The power of a team

This week I had dinner with teachers I worked with on Stage 3 five years ago at my previous school. When I say ‘worked with’ that’s a gigantic understatement. We were a team, ever so slightly unexpectedly, but nonetheless a team. We weren’t a natural fit, I’d just got back from London after 7 years of Ofsted and inspections and school league tables, and was fairly militant about lesson plans and outcomes and data, one teacher was a new graduate, one teacher had been teaching since before I was born and the other had come to teaching as a second career and was in her second year of teaching. Yet, somehow we were a great team. We didn’t always agree but we were honest, we asked questions of each other, we shared our ideas and resources openly and willingly, we bounced ideas off each other and we took the time to get to know each other, to build relationships. Even though we haven’t worked together in a while, at dinner I was reminded how much this team meant to me and how much we had accomplished. Practices that we established have become part of the school culture even though only one of us has remained on that stage. Approaches to teaching that we introduced to the school are embedded and these teachers confidently lead professional learning to induct new staff into different strategies. Our conversation over dinner showed how proud they were of our achievements and how invested in these practices they’ve become.

As I reflect on the teams in which I’ve worked I can see a number of common elements. Each team has been comprised of a diverse group of educators with varying levels of experience and a range of different passions. Some teams have taken longer to become cohesive or to build trust, some teams have had their ups and downs but each and every team has demonstrated to me the power of collaboration. Through these teams we’ve introduced Project Based Learning, developed protocols and systems for assessment and tracking student progress, implemented iPads across a school and so much more. Through these teams we’ve built sustainable change into schools, engaged students in powerful learning activities and had a positive impact on student learning outcomes (and for those data hungry folk out there, yes I’ve got the stats to back that up). None of these things would have been possible if it was just me, working away in isolation in my classroom. Perhaps my students would have benefitted but their experience would have been poorer as they would only have had my ideas to work with, not the rich ideas that are developed by a team working toward a common purpose.

This year my team has grown, I’m welcoming three teachers new to my school onto my team and I am excited. I’m excited to get to know them, to learn from them, to see what we can do to improve learning, to engage our students and to become even better practitioners. As I start to think about this new team I look back at all the things I’ve learnt about building teams, about providing support, about welcoming teachers, about giving feedback, about asking for feedback and remind myself of the power of a team. It’s not always (or often) easy to build a strong team, but the benefits are absolutely worth the time. I’m also handing over some of the leadership responsibility to a stage leader and I’m looking forward to supporting her as she steps up and I’m looking forward to building a different sort of a team with her as we collaborate to lead.

I’m also excited to be extending my team beyond my school. I’m fortunate enough to be working as part of the Learning Frontiers project, led by AITSL, at my school and this has enabled me to connect with educators in schools around Sydney and Australia. In 2015 I look forward to building relationships, exploring different approaches to teaching and learning, engaging in professional dialogue and developing shared practices that impact positively on student learning. The potential impact of this team is incredible as we seek to find practices that work across a range of settings and student groups.

I cannot imagine working in a school, or a system or a culture where I went to work each day, closed my classroom door and that was it. I realise just how fortunate I am, I recognise the effort that goes into building teams and I know it’s worth it. I know that this belief in the power of a team influences my practice as I find opportunities for students to develop teams, to build relationships and collaborate (for more on this stay tuned for part 2 of this post).

Have you got any teams you look back on with pride, any strategies for building teams? How are you feeling about your team for 2015? I’d love to hear from my twitter team.

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Leaders of learning

Leaders of learning

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to coordinate LeadMeet Sydney. This event grew out of the TeachMeet family and was based on the principles of being open, free and led by educators. We were incredibly fortunate to be able to hold the event in NSW State Parliament courtesy of the Minister for Education and his great team. It was wonderful to have the Minister come by, talk to people and stay to see what this sort of forum is all about. (The fabulous @Mrs7James also got him signed up to twitter, you can follow him @PiccoliMP.)

