This past week Pauline Hanson’s comments about young people with autism in schools have provoked a range of responses. Once again her perspective is derived from a lack of understanding and fuels divisive and fearful rhetoric in our community when we should be looking for holistic and inclusive approaches to respond to the inequities in schools.
I feel that it would be iniquitous of me not to comment on the richness and value I have gained as an educator and a human for having worked with young people on the autism spectrum. So here are three of the lessons I have learned and the value I have gained from having young people with autism in my life.
The world is not vanilla!
The details in everyday objects can be overlooked by the ‘average’ person, but a young person with autism can help you to see the detail, the nuance and the magic of the simplest things. Whether it be the way it feels on your skin, how it sounds, how it tastes or the details in its pattern or colour.
Time is a construct
When you are truly in the moment, don’t splinter it to fit into a schedule. Be in that moment, because that’s when ‘vanilla’ turns to a rainbow tapestry.
Understanding is priceless
The moment a child with autism knows that you are committed to understanding what they are trying to say or express, stays with you. It made me realise that it is the most valuable gift we can give anyone. Taking time to understand another person is where caring cultivates. Being open to explore a different perspective can be the most valuable gift you can give to a young person, sometimes it just takes longer with some than others.
So if your life has been enriched by the inclusion of diversity, be sure to celebrate it openly in some way this week. If you are a teacher of young people with autism, please take the time this week to let that young person know they are wanted and valued or share a positive story with their parents. This week they need our solidarity to ensure that the words of an ill-informed Senator do not sit within them.
Needs-based funding is critical
I have spent a lot of time thinking, reading and talking about how to improve professional development and meeting structures. The early focus was in considering how to make meetings meaningful and productive, where everyone’s input was essential. Since that time I have endeavoured to develop structures and models that ensure that all required time together, whether that be professional learning of the entire staff or small team meetings, be essential to all those involved.
Last year, as Deputy with oversight of curriculum and PD, I knew that not only did I want to rethink the structures that support our student learning (stay tuned post to come), but I also wanted to rethink the structures that define our staff learning. Fortunately, I work in a school where the leadership team are open to approaching things differently.
This led me to think about what needs our previous formats fulfilled and whether they reflect the significant changes in the way we collaborate as professionals today. My conclusion was that in a transparent and open environment, where ongoing communication, feedback and input is fostered, the formal meeting procedures are not necessary.
Our meeting structures were very typical of most schools. Our whole staff meetings were structured by an agenda and run by a chair, with minutes taken. The agenda was dominated by the delivery of information with intermittent opportunities for staff to provide input. Predominantly the information was relevant to most but not all, sometimes, only relevant to a few. Staff were generally accepting and compliant of being talked at, however, this was completely in contradiction to the discourse we aspired to promote in classrooms. Our school’s vision is driven by developing creative, vibrant and resilient learners guided by knowledgeable, innovative and passionate staff. These meetings were certainly none of these things as a standard.
I may be being extremely critical here because having recently sat in a very traditional and boring meeting run by an external facilitator outside of education, I know that as a school we have come a long way in our structures that relate to PD and meetings. Continuous development and growth can go unnoticed, and I know that others who come into our structures are surprised by the way we facilitate staff collaboration.
Nevertheless, by the first term break of last year, I was already frustrated by the manner in which we were continuing to conduct our meetings and professional development, and ultimately I am the one responsible.So hand in hand with the opportunity to shake up our teaching timetable structure came the opportunity to shake up how we come together and collaborate as staff.
My experience in schools has been staff meetings and professional development occurring at the end of the day. Personally, as a participant in PD or meetings, the end of the day was always a challenge. I had a growing pile of emails and marking, not to mention I was fatigued from a day of work. If I learnt a strategy or approach in a PD session I had no opportunity to put it into action immediately as my teaching day had ended. My energy was low and I was less likely to contribute as energetically or spend any time reflecting on how the PD was relevant to my practice. As a facilitator of PD or convener of meetings, I was always conscious that others involved potentially felt similar. I would try to streamline the meeting structure as much as possible, not to keep people longer than necessary, and I would try and facilitate PD that was meaningful and interactive with a range of success.
So what did I do about it?
Initially, I looked at what we had historically used meetings for and I asked questions about the purpose of these meetings.
- Can the information be communicated in a different way?
- Is the information necessary for all stakeholders?
- Do staff have the opportunity to contribute and how is that possible with over 80 people involved?
- How long do meetings need to be?
- What happens when critical information needs to be shared but doesn’t align with meeting days?
This resulted in 5 aspects that I wanted to drive the structure of meetings.
