Waller’s Lament was a Call to Action

Willard Waller, a scholar at Pennsylvania State University, conducted some pioneering ethnographic analysis (1932) of schools as micro communities and their problematic relationships with the larger community. While his work did not receive any critical acclaim at the time, Waller did provide some important sociological insights into some of the issues which perplex many education reformers. He was fascinated with organisational structures and their effectiveness in leading improvement. He was keen to understand what impeded quality teaching and learning, how balance could be struck between control and authority and how teachers could be best supported to do their work given the highly emotional nature of the job.

Waller highlighted two dominant emotions emerging from his studies, fear and pride. As Hargreaves (1998) notes, “the fear was that of losing control or losing one’s job and with it the thin veneer of pride in classroom control and academic standards that helped ward off deep seated feelings of inferiority about one’s status in the community and one’s competence among colleagues.” Waller was quick to point out that policy-makers and politicians rarely grasped the fundamental nature of schools as they operated and steered education at a distance and spent little time directly listening with attentiveness and empathy to the range of voices of emotions of those in the job, doing the job.

Because schools (according to Waller, although also true today) are ‘small societies’ run by employees with a strong feeling of vulnerability to pressures, both from within and without, we strive for control, efficiency and demonstrable progress to appeal to onlookers with an array of expectations. He noted that when under constant threat politically, economically and socially, schools assume a garrison mentality and give birth to other potent emotions, most notably guilt.

Hargreaves and Tucker (1991) suggest that teachers experience guilt traps and guilt trips. They differentiate between the two; “Guilt traps are the social and motivational patterns which delineate and determine teacher guilt; patterns which impel and imprison many teachers within emotional states which can be both personally unrewarding and professionally unproductive. Guilt trips are the different strategies that teachers adopt to deal with, deny or repair this guilt. They are ways of coping with or responding to guilt that teachers have developed over the years. Burnout, exit, cynicism, and denial are among these major guilt trips of teaching.”

I would suggest that many teachers experience a sense of guilt that is akin to feeling persecuted. This may eventuate from doing something that is not expected or not permitted by either internal processes or external authorities who exercise accountability demands and bureaucratic controls over us. This sensation looks back at tasks, reflects on failure and holds concern for the future. Action is restricted to rectification and keeps us in a cycle of reaction rather than proactivity. It could be said then that guilt is socially generated, emotionally located and practically consequential. It’s hard to know how to neutralize the very things that can trigger guilt, especially when we consider the four paths that Hargreaves and Tucker (1991) suggest lead to its creation: (i) a teachers commitment to care, (ii) acceptance that education is ultimately open-ended, (iii) the pressures of intensifying accountability and (iv) a persona of perfectionism and wanting to do and be the very best for students.

Education, as Waller indicated 85 years ago, is threatened by many forces which can induce fear, and as Hargreaves and Tucker point out, guilt. Excessive workload, inspection, results publications, concern about schools and systems being left behind adopting the latest research/evidence informed strategies, worrying about dubious international policy-borrowing, uncertainty about articulating a view about an educational philosophy debate could all be examples of things that could worry teachers, but could equally preoccupy them. With such a myriad of potentially worrying and dividing educational activity, I wonder what could be done to ameliorate fear and guilt. What, as Biesta (2017) asks “can release us from the more difficult task of making judgements?” Judgements about philosophy, work prioritisation, communicating successes rather than merely deficits, which research and evidence to embrace.

I wonder about Waller’s commentary about policy-makers existing at a distance from schools and teachers. If that distance can be bridged or closed by healthy, robust and representative interaction with those enacting the enterprise of education, perhaps the issues of guilt and fear can be articulated and addressed. Have we got the right voices speaking into the conversation? Have we got the access we need? Have we got the measure of the impact of emotion involved in teaching in order to better things for everybody?

The Flood (and Unexpected Collaboration)

July 2007 is etched into my memory as one of worst and best times as an educator. On what started as a very pleasant summer day in Worcestershire, I remember walking the school grounds on lunch duty watching the bright blue skies rapidly and eerily being devoured by black clouds. The first spots of rain passed without concern but within minutes, everybody fled for cover as we tried to evade a deluge of ridiculous proportions. Estimates suggested that we experienced in excess of 350mm in a few hours.

Being situated at the foot of a sizable hill, the storm run-off became a raging torrent with rivulets forming everywhere that quickly flooded car parks, inundated demountable classrooms and washed out some corridors. The rate at which the site was filling with water was alarming. The site was deemed unsafe to remain in. Lessons were abandoned and families were notified about closure. The evacuation was generally rapid except for those who needed transport to hard-to-reach outlying villages. A few of us left the school site to find out the state of the nearby town and arterial routes. Unsurprisingly, it was chaos and road closures were occurring everywhere. Technically, we were stranded, an island surrounded by dangerous, fast-moving floodwater.

