The Elephant In The Room — Having Hard Conversations

I have been wrestling with this blog post for about three w̶e̶e̶k̶s̶ months. I’ve been mulling over how I can help guide my remarkably average school move towards becoming something extraordinary. Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with average, it’s both safe and comfortable. But average is also a breeding ground for stagnation and mediocrity. What significant change has ever come from such conditions? I want challenging. Risk taking. Inspiring. I wasn’t hired to maintain the status quo. I believe that many of my colleagues want this too, so I propose to do something about it. I don’t have the answers, far from it. What I do have is questions, opinions, and a curiosity about how much impact a staff can have when they truly collaborate on a common goal.

But as the great Michael Philip Jagger once famously sang, you can’t always get what you want. Before exploring that topic, I have to point out the elephant in the room, the problem that would likely derail any real steps towards change before it starts. At our school, we don’t have enough hard conversations about pedagogical practice.

We ask students to critically analyse their peers work, offer feedback, and challenge ideas. But how often as educators do we invite feedback from peers about our pedagogy? I want to be challenged about my practice because I’m not very good at being challenged about my practice. Over the past year, I’ve blogged and tweeted transparently for all and sundry. Invited colleagues, parents, and strangers to peek inside our classroom and make judgements about the quality of teaching and learning. I’ve initiated discussions about my pedagogical beliefs and practices, so why then does my initial reaction to most provocations continue to be a defensive and emotional one?

What prevents many educators from having challenging professional discussions about their practice? Poor school culture? Fear? Lack of time? Weak relationships? How do we create the right environment for these types of conversations to occur? Who is responsible for creating and maintaining a healthy culture of continuous improvement and accountability?

In my context, a way to overcome some of these issues is to turn our focus to the AITSL professional standards and look to embed them into our everyday language. The professional development framework advocates self-reflection; feedback; observation; coaching; and active learning to improve teacher performance. Focusing on the standards might stop feedback being seen and used as a personal attack, and allow more robust examination of pedagogy. It could drive discussion about how each of us plan, implement and review the effectiveness of our learning and teaching programs to develop students’ knowledge, understanding and skills (standard 3.2). How this shift in direction is presented to staff and implemented is the art of leadership, something I will explore in a future blog post.

According to author Steven Covey, “leadership is a choice, not a position.” I’ve successfully lead in other aspects of my life including coaching high-level sports teams, but as an educator, I’ve mostly been satisfied with following. I recently commenced Highly Accomplished and Lead Teacher (HALT) certification which highlighted that by sitting on my hands, I’ve missed opportunities to impact teaching and learning at my current school. Time to start acting as a lead teacher. The burning question is if I start leading, will anyone follow?

Moving Beyond Average

When (Prof) Pasi spoke at my school, robust discussion ensued. He challenged us to ask what is within our control, what it is that we can change, what we would do if we could enact our dream for the best way of serving our students, starting tomorrow. He challenged us to question the systemic and regulatory parameters within which we operate, and to hold the line on those things we know will make a difference to our students.
- Dr Deborah M. Netolicky describing PD with Professor Pasi Sahlberg on her blog, The édu flâneuse

What would we do if we could enact our dream for the best way of serving our students, starting tomorrow? The exercise Dr Netolicky describes sounds like a pretty interesting place to start. It mirrors what our class attempted last year when we were driven by one question; Is it possible to create a classroom where everyone WANTS to come to school every day? (Spoiler alert — the answer is yes).

Over the new year, educators on Twitter have been nominating their #OneWord2018 as a resolution of sorts. If I had to pick just one word, I would choose ‘impact’, defined as having a marked effect or influence. The areas I want to impact this year include school identity; teacher agency, staff collaboration; and professional development. I would argue that these are not four separate areas, but that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not advocating that our school or leadership do more, quite the opposite. I think they need to do far less.

I like the idea of addition by subtraction. I would argue that by doing less, I empower students to do more. They set goals, design learning and assessment, organise timetables, collaborate, teach, and importantly reflect on their successes and challenges. The most important thing I did was get out of their way. Good, bad or indifferent, they own it. Last year, this intervention of less resulted in a group of intrinsically motivated, challenged, and engaged learners. If the children can do it, surely the adults should have the same opportunity?

I will leave you with this quote from Mark Sonnemann as I think it highlights the holistic, intertwined nature of my impact goal.

The adults believed that collaboration meant sharing resources, teaming up for special lessons and projects, helping each other, and being supportive. What we learned is that true collaboration is really about sharing a vision and working selflessly towards it. It is about seeing all learners as yours as opposed to individual classes/cohorts. It is about sharing practice, inviting people in and being willing to learn from others. It is about letting go of things (ownership of space and resources) and about embracing people. It is about having hard conversations in the pursuit of the best for all students, and being willing to follow and lead as necessary. — Mark Sonnemann, Building Capacity In Lead Learners

I hope this post will give some of my colleague’s reason to pause and consider their own opinions. I also hope they disagree with some of the ideas I have outlined and challenge me on them. I need the practice.