As this event was themed around leadership I wanted to provide opportunities for longer discussions and to engage with particular topics in more depth. For this reason there were 3 sets of 25 minute workshops with 3 workshops in each session from which to choose. One of the (many) things I love about the TeachMeet model is how much the education community pitches in and generously shares with each other. For me this is really inspiring, I feel that for too long professional learning was something that was done to us by experts and didn’t recognise and value the expertise of classroom practitioners and those in school based leadership positions. It was wonderful (and something of a relief) when so many fantastic educators stepped up and volunteered to lead workshop discussions. I owe a huge thanks to @danhaesler, @mansournatalie, @cpaterso, @sqeasley, @ldeibe, @staceyquince, @tloughland, @jeneng and @johnqgoh. For more information on the workshops you can find the google document here.

Each of the workshops allowed time for discussion, sharing, asking questions and collaborating. What I loved about this part of each LeadMeet workshop was this buzz; the conversations, the honesty, the connections and, the learning. For me, this is what a classroom is like: collaborative, unpredictable at times and responsive to the experience that those in the room bring with them. This is when the learning happens. It was wonderful to get the chance to talk with educators I’d never met before, to hear about their experience, to share my own and to recognise, regardless of sector, age group taught or setting, how much we have in common. Huge props to the workshop leaders for allowing space for this freedom to share and building on these discussions. Because, let’s be honest, it’s easier to stand in front of a prepared presentation and deliver it to an audience without reference to who makes up that audience.

What it makes me wonder is: how do we, as educators model the sort of learning that we are increasingly recognising as benefiting our students? How much have we moved away from professional learning via expert presenter and towards a collaborative model where ideas and feedback flow between all members of a school community. How much are we stepping outside our comfort zone, pushing beyond the slides and projector and getting our hands dirty, offering our ideas even when (especially when) we’re not sure if we’re right and recognising ourselves as experts in our field? My dream professional learning would be one where a series of questions are asked or statements suggested and educators collaborate to discuss, explore and refine their ideas. This is the learning I expect my students to engage in, seems only fair that I’m prepared to do the same. Let’s not seek to be comfortable in our seats watching and listening, let’s grab the reins, be confident in ourselves as leaders of learning and lead.

For me, part of this stepping out was taking the chance on running the LeadMeet. What right did I have to try and organise a leadership forum, what if no one turned up, what if no one volunteered to present, what if it (or I) fell apart? Turns out all the risks are far outweighed by the opportunities. Opportunities to try something new, to collaborate with a different group of educators and to learn. I heartily recommend that educators have a go at running a TeachMeet, lead learning on a topic that matters to you, model the level of engagement and ownership of learning that you expect from your students. It’s absolutely worth it!

You can catch up on the #leadmeetsyd tweets in this storify compiled by @johnqgoh and by looking at the # on twitter.

If you’re interested in running a TeachMeet there’s great tips here or by looking up TeachMeets running in your city or state.

Now it’s your turn, are you leading your own learning? Where to next?

Thank you to @7MrsJames for the pictures!

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‘My School’ isn’t really about my school

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at a local preschool information night. I had been invited to talk about school readiness from a school perspective, to try and allay some of the concerns parents have in terms of what their children need to know before starting school (nothing, in case you’re wondering) and to show that early years centres and schools work together for the best interests of their students. I was excited about this, supporting parents in ensuring their child makes a smooth and positive transition to school is something I’m passionate about. I love visiting other settings and seeing the great things other educators are doing and it’s exciting to start building meaningful relationships with our local centres.

The first part of the evening went well, there were jokes about shoes and lunch boxes, wry smiles when talking about who is more anxious starting school; the parent or the child, and a generally relaxed atmosphere. I had made a conscious effort not to talk explicitly about what happens at my school, this wasn’t a promotional activity, but had talked generally about what schools do to support transition. Sadly, the very first question at the end of the session changed the tone markedly. It was “Why are your NAPLAN scores so much lower than everyone else’s?”.

