Saturday, 26 August 2017

Pruning to let the light in- an analogy

Now I am no great gardener, but as I was pruning back my grapes earlier this afternoon (I can now feel some of you are nodding ‘yes, you are no great gardener, way too late!’) I was struck with a small epiphany that I needed to put into words. And now I am sharing this with you… but first I need to give a little more context…

You see I didn’t just wantonly run out to the glasshouse with my clippers and start hacking willy-nilly, not at all. I know enough to check (and already had an inkling that the best time to give the vine a good hacking was in the middle of winter dormancy) so I did what I often do in these circumstances, search the net until I find someone else who has done things not quite at the right time and got away with it. Invariably, I always find some obscure chatroom that provides me with the green light, and often a little sage advice to go with it. Today, I found my green light (obviously, although I was fairly committed to the course of action anyway) and also a possible answer to a problem that had vexed me with my grapes last season.
Last season I had a bumper crop of grapes on the vine, there were bunches upon bunches upon bunches, a sea of little greenish-purple orbs dripping along the roof of the glasshouse and I eagerly awaited the time they would reach full, juicy, delicious ripeness. 

Oh, the anticipation. 

Oh, the disappointment. 

Yes, some ripened and were delicious as anticipated but most just didn’t get there. I thought it was the dodgy weather we’d had, and I know I hadn’t been very attentive to the needs of my garden as I was toiling in the fertile soil of masters research writing instead. But in my search for a green light to prune back I happened upon a little statement that suggested if the vine was overladen with bunches that selective pruning of some bunches could help as it allowed the light to reach the others so they would ripen better. As I said earlier, and some of you will possibly be nodding vigorously in agreement now, I am not a great gardener and I don’t know if this is true or not but it sounded feasible and herein lies the reason why I am writing.

As I was hacking away, and trying to, not altogether successfully, avoid the cobwebs and dead leaves falling into my hair or worse still down my top, it occurred to me that letting the light in to help things reach their juicy, delicious, full potential is what I have started to appreciate in my classroom teaching. We are advised to accelerate our learners, to choose target students and provide specific interventions to ensure they meet a required standard. (I do wonder at the turn of phrase ‘target students’- is that like putting some kid in a firing line and then shooting additional resources and interventions at them until they reach some arbitrary standard so we can move them along and bring in another target for our attention? I digress.) Please know, I am committed to all my learners achieving their potential and reaching for greatness in their own way, I want the best for my kids. But I wonder if sometimes we crowd them so they struggle to reach the light and therefore miss the opportunity to fully reach their potential.

Now I am not suggesting we prune out learners, heavens no! Although a class size and adequate support to be able to engage meaningfully with the learners in our care would seem sensible to me. I do think however we need to prune back some of what is happening in classrooms to allow our learners to ripen and bloom when the time is right for them and our job as teachers is to provide the conditions to do so. Since returning to classroom teaching three years ago, I have noticed that cutting back some of what I was doing is leading to positive outcomes for my learners. I used to try to see all my reading and maths groups at least every second day and have set activities for them to follow up independently from the learning session we had had. I also tried to make sure I conferenced with every child for writing at least once a week. I ensured my special needs and target students were getting time with teacher aides for revision/over learning whilst I saw them more often for guided sessions on top of all this. Poor wee guys were probably exhausted with all this extra support! What I was doing in actual fact was setting myself and my learners up for failure. My group sessions were often rushed if they happened at all as more often than not I couldn’t actually see everyone I had planned to and so I was rewriting planning or then planning day by day to cater for my lack of ability to push everyone through. If I did see everyone as initially planned then I didn’t engage in thoughtful or meaningful conversations because I was distracted by time and also monitoring what others were doing around the classroom in the various ‘meaningful’ follow up activities I had assigned for them. Now it wasn’t a complete disaster and there was progress made but it was stressful and I posit that much of the stress was unnecessary.

As with my gardening, I am no expert teacher but I am a committed learner and this is what I have learned. I have shifted my focus, I now do less but I feel I do it better. I see some groups more often and some groups less often depending on what they need and what we are doing. Some groups of learners are undertaking set assignments within our classroom programme where it makes sense. My students have a lot of choice about how they respond to a text or a maths lesson, sometimes there will be little follow up, other times a lot may happen. Recently I had two learners who made a frozen confectionary after they created a recipe, were given the ingredients and told that the most important thing about baking is cleaning up then left to it… this came in response to a novel we had been reading. I spend time talking with, and most importantly listening to and observing my learners and I feel like I know them better. I see my writers at varying times, sometimes with self selected teacher groupings after a specific inspiration for writing but other times because they are at a stage they want feedback from the teacher or when I am roving around the classroom between group sessions. I trust my learners to get on with what they need to and we are building a culture where this is creating success. Yes, just in case you were wondering, I still have interventions for my target students (I don’t make them wear a shirt with a bullseye on it or anything though and they don’t get paranoid that I am going to leap out and teach at them when they are look like they might be relaxing).

The systems in my classroom are far from perfect and I feel like I have a long way to go but I can appreciate that what I am aiming for is creating space so that the light can come in and great, juicy, delicious, flourishing can occur naturally. We don't have standardised brains, we don't learn in standardised ways (oh, how easy, and how dreadfully dull teaching would be if this were true) so teaching our students with an expectation that they will achieve, or flourish, in a standardised time frame seems somewhat counter-intuitive really. By letting the light in, and noticing when I am not, I feel like I am giving my learners a better deal than I was and am seeing the growth in confidence, self management and personal drive to learn. It's a start and it all came from pruning back a little, even if I was a little late! 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Teacher Wellbeing- some research highlights

As I write this we are in the last days of the end of the second term of the year, in the middle of winter where it is cold and miserable and the flu/bug season seems to be incessant. Many schools have mid-year reporting happening, so there is the added stress and it shows for many of us.