Over the next few hours, the rain abated, the flash-floodwaters receded and this prompted the arrival of some of the oddest modes of transport I have ever seen at a school to ferry students home. Tractors with trailers ferried some students to nearby farms and villages. Small boats and a canoe picked up a few more. Even an antique amphibious vehicle turned up. Soon the entire student population was safely evacuated and the staff were left to debrief. Phone calls, texts and emails soon streamed in detailing that major routes home for most staff were impassable. Families and loved ones were contacted to let them know we were safe, we were not taking any risks travelling and that we could camp down for the night in school if necessary or stay with a few colleagues who lived in close proximity.

As the night drew in and the remaining staff gathered for well-earned food and drink, it became apparent that we had achieved a great deal that afternoon. Some remarked that it felt that we were on autopilot, everything clicked but we were all explicitly aware of our duty to keep our students  safe, reassure our community and combine our thinking and efforts to deal with the immediate concerns. In 24 hours we learnt a lot about ourselves and each other. We put some otherwise hidden talents, skills and knowledge to use in unique and challenging circumstances. We traded stories with each other that we might not ordinarily have and soon discovered the considerable extents to which we went to collectively improve the schooling experience and outcomes for all students.

I reflect on this time with fondness and use it as a touchstone to remind myself that schools and education in general don’t need to fall for alluring hero narratives which can induce guilt and create a sense of insufficiency. We have all heard the tropes like ‘love the ones you’re with’ or ‘we are better together’, but frankly it’s not that easy when we probably do not have comprehensive awareness of the full array and depth of talents and knowledge our colleagues possess and put to work. This is particularly the case when systems are in place which discretely pit colleagues against each other through credentialing, inspection and the like by way of labelling or grading competence. Collaboration is rarely easy, as Tamm and Lyutt (2004) note, because our ability to do so is contingent on how much we trust each other, our school culture, our ability to follow-through on something we may not wholeheartedly believe in and previous experience.

Some argue that collaboration privileges extroverts. I would suggest that schools should honour and respect those who are introverted, quietly do great work but prefer to go about things more in less overt ways. Forcing collaboration can exclude some who could wrongly be perceived to be rowing in the wrong direction or non-committal to the team. This doesn’t mean that they cannot fulfil more widespread positive influence (Kraft and Papay, 2014). They may teach several classes, contribute to extra-curricular offerings and perhaps work with others in less public ways. None of these acts of individual service are insignificant, but they may fly under the radar when compared to the headline grabbing cheerleading of a particular pedagogical approach, improvement edict or pastoral drama. As I witnessed during our brush with Mother Nature in 2007, people can make extraordinary contributions and add significant value in ways that we cannot foresee or even measure. Empathy, selflessness, courage, advocacy, wisdom and a will to learn are of great value to a community alongside expertise that brings about positive outcomes or ‘impact’, it’s just that we may not be able to measure their influence beyond the publication of the latest league tables or internal assessment progress checks. Does this mean they are of any less significance? No, they are part of the enmeshed efforts and thinking required to support schools.

Worthiness – According to Who?

Sunday mornings in the Andrews household start early. The alarm goes off at 5:45am and shortly after 6:15am Miss 7 wakes in order to get ready for a forty-five minute drive to a climbing gym and her weekly lesson. Last week was different however. It was the annual state climbing finals which saw competitors from far-and-wide descend on an unfamiliar venue to battle for limited qualification spaces at the national finals.

On this occasion, Miss 7 was successful in two out of three climbs and finished second in her category. While very gracious about her placing and keen to congratulate the winner, it was obvious to us how disappointed she was with herself. From speaking to her it was evident that Miss 7 was not satisfied with the judgement of others, she wanted to define her own success and sought control and power over the measure someone else foisted on her to qualify her degree of success. In her mind someone else’s application of a category ranking or digit to define accomplishment couldn’t possibly reflect the amount of planning, adaption to controlled conditions and the effort she had employed.

On Wednesday we received an email to confirm that Miss 7 had qualified to be part of the Under 10’s climbing squad to represent the state at the National Finals in Melbourne in May. We were elated for her and couldn’t wait to break the news after school. It would be fair to say we didn’t get the reaction we anticipated. Miss 7 was adamant she wouldn’t compete unless she returned to the competition venue and finished off what she started and left incomplete. Then, only then would she feel that she was worthy of her selection. Feeling very proud of her stance and craftsman like attitude on the matter, we committed to taking her back.