- More personalised, only those who are invested or required need attend
- When it can be communicated in a memo or email, then so be it
- Keep gatherings short and targeted so that there is no time to waffle or waste time – so short that people can stand during the meeting
- Utilise the morning when staff are alert & can immediately act, or put strategies/learning into practice
- Allow flexibility for staff to schedule time for their own collaboration with peers
As a firm believer in the power of language, I also knew that in changing any structure, I had to think about how the terms we used would inform a change in approach. I considered how language often dictates our expectations. If we have only experienced meetings in traditional ways, then we tend to expect the same. So “huddles” became the word I used to describe how the new approach could work. Huddles for me implied short urgent periods of time when teams come together to share critical information or make collaborative decisions that are relevant to everyone in the huddle (my basketball background influence).
Whole staff after school meetings were eliminated.
Morning Huddles were introduced: a maximum of 30 minutes starting at 8:30am and scheduled via our Learner Management System (Daymap) so that all staff can see scheduled times on their teaching calendar. Huddles could be used for whole staff quick touch base, teaching teams, year level teams, quick PD, PLC’s, professional practice, committee and action group planning – pretty much anything that means bringing a group together to collaborate.
Three weeks in, there has been a range of positive feedback from staff. No after school long, drawn out meetings has meant that staff are free to utilise their afternoons to work in their teaching teams to plan and design or even to go home!
This time last year, whole staff were scheduled to have spent up to 480 minutes together in whole staff or Learning Area meetings. This year staff have spent up to 390 minutes in required sessions which have mostly been Professional Development. So already in the first three weeks of school, staff have gained an hour and a half more to utilise for their benefit.
What have I noticed?
I have seen more staff choosing to use their afternoons to catch up with their peers to program and design learning and I have seen five optional Professional Development Huddles offered (in just 3 weeks) in the morning with fantastic staff buy-in. These have included Google Apps, designing and using flexible learning spaces and strategies to facilitate responsible behaviours. Previously optional sessions run at lunch times, before or after school would attract minimal staff, which is always discouraging.
Time will tell if these structural changes facilitate the professional practice we aspire to achieve, but so far so good!
Part of my leadership responsibility is to oversee professional practice at my site, which I see as a responsibility to foster and promote a professional learning culture.
A professional learning culture is one in which we, as educators, are committed to our own growth and development as professionals as well as that of our peers. It grows out of a desire to continue to develop our knowledge and practice and to maximise opportunities for learning. Such a culture is integral to the high-quality teaching and development of innovative approaches to learning that we aspire to at my school. It means that, as leaders and teachers, we see ourselves, and are seen by others, as lifelong learners both of the speciality areas we teach and the practice of teaching itself. With education rapidly changing, we play a role in determining what “education” means in our context. This means that we need to continue to keep up to date with new developments and opportunities.
Every leader is critical in fostering a professional learning culture within a school. It is not only classroom learning or an individual teacher’s learning, instead, it is a commitment to learning as a valued activity in its own right, whether that be within formal learning settings or informal settings. It is also our disposition to learning that is critical. Are you engaged with issues and questions related both to your speciality areas and teaching and learning? Are you enthusiastic about sharing and learning with others, whether they be young or old? Are you actively engaged in the practice that is happening within our school and others? Do you model and champion an inquiring approach to professional practice? This is more than just keeping up with the latest initiatives, it is opening a dialogue and examining whether those initiatives are applicable to your context and whether the iteration of such initiatives can be developed to improve them for your community.
Dialogue is critical! As a profession, our growth is dependent on interactions with others whether they be students, peers, leaders, experts or industry. A professional learning culture requires collaboration in formal and informal ways, where the sharing of expertise and experiences benefits all. Observations and walkthroughs are effective ways of sharing and celebrating practice and opening opportunities to engage in professional reflection. A professional learning culture also relies on the essential input of students, the extent to which cannot be underestimated.
Whilst at my site we have established structures to support a Professional Practice Program, our professional learning culture is dependent on each and every individual, embracing and modelling a learner disposition.
Really keen to read and hear about other examples of work around professional learning cultures. Feedback and input is awesome!
Over the Christmas break, I spent a great deal of time reading, listening and watching a wide range of media. I have consumed more than I should have in relation to US politics, plus research and discussion on climate change and current environmental concerns. I live by the philosophy of know better, do better so this culminated in a range of actions and lifestyle changes including choosing to eliminate meat and dairy from my diet, establishing a worm farm to reduce wastage and a range ethical shopping changes. Several realisations ensued, in particular, how hard it is to determine the ingredients or origin of many products that I would normally purchase with the assumption they are locally sourced. My growing understanding was also supported by healthy debate and the need to justify my actions to a range of friends and family. Some were quick to raise stereotypical vegan memes whilst others acknowledged they could probably make some better choices themselves. My learning was self-driven, in my own time, at my own pace and to be honest, when I was most open to acknowledging these issues and I had space and time to respond.
