What’s so Professional about Relationships?

 
It’s interesting, when you let go of the usual teacher/student hierarchy, as +Joe Mazza has with the idea of the ‘lead learner‘, all else seems to slowly crumble around it. Take for example the notion of ‘professional relationships’. I am not so sure which of the two words has had the biggest change. The profession to which everything has become seemingly so serious and accountable or the concept of relationships, which in the past were always so haphazard. Let me firstly look at the profession.
 

What’s in the Name?

Often people say that you don’t always choose your family, I think that the same thing can also be said about colleagues and clients (that is what students are, right?) This may have been different in the past where a student could have been ‘expelled’, where they would be shunted off to the next school and then the next school until they eventually flunked out of school. The profession of teaching has changed, subsequently highlighting the how unprofessional such actions are.

These days, students (and parents) have more rights as to where they go, often more power than the schools themselves, with their entrance often more likely to be dictated by location rather than anything else. (I would deem this a question of ethics rather than a question of professionalism.) Some complain that with the introduction of various institutes and the registration of teachers that the profession has become too legal minded. (Often these people are rather nostalgic and believe it was better in the past.) However, the one thing that this recognises is that, whether you think of it as one or not, teaching is a profession. Just like lawyers and nurses, teachers are now mandated to obey a clear set of rules and regulations. (I assume that there were always rules and regulations in place, but creating professional bodies makes them clearer and more explicit.)

One of the key changes is the sense of responsibility associated with the duty of care. When I was growing up, it seemed almost a novelty for a student to quip to the teacher that they (well there parents) will ‘sue you’. The reality today though is that this is no longer a throw away line, it does happen. Teachers are responsible for providing a safe and productive environment to learn, that is their ‘duty of care’. This means maintaining an orderly classroom and adjusting to the needs of each students. (I know it is more than that, I just didn’t want to go into it here.) However, the biggest change that this move towards legality emphasizes is the seemingly arbitrary nature of it all.

Sadly, professional can often equal forced. I was talking with a clinical educator at a hospital the other day about approaches to education. She pointed out the seemingly obvious, that the nurses under her watch were required to complete various modules as a part of their competences to practice as a nurse. As she stated, ‘it’s in their contract’. What this points out is the current trend towards professionalism and the challenge that it brings to authenticity. The strength of professionalism is also its weakness, that is, in making everything more rigid there is something that is lost in the process. The idea of learning because you have some intrinsic desire to be better often goes out the door and is suffocated by the endless list of required learning. The question then is, how does this relate to relationships?
 

Relationships, Just Not Like That

I think that in the past if you’d spoken about having a ‘relationship’ with a child everyone would have looked at you strangely, whereas with the inundation of such measures as Restorative Justice, Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty and Ramon Lewis’ Developmental Classroom Management, relationships have become the heart and soul of the classroom. It could almost be argued that in today’s day and age the ability to build rapport with students is just as, if not more important, than having curriculum knowledge. You watch some teachers from a distance and it seems as if they possess some sort of magic the way they manage to extrapolate work where no work had ever been done before. It kind of seems obvious when you consider any filmic representation of a teacher, from Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers to Kenneth Monnitoff from Donnie Darko, but too often these examples were far from the reality in the past. When I think back to my own past, Mr F’s reward of a Mars Bar (was this gamification in its infancy?) for carrying around the roll all week is the closest thing that comes to mind. (Let’s be honest, I am probably being highly subjective and I’m sure their are better examples, apologies to all my great teachers who have helped guide my learning.) 

I think that the challenge today is to firstly find a way to foster a relationship with every student in the classroom and then to incorporate the new found knowledge to add to the special herbs and spices that make Kentucky Fried Learning, that secret mystical experience that occurs like a bleep on a radar and then disappears once again. It begs the question, what does the notion of relationships mean for a home economics or woodwork teacher? Teachers who may see a student only once a week and see hundreds more on top if that. Surely their experience of relationship is going to be different to the mathematics, let alone English, teacher who may see their student every day if they are lucky. I think that this is where taking extra classes and spending time out in the yard can be so powerful. This time is usually devoid of any notion of curriculum and is often solely about rapport. For example, a science teacher may be taking one of their students for a Japanese extra. In this situation all notion of teacher/student dynamics is broken down as the teacher (unless by chance they can speak the language) is just as much a learner as the student.

