October 29

Collaborative professionalism – thoughts on Hargreaves and O’Connor

A few weeks ago I came across an interesting phrase on the grand serendipitor Twitter – “collaborative professionalism”. What made it even more interesting was the book of that name that bore the names of Andy Hargreaves and Michael O’Connor . I have used Hargreaves’ work before, one of his seminal papers  is on the list of my all time go to papers I would invite any educator to read and chew through (maybe a post about that next time). I have also been passionate about teacher agency for a long time and recently I was delighted and honoured to have written a chapter for the upcoming Flip The System Australia. In short, reading Hargreaves & O’Connor’s Collaborative Professionalism: When Teaching Together Means Learning for All  fell on some pretty fertile soil and I couldn’t resist a Twitter invitation from Andy and Michael to let them know what I think of the book.

‘Collaborative Professionalism: When Teaching Together Means Learning for All’ is a book about educational leadership. Now, I am not exactly a leader (or perhaps am in that fluid and contest[able] sense of the word Jon Andrews spoke about at the recent ACEL conference ). I am ‘just’ a teacher. But reading the book reveals very quickly that this is a text for the leaders as much as the teachers. It speaks to us all in education.

Collaboration, of course, is nothing new in teaching. Quite the opposite it seems, as we are encouraged to collaborate in our work even more these days. There is no dispute whether we should collaborate, only really about the purpose, format, scale and frequency of it. But not all collaboration is of course the same. It can often be a soft sell of how-to-get-staff-buy-into-our-idea-while-appearing-they-had-a-say, ragtag of episodic, contrived conversations that are superficial, weak in effect, usually added on to teaching, polite, uncomfortable for the fear of sticking one’s neck out to avoid appearing as either boisterous or bashful type, or they quickly descend into the useless trad v prog loops. If you have never seen this you either a) don’t work in a school or b) you do work in a school but are incredibly lucky not to have seen, felt it.       

Hargreaves & O’Connor posit that effective collaboration is a ‘mixture of pride and humility’ (xv). Pride in one’s capacity that diminishes us all if withheld, humility in acceptance that no one knows everything. Or as they put it:

“Admitting that, at first, we don’t know what the issue might be is part of our professionalism. Inquiring together and acting upon is the essence of collaborative professionalism. “

They helpfully point out the obvious, so often hidden in plain sight, that “no profession can serve people effectively if its members do not share and exchange knowledge about their expertise or about the clients, patients or students they have in common.” This is the essence of professionalism and co-labor-ating (co-working).

I invite you to read how Hargreaves and O’Connor distinguish between professional collaboration and collaborative professionalism (CP). The former takes forms of talking, sharing and reflecting together as teachers. We have been doing professional collaboration, with varying degrees of success and impact on our students and ourselves. We have also done it often to satisfy some distantly-derived rubric (xyz ‘hours of approved PD’, myriad of local and national teaching standards etc) or apply some well-intentioned school-based initiative ‘from the top’. Professional collaboration is descriptive (and sometimes pre-scriptive) as it delineates what should teachers do.

Collaborative professionalism is normative. It proposes, then seeks to critique in order to optimise the positive impact on students as a COLLECTIVE, not as individuals, in a given context.  The lexicon of collaborative professionalism is one of unceasing inquiry and open critique, matched and supported by solidarity, care and trust. Collaborative professionalism extends beyond mere meeting, sharing, reflecting … and then going back doing our own individual thing. It is de-privatising individual teaching practice – we’re all in it, no exceptions. In it, failures and successes are not attributable to a specific individual but to the collective. This “shields professional learning and failure from the possibility of personal shame and blame” (p. 39) as teachers bear “collective responsibility for other [teachers’] impact”. In collaborative professionalism, teachers’ work is not about my students but all about our students.1

Collective professionalism however is not some nameless, de-personalised drudgery inside a common system. Quite the opposite in fact. Individuals are valued as part of the collective. Diversity and disagreement of individual perspectives is essential (see previous point about the mixture of pride and humility) – but always open to critique along the collectively agreed standards of feedback, behaviour and protocol. To use a sporting parlance, you as a teacher are as good as you help your team improve, not as good as your individual score. What matters is the collective, rather than individual, efficacy – belief of teachers in their deliberate attempts to make a positive influence on students TOGETHER.  While often disputed (links forthcoming), research by Hattie (2018, 2012) indicates that giving teachers feedback on their work and collective teacher efficacy have a very significant impact on student learning.

Collective efficacy is just one of the ten tenets of collaborative professionalism identified by Hargreaves and O’Connor. Many of them would (and do) truly rock the boat of the existing systems. For example [collective autonomy]:

“Collective autonomy means that educators have more independence from top-down bureaucratic authority but less independence of each other. Collective autonomy values teachers’ professional judgement that is informed by a range of evidence rather than marginalising that judgement in favour of the data alone. But collective autonomy is not individual autonomy. Teachers are not individually inscrutable or infallible. The egg crate has emptied; the sanctuary has gone. Instead, teachers’ work is open – and open to each other – for feedback, inspiration and assistance.”  (p.109)

Imagine having this sort of agency next time some other ‘what works’ is dropped in from somewhere else to be copied in applied as the solution to (y)our problems with no consent, critique, and depending on a small number of evangelists who may leave at any time.    

And herein lies the trouble you say …   

Apart from the obvious enthusiasm for collaboration, the authors helpfully point out a few cons, threats of collaboration. Collaboration can lead to groupthink and culling of tall poppies, hiding in the crowd, suppression of critical judgement, bending to the will of the tyrants, passivity and compliance in the form of conflict avoidance and more. Collaboration can also be very weak, while giving the appearance of vitality. 

You and I would not be the first people to recognise that the shifts and nuances of power flows in any knowledge sharing/power sharing designs (Monsieur Foucault is smiling in his grave…) can easily undermine the best intentions. These would need to be seriously attended to because CP would seriously bruise egos and wobble many a career path. Collaborative professionalism is NOT easy. The challenging conversations, one of the cornerstones of the model, could be “oppressive” (p. 95) too, (un)intentionally so.

