Classroom teaching and why I gave it away…

I have just ordered my fifth copy of Parker J Palmer’s A Courage to Teach. Why do I need another one? Because I keep giving my copies away. I give copies to people that I want to  stay on as classroom teachers and copies to teachers at the beginning of their careers. Palmer encourages teachers to be deeply reflective, creative and transformational members of their professional communities.

Palmer was important to me when I was a classroom teacher because he spoke about what I knew. I was surrounded by dedicated teachers and working alongside inspiring young people. I was reminded again that classroom teaching was a special part of my life when in a coffee shop this morning the woman standing next to me turned out to be one of my past drama students. She acknowledged that our time learning together played a part in her success as a business woman and a mother.

The OECD education team are building up to the release of the findings from the latest (2012) TALIS survey. This survey will provide some more global insights to the reasons why 75 % of teachers from participating nations think that innovation or greater effort will not be rewarded. Michael Fullan spoke at EFF8 today part of the about the need for all teachers and students to be working as pedagogical partners. My reasons for leaving the classroom a decade or so ago reflect these current global conversations about quality teaching and school leadership.

I left the classroom because I received very limited professional feedback about my teaching and rarely received the support I needed to understand the complexity of the system that my work existed within.  Teaching wasn’t the reason why I left the classroom. I left because I needed to understand why schools and systems did not know how to acknowledge and build upon teachers’ contributions and my desire for more meaningful professional learning.

Teachers need quality feedback about their teaching, both from other teachers and their school leaders. Teachers need this so that they are renewed instead of worn down. Fatigued teachers will find it more difficult to create the kinds of pedagogical partnerships through innovative practice needed to engage 21st Century learners.

I gave away classrooms to work closely with school teams and  leaders who want schools to be places where great teachers want to be. As more local and global research speaks coherently to the need for quality feedback, and more teachers receive professional learning that inspires and supports transformative pedagogical  practices, I hope that more great teachers choose to stay in classrooms and that some of us may even find our way back.

“Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”
Parker J. Palmer

You have to start sometime…

This is it, the first blog. It is in response to a gentle, but appropriate challenge from a colleague I have ‘met’ through another relatively new adventure called Twitter. Thank you @wmchamberlain .

William posed a question on Twitter yesterday and I needed more than 140 characters to respond. As a talker first and a writer second, Twitter’s real time chatty style suits me just fine. But as a thinker who enjoys critical inquiry and robust discussion, the quick share, mention and re-tweet doesn’t always meet my professional learning needs. I was going to resort to email but …here we are.

William’s question was:

 “Are we, online learners and sharers, the model of new learning or just outliers? #justthinkin’ “

This question stopped me in my tracks. After six months of chirping away on Twitter I am unashamedly addicted and an advocate. I enjoy the constant stream of information,  ideas, delightful and unexpected new connections. It is also one of the few places that an Australian NBA fan can feel less alone.

However only a relatively small number of my ‘real time and space’ professional community of academics, school leaders, artists, arts educators and policy makers are actively engaged in in online learning and sharing. Hence the reflective moment…am I an ‘outlier’ or one of a new IT (#seewhatIdidthere) crowd?

There is a temptation to use dichotomies in public discourse about education. I realise that helping others to resist this temptation underpins my approach to advocacy in both arts education, quality teaching and educational leadership. Despite political and intellectual convenience, and often the entertaining spats that ensure once dichotomies are raised, they can be an easy path to establishing a professional hell on Earth. Dichotomies drive good people to develop a siege mentality, use battle metaphors about their colleagues and reinforce a need to ‘win’ regardless of the social, intellectual and ethical costs. Hardly a recipe for innovation, creativity or collaboration which are some characteristics of my professional heaven.

As soon as I became a teacher I found myself in these ‘battles’. Early on I was challenging the ‘real academic/professional careers v teaching’ position (disappointingly this was often happening at friends’ parties). As a drama teacher I worked hard to get professional educators thinking beyond ‘arts v the rest of the academic curriculum’. Leading the early development of the first Australian arts curriculum meant I spent a great deal of energy inviting educators and policy makers to move beyond ‘one or two arts areas v the rest’.

So when I saw William’s question I wondered if there were treacherously dichotomous implications present; i.e. everyone who models learning and sharing online are leading the new wave of professional learning and everyone learning and sharing offline are missing a very fast and important boat. Or was the question proposing that if we choose to learn and share online, this somehow puts us ‘outside’ the main learning game and therefore grants us permission to be experimental and innovative but also righteous, subversive and frustrated with ‘the rest’ who just don’t get it?

So clearly it was a great question. It helped me to galvanise my concerns about setting up ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ in education. It also helped me articulate my issue with educators spending a great deal of their intellect, individual and collective energy, creative powers (and most importantly time) defining and redefining their identity as ‘insider’ members of their online communities.

Does regular reiteration of our professional identity and group membership (as learning technology leaders, as artists, as school leaders, as professional learning specialists) reflect doubts we may have about our own value? Is constant reiteration of professional identity, i.e. this is what we do, like, agree with, respect and value really effective professional learning and is this kind of sharing moving ourselves (and the rest) forward?

So I will attempt to answer William’s question by first rejecting that there are any either or propositions.

The online communities teaching me the most are those acting as two way bridges between online and real time learning (let’s call them ‘blended’ to be a bit fashionable).

The professional communities that deepen my learning are those that consciously and deliberately include views and voices that are not immediately comfortable or familiar, not always new, bright and shiny, and aren’t always affirming one another’s belonging to the collective identity but sometimes question and gently test assumptions and definitions (let’s say PLCs that are inclusive, meta-cognitive and comfortably critical in their discourse).

One of my favourite Twitter things is the crazy number of interesting folk I get to follow from communities that would be challenging for me to access in ‘real’ space. As a result I am starting to sense that I will drift away from PLCs that are mostly gathering like-minds and/or attention. They seem to be missing the potential that this marvellous, user-led medium offers to follow and actively engage with ‘unlike’ or at least ‘less-like’ minds.

I appreciate online and offline learning communities where there are leaders and learners from ‘other’ communities and cultures. They remind me that many really good ideas in education (and art) weave back and forward in time, across place, cultures and contexts.

In my experience these kinds of diverse learning communities and networks tend to evaluate new learning tools and approaches by the way they are used to enhance learning opportunities for individual children and how well they support quality leadership in individual schools. These communities tend to be less dazzled or rattled by disruptive and unimaginable innovation ( yes I am still amazed that my phone has a camera in it) and are more likely to adapt, apply and share emergent learning resources with rigor, discernment  and confidence.

I am interested in the kinds of professional learning and sharing that enables all members of a learning community to connect and contribute to the building of humane, sophisticated and sustainable  learning environments- a good place for the grown ups as well as the young people. So in short, being an ‘outlier’ or ‘a model learner’ is only as good to a whole community of educators as the work done to bring ‘outliers’ or ‘model learners’ closer to ‘the rest’ (or ‘the rest’ closer to them); especially if making a difference matters more than being different.

The blogs and posts I really like don’t offer up the 12 top tips and tricks for survival, excellence, or winning ….or the 39 ways you can survive the loss. The blogs and posts I like make me want to ask more questions.

I hope you do that.