My oh my! – exploring self-acceptance in the classroom

 

“What on earth is going on with my heart, as it turns as cold as stone? You know these days I don’t feel anything, unless it cuts me right down to the bone…”

David Gray

What do you say to the kid who asks you, “what on earth is going on with my heart?” Many (if not all) of us can relate to the sentiments in Gray’s masterpiece, “My Oh My,” a lament on losing touch with the love and thoughts that nurture us as human beings through the journey of life. While it sounds extreme, at times it’s as if our hearts have turned to stone, we’ve forgotten how to feel and our mind that “used to be so sharp” seems to let us down when we really need it.

You don’t have to dig very deep into the song to realise that the real enemy of our heart and mind is often ourselves. It’s the self critic that has the most power to stay stuck in our mind. Just like the negative thoughts in Gray’s song, even though we fight the self critic, trying to tear it up or burn it down, it has the power to “come right back again”, leaving us at Square One.

Self critique often leads us to play it safe, avoid sharing feelings, bottle things up and keep to oneself. Aziz Gazipura describes this phenomenon as the “the persistent fear of not being enough”, suggesting that our unrealistic comparisons everything around us often cause us to feel the way we do and avoid simply engaging with the world. It’s this fear that often stops us from taking the kinds of risks that help us to grow and live life to the fullest. Some people retreat into themselves so they can avoid the terrible self judgements about how awkward they are, what they can’t get right and what other people must think of them.

You also don’t have to dig very deep into the song to realise Gray’s solution: a lot of love. Educators love their students, and we want to lift them up when they’re down. We lay on praise, encouragement and other rewards at every opportunity so that we can validate the people our students want to become. I think that this is what makes education the truly caring profession in the same way that doctors and nurses care for the physical and mental health of their patients.

However, as any educator knows, there are the students we can’t lift, for whatever reason. We can encourage, praise and reward all we like, but the self-critique that lives in their minds and hearts is stronger than anything we can muster. The only real and lasting solution to self-critique is self-compassion. In Kristin Neff’s Self Compassion, the author explains the thinking on why self-acceptance is ultimately more important than self-confidence:

Self-esteem is contingent on success. We basically like ourselves and we judge ourselves positively when we succeed and when we do well. But the second we fail and make a mistake, our self-esteem goes out the window and we do not judge ourselves positively… The problem with self-esteem is it tends to be comparative in nature. Basically, if I have high self-esteem I have to feel special and above average. That basic need to be better than others is based on a logical impossibility. There’s no way everybody can be above average at the same time. We’re losing before we’re even out of the gate.

When working with kids that can’t be lifted through encouragement or praise, the challenge is fairly clear. We need to teach self-compassion. How can we start? Perhaps a few questions and caveats need to be explored:

  • In our classrooms, how much of the confidence we instil in our kids is about comparisons? Are these comparisons doing more harm than help?  
  • Self comparisons – (think “you worked better today than you did yesterday”) can have a place, but personal best isn’t always a good measurement yardstick (just talk to any perfectionist, whose best is never good enough). Personal best is also highly subjective, and for the kid that puts themselves down at every opportunity, having a solid grasp on their personal best is far from easy.
  • In a culture of testing, comparisons, discipline and conformity, how can we teach self acceptance?
  • What other forms of assessment actually promote self acceptance? Are further opportunities for choice, self expression, reflection and validation necessary?
  • Acceptance of the our kids, with all their quirks and difficulties is a good start. What happens when the teacher walks away?

These aren’t easy issues. Maybe we simply need to talk much more about the kinds of thoughts and feelings that Gray expresses so eloquently – as a first step to exploring what self-acceptance might look like for us and those we teach. I suspect, as Gray does, that it is going to take a lot of love to keep our hearts from freezing – so we’d better make a start!  

 

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What can teachers like me learn from David Bowie?

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(Image: Wikipedia)

With David Bowie’s passing, I think many of us feel like we’ve lost a creative and gifted soul. Bowie was an extraordinary visionary and talented artist who was a hero to many. While often seen as very different career paths, artists and teachers share many values and one can learn much from the other. As an educator, I feel that I’ve learned – and will continue to learn – a lot from the artists that inspire me. What can teachers learn from artists like David Bowie?