To establish healthy CP, the authors point the importance of recognising the four Bs – before, betwixt, beside, beyond. The recognition of what was there before (CP) is crucial in recognising the longer trends of applying innovation and collaboration in a given context. Recognition of the broader culture into which CP lies alongside with, or rather is entangled betwixt with, is crucial in avoiding ineffective, and possibly foreign, unwelcome carbon-copies and transplants of models of CP across the world. Recognising what is provided beside CP in the form of support is crucial in providing and sustaining resources to implement CP. Finally, it is important to consider what connections doing CP has beyond the given context. Connections and learning not just from but with others beyond the confines of a given school or area is important for the longevity and quality of CP.

Paying attention to these four Bs demonstrates the importance of paying attention to local cultural practices and their history, reasons for the need to collaborate, and resources available for this to happen. The diversity of these factors are a caveat to anyone thinking of parachuting a copy of something done well in Hong Kong or rural USA will work automatically in Western Australia, something the authors are at pains to point out throughout the book.

“Reform is like ripe fruit: It rarely travels well. Designs for collaborative professionalism are the same. But designs coming from afar can work if people actively figure out the relationship with their own culture.” (p 131)

The proposed ten tenets of collaborative professionalism and the four Bs to serve as a lens to see them through are an incredibly useful starting point in starting, or perhaps continuing, a path towards collaborative professionalism.

The book explores five highly functioning examples of collaborative professionalism: a high-performing state high school in Hong Kong; network of rural teachers across the north-western USA; primary school in affluent, stable Norway; professional learning communities in schools in a low socio-economic areas with high percentage of Indigenous students in Canada; and a truly transformational network of hundreds of school across the decentralised educational landscape in Colombia. The examples almost could not be further apart but the authors’ choice was deliberate. They simply wanted to show how the design of CP thrives in these wildly different contexts. They do so not to position CP as a universal, cookie-cutter (quick) ‘fix’, but as a provocation of what is possible when a genuine purpose meets thoughtful, contextualised application of the model.

Importantly, the purpose for CP is also very different in these contexts and depends highly on their needs. While in all of them teachers collaborate, in varying degrees, on pedagogy (ways of teaching), some of them spend more time on the matters of curriculum while others spend more time in collaborating on evaluation. Similarly, the PLCs of Canada and Escuela Nueva seek to transform the broader society they operate in while the Hong Kong, Norway and USA cases transform the school they work in. These differences clearly demonstrate the need for a very clear and precise purpose CP is established for in a given context.    

Throughout the book there seemed to be another dimension, or rather reason for CP that is perhaps less explicit but crucial and ever present – establishment, maintenance and modelling of good, functioning, healthy, culturally responsive relationships between students, staff, school leaders and the communities they serve. In other words, teachers collaborate not only to improve pedagogy, curriculum and/or evaluation to improve either whole society or a single school more narrowly. They collaborate to enact, benefit from and ultimately model good relationships which sustain CP. This ‘relational’ extension stems from a particular view of teaching process (PCRK model) my wife, a counselling psychologist, and I have been exploring lately. It is no surprise that the model was inspired by the seminal work on the importance of emotions and relationships in education by, you guessed it, Andy Hargreaves.

The final chapter suggesting what we should stop doing, continue doing and start doing (sounding similar to “The Russian Brothers” Ridoff, Moreoff and Startoff we jovially refer to in our school sometimes) is a provocation to action. I for one would love to connect with educators in these schools and jurisdictions to pick their brain as I have picked this book for articulating something I have long felt and sought. Thank you Andy and Michael for giving these thoughts a name, shape and examples to stimulate and lead.

Now go and read the book!

 

1 Incidentally, collaborative professionalism design reminds me of the practice of workers self-management in a country I grew up in and does not longer exist. Anyone living in the former Yugoslavia post World War 2 will remember the word samoupravljanje. Collaborative professionalism shares many idea(l)s with this practice which delivered great results for decades but eventually cracked under the collective weight of economic, political, social instability and aspirational turbo-capitalism in the region.    

 

October 6

Relational Teaching – start of a journey

After over two decades of conversations, debriefs and shared insights on working with people, my wife and I agreed on one thing more than any others – when working with people, relationship is crucial in making things (im)possible. Now, we have decided to join forces and start offering our shared expertise to help educators in recognising, fleshing out and building this important aspect.

Anna’s extensive expertise as a counselling psychologist, working with some of the most challenging clients in a range of environments, and my own deep understanding of teachers’ work and challenges make for a sound mix of experience and insight.

What we offer is something unique. Two professionals simultaneously working together and bringing insights from each other’s field, all with a unique conceptual understanding of teaching work.  We write more about our work here, please (A psychologist and a teacher walk into a bar…).

On our website, you can also see the outline of our conceptual understanding of teaching – the PCRK model. We build upon Shulman’s seminal PCK model of teaching as a combination of pedagogical (P), the ‘how’, and content (C), the ‘what’, knowledge. We include relational (R), the ‘who’, knowledge in imagining teachers’ work. This is a very early development and we use it to convey in a simple, accessible way that work we do lies mostly in the relational domain.

We look forward to developing this model with researchers and educators in this area. If you or someone you know is interested in working with us on the model please do let them know of it and how they could get in touch with us.

Personally, while embryonic this is a step towards a new orientation in my professional career – working with fellow teachers. I have been doing this work in parts, formally and informally, for many years (and percolating it probably just as long). It’s time to act on it more strongly and this is just one step in this direction.

Or as an ad once said “you will never never know if you never never go”.

Comments, connections very welcome here or via social media:

Twitter: @relationalteach
Facebook: @relationalteaching
Email: info@relationalteaching.com.au
Website/blog: relationalteaching.com.au

July 27

Why (do I work here)?

This week, a colleague asked a good question: Why do you work here? In this school? Let’s say you take the ‘get paid’ part for granted so … why here?