Until widespread access to the internet, there was a ceiling on learning, limited to the expertise of the teacher, whether that be formal settings such as the classroom or the parent-child relationship. Now that ceiling is broken and we are inundated with information. Our greatest challenge will be to create environments where our students can design their own interesting questions to answer, not teach them answers to questions that already exist. Creating learning that is active as opposed to passive about issues they actually care about or create their own responses to issues that don’t have straightforward solutions. We should endeavour to construct space and time for them to delve into issues that are meaningful to them and then provide the time to enact responses and changes themselves, whether personal or within their community.
Opportunities are endless, but our time is limited, so what we value most will take precedent. My goal this year, is to question these priorities on an ongoing basis. To keep in check, that what time is being used, and the choices I make about other people’s time, whether they be staff or students, is used to address the most important priorities.
Questioning the purpose and function of schools and systems is an ongoing pressure point for me and is founded in my Foucauldian inspired adolescent exploration of governmentality. The dichotomy of rigid curriculum and testing versus the emerging essential employability skills of collaboration, flexible thinking and empathy challenge the systems and approaches we are comfortable and familiar with in schools.
In the past I have been fortunate as a teacher to embrace different approaches, taking risks and challenging the status quo with freedom. When I was first afforded the responsibility of establishing a learning environment for young adolescents with learning disabilities, I didn’t hesitate to approach the challenge with a fresh perspective not bound by previous experiences (I had none) nor templates (there wasn’t one in the school). This granted, with the incredible support of the school leadership, the opportunity to create learning that was personalised and authentic for the young people and staff, and not contrived or bound by curriculum or structures. This meant that in my first year, students utilised a range of technologies and had dynamic learning experiences including, but not limited to; blogging, passion projects, Identity Days, international collaborative projects, thematic units, authentic work placements and personalised reporting based on skill development and growth against individual learning goals. Not the traditional industrial model of education that is the state of affairs in similar settings, but a modern and responsive learning environment.
Since that time I have been fortunate/challenged to move into a range of leadership roles across the school with responsibility for a spectrum of key areas. This year has seen my responsibilities include oversight of whole school curriculum.
It may be reasonable to suppose that the greater the perceived power in regards to a leadership role, the more influence you would impart on the innovation of curriculum design. Furthermore, that approaches modelled would evolve and amplify with the expansion of innovative approaches and perspectives. Unfortunately, this does not occur organically and just like every young person, each adult is on a personal learning journey with their own prior knowledge, preconceptions and experiences that either curb or drive their openness to new approaches and willingness to take risks and challenge their own conventions.
I am continually reminded that my own zealous approaches to learning new educational approaches and my areas of foci are not necessarily shared by others. This is not to say that many are not equally if not more devoted to the exploration of their educational priorities, it just means that our approaches are informed by different influences. This is by no means a negative, it just relies on greater self-awareness on my behalf when I approach the leadership of curriculum design, trying to ensure a shared purpose and understanding.
Over the past two days, I facilitated the screening of the educational documentary “Most Likely to Succeed”. The film is a commentary on reimagining the American Education system with a particular focus on one model, San Diego school, High Tech High. Whole staff participated along with a handful of middle school students and were provoked by virtue of the film to consider what sort of learning environment is most likely to “succeed” in the 21st century.
It became apparent from the reflections shared that some had previously grappled with many of the ideas and provocations in the documentary whilst for others, the ideas were unfamiliar and even confronting. Most staff felt inspired and invigorated by the possibilities and models presented in the film, however, for a few, it left them feeling overwhelmed and disheartened. The challenge moving forward is how to foster the inspiration to develop different approaches to our current curriculum design and ensure staff who were overwhelmed are nurtured and supported to feel empowered.
The critical takeaway in regards to my current role from the models presented in the film is to have teachers see themselves as powerful designers of learning, not hampered by ticking content boxes, but instead supported to facilitate deep and meaningful learning opportunities with students.
If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it. See below for the trailer and this review by Vander Ark is a fair synopsis.
This past Friday my school along with 16 others who belong to a partnership in the southern region of Adelaide, came together for a conference organised by school leaders. The conference was a great day of learning and connecting, kicked off with an entertaining opening keynote from Dan Haesler weaving stories throughout powerful messages of mindset and student voice. The day culminated with a student panel involving 8 students from four of the schools involved, 4 senior secondary students and 4 upper primary students.