  • Above all, be creative: Bowie was intensely creative from a very early age until the day he died, with a phenomenal output (witness the 25+ albums he produced in his lifetime). Importantly, not all the songs he wrote would be regarded as “hits.” Even his biggest fans admit that among his body of work, there’s stuff they really don’t like. But the huge output ensured that there were successes, and many of them. As educators, most of us accept the revised Bloom’s taxonomy, which positions creativity as the highest order of thinking. While we often go to great lengths to nurture our students’ creativity, we don’t always do the same for ourselves. Teaching is – and should be – a highly creative endeavour.
  • Be original: No one can doubt that Bowie was one of a kind, working without a precursor. Who could have predicted a musical figure like Ziggy would arrive on the scene in the early 1970s and flout so many gender norms, giving Bowie’s followers instant permission to do the same. Teachers who are willing to be different and original are often the ones who are most respected by those they teach. Like performers and other celebrities, we look up to teachers; when they’re prepared to be original, it gives us permission to be the people we want to become.
  • Avert disaster when needed: Speaking about his rampant cocaine use in the 1970s, Bowie remarked ““I blew my nose one day in California. “And half my brains came out. Something had to be done.” He could have easily slid into decline, further drug use (he also a regular user of heroin for a period) and an early death. In this respect, he would have been another tortured artist, probably over-celebrated for a while and then just comically forgotten. Instead, he decided to turn his life around, seek help and get sober. This decision to be strong and avert disaster made him successful for another thirty-five years. Teachers have to avert disaster – not just of their own making, but of students they teach. Recognising when students are going “off the rails” is tricky, and even loved ones and health professionals miss important cues. But as teachers, we are aware of the significance of important life decisions and many students turn to us.
  • Experiment, make mistakes and learn from them: Bowie’s meteoric success afforded him some luxuries, particularly during the 1970s when commercially successful artists could go on to produce all kinds of “experimental” albums with avant garde (and often drug-fueld!) sounds. No one can listen to Bowie’s Station to Station without thinking that such a “far out” album nowadays wouldn’t pass muster with the big record labels. Regardless, good artists have always pushed the envelope. As educators, we don’t always have to fit the mould; we can try new ideas – even crazy ones – and see where they go.
  • Stand up against injustice: As some Australian journalists have pointed out in the wake of Bowie’s passing, he wasn’t afraid to stand up against the kind of racism against Indigenous Australians, particularly at a time when mainstream Australia wasn’t prepared to stand against this injustice. Bowie used songs such as “Let’s Dance” to shine a light on Australia’s Indigenous struggle. What’s interesting about this story is that he could expose racism in such a subtle yet effective way. As teachers, we work for equity and justice pretty much all of our working lives. We can make some pretty major achievements in these areas through small tweaks. For example, some have highlighted clear links between violence against women to boys’ use of sexist language while growing up. We might not be able to single-handedly solve the big problems, but we can work together to ensure we address the small issues that often lead to them.
  • Be a collaborator, and work with the right people: No one can doubt that Bowie’s collaboration with Brian Eno in 1977 on the highly influential album Heroes is something special. Bowie knew that good collaboration could make his work even better, and he chose the right people to work with. While the “autonomous teacher in a box” has been something that marked the educational landscape in the latter 20th century, we know that good teachers in contemporary schools are good collaborators. They understand their strengths and weaknesses and connect with the right people to ensure that they can support others and be supported.
  • Remember, you’re playing a role – sometimes multiple roles: Bowie was a role player, par excellence. He knew how to adopt different personae and even make fun of himself. As The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust suggests, he also knew when it was time to let go of a persona and move on – to reform his identity. As teachers, we’re always playing one role or another, but the roles we play don’t need to define us beyond their use. Sure, we’re teachers; but we’re also more than just teachers.  
  • Be humble: For all his ego, personae and success, Bowie was a surprisingly humble guy. I would say this probably stems from him being a true musician and someone who knew that there were many awesome, talented artists in the world. Just as the great jazz musicians of the 20th century knew that there were others as good – if not better – than them, Bowie formed a fairly realistic and accurate understanding of himself in his latter years. Teachers should do likewise.
  • Know when to take a break: Following his collapse on stage and emergency heart surgery in 2004, Bowie knew it was time to take a break. Thankfully, we had another two albums and several live performances ten years later. Teachers who know when to take time out and invest in themselves – body, mind and spirit – are often much better teachers for it.
  • Never give up: Perhaps the most extraordinary gift that Bowie gave us was his final album, Blackstar – released just days before he died. In the song, “Lazarus,” he greets us with the words, “Look up here – I’m in heaven,” bringing an eerie and otherworldly quality to his music. There can be little doubt that Bowie intended to go right to the end, perfecting his craft and connecting with his fans. As teachers, we may move schools, jobs, or careers – but I feel that  most of us will always be teachers in one form or another. We should never give up trying to be there for those we teach, supporting them and hopefully making the world a better place.

