Collegiality Under Threat – AEU News Letter to the Editor

AEU News Vol 21, Issue 4, June 2014

Here is a copy of my letter to the editor printed in the latest edition of the AEU News, responding to the recent changes to the performance and development process …

I am a believer in lifelong learning and development, but I really question whether the recent changes to the performance and development process will achieve this? I worry that it will achieve the opposite if we don’t manage it locally. Instead of a climate of collegiate collaboration, this creates an aura of self-interest where ironically our prime focus is ourselves, rather than our students.

John Hattie suggests that the greatest point of influence on education is teachers and that our goal should be to help improve every teacher. Yet I wonder if a process with the spectre of fear hanging over it is going to achieve this? If we really want the best then schools need to foster an environment that not only challenges teachers, but also welcomes error and provides adequate feedback. In this scenario, teachers are able to passionately engage with their teaching based on the evidence at hand.

The problem is that a focus on pay means that we miss the point. Instead of saying ‘how can I be the best’, the focus is on ‘what do I need to do to achieve my next increment’. Our view then is of today, not tomorrow.

With a new system being implemented we have an opportunity to make this review process work for us.  We need to demand that the implementation be consulted on at our schools and that it support and advance the work we do, rather than let it be something that is done to us.

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Missing the Celebrations and Successes in the Educational Landscape

Tonight was parent/teacher/student interviews. In between one interview and while awaiting the next, a parent of a past student came over and just had to thank me. I had taught her daughter five years ago in Year 8 and she was now in Year 12. The mother said that her daughter had asked her to thank me for challenging her all those years ago and that she was glad about it now.

 
It is not very often that you receive thanks in the teaching caper. Even more so when you work in administration. I believe that this is one of the most challenging aspects of education. Teachers are so often told when they have failed or should do something different. Very rarely do teachers get told what they have done right and if so, such celebrations often deny the complexities associated with such achievements. For example, the teachers of the dux of Year 12 may take some of the credit, but this denies so many other factors and influences, such as support from home and the effort of former teachers in laying the foundation for learning.
 
What makes student’s thanks even stranger is that at the time I was chastised about what I was doing. The class had quite a few successful students who were not really taking to the idea of writing an essay with a prescribed structure. So instead I pushed the students to explore the structure that already existed within quality examples of writing. This was contrary to what the other classes were doing, but having tried everything else, I felt that it was what the students needed.
 
The reality is that this is the truth of celebrations and success. Although there are times in life when we do get to gape in the glory, but more often than not, stories of success go untold. This is not to say that they do not exist, but that life just doesn’t always allow for them to be heard. Sometimes this is because they only come to fruition years later or we become too busy to tell someone.
 
Has someone thanked you lately for something that you that others were critical of? Also, when was the last time you thanked someone for what they had done? 

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When the Assessment of Performance is not Actually about Performance

Made using Quozio

After trying to swing the axe to the performance and development process last year, the Victorian government has returned with a range of changes in a draft format for consultation. This time they have brought a ‘balanced scorecard’ to the table. A series of goals spread across four areas depending on whether you are a principal or a teacher. These goals are to be developed in the context of each school’s annual implementation plan (AIP) and are aligned with the AITSL teaching standards. In addition to the goals, teachers agree to the evidence that they will be assessed against and if they fail to get in the top two tiers of the assessment scale then they will not move up their increment.

 
Now I must start off and say, I believe in goals. Whether it be something that is fluid in the sense outlined by Kath Murdoch in her focus on one word or a more structured approach that I have spoken about elsewhere. However, I am not so sure about setting goals that are so explicitly attached to financial progression. To me goals help drive us by guiding our journey, giving us direction, but they are not necessarily things linked to monetary gain. When I set my own goals this year, I didn’t do so with a financial incentive in mind, instead I set my goals in an attempt to be the best I can be. Here then are some of my concerns with the governments new guidelines:
 

Whose AIP is followed? 

