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.
We live our lives in the company of others and that is where our legacy will be left; in their hearts and minds. It is the nature and quality of the relationships we build that will determine if our legacy, whether it be in a school or beyond, is long lasting or fleeting. This year I have had many opportunities to work with different groups of students and staff, and it has made it more apparent that we cannot underestimate the value of an interaction, large or small.
Gratitude is such an important sentiment and one which the end of a year can bring to the forefront as we reflect on a year passing. Something I intend to make a genuine commitment to in the new year is ensuring I don’t pass up on chances to let others know they are appreciated, or that they matter.
We can be swept away in the busyness of school and miss opportunities for simple acknowledgements or appreciation. I hope to be more conscious of these opportunities and not let them pass me by. I know this will lead to deeper more meaningful connections with our kids, their families and staff.
Sometimes we can be so busy fitting kids into the box that we forget about what matters most.
When we focus on the age, year level, sex or subject and classify our kids on these things alone we are doing them a disservice.
Leading our learning space I was adamant that I would not organise our students this way.
When we look at our kids considering who they are, who they can build successful relationships with (both peers and adults), their passions, interests and experiences, we are more likely to make choices that will lead to success.
It is only when our students move on and are then constrained by the organisation and structures in other places reducing their options, that I become frustrated and concerned that the growth and success we have supported in our kids can be undone.
I think we are a truly great example of how kids can flourish in a learning space when who they are matters most not what they are.
“People will always move toward anyone who increases them and away from others who devalue them.”
– John Maxwell
I think the key to building trust with students, families and staff for me is to ensure they feel valued.
I work hard to build trust with my students. Many have plenty of reasons not to trust; some come from trauma backgrounds and some come from very unsuccessful school experiences and never had anyone believe in their ability to succeed. I endeavour to build trust by listening first and foremost. I listen to what they have to say, what their parents/families/carers have to say and I try to take the history from their previous school as useful, but not the complete story.
I retweeted the tweet below from @supportmeandyou to my staff. Sometimes it’s hard to reassure myself and my colleagues not to take the behaviour personally. That can be hard when a student with ASD is having a melt down and calling you every name under the sun, or when a child of trauma is hating you because you showed another student attention.
The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways
— Support Me & You (@supportmeandyou) August 31, 2013
It is the trust we build, so these kids can feel comfortable in their skin, to break down barriers and be ready to learn so they are no longer anxious about being judged, ignored or unsuccessful, and ultimately because they feel valued.
I work hard to build relationships and trust with families. I do this through continual communication and fostering a message that their child is at the centre of everything we do. I endeavour to provide lots of opportunities to celebrate student learning and include families in “real time” by utilising text messaging (including photos), our class blog, phone calls and emails and requesting feedback both formally and informally. At times I have had to reflect on whether my openness with parents is sustainable as there have been occasions when they have relied on me more than is perhaps ideal, but I will continue to regulate this balance.
With staff that I “manage”, I endeavour to build trust by never asking them to do anything I am not willing to do myself. This includes; simple errands, curriculum development, planning, behaviour management and student personal care (which generally falls upon support staff). I hope that by doing all the tasks I ask of teachers and support staff, I show them how much they are valued and that I never take them for granted.
I also hope to build trust by doing what I say, not just talking about it. This is a challenge as a new leader because in the past I have tended to take on too much and not allow my staff to be responsible for anything, and I mean ANYTHING! I KNOW that my role is to help build skills in my staff so that I can make myself somewhat redundant, this is something I truly see as a measure of my success. It is however one of my greatest challenges and I am extremely conscious of providing opportunities and entrusting these amazing staff to shine and not avoid delegating for fear of loss of control. I know that by doing this, I will ultimately demonstrate that I value them.
The problem with caring is that sometimes it hurts!
This weekend was one of those times. To discover that one of our students has put herself at incredible risk and we are still yet to know if she is ok is enough to wrench my guts and take my normally rational and calm manner into a stressed and worried state.
It is not often I am lost for words but it is difficult to explain the angst I feel currently. Each of our students are vulnerable in different ways. Some are at risk of physical injury, others of being taken advantage of with money handling and scamming, others are socially and emotionally vulnerable.
Part of our responsibility, working with young people with disabilities, is to identify what skills we need to develop to ensure our students aren’t victims beyond our school grounds and empower each to be advocates for themselves and increase their independence. This is core to developing confident young people who will contribute to their community in a meaningful way.
I hold relationships as THE MOST IMPORTANT aspect of teaching and I have written about this many times. The pain I am feeling now is the result of this, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. When she comes back through our doors, she will know she matters to us, that she took a risk that would not only affect her but ALL of us. We are responsible for her but she also has a responsibility to us!
With everything I have, I am hoping that this comes true and she is ok.
As a teacher, in fact as a parent, friend even human being, I would like to think that I have encouraged and supported people around me to celebrate their unique stories, talents and traits. I think this has seen me choose particular paths and pursue certain passions over my lifetime. Special education is just an avenue for me to celebrate some of the amazing and unique differences of many young people I am fortunate to learn alongside and support.