There’s certainly a lot that teachers like me can learn from David Bowie. As I reflect on some of these lessons, I know he’s made me a better educator and I’m deeply grateful for this. Thanks, David – we’ll miss you.  

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Head in the Clouds – does Cloud Computing live up to the equity challenges of the C.21st?

In a literature review I wrote in 2011, I argued that Cloud Computing – then a fairly nascent concept in Education – could have the potential to address some of the biggest equity barriers that mark the digital divide in the twenty-first century. With the price of increasingly sophisticated computing devices getting lower and lower each year, it’s little wonder that I can now do pretty much anything on my Chromebook that, up until just a few years ago, I needed a much more expensive device to accomplish.

I’m very privileged to be working at Macquarie ICT Innovations Centre running what has become a very popular course, our Beginner’s Guide to Google Apps for Education. In the opening session, the participants and I discuss some of the recent developments in BYOD and Cloud Computing, both regarded as “near term horizon” technologies for 2014 that have now arguably become mainstream. Citing examples such as video editing, multitrack recording and advanced Photoshop-style image editing, I point out that cloud tools now provide access to what was formerly the domain of “pro users” and $2500 high-end machines. For example, tools such as WeVideo run in a web browser, make use of Cloud storage and provide a very similar experience to much more expensive and device-based applications like Final Cut Pro.

In the last few years that followed my 2011 literature review, BYOD has become a huge focus in many schools and, as most educators are aware, this can take many forms. With what I like to call “open slather” BYOD, kids bring any device and use it to support learning; but this presents at least as many challenges as it does opportunities. For example, how does a teacher set a task where technology can make a difference, especially when most educators (myself included) don't have a comprehensive understanding of each platform and the affordances of each app? What about the equity problems of kids having very different devices able to achieve different things? Does the teacher's task favour a particular platform and what are the implications of this? If we say it's the student's job to know the device and use it well, are teachers liable to just mentally “buy out” of the need to really know how the tool works?

All of this makes the concept of device agnosticism and the idea that the device doesn't matter problematic. So even though I recognise the potential of Cloud Computing to redress some of the biggest equity issues in contemporary classrooms, we need to remain very skeptical.

Are you “CloudReady?”  

In spite of the issues around achieving effective BYOD, Cloud Computing makes technology platforms accessible across most devices so that the tool and its data can be accessed regardless of the device. Since the actual “computing” (that is the strain on the system processors) is also done “in the cloud” by advanced and powerful network servers, I don't always need that $3000 spaceship to get the things that I want done.

I’m often doing things video editing, audio recording and Photoshopping. I’m amazed that I’m now able to do these things just as easily on my $250 Chromebook as I can on my $2500 Macbook.

Given that a number of educational jurisdictions and institutions around the world have come to similar realisations, I think it’s time that many educators started exploring Cloud-based platforms such as ChromeOS, the operating system that underpins all Chromebooks and relies principally on the Chrome browser, its extensions and associated applications and an Internet connection. For most of us (again, myself included!) this is a fairly foreign concept when you’ve been working with device-based platforms such as Mac OS, Windows and Linux.

I know a large number of educators who are keen to explore Cloud-based platforms such as ChromeOS but are perhaps less willing to buy a Chromebook, given the expense and possibility that it mightn’t be quite what they’re looking for. Thankfully, the folks at Neverware have done an excellent job of making ChromeOS easily downloadable and installable on any laptop or netbook up to eight years old. This means that you can try ChromeOS – possibly on an old machine that is just lying around – and see what it’s like to do everything in the Cloud. I know of several schools where school leaders have been able to turn fleets of relatively useless netbooks into very powerful Cloud devices.

Another option is to use Neverware to download and install ChromeOS on a bootable USB. You can then plug it into any PC and boot Google’s operating system with all of your settings, web history and applications ready to go.