This whole episode has had me reflecting on the many ways in which determinations of success, effectiveness, failure, right or wrong in educational thinking and practice are articulated and sometimes mischaracterised. The swamp of international comparisons translated at national level takes on a vernacular of its own through crisis-tendency finger-pointing at teachers by politicians. National standardised testing and associated online rankings posted annually compound the feeling of education as the perpetual unfulfilled promise. What will the next fast-policy be to remind us of what is purportedly being unattended to? I have heard friends who teach here in Australia and back in the UK talk of their personal concern about employing strategies with ‘strong padlock ratings or long-term intervention impact’ despite knowledge of the contextual inappropriateness. It is one thing to say use of strategies should be informed and discerning, another to consider which voices are casting their shadow over the sense of expectation. Others have expressed worry about being seen to read wider literature, research or blogs that deviate away from a doctrine they have been told is beyond reasonable doubt or evidence.

On this note, I am intrigued by particular groups who espouse the potentiating role of evidencing ‘impact’ in our teaching while only loosely defining it. Look out for #myteachimpact next week. I am concerned that processes such as certification here in Australia for being ‘highly accomplished’ or a ‘lead teacher’ divert efforts towards a subjective array of practices that help achieve accreditation and aims of education that don’t necessarily take account of contextual challenge and variance when we feel pressured to accept what research suggests ‘works’. It may give the appearance of sorting and ranking teachers within a guise of celebrating greatness. What and who is ‘the best’ and who decides? Outpourings like this are unlikely to make me and perhaps others feel heroic about our work when we know there are thousands of others unmotivated by accolades and rewards and who aren’t on social media, who work relentlessly hard, with effect and with tremendous personal responsibility day-in and day-out.

I have recently been immersed in reading Lawrence Stenhouse’s astonishing contribution to educational research. He has provoked me to think hard about the importance of personal and professional judgment. It is something to be treasured and something to be defended. As he points out, remaining open to others people’s ideas and alert to research is important, but perhaps it is we, practicing teachers, who are well/best positioned to know what works and how to channel our efforts to make a difference. For me a key question is how do teachers reach a point of ‘not being told what to do’?

“Good teachers are necessarily autonomous in professional judgement… they do know that ideas and people are not much real use until they are digested to the point where they are subject to the teacher’s own judgement … for teachers are in the position to create good teaching”.

(Stenhouse, 1988)

What I learnt from Miss 7 is that knowledge of my circumstances (whether familiar or not), control over my strategies, regular practice and reflection are key to success. But what I learnt most, is that by taking control over my measures and my craft, I can achieve a sense of worth off my own back and through my own effort. That is reward enough. I think Miss 7 and Stenhouse are on the same page there.

The Ceaseless Offer of Possibility

David Berliner (2002) notes that educational research and social science is often considered ‘too soft, squishy, unreliable and imprecise to rely on as a basis for practice’ when contrasted with the ‘hard’ sciences such as physics, chemistry and geology.

Perhaps this is because in education, we do our ‘science’ under conditions that physical scientists could consider intolerable. We contend with local complexities of socio-economic and cultural circumstance that can limit generalisations and theory building. As such, our ability to understand, predict and control phenomena we study is tough, much to the frustration of those who employ considerable effort to design out methodological inconsistencies or compromising influences. Surely deciding what is important to test, prove or challenge needs to occur first, followed by selecting the instruments and means to enable this. The question of what is important is a social decision that comes before scientific theory.

Consider for a moment the myriad ways in which humans in educational settings are embedded in interconnected and changing networks of social interaction. The people in these networks have considerable influence over each other every time they interact by virtue of what we individually and collectively face; illness, a messy divorce, inclement weather, community tragedy, new school leadership, funding cuts, political instability, domestic trauma etc. Compared to engineering bridge designs or splitting an atom, the science of understanding, helping improve or change an individual, class or school is hard because our contexts cannot be fully controlled.

Knowing the challenges complex human interactions pose to scientific study and research, why might it be that politicians and the sections of the profession are seemingly enticed by evidence-based practices and interventions? Perhaps we could consider them a bridge across the chasm that divides theory and practice, with the messiness of life and relationships in the ravine? Perhaps in the eyes of some, what education is meant to be has suffered a slow and steady erosion for too long. They cannot stand idle and observe wave after wave of fads, directionless leadership and a lack of vision. Seeing education as rudderless, misinformed and a waste of money is enough to rile anyone.

Riep (2016) reminds us that because of a relentless agenda of performance and improvement, education falls victim to being commodified and cloaked in crisis-tendency headlines which usher in ‘evidence’ and specialists as the elixirs of educations woes. This can leave us open to external forces who can reconfigure the concept of education as a common good or constitutionalised as a human right. These forces can also threaten the precious capacity we have for asking new questions about schooling and learning, the ability to challenge dominant orthodoxies through research and speak to policy from the vantage point of experience. We see far too often our work bureaucratically reduced to narrowly defined system inputs, outputs and interventions; inappropriate funding models, inspections, loosely regulated professional standards, testing upon testing … To those with influence, these may seem a perceptibly secure array of approaches and measures. Does the profession view things this way?