Talk about getting straight to the point. Except it’s not the point, not by a long shot. After taking a very deep breath, I proceeded to explain the contextual issues: ICSEA value, statistically invalid sample size due to small cohort etc and attempted to explain that this information probably doesn’t provide parents with much useful data on which to make a judgement about their child’s school. I was then met with: “But I’m a numbers person, numbers make sense to me.” At which point I wanted to curl up on the floor and weep. Weep for the system that sees parents of 3 year olds sitting on websites comparing schools based on a test that two classes in a school sat, on one day out of almost 200 in the school year, looking at numbers but unable to place them in context because the way in which those numbers are presented makes it seem cut and dried and weep because at no point did anyone ask a question about the emotional and social wellbeing of students.

Until this happened I’d been fairly ambivalent about My School. As part of my Masters I’d studied the development of it, I’d used the information on it when applying for jobs and I use it when preparing reports at work. What I hadn’t realised is that I approach this data with a fair amount of caution, I look at all the contextual information, I look for patterns not isolated scores. What is now apparent to me is that this is not what happens when non-educators look at this website. They see raw scores with angry red backgrounds to highlight just how very poorly a school is doing. They compare local schools not realising that even within a relatively small geographic area there can be vast differences in the demographic of school communities. They look at the angry red backgrounds and judge. They judge the students, the teachers and the community.

This saddens me. It saddens me because it means that the government and media and parents themselves have conditioned themselves to the point where a school is seen solely in terms of a number. For me education isn’t about numbers, it’s so much more than that. What about developing resilient and independent learners who respond flexibly to the changing world around them? What about tolerance and awareness of social issues and differences, developing citizens who are respectful, engaged and active members of their community? What about happiness and joy of learning? I’m proud to teach at a school that serves an incredibly diverse community. I’m proud every time I watch students interact with their peers who have specific needs or challenges. I’m proud when I see students excited about learning, making connections, solving problems and engaging in community action. I’m proud of my school’s NAPLAN results because I know the hard work and commitment they represent to an education that’s about more than a test on a single day, but an education that’s life long and empowering. What a shame that ‘My School’ isn’t really about my school at all.

Empowering learners (that includes you, teachers)

First week of school is always a roller coaster of anticipation, planning, adapting, winging it. There a things about it I love: like meeting my new class, getting to know them, seeing the potential for the year; and bits that are harder to fully appreciate: last minute changes to classes, timetables, rosters; realising after 10 minutes that I’ve pitched a lesson at completely the wrong level and the constant thinking, planning, worrying. On the whole though, for me the good far outweighs the challenging. Fresh starts, shiny shoes and that buzz of excitement that fills the first week win every time.

This year one of the things that’s made the first week particularly exciting is that I’m trying out a more flexible learning space. I spent a lot of time over the summer reading, talking to people and thinking about how a space impacts on learning. This is one of my favourite parts of being an educator, the potential for change and improvement. I believe that teaching is at it’s core fundamentally innovative, every day, every lesson we are in a position to innovate, to respond to students flexibly, to adapt, to experiment. I just love it.

I’ve started small with changing the learning space, I wanted my students to have something familiar to begin with so they felt comfortable and could interact with the environment as they felt ready. It has been so inspiring to see how they chose to use the different spaces and furniture and the care they took with these decisions. This week I only had half my class, the Year Ones, as the Kindergartens start on Monday. This has made it easier for them to explore different options. The thing that stuck out for me was how much they thought about where and how they would work and how well they worked in these spaces. When they chose their space they all, without exception, focused on their task fully in a way that I hadn’t expected. It was also interesting to see who consistently chose to work alone, in spaces very much apart from other students, something that I had deliberately allowed space for after reading Susan Cain’s book, ‘Quiet’.

On Friday afternoon I asked them what they thought about the classroom and if we should change anything. They had amazing, practical ideas. We need to move the bean bag because it’s in the way at the moment, we should use the cushions better and the coffee tables should be together, for a start. They are so excited to take responsibility for this environment, one student has allocated himself ‘cushion organiser’ and will set up the cushions every morning. They pack away the furniture at the end of each day without being asked and they are the most settled I have ever seen a class by the end of week one. Why? I believe it’s because they feel empowered, they’ve been given the opportunity to make choices about their learning and they have risen to this challenge. I can’t wait to see what impact this has on their learning and their social and emotional development over the year.

