Posts tagged ‘Teaching Profession’

The fierce urgency of now

160204CEO_011Last week our system welcomed 160 new teachers to the profession. The excitement of these teachers is infectious and after my 40 years in education, I know their work will be transformative in nurturing the heart, mind and spirits of students.

In addressing our new leaders and teachers, I urged them not to be disheartened by the negative commentary in the media, which always typically marks the start of a new school year.

Yes there are many professional challenges but I see the greatest and most urgent as the need to abandon ‘improvement’ and embrace transformation.  While teachers can’t ignore the realities and challenges of schooling in today’s world – we must seize the initiative for change without becoming disheartened.

It was Reverend Martin Luther King Jr who said that ‘tomorrow is today’ and in being confronted with a ‘fierce urgency of now’, there is such a thing in the ‘unfolding conundrum of life and history as being too late‘.

In twenty years from now, I don’t want to look back and see education as having been ‘too late’ when the urgency of now is so fierce.  This age presents significant challenges to all who learn and teach in our schools – challenges that primarily centre on the need for change.

Nobel prize winning Chilean poet and educator Gabriela Mistral said that we cannot say tomorrow to a child, when now is the time their bones are formed and minds are developed – when today is their name.

Our students should not have to wait for schooling to change.


No easy fixes – just good teaching

pirlsIn monitoring the commentary yesterday on the release of Australia’s latest rankings in PIRL and TIMSS exams, there was general agreement that our performance was well below par. A country like Australia cannot tolerate poor performance. We must lift our standard of learning and teaching and do so as a matter of urgency.

In noting the response, there was the usual long line of experts, policy makers, academics, teacher union and parent representatives across the various media channels all pointing the finger at the other saying teachers need to do better, spend more, get paid more, be smarter, get better training, work better with parents, and so on.

Glaringly absent in the commentary was the voice of the professional teacher.

If everyone agrees that good teaching makes the biggest difference to student learning why aren’t we looking to the profession to help drive the changes needed to ensure continuous school improvement?

We spend so much time and energy in the education sector adopting, adapting and applying – or arguing against and avoiding – yet another shortsighted, secondhand or unproven reform or initiative. As a veteran in the educational game I have lived through many of these reforms before and know they don’t work, so yesterday’s commentary about why Australia’s performance is below par and how we can ‘fix it’ made me throw my hands up in the air. When will we ever learn?

There are no easy fixes here. We have to be brutally honest if we are to substantially change our existing practices. We know they are not delivering the best for every student, so we need to stop tinkering at the edges and start transforming schooling. Old mantras need to be tested; everything must be scrutinised.

And the only way to do the work is for teachers to do the work. And if they don’ t know how – to learn the work. The simple fact is we need to get the distractors out of the way so good teachers and school leaders can get on with the job.

It would be nice if we all got paid what we thought we were worth. Additional pay might get a teacher up in the morning but it certainly won’t be the reason why they persist with a student who just doesn’t seem to be making progress. All the good teachers I know do the job because they love the job; even when it’s difficult and demanding. They persevere; they try everything in their toolbox and then some, to ensure that the kids in their class are getting it. And more than that – that they are thriving.

Think about the teachers you know that inspire you or challenge you. They aren’t doing the same thing they did last year or even last month, they change and flex to suit the needs of their students. They spend much of their time finding new and better ways to engage students; to make learning interesting, relevant and meaningful for their students. The learning experiences they create range from using pen, paper and string to fully charged, connected, digital experiences. Like the teacher from Northern Beaches Secondary College featured in last week’s Sun Herald who dug up half the school yard to create an archaeological site for her students. What motivates this breed of teacher? What makes them tick?

Often in the teaching profession we mistake complacency with collegiality. We convince ourselves it is better not to celebrate excellence or elevate a few shining examples for fear of denigrating the whole profession. This is wrong thinking.

Imagine the outcome if the medical profession didn’t push the boundaries, risk failure, dust themselves off and try again? Forget organ transplants, brain surgery or even penicillin. None of these life saving techniques or treatments would be around today if the few hadn’t persevered and looked for new and better ways of doing the work, and they wouldn’t have perfected and improved these techniques and treatments if they hadn’t shared their learning with their colleagues.

The same needs to happen in teaching. The best thing the profession can do for itself is identify innovative practice – excellent practice – and showcase it, celebrate it and share it. In essence good teachers need to teach other teachers how to do it too.

As I mentioned in a recent post, thought leader Don Tapscott says we need to share our intellectual property in order to ‘lift everyone’s boats’. This is true of the teaching profession in driving school improvement. Not one individual has all the answers. Good ideas require more than one head, great ideas even more heads. One teacher won’t improve the learning in their school in isolation… nor will two teachers. They might make a difference to the kids in their class but without the collective responsibility of all teachers in the school working together to lead the improvement agenda their influence will be limited.

I know I run the risk of alienating some of my colleagues, but that’s not my intention. After yesterday the last thing I want to do is point the finger.

What I do want to do is challenge the profession to take back the agenda; to work together with their colleagues and school leaders to drive change and improvement; to challenge the status quo; to find new ways, better ways; and to make that difference to the lives of their students. There is no other way to improve learning except through good teaching.

If we can reflect honestly on Australia’s performance, we can identify new possibilities rather than rehash old programs or experiment with new ones. We just have to focus with determination and precision and address the central issues related to the practice of good teaching.

Education schizophrenia

You can easily be forgiven for thinking we live in parallel universe at times. No where is this more evident than in schooling. Over Christmas  I caught up with some reading that still leaves my head spinning.

