Berlant (2011) could refer to as ‘cruel optimism’.

Moore and Clarke (2016), point out to us that a relationship of cruel optimism involves situations of attachment to hopes and aspirations in which not only are the latter likely to remain unfulfilled, but the very sustaining of the attachment itself has negative, constraining effects in relation to one’s life and development.”

In today’s context, rewarding teachers with cash to elevate results could divert the attention we give to what is right and good about the educational experience to the myopic drive to perform. Busting ourselves yet further because it is believed that performance will pay out in more ways than one can hang over schools like a Sword of Damocles. Could it drive a wedge by pitting colleagues against each other with questionable metrics and see competition valued over collaboration? Could we see curriculum re-design to allocate more time and resources to testing priorities? Could it also have the detrimental effect of what Stephen Ball (2003) calls ‘values schizophrenia’:

“A kind of values schizophrenia is experienced when commitment and experience within practice have to be sacrificed or compromised for impression and performance.” (Ball, 2003)

Teachers, from my experience, place great value on being trusted, exercising judgement and being treated as professionals. This is efficacy-building stuff. It really should not be complicated. However, at a local or national level, researching, informing and shaping policy or practice from the inside-out is often overlooked in favour of certainty, high-reliability or someone portentous version of ‘in the best interests’.

Many have written about the debated merits and pitfalls of performance-related pay and potential policy corruption aligned to testing including this interesting account, Diane Ravitch’s piece and the brilliant David Berliner discussing Campbell’s Law here. Deb Netolicky covers this off really well here. These are all worthy of attention, especially when consider what additional testing, adjusted instruction, pressure to perform and value reorientation will do to teachers and students alike.

I’m fascinated with Moore and Clarke’s idea that within the context of ‘cruel optimism’ teachers largely fall into three categories:

  • Teachers who are broadly supportive of policy;
  • Teachers who ‘substantially reject or resist’ key policy aspects and look for opportunities to practice alternative approaches without detriment to students or colleagues or even the institution;
  • Teachers who are ‘unhappy with key aspects’ of policy but feel they have no option than to comply within a system that they feel is unfair.

Given today’s announcements, where do you see yourself? I know where I stand. I just hope this isn’t a fait accompli and we will have to kick into line. #flipthesystem

 

The Double-Edged Sword of Reflection

To start with, I want to acknowledge Naomi Barnes (@DrNomyn) for her powerful and resonant post – it has really got me thinking.

Teaching creates corporeal responses in us, because as Barnes points out, we care too much. There is a whole other story about why we get to caring too much, whether we should (I’d be lost for words if we thought we shouldn’t), but I would suggest there is little in education that is not high stakes, for someone, somewhere at some time. Indeed, we feel the gravity of responsibility on so many levels that it is hard to not treat education as high stakes. Too much rides on it. It is also an intimately personal profession. Educators are the interface, the filter, the absorber, the deflector, the interpreter, the optimist and the realist.

I can’t speak for other professions, but I know teaching makes us to reflect. Whichever way I think about it, we reflect because we are a relational profession. Perhaps because we can’t interleave relationships, I can see why some say teaching is actually a ‘way of life’, not just a job. Knowledge, curriculum, governance, safety, leadership, behaviour, conflict, theory, literature – in some way, shape or form, we are the intersection between them and our thinking and actions has an impact.

It is this point that draws me to another of Barnes’ posts where she talks about ‘diffraction‘. While we can all reflect on an event, our life, all those things that have resulted on how we got here, diffraction affords us the uncertainty of NOT knowing precisely HOW the future is going to be. Teaching can be the same. As Barnes notes, “life could go in any direction because new people, materials and environments wait for you there. Those things will transform you as a person every step you take and you will transform those things.” For me this is both the beauty and the terrifying truth about teaching. Each day is a new day with such incredible uncertainty,

We can fastidiously plan and prepare only to be undone by the experience or emotion of a student, family or colleague. That’s ok, we adapt. We need to. We juggle multiple interactions through many mediums, all the while trying to be fearless and honest in that conversation without offending, violating, blaming, shaming or demeaning people. We also know that empathy is a heartfelt orientation not just a euphemism for sincerity. People, especially students work that out quickly.