Very briefly – our school is a Big Picture school. Personalised, interest-based, project-based learning with solid pastoral support in small classes called Advisories. Some of you (would) absolutely love the approach, some would be aghast. That’s perfectly fine.

We are in the third poorest suburb of the whole metro area (no, wait, ‘low SES’). We are a ‘hard to staff’ school. We get kids we can’t say no to. Name a social problem we (probably) have it. Ours is half social work, half what would folks in other parts of town call education. And yes, we also do some pretty cool and meaningful stuff with our kids. Dedicated staff and leadership, no question about it there.

Recently on Twitter, there has been a bit of an explosion of ‘memes’ about how everything we do, and should do, as educators is for children. How we are there for children before anything else. How we should ‘forget our comforts and be there for the kids’. Well, yeah, like my colleagues I went into teaching for the money, fame, bossing people around and not giving a damn about them little ones.

So … why do I work here?

Yes, I like aspects of Big Picture … but it ain’t something to get out of bed for. “In education, everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere. Context matters the most.” (thanks Dylan William)

Yes, of course I care about the kids, sometimes too much and at the expense of my own sanity. We all do that, a bit of what Brookfield called ‘self-laceration’ is a given, especially in a school like ours. Shoot me but … that’s not who I mostly turn up for work for every morning. Kids come and go, steady stream of them.

I looked around the staffroom at second break today. Friday, only week two of term 3. People’s faces drained. Tired from juggling so many balls, dealing with so many issues, teenage dramas, parent screw ups, ethical dilemmas, not to mention the ‘small shit’, as my colleague put it today, of procedures, forms, network issues, phone calls, PD etc.

This is who I turn up for. My colleagues.

The people who have my back and I will have theirs, any time of day. The people whose work is a constant struggle to be ‘good enough’, endlessly complicated by things we can’t even know or articulate and the ‘small shit’. We share the tough times. We bitch, we moan, we sigh but we also laugh, share, wonder and pull together, cover for and support each other.

I’ve never been a fan of education ‘for oneself’. Despite all our differences in our teaching philosophies, backgrounds, political persuasions and more, we, the staff, are a shinning example of a collective that educates, works and learns for ‘the other’.

I hope some of it rubs off on the kids we work with. It if does – we have done our biggest job.

April 10

Act of conversation

Today, I relieved for a colleague in  her Advisory class. At our Big Picture school, Advisory is where the same group of students with the same teacher for four years learn, pursue interests, go on excursions, present exhibitions, find internships and much more. It’s a group of kids who spend a lot of time together, around 12 hours per week. It’s a group that ‘know each other’. Back to my relief …

I was left no notes what to do with them. It happens, no dramas. I got the students to find a person or two they usually don’t talk to, interact with, and “spend 10 minutes in their company, talking”. Students were not allowed to use any digital technology (phone, laptops) and interaction with anyone other than their partner(s).

Well, this was awkward… It took about 10 minutes to cajole pairs and threes to even sit together. Conversations were hard to get going, so I suggested they talk about something they have in common. “It doesn’t have to be deepest, darkest secrets. Keep it safe. School, teachers (‘best ever’ or ‘worst ever’), pets … whatever, but something you share”. We got going, eventually. And it was fascinating to watch.

Body language was almost more telling than the words. There were little tears of discomfort. A few migrant kids clearly missing the local vernacular, disconnecting and looking up to me to help. But then some of the kids I least expected to interact did so. A couple of rough and tough boys genuinely tried to include the most fluent of talking and high-achieving, social girls, when with friends, who sat there quietly and almost stunned to be talking to this rag tag bunch. Small pockets of conversation everywhere, I simply walked around I tried to stoke things a little. Left to their own to figure out, fifteen minutes isn’t going to kill anyone.

For the last fifteen, they were allowed to go back to whomever they wanted to talk to. The “no exclusion, no tech” rule still on. Aaah, a sigh of relief for many. They talked, a few boys played arm wrestle while talking and expanding their energy in different ways. All good, safe ground. 

For the last part of the lesson, we debriefed a bit. We acknowledged how awkward, even difficult it must have been for some in this class to sit with ‘a stranger’. We reflected on the fact that we (well, this group) spend so much time together yet know very little of the person next to them. We noted the fact that in our lives, we will often be asked to interact, work with people we dislike and how incredibly childish is to think or hope that may not happen. We nodded that conversation, not the necessarily a ‘functional’ here-is-food-or-danger one, is a very basic and uniquely human thing. It is tricky, complex, hard, but ultimately a great way for us not to feel alone. On that, we recognised that we are social animals and that solitary cell is one of the worst punishments for a reason.

It was fascinating, a bit sad, revealing – but then not so either. It exposed how caught up we are in our individualist(ic) act, how hard we find to share something (not in a prophylactic social media way) in the flesh, unmediated, un-purposeful to our own goals, ambitions and perhaps fears. It touched on the increasing difficulty of seeing Other as a human being, not a ‘doing’, useful to us in some way. I didn’t share this last part with the kids but if we repeated this exercise long enough, I’m sure we’d peel open lots of layers. And I think we would all benefit from it.

I left the students with a great line by a colleague I heard yesterday: “Be nice to people. Not because they are or may be nice to you but because YOU are nice.”

We’ll see… 

March 13

So much more

Social work is an academic discipline and profession that concerns itself with individuals, families, groups and communities in an effort to enhance social functioning and overall well-being.  

Teachers facilitate student learning, often in a school or academy or perhaps in another environment such as outdoors. The objective is typically accomplished through either an informal or formal approach to learning, including a course of study and lesson plan that teaches skills, knowledge or thinking skills.

Ah, straight from the good old Wikipedia. But let these broad definitions hold, for story’s sake.