As to me, I also have been empowered, I was able to choose the furniture for my classroom, I haven’t had to work with a set of standardised desks and chairs. I was empowered to research, to explore and to present my rationale for these changes. I was empowered to reflect on my practice and to seek to change it in order to improve the outcomes for my students. This is what excites me, this is what makes me love my job. As empowered learners there is no end to what my students and I can achieve.

How was your first week? What are you trying this year? How are you empowering your students and yourself?

This is how my classroom looked this week, it will look different on Monday and I can’t imagine what it will look like by the end of the year. Exciting times.

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Professional Learning for the people or by the people?

A new school year is about to start here in Australia and I am, as ever, filled with excitement and a fair measure of trepidation. Excitement about the potential a new year holds, the learning, the relationships, the challenges and all of the things that are bound up in the complexity of education. Trepidation about how I’m going to do all the things I want to do while maintaining some semblance of a life outside of work and ideally without developing an eye twitch due to a combination of stress and exhaustion. Yes, I know teachers have loads of holidays and only work from 9-3, clearly I’m a wuss…

One of the things I am particularly excited about this year is professional learning, my own and the broader learning of staff in my school. In 2014 the sands have shifted considerably in a number of ways and for a number of reasons. Traditionally (and by traditionally I mean up until last year, and probably still this year) professional learning in many schools consisted of sending staff on a course at which they listened to an expert, generally someone who had been out of the classroom for a number of years, returning to school, trying to implement some of the things they’d been told and then returning to normal practice after about a week. This model of professional learning never really worked for me, or many others. It’s too removed, too isolated, too infrequent and generally disconnected from what is my daily teaching experience. It was, therefore, with a fair amount of glee that I heard that this model was being changed, or completely dismantled. While I do have concerns about the limited amount of time that schools, school leaders and teachers have had to prepare for such a significant shift in professional learning, I believe that this means a new opportunity for professional learning that is connected, meaningful and relevant.

What does concern me about the future is the rise of the mega conference and external consultants. In recent years I’ve seen the growth of conferences, both in Australia and overseas, that are headlined by the current eduguru and come at a considerable cost to schools and individual teachers. I am not going to provide the conferences with any free publicity by linking to them here but a quick search will provide you with a number of examples. One of the things that worries me is how these conferences add to the disadvantage and division in the Australian school system. School funding is a complex thing in Australia and not something I really want to get into here. However, the reality is that most (if not all) public schools would really struggle to send any members of staff to a conference that costs, for example, almost $700. When you add the costs of casual teachers on to this you are talking an expense of at least $1300 for one teacher to be out of school for two days to listen to experts share ideas that generally require some sort of significant shift to school culture or practice, something else that costs money. And really, if you’ve sent one person to a conference how much impact can that person actually have? So, who goes to these conferences? I have my own ideas about this, and don’t want to be unnecessarily divisive here so I encourage you to ask yourself that question. Do you go to the conferences? If you do, who else is there, is there equal representation from all systems and types of schools? If not, what’s the potential impact of this, if any?

I know that all teachers can read blogs, buy books, join twitter, talk to each other and learn that way. Absolutely true. Why then the conferences? Sometimes it is worthwhile and important to listen to the person with ideas, to meet others who are trying or have tried new techniques and strategies, sometimes it’s about the prestige, sometimes.

For me conferences are not a realistic form of professional learning, and to be honest they aren’t the way I learn best. For me, professional learning needs to happen in context, to be responsive, to be undertaken with colleagues so we can reflect and evaluate; and needs to be long term. I’m incredibly lucky to work in a school where we collaborate to develop our own professional learning, where we get to spend time in each other’s classes, where we engage in professional conversations and where teachers are able (and encouraged) to lead learning. I have seen the benefit of this in so many ways, in the ways in which teachers see themselves as professionals, in the pride teachers take in the changes they instigate and the effect these have on their students and in the way a staff team builds a learning culture. For me conferences do not have the same impact, in fact at times they reduce the confidence and self-esteem of teachers by setting up unrealistic ideals that do not and can not relate to most teachers’ experience and setting.

