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
If you are interested in developing leadership, apparently you are not alone, it seems it is quite big business, you do not have to look very hard to find a range of views, top 20 “characteristics” or strategies to improve it! We should all be experts right? Well seems it’s not that easy.
Leadership, just like teaching, learning and coaching, involves people, and thus relationships. If you want great results, you need great people to have those relationships with. Companies that are revered for having great cultures, Google, Netflix etc are also in the position to choose/hire whomever they want.
Additionally, having a great culture means that you can attract and keep great people. The greatest challenge is how you create a great culture whilst you have people that aren’t people that you would actually choose to employ but instead have inherited.
These answers are few and far between! Just like in professional sport, some incredible players perform better under certain coaches and systems than others. As do players who may not possess “superstar” qualities, seem to shine in some teams, in particular circumstance than at any other time or in any other place.
What I am trying to get at, is that not even the best players/people are going to thrive in circumstances that are not conducive to their set of skills, expertise or interests. It does not mean that they are less impressive, nor does it mean that the leadership is not effective. It means that it is just not the right fit.
Just because an impressive dessert chef will be under-utilised in a McDonalds cafe, does not make the McDonalds unsuccessful. It means that their purpose does not marry. That is not to say that we should not be looking at the talents within our buildings and try to utilise people’s passions and interests. It means that sometimes, trying to find a perfect fit, does not align with the vision/purpose of the school and each time we veer away from our intentions, we use time and energy that could otherwise impact on our success.
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 past month has been a busy one as the school year came to a close. It is always a time for reflection and review, but more so this year with a whole range of new leadership opportunities arising in our school and the reality of some revered and inspiring leaders exiting stage left. This has meant an opportunity for personal reflection and formal and informal conversations with a range of people both at the beginning and the end of their school leadership journey.
One consistent aspect of both these groups of people, is that they did not wait for the title to demonstrate their professionalism, their passion, and their unwavering and uncompromising commitment to improvement. Instead they acted upon it daily.
Lesson learnt…. if you aspire to be a Lead Teacher, Coordinator, Senior Leader, Deputy, Principal or beyond….. don’t wait, start operating like one; speak up, support, encourage, challenge and advocate, dress and commit like one on a daily basis.
A special shout out to a unique individual, an inspiring woman, who retires from her official education role, but whom I know will still support the development of others for a long time to come. She has tolerated my constant challenging and questioning and still nurtured and supported me, especially in recent times.
“A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader, a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves”
~ Eleanor Roosevelt
I really revere this approach to leadership where the focus is on developing others not just producing a positive outcome. Working in teams it is essential that everyone is improving and contributing in positive ways and this will only occur if the focus is on developing every element of the team not just isolated members, or yourself.
I have spent a great deal of time and effort trying to ensure that those around me have confidence in my leadership; endeavouring to lead by example, sustain a high work ethic, be reliable and trustworthy, enthusiastic and positive and communicate effectively.
Whilst these are all what I would consider effective leadership qualities, I have to remind myself that my energies should also be spent on inspiring others to see their own value.
I have always found perception an intriguing phenomenon. It probably stems from my studies in social anthropology at Uni but also as I get older, I reflect on how I viewed the world as a young person. We of course construct our own experience through how we interact and perceive the world, without getting too deep the reason I raise this is that just recently, a colleague gave me an enormous compliment and then continued to identify themselves as less adequate. This caught me by surprise, as I in fact hold them in very high esteem. It reminded me immediately of the quote from E.Roosevelt above, and impelled me to remind this particular individual of all the inspiring initiatives they had led and the challenges they had overcome. Sometimes we all need a champion to remind us of our successes. I need to make sure I do it more often.
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.
There are a range of different representations of the concept of innovation in schools. It’s a word that I don’t particularly like to use, in fact when my school was looking to name its new collaborative open learning space I strongly contended for the word “innovative” not to be included in the label.