Today, for the unknown (but very high) number of times, I tried to understand a kid whose background, and that of his family, would not want to wish to anyone. This kid landed in my workshop, a student-friendly but potentially very dangerous place, out of nowhere with little heads up on what we are dealing with. Within an hour, I put the foot wrong, apparently. Swearing, banging, open hostility followed (no, not from me). Tomorrow, I’m offering this fragile, broken young man who seemingly can’t stand me, a way for him not to see me as a ‘wanker’ and a way for me not to feel on edge in his presence in a dangerous environment, surrounded by 20 other kids, some of whom are similarly ‘tricky’ and in need of support. I recognised a traumatised kid and a further chat with his Advisory teacher who had been privy to more information confirmed the suspicion, plus more. This poor kid, as much as a hard work he is to many at our school, can’t help but ripple (his) trauma further. He doesn’t and can’t know better, yet perhaps. No winners here, just triage of behaviour management plans, offers and deals like mine tomorrow, and multiple trips to the front office, suspensions and meetings, usually the crisis type.

This kid is of a more acute nature than others. But he is far from being extreme or only one like that at our school. We have plenty! We, a school in the rough end of town, in a mid 80’s brown brick school, parts of which are falling apart, and getting news of further funding cuts. The Big Picture design, embedded in our school’s DNA, is our blessing and our curse. Blessing because we come close to the relational school where every kid is truly known, cared for. We do some amazing things for and with our kids that may not be possible in a more ‘mainstream’ school. Curse because this shows how much more is needed for so many of our kids to function, let alone learn well. I often debrief after days like this with my wife, an experienced trauma counsellor. Not once, she listened to my stories and remarked how a particular kid or family would, ideally, need hours, weeks, years even of trauma counselling to function well. We have a part time psych, part time nurse, and teaching, support staff that are worth their weight in gold. But hey, what we lack in counselling, social work, mental health, sociology even, skills and understanding – we make up for with best intentions and copious amount of motivational posters and speeches that for some kids do hit the mark. Now, imagine a doctor working from that angle. The good intentions and affirmations. Would you visit them? Thought so…

No, this is not teacher bashing. Quite the opposite. As my dear friend Corinne Campbell tweeted in reply to my exasperated tweet tonight: … reminds me of a conversation I had the other day – we are filling the void left by inadequate health and social services. Schools paying for speech and hearing, teachers like yourself doing social work and mental health work not education.” Yep.

This poor, traumatised, bounced-around kid that pisses off most people he comes in contact with (trust anyone?) and with whom I am trying to (re)build bridges with tomorrow needs A LOT more than I or the school can provide. For all my skill and, again, best intentions, I am a teacher, not a social worker (see definition above) and a dozen other highly skilled professionals rolled into one, ready to be deployed at moment’s notice. Of course I do and should sometimes cross boundaries, overlap and borrow from these fields but I also don’t know at what point I might be possibly doing some serious damage, with all good intentions. And no, I am not some kind of ‘hero’ for doing this – I voluntarily signed the contract to do a (tough) job, I get paid to do it. But that job is increasingly wearing. Noble and necessary sure, but I am getting tired of doing social and other work before what most people would consider teaching work…years and years of it. There, I said it.

And I am just one of thousands of teachers doing this, day in day out. Let’s see how tomorrow goes, literally so.

May 8

So you want to teach?

“As an experienced teacher, what is your advice to teachers who are just starting out?” I have been asked this question many times. At times, I dispensed with a bit of advice, often I have either had no time, tact or heart to really tell it like it is, speak my mind. This is an attempt to connect a bunch of lose but common threads in my answers over the years in conversations with hundreds of pre-service or recently graduated teachers, many of them my close friends and colleagues. This is a broad conversation, not a gospel to go by but if you if find it useful – please help yourself.

For the record, I’ve been a professional high school teacher for 16 years in mostly government schools, in one of which I work full time. I worked for three years at university running workshops for pre-service teachers and I hold a full Bachelor and Masters by Research in education (my PhD never saw the finish line). I have also actively mentored probably over 50 practicum students. I have been writing, talking, thinking about education for close to two decades now. In short – I am far from ‘knowing everything’ but I do have a few runs on the board. Enough padding …

Whether you are just curious about teaching and want to give it a go or you have a fire of inspiration burning inside you – you first need to seriously, brutally honestly answer this question – why (do you want to) teach? When I ask this question, I get the usual array of ‘making the difference’, ‘change things’, ‘give back’, ‘challenge myself’ and the likes. All good, noble predispositions. But they are the starting points, not the ends of your work and conversations. Chances are they will undergo tempering, changing, dissolving even in the heat of the days (and nights!) of being a teacher. There may be times you’ll realise that the “difference” you want to make is not exactly one desired by the student or his family, there may be times where “giving back” will be replaced by mostly frantically taking in. And more. But please – as hope-less as it seems sometimes, education rests on the premise of hope. A necessary trap that we all fall in sometimes too. That’s OK.

The urge to help people is a must in teaching. It is precondition to set foot in class. But please – don’t try to ‘save’ the world or people, especially those in the lower socio-economic areas. I say that not because I would not want you to inspire young minds or because I doubt the agency of people (including myself) in trying to do so. I say that because I have seen the ugliness of well meaning middle class salvationism so many times, ignoring kids stories and context to lead the charge to be ‘more like me/us’.

Even if you don’t fall for the seductive saviour trick, you will face so many ethical choices about who you save, at what cost do you stand on one side that it will seriously mess with your mission. I for one have often said, written about, that one of the hardest things in teaching is choosing which student(s) you are going to care less about.

Please, think twice before wanting to be a hero teacher. This impulse can be very strong and seductive but please – lead an examined teacher’s life. While you are trusted with an enormous power, influence and, if nothing else, time with the young ones, you are not some demigod with magical powers that will make disappear the effects of things like poverty, abuse, even privilege in students’ lives. It does not mean you are helpless either but be brutally honest and constantly revise what you can and can’t do and achieve in your teaching. Less is sometimes more  when you ask some hard questions that begin with ‘why?’.