Teachers also reflect in the strangest of places at the strangest of time; on holiday, at 3am in the morning, while teaching, over dinner with the family, while gardening, on the commute to work, while watching a movie. Switching off is almost impossible. If someone has found a killswitch for reflection, perhaps they would care to share, but it is hard to do when we care too much. Reflection is not a waste of time. In fact, I believe schools should build in time to do this more readily and with sincerity. It is not a seditious attempt to undermine direction and progress or the cultural norms of a school, it can be a means of accessing the seemingly nebulous ‘pulse’ of a school, acknowledge that it is hard to stomach the crooked finger of blame being pointed at our profession constantly and that we do one of the hardest jobs around, a job that is rooted in caring.

Lots has been written about the importance of reflecting to make sense and understand ourselves and our work. From Arguilis and Schon (1973) to Jack Whitehead (1988) and Stephen Brookfield (1995, 2005), all attest to the need to gauge our impact and live out our values through our craft. This is no mean feat when we consider the internal struggles which are resultant of the external forces which influence what we do and think. We are expected to reflect whilst also remaining sanguine. In ‘Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher’ (1995), Stephen Brookfield writes about how teachers are inextricably connected to the notion of reflection. He shows how important the chance to debrief, process and digest things on lots of levels.

Brookfield points out that by not situating our jobs in wider socio-political contexts, we can fall foul of what he refers to as ‘self-laceration’. By this he means we immediately blame ourselves when things don’t go to plan or we don’t measure up. Brookfield goes on to remind us of the criticality of reflection and introduces us to four different but interconnecting lenses through which to determine the value of our work and interactions:

  • Personal/’autobiographical’ experiences
  • The view through our students’ eyes
  • The view through colleagues’ eyes
  • The view through the lens of theory/literature.

While these lenses (strictly speaking) apply to teaching and learning, I would argue that they also give us an insight into why teachers ‘feel’ their job and work so intensely – PLUS, it is very hard to not associate our work with politics or social contexts. To not do this starves us of our belief system we bring to our work and the children and community we work for. With the multitude of personal, school, local or policy distractions, pressures and incumbencies, it is little wonder that our emotions and will can ossify into congeries of frustration, anger, resentment, fear and even outright elation. After all, as Brookfield points out, our own personal life story, those of students, their parents, our colleagues, and our institution all matter a great deal. I don’t know too many educators devoid of the prosaic concern of screwing up in some way, shape or form each and every day.

While I agree that teachers always strive to reflect to make sense of their work and do their job better (self-imposed or through some other debriefing method), we feel the intense combined burn of Brookfield’s four lenses as if we were the mere play-thing under a magnifying glass. Those immediately around us by consequence inherit the effect of our reflection whether through daydreaming, extra hours worked, dinners missed, broken sleep to name a few. Perhaps though, it is ourselves who struggle the most, wearing ‘your heart on your sleeve’ comes with a health warning; learn and plan – great, wrestle with blame and internalise the struggles of teaching – problematic.

Reflection is, in my opinion, a double-edged sword. The process of reflecting is a worthwhile one, but it can bring illumination and affirmation in one breath, disappointment and frustration in another. Either way, our work demands reflection of us. Question is, how best to do it, when do we do it and how do we get the most out of it so all benefit?

 

Skeletor Loves it When Planning Comes Together

(A) “WOW! He wants to take on our concerns about workload around planning & marking Orco! Did you get the email about Skeletor’s visit this afternoon? I’m sceptical after the last visit though. Interesting agenda: (i) off-the-shelf schemes of work (SOW) and (ii) reducing the need for teacher’s planning time.”

(O) “Yep. Deleted.”

(A) “I assume you read it though? Its pretty insulting on the face of it. Off-the-shelf SOW’s? So our combined professional experience, thinking and expertise is not enough to create purposeful and lasting learning? Yes it takes time, but there is at least authorship and agency when we do it, for the students WE know and in a context WE understand. Oh, and he also wants to speak to you about how you’re going with that SUSPECT Tech.”

(O) “Oh wonderful, feels like my ships come in! No worries though, I’ve been practicing all that corp-talk for moments like this, check it out … Mr Skeletor, I’ve implemented a product test using next-gen edutech’s to ascertain productivity and interrogated the results with a precocious local competitor to extrapolate tends & anomalies.”

(A) “What the hell does that even mean?”

(O) “I did a Maths test with 10C, let them use a graphics calculator and then compared results with Trap-Jaw next door before writing my reports. Should baffle him enough so he leaves me alone.”

(A) “Ha ha, fair play, you sound as bad as Skeletor. I could write a book about what he doesn’t know about education. Nothing like making an already complex job sound more complex! Ah well, at least in future you won’t have to plan that, it will be done for you. I have to go. Got to meet his lordship in the car park.”