With a key focus on AIP’s, which school do those teachers who manage their time between two or even three different schools align themselves with? I understand that such teachers have a base school, a school where they teach the most. However, lets say that the teacher in question teaches five days a week and only two days at their ‘base school’, is it fair that their progression is measured on only a proportion of their time? In addition to this, who is responsible for providing support and ‘development’ for such teachers, especially when such activities occur during scheduled meetings and the teacher in question is at a different school on those days.
 

Beyond the Key Domains

I have found that, with the introduction of more and more data, schools have become really good at measuring the performance of key learning areas, such as English and Mathematics. This is often because the goals set in the AIP and information on the My School website directly relate to these areas. However, what happens if you teach outside of these domains? For example in Physical Education, Humanities or Technology, what datasets are you to base results on there? It can be hard to measure ‘students outcome’ when you may only teach a cohort for two hours a week and you are basing your improvement on Progression Points and the Student Opinion Survey. This is something that I have spoken about elsewhere. In addition to this, what about those administration roles such as Year Level Co-ordinator, Daily Organiser, Timetabler and Report Co-ordinator. Although they do not have a direct impact on student learning, such individuals often lay the foundation of learning. For example, I remember in my first year of teaching half out my four sessions of English had been timetabled for the last two sessions on a Friday. This had a dramatic impact on what learning I was able to facilitate. How then do you measure these roles?
 

No Room for the Personal

I understand the need to align goals with the school’s Annual Implementation Plan, however how are we really fostering individual passion and innovation that teachers bring into a school. As I have suggested elsewhere, schools need to provide more time and support for teachers to explore their passions and then look at how this can be tapped into or made use of within the school community. This is something that both +Chris Wejr and Jason Borton have written about respectively. See for example, Creating a Time for Teachers to Tinker with Ideas by Chris Wejr and ‘Leading by Enabling – My School Leadership Approach‘ by Jason Borton.
 

Measuring the Immeasurable

While reflecting on an article by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, +George Couros posed the question: “how will a system that is so focused on grades and marks deal with developing skills that can’t be easily measured?” So often attributes such as humility, resilience, adaptability and the love of learning are integral to working as a team, yet when everything is brought back to grades, scores and evidence, where do they stand? Although they are important, they don’t necessarily fit with our endless desire for data and measurable results.
 

Lifelong Learning

To me, goals need to be more than just about being SMART, they need to be personal and they need to be meaningful. I understand that there needs to be accountability. However, enforcing goals from the outside in provides little aspiration towards life-long learning. Instead teachers will negotiate generic goals set and manage them as a team.
 

No Room for Failure

As I have written elsewhere, we are really good at celebrating what we deem to be ‘success’, however is that really that successful? However, it is how we embrace failure that often spurs us on to achieve greatness. With the negative consequences associated with failure, there is little room left for taking risks and breaking with the norm. I understand that change for changes sack is not a good thing, but simply doing the same things again and again because it is easy and comfortable denies the changes that occur regularly in the world around us.
 
The biggest challenge when it comes to thinking about the performance and development process is what would be a better solution. It can be a bit of a cop-out to simply say how everything is ‘wrong’ all the time, but I do not disagree that there are certain aspects of the current system that need to be adjusted. 
 
In a recent post, Matt Esterman spoke about the NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards’ (BOSTES) process for becoming a Professionally Accomplished teacher. In this, he reflected on the process involved in moving through the standards. This involves providing evidence and reflecting upon practises in order to be accredited for the next level up. Clearly this comes back to data and evidence. However, from what I can see, it still allows a teacher to fail and learn from their experiences, rather than be reprimanded at the first speed hump.
What struck me the most in Esterman’s post was the need to document progression. Whether accreditation processes, such as the VIT Graduate Program in Victoria, are a ruse or not, there is always something positive gained out of reflecting on learning. Here I am reminded of +George Couros‘ post about the importance of maintaining a digital portfolio. Maybe the solution is that instead of forcing teachers to set arbitrary goals they should be forced to maintain a professional blog reflecting on their learning. Maybe that way staff will better identify areas for improvement.
 