And just what do you understand “teaching” is? In his outstanding book The Beautiful Risk of Education (highly recommend!), Gert Biesta calls teaching as bringing something new to the educational situation, something that wasn’t there before, a form of transcendence. But, as Biesta points out, always know that whether you achieve that as a teacher and someone will be taught what you teach is beyond your control. You are giving a gift that you don’t have because teaching is “not an experience that can be produced by the teacher” – that experience is only ever produced by the student. Building relationships with students will definitely open the possibilities, but not guarantee, that your gift will be received and done so in ways intended. This is an inherently uncertain, messy, dynamic process and often depends on factors way beyond your control, awareness even. And it is this existential ‘weakness’ of it that makes teaching such a great profession but one so hard to explain in a world obsessed with control and predictability. Whatever you do, please don’t turn into a real estate agent saying ‘I sold them the house perfectly but they didn’t buy it.”

The next of the few ‘core’ questions I ask you to honestly wrestle with is this: What do you see teaching, school is for? Straw poll time … Choose your favourite from the following four statements, borrowed from Symes & Preston’s seminal work:

A) Teaching is about preparing kids for the world of work out there
B) Teaching is about cultivating independent mind based on collected human knowledge.
C) Teaching is about allowing kids personality and interest to flourish.
D) Teaching is about getting kids to learn how to make the world more fair and just for all.

A is the instrumentalist, ‘human resources’ view of education as primarily preparation for work. Loved by business and politicians and in strong ascendancy over the past few decades. B is a liberal, often labelled conservative, view of education that privileges cultivation of independent mind based on collected human knowledge. Ancient Greeks, rational thinking, high culture spring to mind. The ‘progressive’ C wants to allow kids’ interest and personality flourish. Enter passion-based learning, discovery, progressive labels. D, the emancipatory view of education, has at its heart equity, fairness, social and environmental justice.

Chances are you favoured one or two, or perhaps couldn’t decide because they are all important. They are indeed! What is important in all this is not so much that you know the finer details of these goals and approaches (I do invite you to read these works though and ponder further). What I think is important is that they sometimes overlap and complement each other but often they also grate against each other, in spikes and lulls of tension, depending on the context. Don’t believe it? What do you make of a Principal of a blue-collar school ditching Philosophy & Ethics programme with the words “that’s not for our kids”? What do you make of cries of ‘dumbing down’ when the reading requirements replace a classical text with film? How about the frenzy around PISA results? Curriculum wars? Chasing standardised NAPLAN scores versus individual flourish? A colleague that is drilling kids “for their own good” to pass tests while you see their creativity and passion crushed (and vice versa!)? The speak of business ‘competitiveness’ and ‘agility’ while paying lip service to issues of social equity? Examples are endless!

So why is it important to wrestle with this question? Because just about everything you do, everything your school, system, even country’s entire education system does revolves around this question of utility and purpose of educational efforts – the ‘why’, rather than the much more talked about ’what’, ‘how’ or even that bean counting ’how much’. It is rarely a case of one clean purpose and there is a good chance that during your teaching career you may have to dislike a particular purpose and bite your tongue to feed your family but equally stand on the barricades for things and ways of teaching that matter to you deeply. But it is rarely a clean cut. Get used to it.

The talk of things in and beyond your control brings me too my next ‘go to’ line. Be aware that for all the talk of teacher professionalism, you are increasingly at the mercy of people who are largely the least learned about education and want to make things easy, controllable, predictable, especially for their own progeny and/or agendas – parents and politicians. Many times you will bury your face in your palms, curse, worry, rage, shout helplessly (at your school administrator or with them too) about what they demand. They will ignore your professional competency in understanding how you or kids you are in charge of work or would like to work. You will be asked to comply and be encouraged to climb up the ladders of teacher proficiency, where, like your students, you can be measured, evaluated and governed (well, you will govern yourself, from inside by what is stated as desirable by various professional standards bodies…look up ‘governmentality’ for more). You will be cornered by parents who are increasingly positioned as consumers. You will be placed on the pedestal by pundits, who think that your ‘teacher quality’ (important nuance of language of here – see this post by Corinne Campbell) always and necessarily makes up for all other individual and/or structural inequalities that affect you, your students and their parents. Many of them, with good intentions, no doubt, will assign you those mentioned demigod powers … in being an effective, efficient and preferably easily measured technician of the empire they run or want to create.

Definitions of professionalism as something based in trust, sound knowledge and good judgement change with every new lot of ‘accountability’ measures. If you think about it, these measures sit right opposite of trust. In the extreme, we end up acting as a bunch of risk-averse and litigious business partners, ticking boxes to cover our backsides. In the daily reality, we more likely end up with a ton of paperwork. Transactions replacing relationships.

Related to this trend is the increasing importance given to ‘data’. These are ‘data driven’ times, no doubt. Please be aware that data by itself is meaningless, we breathe meaning into it. It also raises more questions than it often answers and there are increasingly sophisticated ways and incentives to manipulate it.  It can be extremely useful but it can also lead to the “business capital view” of good teaching (credit Andy Hargreaves) as something that is technically simple, a quick study, can be mastered readily, should be driven by data, is about enthusiasm, hard work, raw talent and measurable results, and that it is (even) often replaceable with online instruction. Speaking of data – I for one know very little about what and how big a difference I make as teacher in a single kid’s life. How would anyone else know, even ‘measure’ it? Metrics give us the seductive sense of knowing. Education is not a science and there are many problems in seeing it that way.

So what do you do in case “this is not the gig you signed up for”? Just be a good boy/girl, grin and bear it while stewing inside? You don’t have to, no. Pick your battles carefully, embrace the absurdity of institutional life and sometimes laugh subversively. Sometimes that is all you will be able to do, sometimes you will genuinely shift things. Good colleagues and support will be invaluable in doing that. Join a union.

If not already, you will be bombarded with ‘what works’ in teaching. My default short reply to such a complex question comes from Dylan William: In education, everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere. Yes, there are some very appealing, very good but also very dodgy, unsound theories, practices and operators out there (usually but not necessarily making a buck out of it). It always helps to read critique of a particular technique, theory, approach and you can weed the chaff either by yourself or with a colleague or two.