Buzz words fly around business and education continually as we reevaluate what it means to develop successful organisations. This is even more true now as change accelerates with modern technology and access to a global learning and business community. Just recently my son’s school rolled out their new promotional campaign of being “Future Proof” claiming the aim is “teaching children at all ages to be happy, resilient, adaptable and inquisitive, … future-proofing its students, to be the leaders of tomorrow.”
The Edtechteam promote the “Future Ready Schools” initiative, claiming that “Future Ready means having a comprehensive approach to the technology integration”. Furthermore they claim “Being Future Ready is a mindset, not a destination… In order for students to have agency, learning should take places in inspiring spaces where teachers are empowered to make instructional decisions.”
I think we spend a lot of time generating labels and linguistics to represent modern learning and modern spaces and by the time they are adopted, things have changed once again. It’s no wonder schools and teachers become overwhelmed and even despondent as new ideals are continuously rolled out.
So where am I going with all this? Well for me it’s trying to make sense of how I can be part of a leadership team that supports and develops continual and sustainable change in a school without it feeling like an entire makeover every year. How can we develop an emerging culture that embraces disruption as an ongoing response to making choices about what is best for kids in the now, which could ultimately mean rapid change in some respects in short periods of time. A definite challenge, but ultimately what choice do we have if our ambition is to do what is right for kids?
This year to date has been time challenging for several reasons. Not only am I continuing in my coordination role to facilitate improved classroom practice across the school, I have taken on the leadership of the Unit for students with disabilities, accepted a teaching opportunity at Flinders University in semester 1 and teach in the classroom 14 lessons a week. This has placed pressure on my time, sleep practices and mental health! No regrets though, quite the opposite. I have in a short period of time learnt a great deal about my skills to manage my time, set priorities and further understood how hard it is for me to step back, release control and let others shine.
I truly believe that the things we value most, we need to prioritise, whether that be at work or at home. I have previously written about how “Action Expresses Priorities”. When I make a commitment, I’m good at sticking to it. At times this can mean I stick to things that really I should let go. I read books to the end because I feel a sense of guilt if I don’t complete it (unfortunately a “friend” gifted me a copy of Eat Pray Love and I dragged myself through until the end – agony) I’ve never walked out on a movie, or left at breaks in seminars when others are leaving by the droves.
I make commitments, I say them out loud to myself and I stick to it, even the little things. I made a commitment to write a comment on 7 student blogs per week via #comment4kids because I know that 1 or 2 sentences from me can have an impact, encouraging students to write more. Confession – sometimes I find myself on a Sunday night finding 7 blogs in a hurry, but it really only takes me 15-20 mins and I think that it a valuable use of that time.
I prioritise my exercise because I know it makes a difference. I work full-time and have two amazing kids. Going to the gym or a run at night is difficult because it is dinner and homework and getting ready for the next day, but I know I have to include it, so I get up at 530am every weekday and head off to the gym for an hour.
At work, I am able to prioritise actions by asking “why” and “how” …. a lot! I ask this of myself and I ask this from my colleagues. We can easily get swept up in a new idea, a new technology, a new activity, or revert to old habits and comfortable strategies, but I always ask:
“why” should we do this?
“how” will it improve experiences and understanding for our students?
If we can justify that it is worthwhile, then we need to make it happen.
“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
So for me, setting priorities has never really been a difficulty. It is when it comes to letting something else go so it is not just an “add on” that I find the greatest difficulty.
My problem is, I want to be involved in EVERYTHING, I want to know what is going on, where it is going on and how I can be involved. I know this means at times I spread myself so thin that I cannot possibly do all these things to the standard I expect of myself thus it leaves me working an unreasonable time outside of school. What I am learning gradually is to let go and allow others to develop and lead around me. It stills leaves me feeling anxious when I hand something over, but I know that the greatest outcome of my leadership should be that I am no longer relied upon.
“Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it.”
― Ann Landers