Today the South Australian Government and the opposition made announcements regarding intentions to make it easier to prosecute families of students who truant. AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH.
Don’t get me wrong, chasing up attendance and connecting with families, some of whom don’t seem to mind that their teenager prefers to stay home, is one of the most frustrating aspects of my job! However….and that is a BIG HOWEVER….. not for one minute do I think that the solution to any social issue is best addressed by punitive approaches.
If we want families and young people to value education we need to build communities that value learning, and hold teachers in high esteem. If we want communities to value learning and hold teachers in high esteem, then we need to ensure our system is able to facilitate opportunities that meet the needs of the diverse cohort and their families and has the resources to intervene and support when needed. We also need to build a Human Resources profile of teaching professionals that our community respects and admires.
But hey, that would take dedicated funds and time, not just a headline grab and or a term of government!
Part of my leadership responsibilities this year has been to support the development of student voice. There have been multiple highlights throughout the year with students being involved in a range of key decisions, and instigating change at our school in the ways we approach making decisions and managing processes, some of which have been entrenched for a significant time. Developing these opportunities for students has been a natural fit with the way I work with students and an extension of the way my classroom teaching has evolved. Listening and acting upon student ideas and feedback has always been important to me as I imagine my own children in the young people I work alongside daily.
This past term though has seen a shift in Student Voice at my school with the opportunity to plan and organise a forum inviting a range of student leaders from other schools. This would be the second student forum for our school, the first one held last year.
I am well aware of my inclination to be particularly controlling over events/activities that I am responsible for. To say it was only a little unnerving to relinquish the control would be a significant understatement. Allowing students to be in control within your own community is very different to inviting the outside in and risking failure on a very public scale. Yet this is exactly what I did and, how they rose to the occasion (you can see a post about the forum here).
The difference with students being involved and heard versus students owning the project/event is tremendous. One allows the student to feel valued and the other empowers them to be invaluable. I look forward to making space for more authentic opportunities for students to own.
For two weeks this month I have had the fortune to work closely with staff and students in a school in a province in the North East of Thailand called Kanthalakwittaya, a co-ed school from years 7-12.
As an English speaking foreigner visiting Thailand, language becomes the greatest barrier. Beyond “hello”, “yes” and “no”, the majority of rural Thai do not speak, read or understand English. Additionally my Thai is limited to……. well nothing! It is no wonder that many who visit Thailand stay in Bangkok or popular tourist destination Phuket, where the influx of English speaking tourists demands the capacity to communicate in a common tongue.
This is however, not where the richness of Thai culture is experienced.
Kanthalakwittaya is a school without the bells and whistles of my own. Students are often amongst 45 peers in a class with concrete floors, broken wooden tables and chairs blackboards and chalk dust. No devices, no screens, no flexible furniture or spaces. Yet their is immense richness in their school community and by this I am not referring to the monetary kind.
Their wealth is in their kindness, their generosity, their overwhelming commitment to help each other and to share everything. Their caring, nurturing approach is evident and was demonstrated in every classroom, every staffroom and every home I entered.
Community is at the heart of Thai culture, in fact their school curriculum identifies it as one of eight “Desirable Characteristics” as “Public-Mindedness”.
Having an authentic Thai experience (and not the white tourist version), allowed me to see how very much my own community is disconnecting from some of the things that matter most. That in our schools, it’s not the bells and whistles that matter most as we all try and get as many “things” as we can, but indeed the opportunities we provide for students to do work that truly matters. Great joy comes from the happiness of others, from being part of family (related or otherwise), from “Public-Mindedness”.
I believe working as a team is crucial to the success of any venture or change, particularly in education. How much can truly be achieved, but more importantly sustained in isolation?
Professional teams are just as diverse as a classroom full of kids. We cannot expect to build or be part of a dynamic successful team if everyone shares the same views, works the same ways or has the same strengths and passions.