In an age where we’re often liable to think that we need the latest and greatest device in order to be on top of educational technology, it’s refreshing to see that Cloud Computing really is, at least for now, living up to some of the equity challenges that have marked the last twenty years of the digital landscape. I would encourage all educators to shift their thinking away from the view that students need the best device available. By exploring Cloud platforms and tools on low-cost, Cloud-based devices, we can work with the kinds of technology that can be accessible to most – if not all – learners in the future.

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The role of Unit Convenor: what might best practice in higher ed look like?

This month marks the end of my first unit as a non-teaching unit convenor. I had the opportunity to  support over 150 students and a team of very dedicated, experienced and highly capable tutors. As a third-year curriculum, pedagogy and policy unit for Secondary preservice teachers, I had to draw on my own high school teaching experience and manage some big changes to the unit’s assessment, structure and content. On top of running, teaching and marking my fourth-year methodology units, managing prac placements and at-risk students, working on three research projects, publishing wherever I can and completing my PhD, it’s fair to say that Session 2 was a very bumpy ride. But we got there!

Given my focus in this unit has been solely convening, it's led me to question what best practice for convening might look like for me in the future. Disclaimer: I’m not especially partial to the term “best practice,” for a range of reasons, but I’ll use it here as a way to explore the best possible “version” of unit convenor to me, now and in the future. I  also think this is a very relevant question if we want to improve teaching and learning in Higher education.

What is a Unit Convenor?

In Higher Ed, most regard the unit convenor as a sort of “manager,” responsible for running the unit. In practice, this involves quite a few things. Traditionally an expert in the area the unit addresses, the convenor sets or creates the curriculum and may do the bulk of the lectures. They structure the learning through assessment tasks, weekly tutorials or workshops, and prescribed readings. They manage most of the email communication with students and address related matters such as absences, extensions and special consideration. They’re also responsible for ensuring that all marking is fair and accurate across all tasks and between all markers (challenging when you have very large units with, say, 800 students!). Finally, they determine grades and are answerable to colleagues in their department and faculty about the number of grades given in each category (HD, D, Cr, P and F) and distribution of grades overall. There’s a lot of juggling involved!

In smaller units such as my fourth year English Methodologies unit (~60 students), I’ve been everything – convenor, teacher, marker and whatever else is needed to support my students from start to finish. To a certain degree, working on a small unit while doing every kind of job involved in running and teaching the unit allows me to have end-to-end control over the quality of my work. I’ve typically done very well this capacity over the past three years, and the standard of my work in these smaller units played a very large role in my successful appointment as Lecturer in September.

What makes a good Unit Convenor?

However, in larger units, it’s quite common for convenors to simply convene and leave the other roles of teaching and marking up to their team of tutors. I would argue that this involves a very different skill set and mindset. Being the non-teaching convenor in my third-year unit has really enabled me to reflect on the knowledge and skills I’ve had to develop to be good at this job in the future.

I see being a good convenor about the following:

  • Extending support and service – you have to be there, first and foremost, for the most important stakeholders – the teachers and learners. My tutors and students are the ones who enact and live the curriculum. I've played a part in setting it down but that’s relatively small in comparison to the more important job of making it happen.
  • Being a better “Judge Judy” – the times where I have to make hard calls and remember that it's always about fairness and equity. For me, this means no “sweet deals” with extensions or absences and equal treatment for all. I’ve learned to appreciate university (and more generally, educational) policies much more than I ever thought I would.
  • Improving my skills in learning design – the unit outline is much more than the name suggests. It's a reflection of your beliefs, influences, interests, pedagogies, skills and knowledge. The unit guide is also an opportunity to get the assessment right from the beginning (including proper instructions, scaffolding, resources and a clear and fair marking criteria).
  • Being a better collaborator – learning to listen more to teachers and students in the unit about how it can be improved. Larger units have so much potential for collective intelligence around refinement and improvement. I have to make sure the right mechanisms are there so that ideas on how this might happen can flow.  
  • Being a quality reviewer – my unit is undergoing a rigorous review. It's my job to accept some hard truths (including ones that suggest I’m not doing the best job that I can) and make changes, even when they mean substantially more work.