Clearly, no matter what solution is chosen there will be someone disgruntled with the choice. However, there has to be a better system than one that seeks to scrutinises rather than celebrate learning.

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Measuring Success

‘Meaning of Success’ by Celestine Chua (Flickr)
 
The other day I got some feedback about a leading teacher position that I had applied for a couple of months ago. Although I had demonstrated the elements required in my application, it was suggested that I did not provide enough evidence in regards to my competency to lead change management. This got me thinking about what change that I had been a part of. The two things that came to mind were the introduction of the Ultranet and the roll out of interactive whiteboards across the school. However, in reflecting upon both of these situations I wondered if I was successful in bringing about change and how you actually measure such success anyway.
 

Change and Technology

The Ultranet was a learning management system developed by the Victorian State Government to support staff, students and parents by providing an online space to communicate and collaborate. It was also seen as the answer to ongoing student reporting and feedback. As a part of its roll-out, a train the trainer model was implemented where a group of lead users attended two separate days of intensive training and were then responsible for taking this back to their schools to provide support and professional development for the rest of the staff. This came in several shapes and sizes, including whole staff presentations, team focuses and one-on-one support.
 
One of the issues with the Ultranet was that it was not really taken up by all staff. Although we were told about the usage data as a region, many staff simply saw no personal purpose for it and were never really willing to grapple with the difficulties involved in evolving their practise. Subsequently, my role became more administrative than anything else where I was continually resetting passwords for students and dealing with minor problems. This all came to a head when the Australian Education Union put out a directive for members to stop using the Ultranet as a part of the industrial action in 2012, therefore ringing the death knell before the government eventually pulled the plug at the end of 2013.
 
Another initiative that I have had considerable involvement with is the roll out of interactive whiteboards at my school. Before Caroline Springs College separated into four different schools in 2012, an effort was made at the time to install an interactive whiteboard in 100+ classrooms. As a part of this package, the school was provided with a pool of professional development hours. Although I was not in charge of introducing the whiteboards across the whole college, I was given considerable responsibility at my campus. This included communicating with outside providers, as well as facilitating professional development for staff at my campus. Like the Ultranet, this involved a small group being trained up and then supporting their various teams.
 
Sadly, if I were to walk through many classes today there would be little difference from a few years ago. Although most teachers show information or use the associated software to create presentations, there are not many who embrace the interactive potential of the boards as outlined by likes of +Peter Kent and co. Where the boards are used to engage with student responses and give them an authentic voice in the classroom.
 
Interestingly, there has been a greater uptake in the early years classes at my school as it was made a non-negotiable that planning for numeracy had to include a flipchart. What is significant about this is that linking the board to an actual area of study means that it stops simply being a tool in itself and instead becomes a way of refining learning and instruction. It could also be argued that the boards are actually better suited to younger students, a point that +Rich Lambert has made elsewhere.
 
Another issue associated with the take up of the IWBs is that their introduction coincided with the introduction of the 1-to-1 laptop program. Personally, I make more use of student laptops as a way of getting each and every student involved in the lesson, rather than teaching from the board. Whether this be brainstorming with Answergarden or collaborating with Google Drive. What is most important is that, whether be via laptops or interactive whiteboards, the focus is about engaging with student responses to promote deeper dialogue and reflection.
 

Measuring the Immeasurable

The big question then is how do you measure success of such initiatives. I can tell you as I already have what I felt worked and what didn’t, but is that success? Is success instead about data, if so, what data do you use? Linked with this, is change management simply about ‘success’ or is it about what you have done? Being a focus on change, are there some things that never really gain success due to their constant state of flux?
 
To me what stands out about both the Ultranet and the interactive whiteboards is that neither has a direct correlation to clear quantifiable ‘data’. Too often the numbers of hits was relayed to us in regards to the Ultranet. However, even this only tells a small part of the story. For it is not time spent with the tool that matters, rather it is how that tool is used that has the greatest impact. Some suggest referring to such measurements as student opinion surveys which provide snapshot of student engagement and school connectedness, but again this seems like a bit of a stretch. The reality is that there are some aspects of learning are not measurable using grades and marks, a point that +George Couros recently made referring to such soft skills as humility, adaptability and the love of learning. Often the only answers we get in such situations are to the questions we ask ourselves.
 