Last November England’s new conservative government released its white paper entitled: The Importance of Teaching.

It certainly makes for interesting reading as it looks firmly to the past for solutions to our current challenges. While the sentiment about the importance of teaching is laudable it would have been beneficial if the paper followed up with sound theory, contemporary research and evidence-based practice to support the critical work of teachers.

What we get is the same tired (and tried) list of “reforms” aimed at improving the standard of schools across England. Under each of the seven headings are a set of strategies which make no reference to the world in which young people live, learn and play nor to the work of committed and professional teachers. Nor is there reference to working collaboratively or ensuring time for critical reflection on practice.

Strategies outlined include things such as cutting bureaucracy, allowing private individuals and organisations to establish their own schools, establishing an “escalating floor standard”, which sets a minimum expectation for attainment.  However, this one is my favourite – “trial a new approach to exclusions where schools have new responsibilities for the ongoing education and care of excluded children.”

This hardly passes as mindful education policy geared towards addressing some of the complexities of changing a tired, outdated behemoth like our education systems.

After my momentary bout of depression brought on by the white paper, I was uplifted and inspired by Linda Darling-Hammond’s latest book ‘The Flat World and Education‘.

Darling-Hammond needs no introduction to the education world. It is a shame that President Obama didn’t make her US Secretary for Education. She is always insightful and ahead of the game, and this latest text is no different.

Her ” white paper” starts with the simple notion that the world has changed and therefore schools need to change. At the heart of this change is the need to “design schools for teaching and learning”.  Her strategies for change include turning schools into smaller units, structure learning for personalisation, make learning intellectually challenging and relevant, develop performance based assessments, build professional learning and collaboration, support successful innovation and sustain change.

This book is refreshing, challenging and stimulating and speaks, I think, to the heart of every good teacher who wants to be directly involved in improving schooling.

Can anyone suggest any other good reads?

Some hard truths

I have written and spoken over the past twelve months about the challenges facing schooling in today’s world.  As we begin a new school year those challenges have not diminished, in fact they have increased. And they will continue to do so unless the  education community faces up to some hard truths.

I still maintain the biggest risk facing schooling today is irrelevancy. Most schools are stuck in a kind of parallel universe which either denies or ignores the rapidly changing world around them.

Of course there are innovative schools that are pushing the boundaries but these schools are either viewed with suspicion or explained away as experimental instead of experiential.

The industrial model of schooling prevails in most corners of the world so learning is still a sifting and sorting process of students for a world that no longer exists. As the digital age transforms every aspect of our lives, most schools are peddling hard to maintain an irrelevant status quo.

An unfortunate by-product is that teachers continue to work hard to ensure the industrial model succeeds and often feel under-valued for the efforts they make on students behalf. The teaching profession is sorely in need of liberation!

Intelligent discussions on educational change are dragged off course by trivial things – lower teacher student ratios, what content is important, school improvement plans that have little impact on really challenging students.  We need to look elsewhere if we are to move out of this parallel universe.

These sorts of approaches are only barriers to change – they maintain structures that stifle innovation. The barriers that protected schools from the modern world for so long have broken down.

If nothing else this year, be sure to read Linda Darling-Hammond’s latest book, The Flat World and Education especially pages 237 to 239. I hope this book propels many into the 21st century.

Schools have long enjoyed a competitive position that they can no longer demand  or expect to maintain. In a rapidly developing mosaic for learning in a connected world,  schools are now just one of many nodes for learning. In this new world of diversity and choice how are we going to ensure quality and avoid mediocrity, information overload and banality?

How are today’s schools going to position themselves to become the architect of new ways of learning and teaching? What has to change, what has to be done differently? Indeed what is the work of a teacher in today’s world? These are the powerful questions for all of us in 2011.

I don’t know the answers to these but I do know the answers lie in every school’s capacity to continuously reinvent themselves through innovation and research. Schools have to strive for excellence even if it means being different and embrace change, not avoid it.

We can be very confident that we know what doesn’t work, and we have ample data on why this is so. Those one-off stand alone initiatives focusing on teacher control, external monitoring, new curriculum, programmatic solutions suck the oxygen out of schools and stifle the drive and passion teachers have for improving every student’s learning.

Relevance has to be the rule not the exception.

What makes a great teacher?

I’ve just read an illuminating piece by Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic called ‘What makes a great teacher‘. Although the article details the American experience, the message about teachers and teaching is universal.

For more than a decade, Teach for America has been looking at the data on what makes teachers successful – that is the difference between the teachers who improve student learning gains and those who can’t. This article is compulsory reading for parents and teachers because it is referenced back to data not opinion and perception.

As parents arm themselves with MySchool data, ready to tackle principals of low performing schools, the paragraph below should be signposted at the front of every school in Australia:

Parents  have always worried about where to send their children to school; but the school, statistically speaking, does not matter as much as which adults stands in front of their children. Teacher quality tends to vary more within schools-even supposedly good schools-than among schools.

But we have never identified excellent teachers in any realiable, objective way. Instead, we tend to ascribe their gifts to some mystical quality that we can recognise and revere – but not replicate. The great teacher serves as a hero but never, ironically, as a lesson.

I asked some of my colleagues what they believe makes a great teacher – their responses are below. Interesting to see how it compares with Teach for America’s findings.

  • passion / fun
  • engagement
  • compassion
  • patience
  • knowledge
  • personality
  • relentless
  • relationships
  • learner
  • collegial