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Teachers collaborating, making meaning, discussing, questioning and learning. Professional learning in action.

There are so many exciting possibilities for educators, too many for me to properly go into here. Learning through teachmeets, action research, twitter accounts (insert plug for @EduTweetOz), informal and formal learning networks are all ways in which teachers can own their learning and make meaningful changes in their own practice. Yes, the conference brochures are pretty, and yes the speakers are knowledgeable, and yes it’s reasonable to not want to ‘miss out’ on the next big thing. However, I really do hope that educators and school leaders are asking themselves some questions before they fork over the thousands of dollars necessary to attend them. Questions like: ‘What actual difference will this make to my practice and my school?’; ‘Can I can learn about this in a way that might be more meaningful or powerful?’; and ‘Is this the best use of this money for my school and my community?’.

The potential for this new era of professional learning is truly exciting, I just hope we don’t get carried away in worshipping a few trends or gurus and see the knowledge that’s already there in our schools, our networks and in ourselves. Teachers are better placed than any other professionals to truly lead and share their own learning, let’s make the most of that advantage and spend our pennies wisely.

I’d love to hear about what you are doing for professional learning in 2014. How can we support each other in this journey?

Where’s the evidence?

This week I have found myself in situations faced with dramatically different visions for the future of education. One was a vision of increased engagement, developing a system and practices that engaged learners, that was responsive, that identified the challenges inherent in education today and suggested ways of meeting those challenges to ensure Australian learners were prepared for whatever the future might look like. The other presented a vision for education that looks to the past, frowns upon innovation and cuts funding at a time when surely education is of utmost importance.

There has been a lot (really quite a ridiculous amount) of talk by politicians, by ‘research’ organisations and by some sectors of the media about phonics. Not just about phonics but that teachers aren’t teaching phonics and if only everyone taught phonics then the world would be a better place. Our esteemed Federal Education Minister said this “We are very determined and I am personally very determined to drive an agenda in literacy that focuses on phonics. It’s far too important to turn a blind eye to what is failing our students in Australia and I am not prepared to do it.” on the weekend in an article you can read here. His reasons for demanding a ‘return’ to phonics is because he believes that: “While it might have been pursued with all the goodwill in the world, there’s no doubt that literacy standards for Australian students have declined measurably,”

I have a few difficulties with these statements. Well, I have a few that I have space to explore here, to go into all of them would take far too long. Firstly, where is the evidence that Australian literacy standards have “declined measurably”? To believe this statement we need to ask a few questions; against what measure have standards declined, is the decline a decline within Australia, that is; are students today reading at lower levels than they were 10 years ago or is this a decline against other countries? If the latter then we could argue that this is not a decline in standards but in ranking and could be attributed to any number of external factors. A decline in standards is a serious thing, my question is: where is the evidence? The problem with this sort of statement is that it appears as fact, it implies evidence, and therefore evidence is very rarely explicitly asked for. What are the standards Mr Pyne is using and how big is the decline? Is there an actual, measurable decline in standards? Where is the evidence?

My second concern is this perception that teachers don’t teach phonics. I don’t know who started this nasty rumour but again, I’d like to ask the question, where is the evidence? I’ve done a little of my own asking around and I am yet to find a teacher who does not teach phonics and recognise the importance of such skills and knowledge. Here is a link to the Australian Curriculum for English. A quick glance through it should show Mr Pyne that phonics is indeed part of our curriculum content. Who is it that isn’t teaching phonics and who is it that keeps telling everyone it’s not being taught? Where’s the evidence? I’m tempted to do a quick twitter poll to find out if schools are teaching phonics. If you’re interested in joining in use the hashtag #phonicstruths and tweet what your school teaches. I am fairly certain that we would be hard pushed to find a school that is not teaching phonics or a teacher who cannot explain how and why they teach it.

Enough with the mudslinging and the half(un)-truths. Enough with the accusations and the belittling of educators. Enough, Mr Pyne, enough. Where’s your evidence?