The ability to acquire knowledge, learn from practice and experience and share what we are discovering about education seems to have become rendered as something to be bought and sold, something Polanyi (2001) describes as a ‘fictitious commodity’. Jessop (2007) goes on to suggest that in such a ‘crisis-climate’, politicians, prominent educational figureheads, consultants and the like can frame education, particularly knowledge, as ‘artificially scarce’. Despite this, what we have learnt about the educative process is a triumph and testament to all who have contributed to a substantial body of work. We still have to deal with bogus ideas, fads, poor science and a weakly regulated business environment. What we also have however, is a thriving educational research and social science community who, rather than solely working, re-working and experimenting on existing ideas, are prepared to ask new questions and open up the potential to offering unthought-of solutions to emerging complexities.

Not a Poor Relation – The Value of Theory

For as long as I can remember, I have loved books and loved reading. One of the joys of growing up where I did (not too far from Hay-on-Wye) was frequent visits to the acclaimed epicentre of the second-hand book store trade.

Whether it was in a tiny Tudor shop neatly tucked away down a cobbled lane or in a cavernous converted warehouse, I could be found parked at a table or sat in an old dusty armchair flicking my way through books. I had my favourites; old copies of Wisden’s Cricketer Almanac, classic works of geographical or geological literature and foundational works and musings of educational pioneers when I became a teacher.

What I have discovered as I have meandered my way through my career, is the value of reading educational literature, especially theory. I have also noticed how hard it has become. There are so many complexities, pressures and politics associated with it. Time to access, read, digest, reflect and make-sense of research and literature can be an obstacle. Intersecting this are the espousals of individuals, groups, committee’s, organisations and even politicians about what the profession should or shouldn’t be thinking, doing and not doing, reading and not reading. Canon this, canon that, ‘must read’ this or you’re a (insert belief group here), be research informed, substantiate or evidence that…

It is encouraging then to see so many teachers publishing and blogging about practice and sharing their work, tips and research. We are the better for it. However, it seems to me that there is a greater prevalence of practice and the technical aspects of curriculum and pedagogy, over-and-above theory, which I would suggest is of equal value. There seems to be a fixation on the tangible, the measurable, the calculable, the secure and testable and the practically applicable. However, theory can help us investigate our hunches, instincts and tacit knowledge which sculpts our practice. It can suggest practice possibilities. The distinction between ‘theorists’ and ‘practitioners’ seems unsound, unworkable and epistemologically untenable and becomes codified in our ongoing debates. I find the reflections of Brookfield (1995) of interest when considering the value and worth of reading literature on theory (in an expediency-hungry environment). He suggests that:

  • Theory lets us name our practice: by exploring the ideas behind, and depictions of other people’s practice, we can contrast, connect with or think through our own experience;
  • Theory breaks the cycle of familiarity: by reading and thinking about activity and theories that have emerged from beyond our own context, it can be helpful inasmuch as gaining insight into what features of work are locally-specific and which are generic
  • Theory can be a substitute for absent colleagues: if we are unable to connect and work with colleagues in person, shared literature can create a conversation about work or ideas from a distance;
  • Theory prevents groupthink and improves conversation with colleagues: working with educational literature can function as a provocative feature of work that can shake-up comfortably settled frameworks and ideological homogeneity. It is only useful, I would suggest though, if it leads to more thinking that results in action;
  • Theory locates our practice in a social context: we can agonize over effectiveness, appropriateness and meaning in our work. Literature around theory can help us untangle pedagogical puzzles and the politically sculpted nuances within the system we work.

Perhaps where theory comes undone in a relentlessly busy profession, is that it can seem too abstracted, obscure and a sizeable distance from practice. However, it’s worth shouldn’t be underestimated. It is unlikely to manifest itself as a cool infographic, make it into a top 10 ‘books all teachers should read’ poll, be the topic of a teachmeet two or seven minute talk or have a school write about how theory underpins it’s philosophy and practices? Or will it? If we value the thinking about how and why we do what we do and are keen to understand the complexities of our work, engaging with and talking about theory is important.

So how can we engage with educational theory when we are busy and are bombarded with ‘what works’ etc. where the thinking seems to have been done for us? Perhaps instigate or join a reading group? Get involved in a research project? Lobby your school or professional associations for some journal access. This seems to be happening in places across the profession and this is encouraging. For me it comes back to what Gilbert Ryle (1945, 1949) calls the distinction between ‘know-how’ (what teachers do) and ‘know-that’ (teachers being able to explicate what they do). Theory can help us articulate this and robustly engage with ideas and concepts from which practice has emerged.