Another good question to ask before adopting ‘the best thing’ is: at the expense of what? Like life, teaching is a stream of trade offs and opportunity costs. Stories of overworked teachers abound. If you just keep adding – you WILL burn out like a moth on a flame! “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle got that one spot on.

This is not necessarily to pooh-pooh everything that comes across your desk. I simply wish that you wisen up and be more circumspect than the chanting Kool Aid crew on board the latest (or recurring) bandwagon. Your skepticism may make you look like a smug bastard who is ‘not a team player’ sometimes but your integrity is worth more than a few extra warm and fuzzies. I hope so.

Check how your colleagues work, learn from and with them – but don’t beat yourself about being them or beating them. In my experience, teachers (myself included of course), have this terrific tendency to find grass greener on the other side. We see a colleague doing something well and think ‘why aren’t I doing this as well’. This is while we are doing something else, and possibly far more important, as well or better that that colleague or another teacher. This breeds a kind of highly corrosive and confidence-sapping ‘status anxiety’. Yet, it only attacks when we compare ourselves with our like-teaching peers. For example, a teacher in a poor school with unmotivated students might genuinely like, even admire stuff done in a well resourced school with highly motivated students but (s)he is not going to lose sleep over it as there is chasm between the two contexts. She will however, fret about not doing something as well as her colleague in the same school, as she ’should be doing better’. Similarly, a new grad might not compare themselves to a veteran of many years but (needlessly) worry about something she is (not) doing as well as her younger peer with the same cohort of kids.

Share and be proud of the good stuff you do, the wins. Absolutely. But it is probably as important if not more important to share the bad stuff. If your lesson fails, you just can’t work with some student or group, you are struggling with demands of a particular kind – say it, honestly so! I remember a young colleague feeling, in her words, “liberated” when she asked a far more experienced colleague to handle a particularly challenging student. The expert came, worked in that class and, when asked by the younger colleague on what to do, replied: “I’m stuffed if I know what to do with this kid.” Eventually the two together worked out a good strategy but the honest admission was the first step to it. In the environment where teachers are sometimes explicitly but mostly implicitly asked to ‘put their best and shiny work forward’ to inspire, get a promotion, make school or themselves look good and similar ‘work on themselves’ (look up Stephen Ball’s seminal work on the notion of ’performativity’), sharing the downs and fails is a brave, not sexy, but essential thing to do.

As a young graduate you are or will be out looking for and getting a job soon. I sincerely hope you get one but don’t forget that sometimes you get a job not because your fantastic grades, or new inspiring ideas or your funky prac or great application. You are simply cheaper than a teacher with years under their belt. And “when education is about the money we have to spend on it, efficiency is the vision, sadly so.” (credit Will Richardson) Evidence of that abounds, sadly so too.

However, when working in a school I sincerely hope that you will and should be afforded at least the same if not more support than someone more experienced. Do not be afraid to ask for a mentor. A good mentor and a bit of extra time to work on your teaching is gold. But please do respect the colleagues who have been at the school before you by neither adoring nor belittling them. I have actually learned many things from new graduates and have been grateful to mentor them in a mutually beneficial way. Plan your lessons but always be prepared to change the plans. As you go along, you will develop your repertoire, your style, own ‘bag of tricks’ that will suit you and only you. It takes time.

Speaking of growing and charting new ground – try to be at the ‘bleeding edge’ of something new. Not (just) to boost your CV but to experience how difficult it is to get adults excited using or doing something that you think it is valuable. Don’t forget those lessons the next time you are sitting in some PD and the speaker is droning, passionately so, about their bee under the bonnet. It is humbling.

You might still be at uni reading this or you have just finished your degree. You are hungry for strategies and tips and ‘what works’ … but a lot of what you have (or had) at uni was about the theory and the pondering rather than the nitty-gritty you are now screaming for. Sounds right? Dear colleague – teaching is so, so incredibly broad that uni will not and cannot prepare you for and how to deal with all eventualities that will happen to you, sometimes in a single day. There was never a lesson to prepare me for what to do when a 13 year old boy starts masturbating at the back of the class, another smearing peers with poo, a refugee with no language, first hand war experience and a bad temper thrown in your hardest class, or thousands (mostly less graphic) examples like that. University is a framework, a base, there to broaden, deepen your horizons, not merely reduce you to the matters of instructional technique with a smattering of essential content. Uni is there to make you think, question, grow, explore, build upon, ideally so. I also understand that my idealism may be misplaced as you just want to get it over with and land that job. I just hope we can have a respectful, stimulating, adult professional conversation in the staffroom.

I could continue on dispensing advice here but you probably have a lesson to prepare or something else. That’s OK, I understand – so do I (I am a teacher, remember). I finish with a plea for you to be kind. To yourself, colleagues, kids you work with. Sometimes the kid who is wrecking your lesson is fighting a battle you know nothing about. It is a hard thing to do because you are fighting your own battle. Seek support, actively so. Unwind regularly, have a hissy fit, laugh a lot, even inappropriately so sometimes. You will be tired (here is why) in this ‘bipolar’ profession as the highs are high and the lows are low. Or as someone (lost the name, sorry) on Twitter quipped: Teaching is like a hangover – after a bad day you swear you’ll never do it again, then you recover and you do it again.

Just do know that teaching is a great profession that the world needs and will continue to do so. It’s a people business. Risky. Messy. Beautiful.

If this post resonates with you and want to chat on, let me know in the comments below or on Twitter @lasic but please do not be offended by the lack of immediate reply – I do have a (teacher’s) life. Cheers.

UPDATE: I have had a response to this post like no other, mostly on social media. Among the congratulatory and grateful comments, these two stood out. They were written by a close friend currently in his first year of teaching and a colleague I used to work with and remains one of my favourite and dearest educators anywhere. Have a read below …

August 14

Which is more difficult: world’s toughest sport or teaching?

 more difficult

With the Rio Olympics and school term in full swing, I poured a glass or red and asked myself: Which one is more difficult: the world’s toughest sport or … teaching?