Although not necessarily empirical or quantifiable, one approach to measuring success is by setting a clear plan with goals and reflecting on them along the way. This is something that I have spoken about elsewhere. Looking back upon both the Ultranet and the IWB’s, I think that this was a missed opportunity. There was no explicit long term plan put into place at the school level and associated with this, no real accountability. Instead of linking them to wider change through the Annual Implementation Plans and the Performance and Development Process, both were introduced as tools-in-themselves, rather than a means for redefining the classroom. For as I have stated elsewhere, 21st century learning “is not about a solitary category or skill, rather it is about the projects, the problems and the many possibilities.” Without wider support, whatever is achieved will only be limited and often fails to sustain any sense momentum without the involvement of others.
 
Another way of reflecting on success is as a way of perceiving things. No matter what context it may be, nothing ever runs completely to plan and neither should it. There are things that work and things that don’t, success in this situation is about celebrating and building upon the positives and benefits. On this matter, I am reminded of +Mel Cashen‘s post on the Ultranet where she identified some of the things that it made possible and how she utilised these in her classroom. What is significant about Cashen’s commentary is that, although the Ultranet may not have held up against the test of time, it served its purpose and accordingly she highlights some of the good things that came out of it, such as it being a safe environment for students and parents to “test the waters of an online world without the harsh consequences the world wide web.” Like goals, reflection is something that we often don’t do enough. For as +George Couros points out about professional development: “If we start building reflection time into our professional development, don’t you think that we would start doing this in our classrooms. We have to move away from the “mass dump” process in our learning.” Sadly, if we don’t allocate the time for reflection then we take the risk of not really learning anything, instead simply making the same mistakes again and again.
 

Learning Lessons

Sometimes success is not about whether an initiative continues to have a meaningful impact or falls on the wayside, rather it is about whether we learn from our failures, whether we reflect on what worked and what we could improve in the future. Just as learning is a lifelong goal, so to should success be. Instead of considering it as something achievable and able to be quantified, I believe that it is best considered as a target, an ideal to which we aim and aspire. Actually hitting the target is only one part of the goal, what is just as important is what that target is and how we go about trying to hit it.

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A Homage to Rhizomatic Learning

So, it is Week 6 of ‘Rhizomatic Learning’, the last planned week of the course, and the focus is how do we teach ourselves into uselessness? How do we empower people so they have the PERMISSION to learn without us?
 
What an interesting topic to end Rhizomatic Learning with, the notion of doing your job so that you are no longer required any more. Maybe the word job is the wrong word, but simply so that you are no longer a required commodity. The question then is what remains? I would argue that when all else has gone, we are left with learning. The problem with this is that so much of ‘learning’ is social, it comes from our connections with other, those clashes of ideas that once settled, develop into new beginnings. The first step then in making ourselves useless is to define who ‘we’ are. Teachers? Learners? Facilitators? Critical friends? Fire starters?
 
What is often missed in discussions about teaching is the inadvertent, incidental, non-traditional environments that don’t necessarily stem from college and higher-education. Take for example a swimming teacher who may have completed a set of modules. However, their ‘qualification’ to teach is often based on their own prior learning and experiences. 
 
I sat watching my two year old daughter’s swimming lesson the other day and wondered what made her teacher a ‘good’ teacher. I had already decided that she was good, especially that my daughter had come along in leaps and bounds since moving up to the next level (although still easily distracted, can’t change everything). Added to this, in the previous group, I had gotten in the pool with my daughter, but now she was going solo and it gave me a whole different view on things. A view from the outside.
 
Some of the attributes that I would say that made her a good teacher is that she is stern but fair, while her instructions are always pertinent and to the point. However, what stands out the most is that she compliments the kids whenever she gets the chance. Although she obviously works from a program, she never ceases to interrupt the lesson when needs be so as to support her students if they are struggling with a particular skill or adapting a lesson to extend them. The reality is that her focus on providing continual feedback and encouragement is the attribute that truly makes her stand out.