I think there needs to be much more discussion about the role of Unit Convenor in improving the quality of teaching and learning in Higher ed. For perhaps too long, we've assumed that since the convenor is traditionally a permanent member of staff, they have established the expertise needed to effectively be leaders of learning. I'm not convinced this should be a given. Now that the scales have tipped and we have many more casual, part time and fixed term staff – many of whom occupy  role of convenor – we need to be supporting them in ways that ensure quality teaching and learning that can be sustained over the long term.

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Play “Misty” – Even Badly

Having lost my father to cancer when I was 14, I never really got to know him enough to be able to share my love of music. That love came in my adult years, when I spent countless hours each week learning new instruments, writing and recording songs, jamming with friends and occasionally performing – in band competitions, orchestras, recitals and examinations. I put myself through a Music Honours degree while teaching full time because I wanted to show to myself – and perhaps my dad – just how serious I was.

Like any would-be musician, I spent way too much time on the slippery slope of perfectionism. I’m quite good at berating myself when things aren’t right and putting myself down in the company of friends and strangers. Like most Aussie blokes, I’m terrified of being cut down in the spotlight – so I often try to cut myself down preemptively.

Part of learning to be a musician is learning to be comfortable in your own skin – and I’ve still got a very long way to go on that score. It’s in being prepared to make mistakes that we’re at our most vulnerable. But I think it’s when we’re most vulnerable that we really have the chance to shine. We can be our true selves.

I’m very fortunate to have worked as a Music teacher – and seen the wretched struggles that kids go through – so similar to my own and so easy to spot (when it’s not you, that is!). As many Music teachers know, Music lessons can often become quasi counselling sessions where you end up exploring self-confidence, autonomy and identity. You tell kids all the sage advice that you know is true – “don’t worry about what others think,” “it’s not really about you; it’s about the music” and so on. It’s probably the most rewarding teaching experience when that kid is up in front of an audience and you can see their true self shine and the confidence coming through. It’s often the case that the catalyst is the acceptance of imperfection and willingness to make mistakes but know they’ll be supported and loved regardless.

Perhaps it’s far more challenging to put that sage advice into practice in your life. For me, solving that problem has a lot to do with jazz – and, more than anything else, the standards. I’m no jazz musician – just a few years’ lessons in singing in the late 1990s, a failed attempt at learning the double bass and enough to clunk away at the chords on the piano. But in spite of my rampant perfectionistic ideals, I think I’m ok with it.

When he was alive, I’m told that my dad was notorious for going to jazz clubs, having a couple of glasses of wine and shouting, “play Misty!” It wouldn’t matter which band was playing – my dad was just a sucker for standards, and this one standard in particular. It’s a beautiful song and the woman who really “owns it” – Ella Fitzgerald – is one of my heroes.

As any music historian will tell you, the majority of jazz musicians – quite unlike the pop stars that dominate today’s landscape – were remarkably humble. They knew that no matter how well they played, there was always someone – past, present or future – who would play better.

Humility is a good thing – but only insofar as it provides us with a realistic understanding of who we are and what we have to offer the world. For my part, I’m happy enough to play “Misty,” even badly. At least I’ll be in excellent company.

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Quality Teaching in Higher Ed – The QILT Website

I’ve been spending some time on the new Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) website, which launched just last week and represents the first Australian website of its kind. Drawing on several years’ worth of student feedback data obtained through instruments such as the University Experience Survey (UES), the site allows users to compare and contrast the ratings of Australian universities on a range of criteria and with respect to specific programs. While overrelliance on the data is something to be avoided (the data are not without reliability, consistency and sampling issues), I think this is really interesting step forward.
 
In the age that will no doubt herald further casualisation, funding cuts, fee deregulation and the very real likelihood of the $100K degree, students and the wider community absolutely must take an active role in putting pressure on universities to be accountable and deliver high quality teaching. Being informed consumers is integral to this. Personally, I think this requires a shift in mindset, where the wider community recognises and leverages  the increasing competition between universities. Prospective students need to see that universities are now competing for the dollars that undergraduate enrolments bring as well as the gains in reputation and prestige that high calibre undergraduate and postgraduate enrolments bring. We’re now so far beyond the age of free and generously subsidised education; if it’s going to be “user-pays,” then the user has a right to expect quality. 
 