Opportunity Knocks – Again, and Again, and Again

Last week educational globetrotter and purveyor of all things ‘evidence-based’, Visible Learning, tweeted ‘What is John Hattie working on at the moment?” Before they informed us it was Visible Learning for Parents, my first thought was $kerching$. While some may welcome the umpteenth variation of Visible something-or-other, I am skeptical of this addition to the arsenal of products and wanted to share a few thoughts.

The greasy pig that is the secure relationship between intervention and outcome has been a focus of Hattie and Visible Learning’s output for nearly ten years. It seems that across the globe individuals, schools and professional organizations have hailed Hattie’s meta-analysis as an important step forward in making educational decision-making more evidence-based. It also satisfies those who love a list and rank order (updated 2016). It is understandable that in the quest for certainty in an inherently complex and uncertain place like a school, this work would be welcome.

Hattie is no doubt aware that much has been written about how family involvement with a child’s schooling can affect achievement. That said, a myriad of complexities and nuances prevent the evidence from being reliable enough to anchor down definitive interventions that lead to improvements in achievement. He should ‘know the impact’ I hear you say! Well, is this Hattie’s angle? To fill this lacuna?

The influence of Hattie’s meta-analysis and encompassing rhetoric can be seen in many places, from bookshelves to unit plans, classrooms to conferences, national toolkits to policy. There are products and strap-lines abound to reinforce the brand. We see him commentate on television about school improvement trials which give him access to families and communities’ hearts and minds. He can be seen spanning organizations with significant professional clout to manage up to policy and down to the standards that drive teacher practice. Writing for Pearson, he has reminded us of the Politics of Distraction, those things which ‘don’t work’ and suggests where our efforts and thinking should be channeled. He has also proclaimed in evangelical form that he has a dream for educators to be, wait for it, ‘change agents’. So that’s d = 1.57 right, the ‘collective teacher efficacy’ super factor? He and his work also benefit from an extended partnership between ACEL/Corwin/Visible Learning.

What interests me is the work that has been done to shine a spotlight on the short-comings of using meta-analysis and effect sizes to validate all manner of commercial and educational activity and supposed policy legitimacy. For example, back in 2011 Snook et al wrote a critique of Visible Learning. Of particular note were their concluding concerns. After picking apart the methodological inconsistencies, the authors noted that politicians may use his work to justify policies which he (Hattie) does not endorse and his research does not sanction”. They go on to state that “the quantitative research on ‘school effects’ might be presented in isolation from their historical, cultural and social contexts, and their interaction with home and community backgrounds”.

This final point is of interest when we consider the forthcoming publication of Visible Learning for Parents. What might the book be geared towards? Parents understanding of, and endorsement of school efforts to execute and inculcate strategically selected interventions to improve achievement? Perhaps we may see further brand-strengthening through the introduction of an armada of products and services. There will be a book of course, but what about ($kerching$) an online portal, app or school-home support software to connect schools with parents and families. Perhaps ($kerching$) PD will follow, of course through accredited providers. I dare say the initiative will do the rounds at ($kerching$) conferences the world over, exhorting the vital role parents/families play in the educative process, nailing the critical support of the home situation.

Beyond a schools choice to adopt strategies which anchor themselves in meta-analysis, there is the bigger question of how far up the system chain does the acceptance of intervention effectiveness go and how wide does the sphere of influence extend? Simpson (2017) has noted that our preoccupation with ‘what works’ in education has led to an emphasis on developing policy from evidence based on comparing and combining a particular statistical summary of intervention studies: the standardised effect size.” The paper suggests that research areas which lead to the array of effective interventions are susceptible to research design manipulation – they stand out because of methodological choices. It also asserts that policy has fallen victim to metricophilia: “the unjustified faith in numerical quantities as having particularly special status as ‘evidence’ (Smith 2011)”. Dr Gary Jones does a great job of highlighting this and other worries in his blog post about how this paper puts another ‘nail in the coffin’ of Hattie’s Visible Learning. Similarly, Ollie Orange ably dismantles the statistical concerns of Hattie’s meta-analysis.

The seductive rhetoric of Hattie’s work can be found almost everywhere and certainly seems compelling. However, if education is solely about impact and effect size, i.e. one year’s growth for one year’s input, will this book actually add anything of value to the combined community’s pursuit of improvement in young people’s achievement? With questions being asked of the methodological credibility upon which all else gushes forth, shouldn’t we be questioning how much we buy in to it?

Bears, Books and Bye-Bye’s

People in government office are rarely out of the public eye. Love them or loathe them, we don’t seem to be able to ignore their activity. Some serve with dignity, integrity and have the interests of public good in mind. Others don’t exactly cover themselves in glory by getting involved in some kind of drama, questionable activity or surround themselves with a cadre of folk who can woo and sway ministerial influence with persuasive rhetoric and groupthink.