I always push my brother of a cliff when I talk about teams and having different players with different strengths and capacities. My brother was not “school smart”, the whole sitting, reading and writing deal wasn’t really his strength. Yet, if I were to create a team for any challenge or to get something done, and I mean ANY, he would be my first pick. My brother is a hard worker, gives his all, can problem solve independently even if he doesn’t have a clue where to start. He works with people, communicates and just gets stuff done (plus it kind of helps that I love him a fair bit). A team full of “Tav’s” isn’t ultimately ideal, there also needs to be others to spark ideas, some to challenge the ideas, some to be conservative and some to shoot for the pie in the sky.
In schools we all work in different teams whether they be structured in curriculum areas or responsibilities, or whether they come together for specific events or projects. I have been part of many teams within my school and have been truly blessed to build a fantastic group in a curriculum area for the past three years. I think one factor that remains central to my passion for education, is that whilst I may have investment in one or several smaller teams, I am part of a larger team that is our school. I think there is great danger in seeing ourselves isolated to our own small corner of the school and not honouring our role as part of the bigger picture.
Next year I leave the comfort of my familiar curriculum area and join several new teams. Whilst I may be investing in the development and growth of these different teams, being part of team Wirreanda remains a central focus. Understanding what role the teams I am part of contribute to the growth of our school is crucial and I know that we each play an integral part in that.
One thing that has become glaringly obvious over the past two terms with my leadership of our Year 8 cohort is that teenagers make mistakes…..newsflash!
On a daily basis I have had to respond to, comfort, delegate, punish and refer onwards issues and actions that these 13 and 14 year olds participate or create.
Many of these involve media and I can’t but help reflect on my own teenage experiences and remember the mistakes I made and the risky situations I put myself in where media was not there to magnify the situation or outcome.
I know that social media frustrates many of the teachers, parents and authorities I work with as they see how quickly an image can spread, or harassment can escalate. The problem is this is just a reflection upon something else that’s missing.
Over the past weeks I have been speaking to these young people about empathy. I ask them if they have ever made a mistake, I admit to them that I have made hundreds and many of them in my teenage years. Yet it was different, my peers couldn’t take a picture and post it online in 5 seconds flat, or create an anonymous profile to comment on my personality or appearance. My friends couldn’t “like” or “share’ someone else’s comment and I wasn’t left with ambiguity around what that meant.
I ask them if they too have made mistakes. They never deny it. I ask them if they regret doing some of these and what it would feel like if that mistake was publicised on social media. I am yet to have someone wish for that end.
We talk about forgiveness, we talk about empathy. We talk about everyone having the right to make a mistake and when someone’s mistake hits our “inbox” or “timeline” it is our choice, right then, to decide if we punish them for making a mistake and pass it on, or we show understanding and delete.
I think we could get a little better at this.
Education leaders such as George Couros and Stephen Harris are always seeking ideas and examples from beyond the education arena to develop and strengthen learning and leadership in schools. I think there are many lessons to be learnt from corporations as they continually reflect upon what contributed to their success or their failure.
I am not suggesting in any means that schools should fashion themselves entirely on a business model – our core business is kids, not making a profit, but I do think the more that business looks at building success on the basis of developing relationships and connection, the more we can learn from their change journeys.
This morning I read this article by Alexa Clay – “5 Tips for Growing Changemaking Communities in Your Company“. Clay puts forth the importance of building an entourage which she describes as;
“people who bring you energy and ‘get it’ Your entourage is what gets you through the darker times and plays a much needed role in keeping you going when things appear stuck”
Clay says the following in which I have added the alternative (schools) or (classrooms) substitute:
And corporations (schools) aren’t merely collections of individuals. Corporations (schools) are communities. Behind every business (school) is an environment where people are looking to find connection, fulfillment, and identity. And yet, within and across cubicles (classrooms), it can be so hard to connect on a human level. So how do we bust through? How do we generate communities to really unleash game-changing innovation within big corporations (schools)? And how do we grow our entourages into truly powerful networks of change.