In addition to building a relationship outside of the classroom, it is also important to work as a team. Often one of the biggest challenges in starting a relationship is having some sort of entry point. While on the contrary, one of the first ways in which relationships fracture or are stunted is when a teacher may not be aware of an issue or some background information, subsequently sabotaging the whole situation. This is where working with a team and as a team can also be so useful.
 

One Moment at a Time

In the end, I think that the biggest thing to say about the notion of ‘professional relationships’ is that it does not occur naturally, that is, it is not chance, rather it takes time and takes effort. Often it may be a chance occurrence here or magical spark there. That is where developing relationship over years can be so powerful. However, one of the biggest difficulties is maintaining it. For as the saying goes, often it only takes one bad deed to undo ten good ones. The biggest challenge today with being ‘professional’ is persisting and persevering no matter what. The question that remains is how are you building relationships with your students and are they professional?

 


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Are SMART Goals Always That Smart?

Strength is in the Weakness

In my view, the strength of any team is not in the leadership group, although having strong leadership is important, rather it is in the supposed lower ranks, those individuals and stakeholders deemed to be at the bottom, and their ability to carry the overall vision for the organisation. To use a sporting analogy, it is often the depth of the reserves rather than the strength of the seniors that a teams metal is truly tested. With enough money, any team can buy enough players to be a good side, but to be a strong and successful side, it is the ability to stand up against injury and adversity which often decides between winning a game and maintaining long term success. This same mentality can be applied to the day to day actions in any educational environment. Often effort and money is put into key areas associated with big data, such as NAPLAN. However, it is those areas found in the margins of the curriculum, areas which neither provide clear measurable data nor any direct benefits, that the strengths and weaknesses can truly be tested. In the past I have written about the problems with reading conferences, another aspect often shunted from the day to day activities is that of goal setting and their role in supporting learning and development.

Not so Smart Goals

I have experienced many reincarnations of student goals during my time, from goals written with no students in sight to students being given five minutes to scribble down a few vague ideas on a piece of paper. What ties all of these experiences together is that they are all about students, but far too often not composed for students. I have lost count of the amount of times that I have had to work through the SMART acronym with students. It surely says something when students need to be reminded again and again what supposedly makes a ‘good’ goal. I find the most poignant attributes of the so-called SMART goals is the ability to be ‘measured’. I completely agree that a goal needs to be measured, that is not my qualm. However, far to often the data that students use to supposedly measure their goals is not their own. Although they can demonstrate some sort of measurable evidence, they have little ownership over it. They merely complete a task and receive their grade as some sort of just reward. For example, many students often speak of improving their grades or getting better marks, when sadly these grades and marks often only tell a minuscule part to the story of learning.

Another interesting aspect to student goals is the frequency which they are completed. In my experience, goals are often set once a semester, usually connected to the mandatory requirement to include them within reports. Little interest is given to following up and managing them. Associated with this, school diaries have seemingly morphed to contain a treasure trove of learning resources, from study tips to style guides. Squashed in there has been the attempt to provide some sort of structure of the whole process beyond the usual biannual occurrence. However, again this attempt to contain goals in a regimented manner is often lost on those to whom it matters most, the students.

In the end, the goals that students set are often lost in the system. Although they may make it into their reports or be filed for safe keeping, most students have little memory of what their goals were beyond the current set. Is it a surprise that student goals have little perceivable impact?

Life Long Teachers

On the flipside, the goals set by teacher are often no better. In the recent AEUVic industrial action, it was argued by the government that the whole incremental review system was flawed and that teachers were simply getting moved up each year whether they had earned it or not. Sadly, bringing in performance pay would only make a flawed system even more fractured. The problem with the current review process is that, like student goals, it is far from an organic process. Most schools (in Victoria) meet with staff twice a year. Once at the end of the first semester to set the Performance and Development plan and then again at the end of the year to review it. In addition to this, work is often done in teams to set goals based on the previous years data. This is all good, but it overlooks a major aspect of goal setting and that is the need to be timely. It must be said that over the last few years that there have been some great diagnostic programs, such as ePotential and the AITSL Self-Assessment Tool, developed to provide staff with feedback whenever they require it. However, these tools depend on one missing element, an intrinsic desire to forever be better.