Take for example an elected minister or a secretary for education. What is it we want from them? What is it we look to them for? Leadership? Open dialogue about education? Support and advocacy for teachers, schools and communities? Wait – support and advocacy OF WHAT though? How much confidence can we have in them, and from where does their credibility come from?

I would suggest that credibility comes from having a background in education itself. It also comes with having the capacity to listen without prejudice to the many varied voices and experiences of a diverse profession. Credible leaders also spend time in a variety of communities and schools, not just strategically targeted ones which provide and confirm a narrative which peddles pre-ordained, ideologically-driven policy and practice. Surely credible leaders at the highest levels should muster a sense of what the needs and aspirations of communities actually are rather than assuming what is required.

Take a look at some existing or proposed education ministers globally. What activity do we see them involved in and what do they communicate to us about their perspective on education and plans for it? We see in Betsy Devos in the US, an inability to answer inquiry questions about private financing of party politics, a disregard for public education, a dismissal of the notion of free further education for the disadvantaged and the astonishing admission that firearms may be permissible in some schools due to the threat of bears! Even her peers are speaking out against her lack of suitability and credibility.. We see other ministers such as Nick Gibb adopt a constative position on educational ideas at major summits (i.e. Davos/WEF 2017), opining and proclaiming a book, thinker or field of thought to be the elixir of educational ills because it resonated with them personally. Meanwhile, other perspectives allegedly fall woefully short of substance or credibility.

Again, what do we think education ministers should be? An ear to, voice piece of, or policy conduit for the most generously funded and hand-picked think tanks, researchers, organisations and individuals with a wide sphere of media influence? The spearhead of an idealist or populist love-in at the theory/policy/practice intersection? A visible, active and empathetic consumer and instigator of conversations, research and practice that ask relevant and exploratory questions about educational needs and policy? I’d suggest the latter.

This question reminded me of a sentiment made by outgoing NSW Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli;

“There is no great trick to it. It’s about listening to every point of view and sticking to facts and evidence. We never make up policy ‘because it sounds like a good idea.’ Everything we do is based on data and advice from experts, particularly teachers and principals.”

Piccoli acknowledges the central role of school leaders and teachers in shaping strategy and decision. Acknowledging us as ‘experts’ is reassuring as we are the ones in schools and classrooms doing the work, observing and reflecting on what is happening and creating evidence of what works in very particular contexts. This, I would suggest was reflected in the outpouring of kind words and affirmations by many across social media once news of his departure became more widely known.

This may leave us wondering many things; how does a minister assemble a group of informed, open-minded and collaborative people to work with and have critical dialogue with? How can they fairly and sincerely represent the views of all communities they serve? How can they guard themselves against only listening to the loudest voices who may be significantly connected to influential forms of media to espouse their beliefs? How can they defend us from alluring and murky fads and fast policy solutions that Band Aid over new and long-standing issues?

Being an education minister must be a near impossible job with unenviable pressure. It is important for the profession to inform and advise upwards to ministerial level about generative priorities drawn from existing issues and needs rather than react to inheriting policy. Maybe this is occurring to an extent in some countries. Perhaps social media has done this in part, giving people access to high profile officials. Maybe some ministers are listening, but to who, about what and to what end?

The ‘Best’ (who and what exactly)?

Teaching is dizzyingly complex and uncompromisingly pressure-ridden. Teaching is also susceptible to rhetoric and action which promulgates a sense of guilt about not measuring up against expectations and performance of peers and raises personal and public queries over competence. For some, this paralysing guilt can originate from a myriad of sources; excessive work scrutiny, school inspection, lesson observation, appraisal against teaching standards, vigorously peddled ideology and interaction with persons who with sarcasm and pomposity, point out ‘what the research says’, ‘what the evidence is’, and ‘you should be …’. These same people seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in corrective mode, wading in and pointing out the shortcomings or inadequacies of people’s or schools ideas or practices. It all feels so unhealthily competitive and undermining at times.

Who then, in all honesty, could be considered an interlocutor when it comes to identifying who the ‘best’ teachers are and describing and defining what the ‘best’ teachers do, think, read, act like, strive for etc.? Best at what? Best for who? Best to what end? What research or evidence is ‘best’? Have we actually agreed on what ‘best’ is or looks like? I would argue that when ‘best’ is employed to describe or define anything, it can lead to a form of cognitive imprisonment, making us narrowly believe that there is little else needed, sought or researched or we need to change our mind about what we have always believed. The mere utterance of ‘best’ is constraining. As Brookfield (1995) notes, “primarily it serves individuals with a reductionist cast of mind who believe that the dynamics and contradictions of teaching can be reduced to a linear, quantifiable rating system”. He goes on to note that “such epistemologically challenged people sometimes work their way into positions of administrative and legislative power. Believing that learning and teaching are unidimensional, they carve curricula into discrete units and create standardised objectives (and methods) that are meant to be context and culture-proof”.