I’m going to keep hold of the positive vision of an education that inspires, engages and equips learners. The vision that I see shared by those educators on twitter and in our schools going above and beyond the hours, the expectations and the already high demands placed upon them. A vision that sees education as a community responsibility, that seeks to unite not divide. I’m going to keep asking ‘Where’s the evidence?’ every time someone accuses teachers of doing anything other than the very best for our students. I encourage you to do the same.

Visual literacy isn’t an excuse for lazy teaching.

Yesterday an opinion piece written by a teacher was published in a national newspaper. You can find the link to the article here. The basic premise of the article was that new Australian Curriculum places too much evidence on the study of visual literacy and went on to say that this just gave an excuse for ‘lazy teachers’ to “…sit at the back of the classroom, send emails, answer texts, pay their bills or surf the Internet; sleep even.” The author gave many examples of what this might look like and how it might happen. Unfortunately for the reader, and the teaching profession, none of these examples were based on evidence.

I’ve just written a paper for a university course, no one will read this apart from the marker, yet I was bound to provide evidence to support my views and analysis, I had to support this evidence by referring to existing research and documents. Why then, in an article that is published online and in print, available to anyone and everyone to read is there no such standard imposed? Oh that’s right, it’s because it’s his ‘opinion’. I wonder though how many people will identify that this is merely the opinion of one person and how many will unconsciously afford it the status of fact merely based on its publication in a national paper. This is what worries me; how opinions, no matter how unfounded, become facts. How many people had conversations yesterday about those lazy teachers sitting students in front of movies so they could catch up on their emails?

Just in case that is what happened, let me provide some counter evidence to the views expressed in the article. The Australian Curriculum is available for everyone to access online. You can find the English curriculum here in all its detail. A quick scroll through should assuage the authors concerns about the ‘skewing’ of the curriculum in favour of visual literacy at the expense of ‘language-based literacy skills’. Out of 33 content descriptions, references to screen, film, image or visual understandings are found in only 3 in the Foundation content (the first year of school). At the other end of the spectrum, the Yr 10 content, out of 31 content descriptions 7 refer to media or visual elements. Hopefully this goes some way to reassuring the author.

If he still feels concerned about even these references to media and visual knowledge let me pose this question: what sort of texts are our students exposed to most? What sort of texts are they required to make meaning from, interpret and analyse. What texts must they deconstruct critically if they are to stand a chance of engaging actively in society, of making responsible decisions or of reading without being influenced by the maker’s choice of images, colour, words, size, music. Books? Shockingly, no. Our students need to be able to interpret the myriad of messages presented to them in advertisements, television shows, movies, magazines and online. They need to read visually, they need to understand the power of a choice of image, of position, of camera angle, of colour, of actors and all the other aspects that are used to sway opinion, to create emotions and convey messages. Even if the author thinks there’s an emphasis on visual knowledge in the English curriculum, why doesn’t he see that as a strength, as a response to a changing textual landscape that students today need to navigate? And if he’s not teaching this to his students then he’s the one doing his students a disservice.

Finally, the aspect of the article that saddened me the most was the author’s willingness to throw his colleagues under the mainstream media bus. I wonder how many classrooms he’s been into where he’s seen a teacher sitting at the back of the room checking emails or asleep while students watch a movie. I can honestly say I’ve never seen that happen. Where teachers are showing students a film they are actively engaged in the analysis of this as a text, students are asking questions, interrogating choices and developing an understanding of the elements used to create an effective text. This is empowering learning, learning that provides students with skills relevant to their lived experience, learning that enables students to engage actively in the world around them as critical and discerning citizens. Perhaps some teachers in Melbourne might like to invite the author to their school to show him what visual literacy is all about. He’s welcome to visit my Year 1/2 class any time to hear them analyse all manner of texts. Or perhaps he just needs a hug and some reassurance that really it will all be okay, that teachers are working hard for the best of their students and the Australian curriculum is not the latest in evil government strategies to dumb down the population. Perhaps he needs to spend some time on twitter to see all the amazing things educators are doing. Let’s send a little educator love his way.