In my area – Education – some very interesting patterns and themes emerge when you compare and contrast some of the big players, our so-called “ivy leagues” with the smaller, sometimes labeled “teaching-focused” universities. If you’re an undergraduate looking to train as a teacher, what kind of university might serve you best? For example, is it better to go to a smaller university known for pastoral care, small class sizes and lecturers who know your name – or would you prefer a large urban university with excellence in research, substantial resources and a well-recognised degree? In undergraduate teacher training programs, the following comparison suggests that the smaller players have something to offer over larger ones.   
 
 

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While it might be easy to see that the smaller universities shown here appear to be rated more highly in terms of overall experience, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they represent a better choice. Ideally, the modern academy needs high quality research to inform practice, so when the nexus between these two areas is strong, it’s fair to say that research can play an important role in enhancing the quality of teaching. That said, as many of us know, not all university teachers are trained in teaching – so the range of pedagogical strategies they employ is sometimes very limited (do direct instruction, lecturing and the odd discussion come to mind?). Looking at student support provides some further indications, but even here we can see that the smaller universities are reportedly doing a better job. 
 
 
While it sounds easy enough to say that we should therefore choose a university that’s strong on teaching, the jobs marketplace is highly competitive, even in the area of education where many point to an oversupply of graduates. In this context, academy reputation – often predicated on research – is arguably an important component in landing the right job. Still, in my area, the metrics on full-time employment in teaching suggests that the small players have a lot to offer. 
 

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When we compare small with large, it seems that smaller teaching focused universities are performing well in terms of teacher quality, student support and employment. If you’re training to be a teacher, perhaps the data would suggest that it’s better to pick a smaller university?
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Of course, it’s universities – both large and small – that are now competing for students. Larger universities need to be prepared to learn lessons from data such as these. The core business of education is relationship building. Having studied and worked in a range of education settings, I would argue that smaller class sizes, pastoral care, student support and good pedagogy are all highly valued by students. Perhaps the story that these data really tell is that larger universities – with their resources and research traditions – can learn from smaller ones and use evidence-based practice to build the nexus between research excellence and quality teaching and learning. We should be using websites like these to spark the conversation. 
 
Word to the wise – always check the size of the sample when looking at responses. The rule of thumb: the larger the sample, the more accurate the data. Mousing over each bar shows you the size, e.g. 
 
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Yep – I did that

Phd

Today I put the finishing touches on my final PhD thesis manuscript. Copying the 1.3 MB file onto a flash drive, I drove ten minutes down the road to Officeworks, ordered the print job and killed some time wandering through the aisles, picking out random pieces of stationery that I didn’t need or want.

When the job was complete, I looked at the printed-and-bound “tree edition” of the last three years’ work sitting idly on the counter. My first thought was, “wow – it’s rather thick.” My second thought was, “wow – did I do that?” 

I suppose that it’s a feature of our digital lives that stuff we do often easily slots invisibly into the ether. I’m constantly writing reports, manuscripts, emails and all manner of things. Possibly due to over-typing, the dull pain that I had in the base of my left wrist ten years ago returned just the other day. With an academic career ahead of me, I’m spending less time in the classroom and more time in the office. I’ve also been quite the perfectionist throughout my PhD candidature, and it’s made me hold onto ideas more and share them less. I’ve been pushing the envelope and not taking much time to smell roses, let alone share my experience of the garden with those around me. 

I’m hoping now it’s out of the way, I’ll get back a piece of my old self. In finding those past pieces of ourselves, I think it’s important we regularly take stock of what we do. Just forging on, working harder and finding the next “big thing” means we often lose sight of those important reference points that define who we are and reflect some of our contributions to the world. 

So when I saw the printed copy of my thesis, the physicality  what I’ve been doing these past three year hit me. It’s nice to just take a few breaths, say, “yep – I did that,” and take stock of it.   

 

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Collaboration and the Myth of “Independent” Success

This week marks a major achievement in my life and the realisation of a career goal that I’ve held for the past five years. I’m now a fully-fledged Education Lecturer in a large university. I’m responsible for engaging in, and producing, quality research as well as mentoring the next generation of secondary teachers. At 36, it feels like I’ve come a long way in a relatively short amount of time (I’ve been teaching since 2001), but my experience and expertise have been instrumental in my success.
 