The idea of ‘best’ can also cause us to ossify into congeries of confusion and self-doubt. I don’t know many teachers who aren’t committed to developing their practice, and that is not to say they aren’t aware of what research and support is out there. They want to smite the crappy jargonistic vernacular, arrest the flow of fads and take a broom to the bureaucracy that coagulates our time and prevents collaboration, progress and developing agency. That said, the many masks and roles we expect our teachers to shift between to be ‘the best’ and showcase the ‘best’ is worrying. Teachers don’t have chromatophores that allow them to quickly blend into and fabricate their ways to meet policy change or shifting school expectations. It’s just not that easy logistically let alone emotionally.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, it seems that professional action is at the forefront of the agenda of education at the moment and professional action needs to be justified and defended. There is a case made by some that nothing should be left to chance. But many commentators are punch-drunk on myth-busting, fad-smashing and having an epiphany about the fact that were led up the garden path and were wrong. They critique the part without addressing the whole. As Ball states (2015), we need to question the ‘necessarian logic’ espoused by policy entrepreneurs, so-called ‘experts’ and those that create the murky swamp that is a business-like or medicalised view of education and ‘what counts’ and ‘what works’.

Teaching shouldn’t be a contest or a pursuit to sort and rank practitioners. Nor should it be a director’s cut with CGI, costumes and clever marketing and promotion trotted out on occasion to extol the views and practice of some and marginalize others. I would argue that when teachers have worked together, thought together and researched together we have ameliorated some pretty big issues and advanced the profession, whereas we have only served to divide and compete with ourselves by creating a sense of ‘the best’.

The River

The warm, gentle evening breeze carved wave-like patterns in the long grass as we trod a path through the meadow. High above birds glided on the last thermals of the day before coming to rest on the branches of the willows that flanked the river. As the light drained away like floodwater an inquisitive face peered up at me. “Daddy, where are they?”

“Just through that gate and down the hill” I replied. Our youngest daughter raised her tiny arms and gestured to me to carry her tired frame. As she nestled into my shoulder she drew a yawn and then whispered to me to hurry up before sleep took her. She was eager to see someone.

We paused some ten metres or so away from two figures sitting motionless on the bank of the river. I turned and stared at the now perked-up four year old I was carrying. The light caught her eyes and just for a moment I saw my father’s playful spirit in them. “We should pounce on them like tiger’s” she said with a grin before asking to be put down on the ground. She placed her little hand in mine and led me slowly and quietly towards her sister and their grandad. Clasping her mouth with both hands she held back giggles to listen closely to the words being spoken which were being carried by the breeze now blowing towards us.

“I taught your father to fish here, you know.” The old man wrapped his arm around our eldest daughter. “He had no patience at all. You are doing far better” he chuckled.

“What else did you teach him grandad? Tell me about when he was a boy please.”

As the shadows grew longer the two moved closer together, cuddling as the temperature dropped and the stars began to adorn the darkening sky. All we could make out was laughter and gesturing as stories were recounted. Soon my father stood up and placed our eldest daughter on his back. They trudged away from the river just as I felt our youngest’s hand lose grip with mine. She raced through the grass and leapt, true to her word, like a tiger. Two became three, hand joining hand.

I turned and walked back through the meadow, content that moments like this were utterly unforgettable and would in time become cherished memories.

My daughters, please understand …

Sadly daddy’s father never became your grandparent. He passed when Daddy was seventeen. Despite the futility of imagining memories such as these and picturing him in your lives had he lived longer, I still feel the collision of gratitude at being your dad on one hand and a sense of grief that he is not here to share in your lives. You occasionally ask me about him. While I am happy to share stories of his life with you, I wish I didn’t have to refer to him in the past tense.

I want you to know that your grandfather was an accomplished engineer, a man who fully understood and appreciated the essence of precision in his work. He also loved his family dearly and knew much about the unpredictable course of life. As a teacher, daddy is forever wrestling with the imprecise and uncertain, but he is grateful for having learnt from grandad to accept and work through opportunity and adversity and understands that attempts to fully control life eventually controls us, our relationships and processes. I look at you and remind myself not to be impatient to see you grow up, but to be attentive right now and prepared to vacillate with change as it presents itself. Daddy knows that he has been hostage to grandad’s memory, but rather than erode it in order to heal, he is committed to depositing lessons and stories about him with you in order to help you understand part of where we come from.

Does the Shoe Fit?


“Oh, I think I’ve landed

In a world I hadn’t seen

When I’m feeling ordinary

When I don’t know what I mean”

 (Coldplay – Head Full of Dreams)

Cleaning out a classroom or office at the end of a year is nothing out of the ordinary. Feeling nervous about opening something that was given to you more than a year earlier is.