— Wirreanda Secondary (@WirreandaSS) June 3, 2016
It was wonderful to have student voice shared, which is too often void in education conferences. It was also a challenging experience for these 8 young people to step out of their comfort zone in front of 540 adults, which I am sure many adults would be reticent to do themselves. (Mind you, I think Dominic (REC) was revelling in the opportunity to have an audience, quite the performer!)
Amongst many of the prompts and questions from both Dan and the audience, the student panel responded to, what their favourite day at school would be like and aspects they value in their teachers and how they feel about school.
Overwhelmingly, the message from our students endorsed that they were empowered when teachers fostered their passions, whether that be drama, music or leadership. That the best teachers saw something in them, that they didn’t necessarily see in themselves. That teachers who challenged them and respected their opinions and contributions are the ones they value, along with those who include them to design their own learning.
Additionally, these students used terms like “home”, “comfortable” and “belong” and phrases such as “where I can be me” when referring to their schools. Multiple warm fuzzies in the crowd.
feels like home
means family & history
is a comfortable place
is a place of motivation
is a place where I can be me#panapart
— Melissa Mulholland (@MelissaMulh) June 3, 2016
What a great job we have all done, patting ourselves on the back in the audience, warm hearts, big smiles, looking at proof that our efforts have resulted with young people on a stage, confirming how we impact their lives in incredibly positive ways. And what an amazing bunch of young people they are.
But let’s get real….these were 8 SELECTED students out of a possible 4000 in our schools.
Easy to be swept up with this wonderful student panel, but important to remember that not every student feels connected to school #panapart
— Rhoni McFarlane (@rhonimcfarlane) June 3, 2016
This student panel is fantastic, but not all students can articulate what they need/want/feel. Important to ask those students too #Panapart
— rebecca hepworth (@bechep2) June 3, 2016
It is not like as school leaders we are going to put 8 disengaged kids on stage who could potentially say “school is shit for me and I wish I didn’t have to go”. Or could we? If we are going to “get real” about impacting on young people, if we are going to face what is truly NOT working in our systems, then shouldn’t we be hearing the voices of those who are the most disaffected?
So I throw a challenge to my colleagues, to my school, to myself. Let us give voice to those who do not get a chance to be heard. Let us hear from students who don’t feel like “home” at school, who cannot identify even one adult that they can confide in. Let us shake up the next student panel and take a risk. If we continuously hear the good stuff, then we are blindly moving forward without the feedback that can make the most significant difference.
Check out the Storify from the day.
When a student in our class in not growing and learning, do we blame the student or try to develop approaches and strategies that might support them? I would hope to think that we try and figure out why it’s not working for them and develop actions and responses.
Why do we not approach the development of leadership in this way. If we truly believe that leaders are developed and not just “born” then leadership, including our own, is a continuum of growth. I think even the greatest leaders of our time would never suggest that they achieved ultimate leadership capacity.
In our system we define leaders with titles – principal, deputy, assistant principal, coordinator, lead teacher etc. Yet we also know that it is our actions that define leadership and that anyone can demonstrate leadership, regardless of their title or position. At the same time, it is our responsibility as “defined leaders” with titles to develop our own leadership capacity and that of other “defined leaders” in our schools. Just as we wouldn’t let ‘Johnny’ relinquish in our classrooms, why would we allow our coordinators, assistant principals, deputies or principals to flounder without support.
The challenge in our classrooms is to develop personalised approaches to improve each learner. The challenge in our leadership teams is to personalise approaches to improve each leader. Just as in the classroom, sometimes our approaches work immediately and other times they do not, but we must not give up.
I feel that our most powerful weapon as leaders, is continual reflection on what is working and why, and what is not working and why. A principal/deputy/assistant principal who blames individuals for their lack of achievement, their misunderstandings or shortage of actions, is not reflecting inwardly and not taking responsibility for their role in that person’s leadership development. Isn’t it much easier though to play the blame game, deflecting any part in the whole growth process.
The tipping point of leadership occurs when you stop blaming others for your disappointment, frustration, or bitterness.
— Dan Rockwell (@Leadershipfreak) April 1, 2016
— Dan Rockwell (@Leadershipfreak) April 2, 2016
I have not previously attended a conference stream dedicated to leadership, in fact, most of my professional learning, in regards to leadership, has occurred through reading and actual practice (with the exception of a few sessions with Prof David Giles -Flinders Uni). I believe that investing time into intentional leadership development is critical. Being a good teacher does not equate to being a good leader, and the greater the responsibilities gained, the more there is to juggle, the greater the necessity for, vision, philosophy and strategy applied to leadership rather than just being hardworking, approachable and reliable (which can only get you so far).