For each of the 5 tips Clay suggests to move towards developing changemaking communities I have included a ‘school’ alternative.
1. Visualise your relationships
Company model: …. go beyond the usual suspects and think about organizations or communities you might never engage with …Map out these actors and understand their competencies and points of leverage within the system. Then spot areas where a shared agenda could emerge.
School model: there may be people in your school that have a passion or interest in what you’re trying to achieve. Don’t assume it will always be the same people who put their hand up for everything, develop opportunities for support staff, parents, families, ex students and others to be involved in what you’re trying to achieve.
2. Find your counterparts
Company model: …make sure that you connect with like-minded intrapreneurs within these organizations. Systemic collaborations require an enterprising spirit to be ignited and sustained. So find the right allies in other organizations that you can rely and depend on to accelerate these types of initiatives. You’ll save time and energy by working with others who share the same mindset as you.
School model: Connect with people who share your passions both in and beyond (local or global) your school. Develop a network of educators on the same journey and share and build from each other. Utilise #twitter , google+ or other ways to connect and share and forge the development of your community.
3. Practice code-switching
Company model: Be able to shift how you communicate, depending on your audience–know the right language to use depending on your stakeholder. Part of building community has to do with knowing how to translate your prerogative into the language of others.
School model: depending on whether you are engaging with your allies, leadership or those whom may be resistant, your communication will need to change. No point going full blown excitement on a peer that is reluctant to change anything at all, save that for your ‘counterparts’
4. Foster a subculture
Company model: …at times, it might feel like the culture you’re trying to create is not reconcilable with the culture of your organisation. Ask yourself what is the delta behind the culture that is and the culture that you are trying to create. And the delta should be fairly small. Most people don’t like massive change.
School model: Change is hard! Start by developing a small culture which you can cultivate and grow eventually infiltrating the rest of the school.
5. De-couple your entourage and your ego
Company model: Communities don’t revolve around one person. Nor should the success of an idea or innovation be dependent on one person. To be successful you need to be able to democratize ownership of your ideas. Beware of isolating yourself with a community of enablers. Get the “scary people” within your organization or from the outside to champion your work. They are key in getting your ideas to scale.
School model: Make sure there are people within your community who are willing to question and challenge ideas (critical friends). Success will be measured not by what you envision on your own, but by what is owned within a vision.
“most game-changing ideas are 10% epiphany and 90% relationships and community building….People don’t just lean in to ideas; they lean in to communities where they can discover purpose and meaning.”
Our families are crucial to our success and the risks we take in our Unit. Without their support we would not have the freedom to push boundaries, try new things and ultimately make mistakes. Involving our families and providing them with voice is essential to developing the trust this requires. The introduction of our Unit Blog has provided a space to connect and has been an amazing avenue for sharing our experiences in “real time”. The truth is though that not all our families have access to the internet nor the inclination to get online to see what has been happening. It is thus important for us to connect and involve our families in multiple ways.
Connecting with our families using texts messages and sending pictures via mobile has proven to be a great way to engage them in real time. We almost use this in a similar fashion that most would use a twitter account. We send out general reminders, updates and information. We also share photos of what we are doing and places we go. One consideration we negotiate is having students who cannot have their images shared on social media. This means these students are never included in photographs on our blog, in our newsletters or on our YouTube channel. Sending pictures via our mobile means these students can still share these experiences with families and carers.
We engage our families in many other ways including open forums, technology workshops, student led expos, family conferences, celebrations, volunteer opportunities and invitations to participate in learning experiences. Our reporting process (Semester Reflections) is another way we ensure that our communication to families is valuable and meaningful. This was a priority for me when I came to my current site and I was very fortunate to be given the flexibility to start from scratch. I wanted to ensure that our families knew we were responding to their children as unique individuals. This process continues to evolve and it is through the feedback we solicit from our families that we continue to develop and grow.
Taking a group of students away on camp is always an experience which requires plenty of planning, time, effort and commitment from staff. Taking a group of students with special needs away on camp just amplifies this.