Anyone familiar with the culture of higher education knows that individual success is extremely important for career building. You need to generate results that show you’re an asset to the university: strong teacher appraisals, funding grants, research publications, industry partnerships and more. A colleague of mine sometimes jokingly reminds me that Education academics are expected to “walk on water,” and I think she has a point. In producing the results, reputation plays a really important role; the more people know about you, the more opportunities become available – and, to some degree, the easier it gets. One only needs to think of the great “celebrity” educators whose reputations effortlessly command audiences in the thousands and whose sound bites are quoted far and wide. To many in higher ed, reputation has a palpable dollar value and none of us can ignore the importance of building a career through individual effort and merit. Like any junior academic, I hope to publish more, continue to receive strong appraisals from my students, explore new sources of funding and receive further recognition for the work I do. 
 
The truth is, though, that success is never solely individual. Any successful outcome is predicated on our interactions with other people – the work we do with them, the feedback and support we receive, the value they add to our ideas and their validation of us as professionals and human beings. Perhaps this is never more true than in teaching, where our colleagues and students continually let us know just how much we’re valued and provide us with the challenges, space and opportunities to grow professionally and emotionally.
 
For my current job, one of the criteria was “recent experience teaching in schools and/or working collaboratively with school teachers.” I suppose I didn’t give this much thought until I found myself, at interview, being asked to talk in quite some detail about how I collaborate with others professionally. I’ve been collaborating professionally in one way or another for most of my working life, so I don’t find these questions particularly challenging. I could point to numerous instances. In schools, I’ve co-developed and co-led major initiatives to bring about whole-school change, particularly in the areas of pedagogy and technology. I’ve embraced open plan learning environments where I’ve co-taught, co-reflected and co-improved (if you can allow these “co-“ words!). I’ve worked with industry partners and academics where I’ve co-researched and co-written articles and reports. I’ve co-developed and co-facilitated professional learning programs for teachers from a range of schools throughout the state.
 
Reflecting on the interview, I had no issue pointing to my success as a collaborator. I’m not especially prone to big-noting, either, so I was a little surprised at being able to sell my achievements so well – that is, until I realised I was really talking about success in the plural – ours not mine.
 
Over my relatively limited experience of the last fifteen years in education, I could say that I’ve produced some excellent HSC results or that I’ve been responsible for kids developing a life-long passion for music, literature, technology or whatever. I could say that I’ve successfully implemented programs at a whole-school level. I could say I’ve written that article that got published or led that research project. But focusing on the “I” is missing the point – and the truth that there’s no way whatsoever that I could be who I am professionally without the people that have worked alongside me. More specifically, there’s no way I could be successful without them being successful.
 
My kids – most of whom are now young adults – are the ones that have done the hard work. They’ve produced the results – the high HSC mark might have at some point been “ours” in one sense, but it’s “theirs” in every other sense.   Whole school change doesn’t happen with one person (if it does, there’s something really wrong). As many colleagues with whom I’ve worked know, I bring a lot of half-baked ideas to the table. They’re full of holes and would never work by themselves. But others bring their ideas too, and we work together to make something that’s much stronger than any one person could do. My supervisors and co-authors are the ones who know the field and the right people; without them, I’d probably be scrabbling to get my name out anywhere.
 
The real reason why I’m now where I am – in one of the most privileged jobs in the world, doing what I love – is that I invested time and effort into others’ success, thereby building my own. That’s what collaboration has given me and I think I’ve managed to expose the myth that success can ever really be independent. I hope I have the good sense to walk this path in future. 
 
  
 
 
 
 
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Professional Leaning in a Digital Age

Mikey G Ottawa

“You Find Yourself Yet?” by Mikey G Ottawa (Flickr)

What does teacher professional learning look like in a digital age? What kind of impact on student learning outcomes and the school community does a highly connected, digitally literate teacher have? How can educators work more effectively with one another using available tools? I’m incredibly lucky to be an Education student at a time when pertinent questions like these are still waiting to be fully investigated. Now in the second year, my doctoral research has led me to explore the professional learning of teachers, principals, preservice teachers and school leaders. While I’ll never be an expert in this area, it’s exciting to see what’s now possible and to know there are so many awesome teachers out there.

We’re witnessing a shift taking place – from the now antiquated professional “development” forms of lectures, one-day training courses and PD days to more highly personalised, relevant professional learning that’s tailored to the needs of the individual teacher. I’m optimistic that more and more teachers can become effective learners in the digital age and empower themselves and their students in the process. I’ve often felt that school leaders (and principals especially) need to be on board. My recent work experience has also led me to believe that we should do everything we can to support preservice teachers to learn far beyond the life of their degrees. 

