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!
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!
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”.
My leadership journey in schools is only in it’s infancy, however my experience leading people started long before I came into education. I have always tried to lead by example; working towards developing trust and credibility. I do not expect anyone in my team to do something I am not doing, have not done, or are not prepared to do myself.
When taking on my current role, I thought about what sort of culture I wanted to be a part of. How I could articulate this to the people I would work with and how I would demonstrate it in my actions. I started by developing a purpose for our work, always asking of myself “why” and asking my peers to ask the same question of themselves.
Next I set some expectations, priorities and goals.
I set an expectation that we would continuously move towards more authentic learning experiences and create more opportunities to showcase our learning to real audiences. I developed some immediate opportunities and some long term scenarios.
I established reporting and assessment guidelines that focussed on growth and identified ways we would support students to continually develop skills, understanding and personal relationships. We continue to evolve this process.
I promoted an attitude of risk taking and high expectations by focussing on what we need to do to make something possible, rather than repeating what has already been done.
Within our team we have genuine champions of change. They each have very different strengths and interests, but we all share a desire to support the success of the young people we work with. Keeping this at the forefront of my mind, I know it is through recognising the work they each do, the risks they take whether successful or not and the effort they contribute each day, that we will work towards growing and sustaining our champion team.
Developing innovative teaching is not a “get class and just add iPad” fix. In fact innovative teaching doesn’t require iPads, computers or devices of any kind. These things are just tools that enable the production of the same “stuff” just in different ways. It’s the approach that makes learning innovative.
I was recently at a school that has a great reputation for providing students with “21st century” learning. They have amazing spaces, facilities, technology and materials. I was able to see two classes in action. One group of students were constructing iPod cases which were to hold speakers which they soldered themselves.
Sounds like a great design challenge doesn’t it?
The second group of students were racing cars they had built. They were constructed from the same materials and as they raced in pairs, the slower car was eliminated.
Sounds like fun yeah?
Both tasks provided opportunities for students to engage in relevant content that they could connect with. Both tasks provided opportunities to engage with peers and/or work independently.
One task had students follow an explicit sequence of instructions. Every end product looked identical except for the colour or decoration on the outside.
The other task had students challenged by a design problem. They had to consider how to make the BEST product with the materials provided and test the end product to see if their design was successful. Each end product looked different even if the colour matched others.
Only one of these tasks was different than a traditional build from the 20th century tech class.
I remember woodwork in high school. We built paper towel holders and coffee cup trees. Each one looked the same, some were sanded finer or stained darker, but generally the end products were hardly different. I know that some schools still complete very similar tasks and thus we would consider them static in their progress. I argue that the first task I mentioned above might as well be a paper towel holder. The only difference is that kids would prefer to make it over the paper towel holder!
Whatever the product, the change in the innovation is giving students the opportunity to approach it in authentic ways. Given a design brief with limitations, not a sequence of instructions which results in identical products at the end.
The same can be said in all class rooms. If we are just providing options to do the same task in different ways, for example instead of writing your narrative, type it on the iPad/computer or record it in audio, this is differentiating the learning yes, but it is not transforming the experience for the student. It is not challenging them to think about their learning in different ways. It is merely making the learning look pretty. Don’t get me wrong – I LIKE PRETTY!!!
Developing an innovative learning experience is not limiting our students to topics or ways of expressing themselves, it is about inspiring our students to think beyond the examples we provide. It is about establishing a culture of exploration, adaption, modifying what we know and making it better!
This is what I endeavour to do each and every day. How about you?
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” – Jim Rohn
I am already convinced that we need to surround ourselves with people who challenge and/or inspire us. I have written about it several times on this very blog. When I read this quote from Jim Rohn though, it really struck me that we have a responsibility not only to ourselves but to the people we work closely with. By this I mean we need to support those around us to develop and grow to raise the average among us.
I often hear criticisms regarding attitude or performance of faculties/groups within schools and I wonder how many individuals within that group actually “fit” (deserve) the criticism. If removed and placed within a more positive environment, would they then rise to the average of the new group? Is it our responsibility as leaders to ensure people who find themselves in a group that is resistant or negative get opportunities to engage with others outside this group, to be inspired or to see the grass can be greener?
As I have written before, I believe a positive culture must be intentional. It needs a belief system that is chosen and specific actions put into place to support these beliefs. I think it starts with a group of people agreeing to have a conversation about their vision and deciding ways to construct this together.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead)
There has been a lot of discussion in my school lately about leadership and change. It has me thinking about my own role and the aspirations of a few of the young staff in my school.
I have never thought of leaders as those that necessarily rank the highest or hold positions of power. I have been told throughout my life that I have natural leadership skills, whether it be as a student, as a member of my sporting teams or in my employment. I have tucked this away as part of a catalogue of labels I have collected but had really never given it too much thought until recently.
It may well be that some people have certain characteristics that lend them to be identified as “leaders”. This could be a whole range of things from hard working and confident, to inspiring and engaging. Lately though, I have been considering these ideas and having attended a conference last month where PLN and PLCs were a focus, I have begun to adapt my views.
One of the ideas raised during the conference (and I apologise because I can’t remember who instigated it) was, whether you have deliberately developed a PLN/PLC or not, you are actually part of one and this could play out to be positive or negative. Just working alongside people, which you can’t really escape in education, means you are part of a PLN. The behaviours and practice you share are developed as part of this network whether it is deliberate or not.
I am furthering this thought to the concept of leadership. I think leadership is how we influence people and that can be either negative or positive. I was recently part of a conversation where a fellow teacher was speaking negatively about a colleague. I could have sat in silence, affirmed with a nod or added agreement all of which would have perpetuated the negativity and even encouraged further disparagement. Instead, I chose to provide a positive comment. It was amazing how this caused a dramatic change in the conversation. All of a sudden others chimed in with affirming comments and instead of it being a grumble and moan, it turned into a focus on the positives.
Had I been quiet, it would have influenced the conversation to maintain it’s negative course. I managed to influence the conversation in a different direction by contributing a simple comment. Imagine if we all made a point of influencing something this seemingly inconsequential, how a culture could start to change. We are all leaders and if we want our influence to be a positive one, we need to start with the little things. Stepping up, doing what you can with what you have and taking opportunities to influence people when they arise. Everyone has that responsibility, regardless of how high up the chain of command you are!