This morning I participated in a Google Hangout as part of #SAVMP (School Admin Virtual Mentor Program). I am very fortunate to be grouped with mentor Jimmy Casas (thanks @gcouros) and with great education professionals Jenna Shaw, Dana Corr, Kevin Graham and Jen Lindaman. (If you’re not already following these passionate educators on twitter, you should be!)
This mornings hangout had Jimmy, Jenna, Dana and I spending an hour together getting to know where we are at in terms of our own leadership journeys.
It was evident from the initial introductions that we come from diverse school environments and have a range of experiences. Nevertheless it was also obvious that each of these dedicated educators will have a great deal to contribute to my learning.
Of course any opportunity and coming together of people is only as valuable as what you are prepared to invest. After today’s chat, I am confident that there is a definite commitment to this little PLC and it already has me reflecting.
During the chat, Jimmy made two comments that really struck a chord with me. It wouldn’t matter where in the world your school was, how many kids enrolled or the demographic nature of the school, it just makes good sense!
1. always following up, is key to building relationships
2. never make excuses for not acting – take responsibility of how you can be the change
I have always felt strongly about both these concepts, but it often isn’t until you are “in” conversation or listening to someone else’s take on an idea that you truly “get” how you can do it better.
Listening to Jimmy speak about how he ensures relationships are strengthened even after difficult conversations was one of these moments.
I have always tried to ensure I do this with people I lead, however what about the people that lead me? Can we say as leaders we have no influence because our line manager, our principal, our cluster, our region, or our education department has a different agenda? Where does our voice die out? Should we still not be following through after we make an observation or address a concern and not leave it at that? Where does fighting for what we believe in stop and how does it leave the relationship if the last thing said was not resolved?
Lots to think about before we meet again.
I believe that developing a culture of growth requires being able to reflect, make changes or adjustments, even completely disband and move on. Part of that reflection is acknowledging things that aren’t working. To avoid criticism of our actions would mean doing nothing. Personally I would rather be criticised for trying to be better than continuing to do the same or nothing “just because”. This is where we need critical friends.
I believe organisations, teams and individuals need to hear the bad stuff! I recall a time at a school when we were asked to survey students about their experience at school and a leader suggested there were some whom could be missed (those being students who would respond in a likely negative manner). I asked what would the point of the survey be then? If we don’t get an honest response, how do we know what needs to improve?
Few people have the wisdom to prefer the criticism that would do them good, to the praise that deceives them. – Francois de La Rochefoucauld
I don’t know if it is my background in sport that helped me develop a “thick skin” (coaches can be quite blunt) or something else, but I have always sought feedback and critique for how to improve. That is not to say that some times its extremely hard to hear. There are times I have felt that overwhelming urge to defend myself and not truly listen to what is being said. What I have learnt to appreciate over my time working with much more experienced and smarter people than I, is we can never have all the answers and more often than not, someone else has a solution to a problem or a perspective that is just as valid if not more so!
Within my own team I value transparency and communication and hope by providing opportunities to openly discuss and reflect on our practice, it fashions an atmosphere where the criticism is not personal but focussed on how we can make learning better for our kids, thus fostering honesty.
Google Docs has been one way in which we achieve this. Each time we implement/introduce a new strategy, unit of work or change in our schedule, we share a document for reflection. We have simple headings including: ‘positives’, ‘negatives’ and ‘suggestions for the future’.
When it is an innovation or strategy that I have instigated I am sure to be the first to reflect critically upon myself. I think this triggers other staff feeling comfortable in giving honest feedback. By modelling honest critical reflection, I establish the focus upon constant improvement with learning at the centre.
We also hold professional conversations that prompt opportunities to have deeper discussions about our roles and how I can improve my support and leadership within our faculty.
Granting opportunities for others to judge, respond or reflect on decisions or actions we have made makes us vulnerable. I always focus my energies on how this will help our students and this ensures I can move beyond any personal angst I might feel.