In one of my current roles at my school I have been working to promote relationships at the centre of classroom learning. I have been encouraging staff to build connections with their students, to give of themselves and to see how these connections benefit our students.
Initially I admit, I found it a little absurd that teachers would need to be encouraged to build and see relationships as central, because I was never “taught” this, nor was it something that I had to specifically identify as an important component of my own teaching practice, it was just something I did. Throughout my teaching time I have begun to understand how crucial my family and personal relationships have been in developing who I am as a teacher and how I perceive learning. I have written several times how my mother has impacted on my approach and I honestly think that most people who have relationships at the centre have had someone in their lives who have modelled this exact thing.
When I saw IDENTITY DAY promoted by George Couros and the things that students and staff were sharing about themselves in his division and beyond, I knew this was something I wanted available to my students and staff. So this term I set ourselves this challenge and last Friday we celebrated our first Identity Day.
I am very fortunate to have a group of staff to work with whom are flexible and willing to try new things and each of them developed a great display to share. There was a wide range of interests and talents displayed by our students and each “owned” their projects to different degrees.
Like anything attempted for the first time, there were some teething problems and our reflections since have meant our next edition will be more refined. Throughout the preparation we noticed that the conversations our students were engaged in (with peers and teachers) about the impact people or events, pets or talents have had were the most profound learning times. We will continue to develop how we can incorporate these ideas into the final presentation, as articulating this in a product can often be difficult for many of our students without significant support.
I am extremely excited anticipating our next Identity Day project knowing that we have the opportunity to further develop what we have learnt from our first and ensuring it is a genuine reflection of their growth and individuality.
Thanks to the great many examples and sharing from students and educators around the world.
You can check out our class blog here.
Recently I reconnected with an educator I hadn’t seen for a while. I cherish these opportunities because a fresh set of eyes can betray the things you take for granted.
It is so easy to become complacent in our actions, behaviours, standards and expectations especially when we work in a busy environment where it is a constant challenge to keep our eyes on the big picture. When an “outsider” comes in and can feel the culture, see the interactions, hear the conversations and see the environment without the blinkers we develop over time, it can open our eyes to things that have become “part of the furniture”.
I consider myself a passionate professional, whom does not shy from a challenge nor turn a blind eye to things I deem destructive or inappropriate. Yet I was surprised to acknowledge that my own complacency over certain things was potentially being detrimental to myself , my staff and my school. Huge wake up call and one I am extremely grateful for.
So who is providing you with a fresh perspective? Is it adequate to discuss your professional practice only with those within our own schools?
I consider myself fortunate to have the opportunity to establish strong relationships with my students and their families. I see my students all day, everyday which means I am advantaged over my peers whom spend at most 4 1/2 hours per week with each class. My challenge in my current role is to find ways to support my peers in developing great relationships with their students despite not spending extended periods with them.
Whilst it may be easy to justify the depth of my relationship with my students as determined by the extended period which I do get to spend with them, I think this certainly helps but is not the sole component. We can spend countless hours with people and never develop trust or connections as I am sure we have all been witnesses to in schools or workplaces.
On a personal note, it reminds me of the relationship my mother developed with my children. I moved from my family home in Darwin, to Adelaide at the age of 15 to pursue sporting aspirations. As the youngest of three children, my mother found this difficult and I know it meant at times she felt a sense of helplessness with me being so far away.
I settled in Adelaide, and though work took me elsewhere at times, Adelaide remained home and I returned to my birthplace rarely, keeping in touch with my mother generally through weekly phone calls. My relationship with my mother was always close and whilst my older sister needed the daily phone contact (also living interstate) we maintained our strong connection and I never questioned why we didn’t need more.
With the birth of my daughter, my mother fell in love again just as she had done with my niece (her first grandchild) two years earlier. Being “Nanny Faraway” meant the (pre digital) camera was rolling out film to be processed in duplicates with a set to be sent north as soon as they were developed. Drawings and letters soon accompanied the photos as my first born took to creating masterpieces!
“Nanny Faraway” soon became the creator, ghost writer, co conspirator and director of the “Tricky Fairies”. These “Tricky Fairies” wrote to my daughter about all the amazing things they had seen her do (information gathered and bestowed upon said fairies through conversations between myself and my mother). The “Tricky Fairies” left special gems and tokens (crystals, trinkets and small toys my mother sent down via mail to be “planted” in the garden) and also played tricks on her (me hiding things, or rearranging items in her room). It was a full time job keeping up with my mothers Tricky Fairy business!
My second child arrived two years after his sister and the first grandson for my mother. More joy, more excitement and now the “Tricky Fairies” had another focus. More letters, more tricks, more trinkets! This continued throughout their young lives. My children would build houses and playgrounds for the fairies from lego and toys. They would write letters and ask them questions. My daughter would leave tiny pieces of paper for them to write on and create tiny little noughts and crosses games for them.
Nanny Faraway would ring and they would both be desperate to tell her all the things the “Tricky Fairies” had done. It filled her heart with joy, it filled me with joy and those two little children were swept away in magic and fairy dust!
