Of giants and wisdom

Last night I was honoured in receiving the Dr Paul Brock Medal from the Australian College of Educators. Below is a copy of the speech that the College kindly invited me to deliver.

You can listen along to the speech via SoundCloud:

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Good evening colleagues, Professor Manuel, family and friends.

It’s very humbling to be recognised by peers for this prestigious award. To see the impact of Dr Brock one needs only to enter his name into a search engine or database.

There they will find his life and work remembered by thousands and thousands of practitioners, experts, friends and colleagues.

Dr Brock was so involved and influential in education that his work crossed from the classroom to policy to research and back again. It’s clear that he never saw these areas as separate or distinct silos but as closely connected and relational parts of a whole story.

We all know this, but he lived it.

Through his writings (of which I need to read much more) it’s clear that as high as he flew in the education world that he never lost his tether to the people affected by the policies he developed and programs he led.

Compared to such a giant, I have to confess that I feel like a bit of an imposter. The nature of citations suggests that I alone did things that made a difference in education. That this medal is recognition of me, of my work.

However, I’d like to make it very clear that nothing I have ever done in education has been purely individual, solely the result of my efforts alone. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that most of what I’ve done has been done by others around the world at some time and in some place. I’d also suggest that none of us can say our successes or failures exist in a vacuum.

As educators, we are part of an ecosystem: a living, breathing, vibrant ecosystem of people and influences that exist well beyond our own skin.

There are many people within this rainforest of learning that I would like to thank. I’ll be brief.

There are my students, for whom I have always strived to do the best I can, even when my best was probably not good enough. They’ve taught me as much as I’ve taught them, if not more. They’ve been my professional purpose and, in some schools more than others, my fashion police.

There are my colleagues with whom I grow and change every day. In particular, the Library team and Trinity staff who are here tonight.

Thankfully, I am not the same practitioner I was when I began teaching, due to the myriad conversations and experiences that incrementally build our professional selves.

On this point, Dr Brock mentioned in one of his speeches that, quoting Heraclitus who lived 2500 years ago, “you can’t put your feet in the same stream twice.” I think we need to remember this as we attempt to apply evidence, research, experience and wisdom into our decisions — not only do we change, but so does the stream and the world.

Everything changes. But sometimes, just sometimes, we are the ones who get to change it. Dr Brock’s life should be testament to that.

To my colleagues from other schools, some of whom are in this room tonight. You are people of such astonishing generosity of time and spirit that you actually like to spend time talking shop and working on projects in your very limited spare time.

To my colleagues from another campus who form the TeachMeet crew and my wider professional learning network. Thank you for bringing life to professional learning. The TeachMeet network which is much more than just a passive system of connected but static nodes. It is an organic community that simply could not exist without the time, energy and efforts of the people within it.

There are those colleagues who I consider friends and mentors — whether they like it or not! Whose advice, support and doses of reality keep me professionally centred on what is important and challenge me to think deeply and to act justly as often as I can. I owe you so much. Cash in any time.

The reason I value my colleagues so highly is that they offer wisdom. Not just data, information or even knowledge, but that knowledge which is washed in the churning pool of reflective experience.

As Dr Brock put it, these outstanding people are those “who may never have published in the scholarship genre, but who are able to abundantly irrigate educational theory and practice because of their own reflected-over expertise and experience.”

Then, most importantly for me, there is my family.

I am so very lucky to have a family that puts up with crazy ideas, who love me unconditionally, who are there any time I need them, and who show me that education really can provide a better life for so many people.

Tonight my wife Danielle and my mother Sharon are here — both outstanding educators in their own right — and two absolute rocks in my life. My sister Francine, my grandparents and extended family all are the reasons I am worth anything at all in education. My Uncle Paul, a long time member of this organisation, is another educator who has had an incredible impact for many decades. Even my son Archie teaches me new things daily, often relating to the Wiggles at the moment.

You lift me up and make me so much better than I could ever be by myself. Thank you for everything you do for me and for education.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants. Whether they have titles or honours or positions of authority, or have no idea that they have any influence whatsoever. I’d like to think that all teachers are giants to someone, at some time, which is an incredibly powerful role and responsibility.

Giants like Dr Brock show us that educators can stand on their own feet and have a voice, have agency, both individually and collectively.

They show us that our methods do and should differ to suit the students we encounter, that our minds should always be turned to growth.

They show us that whilst we can learn from other sectors, other professions, from evidence of research and from those in other countries, we should and must assert our own form of professionalism by being critical adopters and generators of ideas. Not just passive consumers.

We all stand on the shoulder of giants, even when they’re seated. Even when they’re no longer with us.

I challenge you in the next week to identify someone who has had a positive influence on you, who has coached you, mentored you, challenged you, scared you, into being a better version of you. Find them. Thank them.

They are your giants.

Thank you.

If you’d like to read more about Dr Brock and his work, I suggest you start with this paper: Show an affirming flame: a message to the profession, from 2015.https://cpl.asn.au/journal/semester-2-2015/show-an-affirming-flame-a-message-to-the-profession

(1) Professor Jacqueline Manuel (@jvmpkb on Twitter) kindly presenting me with the Dr Paul Brock medal. (2) Lila Mularczyk OAM and ACE NSW President introducing the award.
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