For the record, I played THE sport for 20 years, 15 of them at the highest international level, coached it at that level for another 5. I have also been a teacher for 15 years. If you want to see my playing/coaching as well as teaching/education credentials I would be happy to expand. In short, it would be reasonable to say I know enough about both to attempt to answer the question. I do so using five categories, defined by a suitable dictionary definition and stated in each case.

Pressure (a sense of stressful urgency caused by having too many demands on one’s time or resources)

In the sport – the kind of pressure in the definition is incredibly intense, focused, but then again fairly organised and usually does not last very long. The battle(s) last seconds, minutes, hour(s) at most. Sure, the lead up is often interpreted as ‘pressure’ but that’s not the thing in the heat of the battle of either centre-forward or fast break or man-down defence that you tell your grandkids about one day and for which you are known for.

Mention “sense of stressful urgency caused by having too many demands on one’s time or resources” to me as a teacher and I’ll thank you for putting just about any day I spend at school in a sentence. The ‘urgency’ part could erupt any moment, the demands on me by students, colleagues, admin, parents and beyond are too many to count and always too many to fully attend to. They are also constant, never ending it seems. As for intense, telling a child in tears and standing in front of you that you can’t help them because you have to help someone else, putting on a calm face discovering the lesson you’ve planned with twenty teens wielding sharp tools is going to fall apart because some unforeseen event and you have to come up with a great Plan B (and C, and D …) on the spot, copping abuse from a parent or their progeny while ‘acting adult’ are just a few of the countless examples of getting the butterflies in your stomach going like crazy. You rarely ‘nail it’ and there is a sense of constant triage, rarely one of systematic, orderly, heavily invested in yet predictable progress and feedback you get by scoring that goal.

Decision-making (action of process of making important decisions)

If you have never heard a sports commentator hailing a player or coach for their ‘decision-making ability’ please listen out for it. In a dynamic sport like water polo, decisions are made frequently. Position, ball location, shot clock, score, momentum, shooter, tactics are just some of the factors that a water polo player regularly takes into account throughout the game, more so when they are directly involved in the action. “Seeing a step (or two) ahead” is a hallmark of a great player. The playmakers are a valuable commodity for this very reason and their fast-processing ability, borne with and out of experience.

Just how often does a teacher make a decision? According to research quoted by the highly respected Dr Larry Cuban  – one every 0.7 seconds! Yes, you read that right. Just like elite athletes, they mix the routine with the unexpected. Non-stop. They, well we, have to ‘read the play’ and make decisions that are sometimes more akin to chess grand masters, eight or more steps ahead, just to bring a lesson to an agreeable end after one or more (un)expected, teacheable or otherwise, events. And that’s every day, not just during the weekend league game.

Endurance (the ability to endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way, the capacity of something to last or to withstand wear and tear)

Water polo players have to bear a lot and play at their peak of mental and physical capacities for an hour a game. Add to this the gruelling training day in day out that makes games seem easy, if possible at all, and you can’t possibly be a wimp. You simply would not make it. You would eliminate yourself and/or have all the excuses before not making the grade. Bear the wear and tear for about twenty or so years, if lucky maybe ten of those at the top level.

As a teacher, unlike my sporting career, the toughest years were probably the first few years. As the aquatic pun would have it, I was “thrown in the deep end” and I had to swim. I had to withstand the storms of volatile teens, unfamiliar content, new surrounds, endless curricular changes, difficult staffrooms and my own demons of insecurity. I’ve had to read articles screaming that “if only you [teachers] were better our kids would be better off” while knowing very little of what I do will make a lick of difference for all the structural issues that are the real issue but one too hard to address. And please don’t think life has gotten all peachy now with a few years of teaching under my belt. My elephant skin got thicker, my ears more attuned, my head wiser but my heart no less aching seeing the issues, especially those relating to inequities affecting those in my care.

Skill (the ability to do something well; expertise)

Breeding a top class water polo player is a messy, risky proposition. The genes, the environment, the systematic development, the web of career-defining moments has to align just right (and with a dose of luck) to produce a top level player. Very, very few reach it there. There, the elite make it look easy. They have the range of skills, from swimming, shooting, blocking, defending, turning, reading the play and more. Yet their expertise is beyond the mere technical ability. They seem to live and breathe their game. Youngsters and others try to copy, emulate, inspired by them, only to discover theirs is not a bag of skills to master but their own path or rather their own web of moments that can’t be simply copied, cloned or somehow reproduced to the same effect.

If you have been in the teaching game over the past few years, you will have noticed the intensification of attempts to define ‘good teaching’, see what skills and attributes it’s made of and then come up with a formula to follow in (re)producing it in both the new graduates and practicing teachers. Frameworks, standards, instrumental measurements are attempts to reduce the irreducible, contextual act of (good) teaching that is far, far more complex than any Olympic final in water polo or any sport for that matter. Teachers are increasingly expected to be a competent, expert even presenter, negotiator, mediator, public speaker, manager, counsellor, coach, mentor, technician, organiser, nurse, researcher, statistician and more. And while the range of skills and abilities demanded is expanding for both elite athletes and teachers, the latter win hands down.

Toughness (ability to absorb energy and deform without fracturing)

The elite water polo players are a tough bunch. They may not carry the bruises of various football codes, crashes on the roads or falls of equipment but they certainly know what ‘cracking under pressure’ means in a physical and mental sense. I for one had to play (no, win!) a game where my entire next year’s salary and that of my coach and teammates depended on it (we won…just). Elite athletes see on TV and the ones you don’t are under immense pressure to perform. Deform without fracturing. And they can only do that for a few years.  