There is a real push from some within education at the moment to push for more individualised professional development and to form more personalised Professional Learning Networks. (See for example Tom Whitby’s blog on ‘How Do We Connect Educators’ as well as Andrew Williamson’s presentation relating to PLNs.) I think though that one of the things inhibiting teachers from taking more ownership over their own learning and development is actually feeling confident enough to identify weaknesses without fear of retribution. I think that many teachers baulk at the idea of being truly honest out of fear that this may come back to haunt them if they were to apply for any sort of position of leadership. On the flipside,  I think that there is also a fear among administration at times to allow any sort of freedom with staff as this may lead to precious professional development time being squandered. The problem that remains though is that some of the best professional development I have been to have been the sessions that I chose to attend in my own time, because I had an interest and I saw some worth in it for me. It begs the question, what will any goal achieve if it is not also attached to some sense of ownership?

Power is in the Program

One of the biggest frustrations that I have had with setting goals, whether it be personally or while supporting students, has been the fact that too often goals were developed and left at that. For example, student goals were set and the teacher kept a digital copy, while student would gain a print out. However, there was little feedback or progressive notes developed. This hurdle has been somewhat rectified with the recent inundation of collaborative tools that allow multiple people to be responsible for a single document. Whether it be keeping track of goals using Evernote, creating a Google Doc or simply sharing a document with Dropbox, there is no longer a reason why goals are not living and breathing documents. On a bit of a tangent, I am particularly interested in the work on Tony Moncur from Nichols Point Primary School who has started using the Ultranet (GenED 4.0) to manage and share student learning. I think that if there is anything to be said it is that technology allows the process to become more manageable and accountable. However, as I queried in my previous post, does technology really provide a complex solution or does it simply create a complicated answer that misses the real question, who are goals really been written for?

Student Goal Centered Learning

It is often spruiked that students are at the centre of all learning, then why aren’t goals as well? Surely if we are to make any move into the 21st century then we are going to have to learn to support learners in setting goals rather than just continue to write them for them. For how SMART are learning goals if they are not being driven by those individuals who they relate to? This may mean failing, but it also means allowing students to learn from those failures. If students are to truly be at the center then we need to support them in the process of taking ownership. How are you supporting your students with their goals and do they own them?


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The River – a Complicated Metaphor for Education

Image drawn by Bryan Mathers

Image drawn by Bryan Mathers

Reform needs Team

I was in a staff meeting the other day, the start of which focused on auditing the curriculum in regards to a whole school initiative that had been progressively implemented over the last few years. The task was divided into year levels. As staff all sat down together, many looked at each other wondering who had sufficiently incorporated the different modules in their planning. There were a few cases of ‘it doesn’t fit into our learning in …‘ and ‘I just did it informally‘, while others simply had a blank look of ‘what are we talking about here‘. The one thing that did become apparent was the necessity to work as a team, crossing all learning areas, focussing on the student at the centre.

The River of Education

Being in a somewhat unique situation of having both ‘Primary’ and ‘Secondary’ classes in the same school – and having taught in traditional ‘Secondary’ schools in the past – it can sometimes give you an insight into the different ways things work (and sometimes don’t work). For example, in my view, it is often easier to implement a cross-curricular program in a primary environment as there is usually a core group of staff responsible for the majority of the learning. Juxtapose this with the Secondary scenario where students can have anywhere up to 7+ subjects, creating a sense of consistency across the board becomes a more fraught process.
 