My mother was diagnosed with cancer when my son was 2. She was given 18 months at best and whilst they began a radical and invasive treatment regime, this was to prolong her life only, not to cure her. My siblings and I endured a rollercoaster of emotions, desperately, selfishly wanting our mother to be afforded old age and angry that our children were to lose her encompassing love, compassion, generosity and spirit. My mother remained strong, never complained, blamed or showed anger at any time. She was hurting though, and to this day it stills wrenches my insides when I recall her sadness as she confessed that she wanted more time with her grandchildren. She wanted my son to remember her, to see her face and know it when we talked about her in years to come.
My mother recieved her radiotherapy treatment in Adelaide as there were no facilities in Darwin. This meant that we could spend time with her, though for periods due to the risk of infection, the children were unable to visit. My mother surpassed her 18month prognosis and received ongoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy for several years. Throughout this time, the Tricky Fairies continued their antics and when we visited Darwin her garden was a tropical haven for all things fairy and magical. My children spent many hours hunting for and discovering things the fairies had left (often things that we never intended).
My mother passed away 5 years ago. I miss her terribly, especially around celebrations, birthdays, anniversaries and of course Mother’s Day. My children remember her lovingly and we talk about her often. The time she spent with them was short, but my goodness it was precious and memorable.
My mother taught me that we don’t need to spend hours together to achieve enduring relationships. I will always try to make the most of my time with students, however short, to look them in the eye, listen and hear what they have to say, be honest and compassionate . It will only ever reap benefits. I will also remember how little time we need to have a huge impact on the young people in our lives.
I recently commented on this post “What I’m Afraid Of” by Ben Grey. Not too many years ago I would have somewhat supported the view that passion in profession was paramount. When I left school I was unsure of what career to pursue. I was a “good” student and successful in the school system and an academic pathway was assumed so I began my study in Law and Anthropology.
My studies and work fulfilled my ambitious personality and my thirst for learning, however I still felt there was something I was missing. After the birth of my children I came to realise my interest in teaching and furthermore my passion for special education.
I am fortunate that my work provides me with challenge and at this stage in my life I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I am a passionate learning and committed to supporting my students to have positive and meaningful experiences at school. I continually seek ways to become a better teacher both during and beyond the school working day. Does this make me a good teacher?
I also have peers who avoid taking work home, count down the days before holidays and even go as far as to never socialise with teachers outside of school. Does this mean they are bad teachers?
I would hate to assume either!
As Dean Shareski shared..
It’s great if you’re able to go to work at something you really love but that doesn’t have to be the case.
The more we as educators and parents tell kids how important it is to find their passion and tie that to their vocation the more we are telling the bus driver, the janitor, the waitress and the gas station clerk that they are failures.
See Dean’s post here.
As an adolescent my brother had a passion for cooking. He completed his apprenticeship and became a chef instead of completing year 12. After many years of sweating it out in the kitchen and cooking other peoples food, he gave cooking away. The enjoyment he experienced years before, preparing meals for us to enjoy had disappeared and cooking became “work”. Having not been in the industry for several years now, his joy for cooking has returned and his family and friends reap the benefits!
I think my responsibility as a parent and a teacher includes supporting my children/students to find passions, to foster and encourage interests but not to suggest that their future employment must encompass these.
Lately I have been thinking about this idea of accountability and responsibility. There is a lot of talk and action around making teachers accountable for the outcomes of their students and leaders being accountable for the outcomes of staff and school performance.
Trying to get staff motivated to develop their skills and improve their practice has meant I have had to look closely at how I can do this. In my own classroom one of my strengths is to respond to the needs and interests of my students. The relationships and connections I make with them and their families impacts directly on how I engage them in learning. I have had great success with students whom have been disconnected from learning or had poor school experiences in the past.
So why is it that I approach connecting with staff in their learning differently?
I think it boils down to my own beliefs about teaching and the assumption that others hold the same.
Recently I had a parent call after school to notify me of her child’s inappropriate online behaviour at home. The call was two-fold. She wanted to let me know how she had responded and to seek guidance as to if this was correct and what she should do next. The timing for the call was not ideal as I was about to facilitate a workshop with staff, however I chose to engage in the conversation and reassure my parent letting her know I would support her and speak to the student the following day. On completion of the call, a staff member inquired as to what the call was all about and when I explained briefly, she protested “That’s not your job!”
I responded in a manner which I often do, with humour and replied “In here (teachers name), we like to solve all the world’s problems”.
What I SHOULD have done, is perhaps forget the workshop which I was about to conduct and engage the people in that room in a discussion constructing an idea of what our job IS. Perhaps taking this detour may have impacted on a few to see our roles as more than purely curriculum deliverers.
Do I think I have no responsibility the moment my students walk out the gate and the bell rings at 3:15pm? Absolutely not. Do I think I am accountable for the things that happen to my students at home ….no. Do I think that what happens at home impacts on what takes place in my classroom? DEFINITELY. I think that by supporting my students and their families, I will increase their engagement at school and their access to learning. I believe that if I have a working partnership with my families they will support us when things may not be going so well.
I love this by Dean Shareski..
I do feel a responsibility to my students and their families, I am focussed on that responsibility as opposed to being accountable to anyone or anything. I believe this has a greater impact on their learning experiences.