In 2015 I was given the exciting and equally terrifying opportunity to be Acting Principal for a term while ours was on a sabbatical. I remember feeling stunned and honoured to be asked if I wanted to undertake the task, but soon felt the corporeal response in me as the gravity of what was involved sank in. What I can say with every degree of confidence is that the stint ‘in the chair’ had a huge impact on me emotionally and aspirationally.

I remember trying to conceive what it might be like, predict what might happen and envision who and what I would have to become in order to act with reason, integrity and trustworthy leadership. I figured I couldn’t entirely be myself. I had to acknowledge the unique personal and situational factors that would shape my experience. I was taking up the post in my current school and so many things about the place were familiar to me – people, places, routines and general processes. Would that be an advantage? I am a consultative and collaborative school leader and value the experience, thinking and contributions of others. Could I continue to be that person but not interfere with other people’s business knowing ultimate responsibility for the school lay with me? I am reflective and proceed with work in a considered fashion. How would I cope if I needed to make snap decisions or take decisive action? I wrestled with these in the lead-up to the experience, during it and in my reflections since.

I had some coaching to prepare me for the opportunity. I was made aware of any significant meetings, pending decisions, matters of business, looming deadlines and I had constructed a sense of what it could be like from observing our Headmaster at work, through literature I had read and from speaking with others in comparable positions. I was very grateful for this. The reality was significantly more complex and challenging than I anticipated. I learnt a lot about myself. With new responsibilities and with new tasks I quickly discovered what I could do and what I struggled with, how I had to work with others differently, how I would have to communicate differently and how I would need think in new strategic and whole-school ways. It was learning, albeit at a very steep gradient.

A few weeks into the role, a mysterious and pretty looking box was left on my temporary desk. I remember studying it for some time wondering what on earth it could be. It wasn’t my birthday. I hadn’t done anything to warrant a gift. Had we had school visitors who wanted to leave behind a token of appreciation? I don’t tend to enjoy surprises, so cautiously lifted the latch which sealed the box. Like a curious kid I slowly opened the lid and sat perplexed at what greeted me. On the top, partially obscuring the items beneath it was a card.


I sat trying to digest the sentiments expressed inside the card. A colleague who I rarely have anything to do with had taken the time and effort to craft some very touching words about how they had faith in me, they were behind me and I was appreciated by the community. Beneath the card were a number of trinkets (click on the image to see more closely), emblematic of how my colleague perceived the pressures of Principalship.

How did my colleague’s perceptions match my reality? Here is what I discovered;

  • It can be very lonely at the top. Some things remain at the top, should be at the top and need to be worked through at the top. This isn’t necessarily because of a trust deficit, but more to do with the responsibility of the portfolio of work and accountabilities. I had to become equally comfortable with occupying the public face of the school, interacting with a wide array of people and groups, and at times becoming the background, allowing others to do their work and act with freedom and responsibility.
  • I had to accept that I would be the focus of some conversations, speculation and a new range of behaviours and reactions from the community as I assumed this new position. I do not mean this is an egotistical way, more as an acceptance that it is was matter of fact. My visibility and activity altered and that was noticeable. It left me feeling uneasy in a context with established norms, reputations and relationships. This left me feeling anxious, not to please, be accepted or receive affirmation, but getting a sense of how people would receive me when returning to a role I love, had worked hard at and crafted over time. I had to be treated differently for the term but didn’t want be looked at differently.
  • It takes remarkable courage. We have all encountered the Headteacher/Principal figure whether from our school days, from work or both. They symbolise something significant in the educative experience. Diplomatic or authoritative, visionary or operational, limelight-seeking or quiet, they shape culture and do work that is remarkably challenging and takes courage in many forms. I will not sit in judgement of any Principal/Headteacher. Whatever context the school is in, what I have discovered is that what they face is complex and sometimes invisible. There is much to be admired about them and much to be learnt about courage.
  • It left me feeling vulnerable. The challenges I encountered raised my blood pressure, made me weep, made me laugh, filled me with excitement and fulfilment, prevented me from eating on occasion, struggle to switch off, be deprived of sleep and question my capabilities. I became aware of performing my performativity and this was energy sapping. This might be a reflection of my skill and readiness for heading up a school or it could be simply circumstantial.

The generous and thoughtful gift from my colleague resides on my desk and stands as a reminder that despite my personal preconceptions of the role, others have perceptions of me and Principalship that I cannot control and I have to be comfortable with that. My challenge is dealing with being comfortable with being uncomfortable and the uncertainty of a role of this magnitude. I am not sure whether being the head of a school is my path, but like lifting the latch of the box, I am not completely closed on the possibility one day.