Speaking of deforming and fracturing, the figures for teachers’ careers are starting to look scarily more like the short-lived careers of elite athletes. Not because they ‘get old and slow’ and lose the athletic edge but simply because they get bruised and drained by the emotional highs and lows, the expectations, shaped largely by societal expectations but (soon) internalised as their own, incessant demands on their mental and physical capacities and more. The statistics are scary. In Australia, not unlike in USA, UK and similar environments, close to half of the teaching graduates leave the profession within the first five years. The tough survive.  

So finally, which one is more difficult: toughest sport in the world or teaching? I have to disappoint you here – there is no clear winner. The point of this exercise was not to actually have a clear winner (good for you if you have decided for one or the other though). They are fundamentally different in their purpose: performance, winning and beating the rest versus learning and building capacity in others. There are too many variables to come near any commonly agreed upon decision. The point of the exercise was however to appreciate the many similarities they share. If you are going to pick the finer points and argue technicalities – you’ve missed the point of this exercise.

To finish off this little exploration, I would like to ask you to do the following few things:

Appreciate the effort of not just the athletes you see on TV but of all those who bust their guts every day in their chosen sport. You will never see the vast, vast majority of them but that does not diminish their endeavour. Most don’t do it for the fame and money because, contrary to popular belief, there rarely is a lot of fame and money in sport.

Appreciate the effort of your child’s teachers, many of whom are akin to the elite athletes you cheer for on screen. Except they want your child to do the winning, not themselves. That would be their biggest reward. Fame and money? Please, don’t.

Do not pity neither athletes nor teachers in their difficulties. We do this by choice. Acknowledge, respect but do not pity us. We love what we do, as impossible as that may sound sometimes even to ourselves in the doldrums of struggle. 

Finally, whether it’s some player who missed that final shot or a teacher who somehow did not spot the beautiful talent of your child – the last thing they wanted to do is to do that deliberately. Understand before you blame.

May 6

To my student

tough times

I had a tough day at school. Like many others, like many of my colleagues around the school, around the world. I wrote a letter to the four kids with whom I’ve struggled with for over a year now. It was more a catharsis for me than any serious attempt to change some very set patterns. The more I wrote, the more I felt the need to cut the words. At the end – these lines emerged:

I am at your service

I am a gift to you society has paid for

(but I am not a thing and I am not yours)

I don’t ask for or need you to like me

(I have other people to do that)

I care more about the person you become than the grade you achieve

I know things you don’t and I’m happy to share them with you

 

I also know that nobody wants to be trashed, abused and ignored

You don’t

I don’t

Your teacher

Image via lifehack.org
April 4

Men, not boys

sam mendes

I’ve just asked this question on Twitter:

Being trusted but put through paces in company of adult men is a great way to humble and steel a teen male. Do we/you do it at school? How?

I have been thinking intensely about a bunch of raging male teens in my class. I can see and feel how desperately they want to do ‘adult stuff’ but are either too easily scared or their egos too thin to sustain the pace and responsibility when things turn difficult. Or as the phrase goes, when boys turn into men.

I was lucky. A youngster (14 years old on debut, regular starting gig at 16) playing in the senior team in one of the world’s strongest water polo leagues in the world and training, travelling, partying, commiserating, celebrating with the grown ups. People’s pay packets (and mine) depended on how I trained, played, handled myself. It taught me a great deal of humility and (through it) made me stronger.

Stories of teens rising to the occasion and doing amazing things abound. What is often common to them is that they don’t do stuff with their peers, they play a level up. Not for some school grades. They do it for real, for far more serious causes and consequences.

Yet at school, we seem to largely miss that. Sports teams, drama productions, exhibitions, even workshops, not to mention classrooms, are usually places where teens do things with teens. So often in the safe cocoon of teenage immaturity, as if saying ‘you can’t be trusted with anything more serious so you stay in there’. Admittedly, it’s a big leap of faith to place significant amount of responsibility on a teen, whose main interest up until then have been pimples, Facebook profile, how to get a beer and/or how to get laid (chances are both for the first time) with the occasional ‘where’s the party’ thrown in.

But trying to do that leap of faith, extending the trust but at the same time expecting acts beyond the conspicuous pimples is a life changer.

So, I ask you … what do you suggest we do at school? Do you do something like this at your school already? I’d love to hear from you or people you know who do.

Very grateful for any suggestions. Thank you.

Here, or @lasic (Twitter) or lasicemail at gmail.com

March 24

First thing he has ever built

My Principal said she “needed a good story today”. I sent her a pic, here is the short story. You might as well read it too.

Meet Dennis*, an often disengaged 13 year old at our school.

He is in my woodwork class. He missed a couple of weeks at the start of term but has been regular, especially last couple of weeks. He designed, marked out, cut, hand planed, sanded, drilled, glued, clamped, nailed and polished that toolbox. He said it was the “first time he has ever built something”. He mucked up a few corners, cut things a bit short, split a bit of wood but he persisted. He did not give up. He fussed about sanding it “just right”. He used power tools in a safe way at all times. He reminded himself in front of me to put his safety glasses back on. He helped me clean up, charge tool batteries. He helped a kid bang the box together when the kid whacked their finger and couldn’t do it. He told a friend to stop mucking around. He had the biggest smile on his face when done.

He made his first thing at the age of 13 and thought it was really cool. His reflection sheet reads like this (I scribed for him, verbatim, in a busy, noisy workshop):

– Good things about this project? Why?  It was cool because it’s the first time I built something.

– Worst things? Why? The handle, it was too big, then I had to cut it but it didn’t work.

– Most challenging, tricky part? Why? Banging the nails because I whacked my finger.

– Easiest part? Why? Putting the side bits on because it was easy.

– Three things you did well? Used the sander well, used the hammer well, used the drill well.

– One thing you want to improve? Measure properly next time! (and you should have seen a smile on our faces as we both mucked up the measuring part)

He made me feel vindicated to (re)start the workshop at our school. He gives me the energy to push to include making physical things a regular part of what we do at our school.

Nothing ‘21st century’ about it, please. Just “give us [teachers] the tools and we’ll finish the job”.

Happy Easter all.

*Not his real name. But if you have worked at our school over the past couple of years you’ll know him.