I’ve been especially lucky to work with Cathie Howe, Professional Learning & Leadership Advisor at Macquarie ICT Innovations Centre (MacICT). Cathie is a passionate educator who supports teachers in schools across Greater Sydney and New South Wales. Professional Learning in a Digital Age (PLDA) is a course that we’ve developed at MacICT to reflect the new, connected ways in which teachers can learn. The course provides first-time support through training sessions in a range of current tools for content aggregation and people-to-people connections, including Feedly, Google Plus Communities, Twitter and Creative Commons. These sessions are run in both face-to-face and online modes. Following the training, participants engage a four-week Mini-Online Course (MOC), with weekly activities where they use digital tools to practice the Four Cs of communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity.

Being able to teach in an area so close to my doctoral research is incredibly rewarding. As always, I have a lot to learn – so do we all. Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding our community, building connections and discovering our voices. It’s a pleasure to support our thirty-nine teachers on this journey.   

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Does Money Buy a Better Education?

I just listened to the most recent episode of EdPod, ABC Radio National’s monthly roundup of education issues. In the current episode, interviewer Natasha Mitchell and corporate lawyer David Gillespie discuss the question: “does money buy a better quality education?” Gillespie, father of six, decides to select public education for his six children, having worked out that it would cost him over a million dollars to send all six children to private schools. 

I found Gillespie’s argument and research fascinating. The program touches on a range of vexed issues in current education policy, and it was refreshing to hear an argument that is, at least, focused more on research than ideology. The emphasis on “macro” or metadata is very much in line with the work of John Hattie and others, who attempt to look at literally thousands of studies (culminating in sample sizes of millions) to establish statistical significance or otherwise. As always, I think there is a danger in relying on quantitative data too much; we run the risk of missing important, context-relevant insights. I’d also argue that when parents select schools for their kids, the context of the individual school is very important. This isn’t always reflected in the metadata. 
 
To illustrate his argument, Gillespie uses the analogy of a flight to London. When flying, passengers have the choice of economy (government schools), business (Catholic schools) or first-class (wealthy, independent schools). Regardless of the passengers’ choices, all are on the same flight; all arrive safely at their destination at the same time. To illustrate the point further, Gillespie points out that most money spent in education is on teachers – but this is fairly even across the three systems in Australia, so when parents pay for a private education, they are essentially paying for the “extras” – the swimming pools, flashy computers, or, to use the analogy, the “leather seats” of the first class flight. 
 
I think this analogy of the economy, business and first classes “all making it to London” is interesting. At the same time, I found this analogy highly flawed. While everyone might get to London, one person could arrive to find himself starving on the streets, while another checks into the Hilton. Have they both really “got there?” While academic outcomes can be useful to demonstrate a student’s success in school, I think there may be better measurements of success that factor in the post-school competencies and opportunities for every young adult.
 
Of course, the elephant in the room is socio-economics. Gillespie suggests that the private school rates of success are not down to SES or necessarily the quality of the teachers; rather, they exist because high calibre students are “herded” into these environments. Sure, many now argue that the teacher is more important than the school’s SES, but NSW government schools still do their own “herding,” whether in relation to catchment areas or the same kind of talent herding (and brain drain for surrounding schools) in the state selective school environments. As a parent, I may have little choice about the state school to which I send my child (more so if I’m struggling financially or live in a postcode marked by systemic disadvantage). Surely, there are different levels of choice operating here – if a corporate lawyer’s choice to send his children to the local state school is in a different postcode to mine? 
 
Another point to bear in mind is that most teachers in NSW government schools have been “posted” to the school, not hired directly. As such, principals in these schools have often had very little choice about the teachers appointed. By contrast, many Catholic and independent schools closely vet their teachers and attempt to hire teachers that are academically and socially suited to the school. In saying this, I really do support state schools and recognise the importance of transfer points and posting as a means to staff difficult schools. However, a degree of school autonomy that ensures better and more suitable teachers throughout the school is equally worth considering, and the way forward is probably more “both/and” than “either/or.”
 
If you’re a parent or teacher, you may find this segment of the program really worth the ten or so minutes of listening. 
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