To me, this whole difference in structure is analogous to the path of a great river. Initially students feed into the main stream from different points, with different backgrounds, different interests, different experiences. More often than not though they are progressively consumed in the main current that slowly meanders its way to the sea. This has its benefit with all students presumably benefiting from the same learning opportunities. However, something happens in the Secondary situation where the once uniform river starts to spread out into a delta where students are invited to start choosing divergent pathways as they make their way to the sea. The problem that arises in this situation is that sometimes, some things are missed out, overlooked, forgotten about. They start becoming somebody else’s problem. It is in this scenario that having a strong sense of team and support is so important, where everyone works together, picking up what the other might have missed, so that no student is missed.

Complicated or Complex?

I guess this leads me to a greater concern though, where to now? In thinking about this whole scenario, I can’t help but think about Sir Ken Robinson’s many discussions about 21st century learning. It makes me wonder, is this it? Is continually auditing, reviewing and managing curriculum really reforming learning or is the idea of a river not some slight more organic portrayal of the age old mechanistic factory line? I have been reading a lot recently about different models of curriculum reform from around the world. The one thing that seems to jut out is glaring problem that to fix many of the problems involves finding a complex solution. +Peter DeWitt suggested in talking about Common Core’s attempt to solve the poverty issue in the USA: “Poverty is a complex issue and it needs a complex resolution”. Continuing with this, it makes me wonder, are our solutions really that complex or are they just more complicated versions of what we have done in the past?

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Better Schools Needed for Everyone

Too often in education we get caught up worrying about our own situation, our own students, our own children, our own resources. What the Gonski Review set out to do was to fix a system that was failing a certain group of students and failing them badly. If you look at the PISA results you will notice that Australia is above the PISA average in regards to the quality of the education provided. However, you will also notice that there is a significant drop off in regards to equity and access across the board. Australia has a large group of students who for a range of reasons are being disadvantaged when it comes to learning and risks creating a two tiered culture of those who have and those who have not.
 
What has been disappointing in the whole debate is that we often hear about who will supposedly be missing out in ‘real’ terms and so forth, but what is missed is that if a school were to ‘miss’ out, it would be because their need is not as great as that of another school. Sadly, the real people who will miss out are those who are silent in all of these debates, the students, especially those from a disadvantaged background. To help the students our schools need more support, whether this be in the form of coaching or resources. That is what the changes to funding are about, not about increasing wages or other such absurdities. Teachers will always continue teaching and students will continue to learn. If you look at any of John Hattie’s work you will see that, there is always an element of progression. The question though is how much are they progressing and to what extent is the system letting them down?
My greatest fear is that many teachers do not necessarily realise the day to day support that they receive, such as learning coaches, student support programs and smaller class sizes. A lot of this is currently provided through National Partnerships, which finishes this year. The ‘real’ consequences are clear for all to see, larger classes and less support. If we fail to grasp this once in a lifetime opportunity to make a wholesale change to the way things are done then by the time we realise what has happened, it will all be too late.
In the end, what people need to realise is that EVERYONE benefits from a first-class education system. However, at the moment these benefits are being reaped by too few.

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In Search of One Tool to Rule Them All?

 
 

This is a summary of the workshop that I presented at ICTEV13: IT Takes a Village 

Discovery often starts with a problem. My problem was the use of mundane exercise books and worksheets. After exploring different potentials (Microsoft Word, Evernote and the Ultranet), I finally introduced Google Drive.

Some examples of how Drive has been used to transform learning include:
  • access everywhere. With student laptops often re-imaged, work is not only continually backed up, but also accessible from any computer.
  • the opportunity to work collaboratively. Some examples have included adding to a single document for book clubs, sharing student goals to all relevant stakeholders and staff working together on a curriculum document.
  • the ability to provide flexible feedback. Whether it is a teacher commenting on a workbook anytime, students posing questions on a presentation or using Forms to ascertain different points of information.

On the other side of the coin, there are always hurdles faced when introducing a new application. Although students are usually quick to jump into the potential of new technologies, staff often question why they need to change, just look at the Ultranet. In addition to this, some staff feel that other applications offer more potential.

In the end, the question that remains is that if Google is not the tool to rule them all, then what? I’m ok with not using Google, but doing nothing is no longer an option.

Also published in Term 3 ICTEV Newsletter


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