There were a few critical “aha” moments during my Future Schools the first emerged during the presentation by Darren Cox, Principal St Phillip’s Christian College. Darren spoke passionately about his approach to leadership and that we must have the same belief in our staff as we do in our students, this MUST be your starting point. How often do we “write off” certain staff members in our school, waiting for them to retire or move on, placing them in groups with each other because “they’re not going to do it anyway”, labelling them a “lost cause”? I think this is even more evident in South Australia with the removal of tenure, but it makes it even MORE crucial that we don’t default to this attitude. Dylan Wiliams would refer to it as the “love the one you’re with” approach. If we perceive every staff member as valuable, that they can grow, that they can contribute in powerful and meaningful ways to the culture and learning in a school, won’t this be a more powerful foundation for change?
— Rhoni McFarlane (@rhonimcfarlane) March 3, 2016
Further on from this, Darren passionately spoke about developing culture. Whether you can identify what your current culture is, developing this shared cultural identity and then as he referred, making each other accountable for this culture. I am not particularly fond of the word accountable, because I see it as a top-down approach. I would like to think that the development of a truly shared culture would mean each individual would feel a sense of responsibility and furthermore, hold each other responsible.
— Rhoni McFarlane (@rhonimcfarlane) March 3, 2016
I always love a good sports analogy, and with a HPE background, Darren did not disappoint. His examples reminded me of basketball teams I have been a part of and the “reputation” each group had. Whether it be that we were aggressive defensively or offensively, owning that reputation meant that we could pull others up if they didn’t dive on the ball, or take a shot. It wasn’t taken personally, because we had created that reputation together, we owned it.
So here lies the challenge for our own journey of creating culture at my school, which has already begun. How do we share a responsibility for our culture, so we can hold each other responsible in a way that builds culture and doesn’t bust it!
This week I attended the Future Schools Conference in Sydney with two colleagues from my school. The value in taking teams to conferences, is in the conversations and perspectives you gain. This one was no different and Melissa Mulholland and Alison Buse were wonderful co-learners.
Whilst we had opportunities to explore a scope of ideas and takeaways from the range of presentations over the two days, it was the on the third day during our time spent reflecting and challenging each other to identify key immediate actions, short-term (semester actions) and longer term (within the year) was where the true value lay for me.
Previously when travelling interstate, the pressure to reduce costs often means that there is a rush to the door to catch a flight home, evident by the numbers who attended the final keynotes in each conference stream.
— Rhoni McFarlane (@rhonimcfarlane) March 4, 2016
When booking our accommodation and travel, I was unaware that a significant event (MARDI GRAS) was on in Sydney and the flights reflected this significant event. Resulting in being cheaper to stay the extra night and fly home the following day. This turned out to be a valuable turn of events.
After checking-out from our hotel, we headed down to The Rocks at Sydney and found an amazing cafe The Fine Food Store (with WIFI). Over a delicious brunch we discussed and identified the various valuable learnings from the conference and planned for “what next”.
As two young leaders in my school, Mel and Alison demonstrated such a commitment to their own development and the improvement of our learning community. It reminded me how fortunate I am to be surrounded by passionate, enthusiastic, committed educators. It also reinforced how crucial it is to tap into people’s passions, talents and skills.
So for my first takeaway from Future Schools 2016 ……. if you can, plan to include immediate time to reflect, review and plan actions together after attending a conference. Absolute bonus if it’s interstate, and you’re on Sydney Harbour, the sun is shining and it’s 28 degrees.
This week I begin an 8 week Mindfulness Training course. If you know me at all, this might be somewhat of a surprise, but I hope that it will force me to take some time and space each day to bring awareness to the moment.
I have read a range of research on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices, and this year taking on a new role, I felt that I would need to have greater composure, courage and compassion when faced with challenging situations.
I have a great deal of apprehension as to how successful I will be, you see, we have over the past year and a half had a Mindfulness project occurring in our school and infrequently I have had opportunities to be led in short five minute mindfulness practice. Even with a limited 5 minute practice I struggled to remain undistracted, thinking instead about all the tasks on my to do list.
I hope that committing to this course will increase my capacities and eventually have a lasting impact on my ability to manage my challenging role. Fortunately I take on this challenge with three of my colleagues, hoping that we can each encourage and support each other through the next 8 weeks!.