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(S) “Afternoon Adam. I hope the employees are primed and ready for adopting the SOW’s I’ve bought them for next year and my training session later.”

(A) “I suppose so Mr Skeletor. Not sure what kind of a rise you will get from them. After all it is the last day before the Easter holidays and you only gave us two hours notice. You do pick your moments!”

(S) “That’s because I can. Anyway, whatever, you’ll have your minds blown. You’re going to experience first-hand my own brand of evidence-based multi-sensory training. It’s called Mindset De-Programming and uses our new product The Pedagogical Eliminator. Works a treat. From government to classroom, applies in all environments.”

(A) “Wow, I mean wow, seriously, we’ve been crying out to be told what to do and think. What else can it do?”

(S) “Well, participants can use the product to conjure a narrow range of research to justify any assault on a pedagogy or rubbish a thinker. Pure gold.”

(A) “Riiiggghhhtt. What are we supposed to do with this ‘training’?”

(S) “I don’t know really, we just needed to give the technology a run-out before taking it to market.”

Later that afternoon:

(A) “Hello folks. Sorry to gather you all for whole-staff PD, err sorry, training, on the afternoon of the last day before Easter. Hope the parents don’t arc up too much about the two hour notice! Our owner Mr Skeletor wants to get us up to speed with a system changing strategy which will heavily reduce our workload, diminish our efficacy and make us collaborate on someone else’s planning. We have two hours to master this, that’s it. You can now take off the sheet which is covering whatever is under there.”

6

(T) “What’s this? Is it a Ouija board?

(S) “On the money Orco! Only the best for my employees. It’s actually scientifically proven to guide workers to follow instructions better. Soon, you’ll be teaching with consistency and without criticality.”

(A) “That doesn’t even make sense. You do realise teachers are capable of thinking and working together very well if given time, resources, expertise and scope to strategise? We actually value professionalism.”

(S) “And that’s what I’ve given you. Two hours, the Pedagogical Eliminator, Me and my strategy. What more do you want?”

(A) “Ughhhh, some trust, some choice, some respect for starters. So this is a simple case of “let’s work as a team and do it my way!”

(S) “Exactly. Now stop wasting time and get in touch with your inner compliant. Have a play with it and I’ll see you in about an hour. I want a unanimous understanding about how to adopt the prescribed programmes and my preferred pedagogies. I’ll be in my office monitoring your work via the main SUSPECT console.”

Skeletor’s office:

(S) “Beast-Man, Trap-Jaw, get in here NOW!!! What is going on? Why are they standing around doing nothing? This is a disaster?

7

(T) “Ugh boss, they have no idea what to do. They’re used to thinking and exercising judgement and not being told HOW to teach, let alone some wack-job tech doing the thinking for them.”

(S) “Why is EVERYTHING so complicated for these lot? Why do I have to do all the thinking and work. I don’t see them for six months and they still don’t know how to tow the line. I’m going to have to engineer some compliance. Get Man-At-Arms working on a solution!”

(M) “Already on it Sir. This algorithm should audibly pick up any utterance of pedagogic thinking and send an electric shock to those nearest the device to remind them of the PPP – The Pre-Programmed Pedagogy. That’ll learn em.”

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Back in the main hall:

(A) “Mr Skeletor, how does this remotely resemble training? The staff have stood around for five minutes, they’re bemused about having to teach what they’re told which has been created by some thinktank or policy-acting enterprise, done little thinking or made a contribution. You’ve siphoned off two studies from the internet and shut down a world of possibilities.”

(S) “Yes, but I have consulted two think-tanks which I am a trustee of and can give you a 100% guarantee that my money has been wisely used to publicise research on what works to stop teachers wasting time thinking and wondering. You can trust these guys.”

11

(A) “Wonderful, and the reach of this research?”

(S) “Global. We’re now branching out into exam writing, e-textbooks, training and exorbitantly expensive applications. We’re pitching up to every major conference as well as a platinum sponsor!”

(A) “Right, so you are 100% committed and focused on this school, its staff and its students futures?”

(S) “Don’t be daft, of course not. About 20%. The other 80% goes on the other five schools in my portfolio, an equal 20% each.”

(A) “That doesn’t quite work you tool! Delighted to see that we are considered special and a valued educational establishment.”

 (S) “Right, enough of this sentimentality. I’ve organised another staff karaoke night – 70’s themed. That’s back when education was quality you know! We kick off in an hour.”

(A) “Great, just great. sure the staff will love that rather than heading off on holiday. Demonstrating that fabled empathy once again.”

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