Coming back to Rhizomatic Learning, I am therefore left mulling over how +dave cormier has successfully ‘managed the MOOC’. I must be honest that the word ‘manage’ may be slightly misleading, inferring incorrectly a sense of power and control, I think that instead what the course has done is instigate learning throughout. In some respect this has now been coordinated by everyone, although Dave has ‘set’ the tasks and facilitated the communications and conversations. However, as was demonstrated by +Mariana Funes‘ post, much was left to the community to continue the learning.
 
Whoever it may be, whatever the situation is, I believe that the reality is that someone always needs to be stoking the fire, throwing more wood on it, as well as setting some boundaries to make sure that it doesn’t burn out of control. Now I don’t necessarily mean ‘boundaries’ to dictate what you can and cannot say, rather it is about highlighting fractures or providing critical responses. The reality is, we all need constructive criticism and feedback at some stage.
 
I am reminded of a comment +Steve Wheeler made about blogging that restricting it is like going to a party with a paper bag on your head. To add to that, I think that a blog that doesn’t open itself to readers is like going to a party with only one person. Although a blog is usually written by one person, it is the community which legitimises it. Whether it be adding a different perspective or providing push back. For example, I always love when +Richard Olsen writes back to my posts, questioning all those aspects and ideas that I take for granted.
 
To me, there will always be a need for an instigator, someone to stock the fire occasionally, keep it burning, but whether this needs to be a teacher or leader I am not so sure. I am really intrigued by the idea of guest hosted accounts such as @edutweetoz and @vicpln which are voices rotated throughout the online community. In the end, what needs to change is putting learning at the heart of education. In this environment everyone has their part to play. If we all see ourselves as learners then surely that is most of the job done.

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Argo, a Tale of Risk, but not Failure

My wife and I sat and watched Argo the other day. We had both read the hype and were dully rewarded, on the edge of  the couch to the very end. The question that it left me with though was how many other such stories exist through history of extreme risk that have failed and why are they not the stories that we are told?
 
Having completed my rudimentary study of Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I understand that there is a predetermined nature in all of us that wishes to succeed, a staple of the Hollywood film industry. However, how does this match up with the notion of failure? A part of me thinks that even a hero fails somewhere along the way, often this is making of their success.
 
You don’t have to look very hard on the Internet to find a discussion of some of the health benefits of failing every know and then. For example, Seth Godin states that, ‘All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else.’ While Sascha Heckmann posted an interesting image on Twitter suggesting:

With all that said, the big problem with failure is that there is still a large majority out there who treat it negatively and are unable to embrace its potential for a greater good. The first place that this needs to change is finding support and cultural role models who say its ok to fail.
 
In a Ted Talk ‘The Clues to a Great Story‘, Pixar’s Andrew Stanton spoke about the need for stronger role models for women in film. Stanton suggested that Brave is one such film where the writers set out to reposition the female character in the role of stronger and more confident hero. Where are such role models encouraging people to take calculated risks in life and fail every now and then?
 
Some of the films that I’d associate with the idea of failure include The Pursuit of Happyness, The Blind Side and Freedom Writers. Each of these films provides a range of situations where people have persevered through their failures in order to succeed in the end. The problem though with these examples is that they either seem too extreme or involve too much chance. Where are the examples and role models for the common people, those individuals whose life isn’t about changing the world of the down and out or playing elite sport. I am not saying that they are not important, but they are not everything. 
 
I’m subsequently left thinking of the characters like Walter White in Breaking Bad. Yet not only is Walter anything but a role model, but his life seems to be a is a story of unrecognised successes, rather than clear failures. The more I think about it, there just aren’t the models out there.
 
So in conclusion, I return to the place where I started, would Tony Mendez, the protagonist from Argo, be treated the same way at the end if he came back without the six Americans or would he have lost his job? Would his wife have taken him back? Would he have succeeded in life?

POSTSCRIPT

I apologise if you have not seen Argo and I have given away too much.

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