Let’s be honest though, teaching as a profession is inherently stressful. We are working with people all day and human beings are complex, sometimes tricky even. And relating to people is only the start of what a teacher is doing as you all know, but I am not going to spend time talking about what stresses us for two reasons; 1. There is plenty of research and anecdotal data to confirm that teaching is stressful and 2. Spending energy on talking about what stresses us often feeds the problem and doesn’t necessarily provide any solution to it.

In the last year I have conducted a small study as part of my masters in education qualification exploring positive wellbeing for primary teachers in their mid-career. I propose that the findings are likely to be relatively generic although to confirm that I would obviously need to conduct a much larger study. I do think however it is worth sharing some of the findings here as food for thought and a possible contribution to the important conversation about teacher wellbeing. Don’t think for a second that teacher wellbeing isn’t important either, there is plenty of research to support the notion that happy healthy teachers have happier healthier classrooms with happier healthier learners who appear to achieve better- simply put, your wellbeing is important to the learners in your care.

So here’s some of what I found out about what may contribute to positive teacher wellbeing in our current educational climate: 

1. People-centred leadership practices.
How the school leaders work with their staff in the school can make an appreciable difference to teacher wellbeing. In my research it was noted that it was the small acts of kindness and appreciation that really mattered such as a sincere thank you, a surprise coffee or chocolate treat (or appropriate healthier option), noticing when workload increased and doing what they could to alleviate the stress in small ways. It really centred around relationships and ethical behaviour.
Consider: How do you enhance your relationships with your staff if you are in a leadership position? What are the small acts of kindness that you know will be appreciated by members of your team? How can you build relationships with the leaders in your school? 

2.      Supportive relationships.
It is said that teaching is about the three R’s, relationships, relationships, relationships. The relationships teachers have are numerous; students, colleagues, parents/caregivers, leadership, school management/parent committees, community members, PLD staff etc. The reciprocal nature of student teacher relationships is really interesting, when teachers are doing well their students tend to follow suit, and when students are succeeding that tends to support teacher wellbeing as well. Our relationships with our colleagues can be protective too, it appears that where teachers work in a collaborative, supportive environment that still allows for autonomy and individuality they thrive.
Consider: How do you build and maintain relationships with your students? What is it about your classroom environment that enhances wellbeing for all? How do you acknowledge your colleagues positively? What do you do to create a positive working environment at your school? 

3.      Strong sense of purpose.
For the people in my research making a difference to the learners in their care was clearly a motivating factor and something they returned to time and time again when speaking about what ‘filled them up”. Having clear beliefs about teaching and learning, then following them as well as sharing school values can be empowering for teachers.
Consider: Why did you become a teacher? What do you believe about teaching and learning? Do you share your school values? 

4.      Self Efficacy
Adopting an “I choose…” mindset appeared to have a positive impact for the teachers in my research. They acknowledged they didn’t achieve true balance much of the time, if at all, but they all stated that the way they worked/lived was a choice they had made. This seemed to be empowering, they were in control of what they could control and owned it. They were also clear about what was out of their control and found ways to shift their focus. Think about a time that was challenging for you, what lessons can you draw from it? This is one way to reframe negative experiences that appears to help stop these events eating away at your self esteem. Another way to build self efficacy is to be self aware, knowing your strengths and weaknesses as well as addressing your health and wellbeing needs. The teachers I talked to weren’t afraid to ask for help and could track how they steadily shifted and changed their teaching practice to meet learner needs and improve management of their own personal resources.
Happy healthy teachers have
happier healthier classrooms with
happier healthier learners who
appear to achieve better. 
Consider: What choices do you make around how you work and why? Are these choices working for you or do you want to change anything? If so what? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What can you share with others to help them improve their practice? Who can you ask for help when you need it?

Basically teachers, like most people I would suggest, need belongingness, connection, a sense of identity. This, for me, is like our essence that we can come back to when we are decision making, when we are under stress, when something doesn’t go right. The people around us can have a huge impact on how we feel, as can the stories we tell ourselves.

As I stated earlier, your wellbeing is important to the learners in your care so I hope that you will do what you can to help yourself to be the happy healthy teacher you know your learners deserve.  

If you would like to read more from my research I am happy to forward a PDF copy to you, please just let me know in the comments and I will make arrangements with you personally. 

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Why I don't believe in work-life balance

I remember sitting opposite my boss in a little coffee shop having my quarterly appraisal review and we got to the final KPI (Key Performance Indicator), the same KPI that I had had on my appraisal for a couple of years. I remember the conversation starting, as it always did, "So, how are you getting on with your work-life balance?" It was almost a script that we ran at the end of each appraisal meeting where I'd sigh, my shoulders would slump and guiltily I'd respond with "not quite there yet" and then a conversation would be had around my inadequacy in this area. This particular day however, for some reason, I changed the script. Instead of sighing I looked at my boss and said "I'd like to remove that KPI from my appraisal" and when asked why I responded that I was sick of feeling bad for working the way I did which was passionate and outside of the hours others worked, but it gave me joy to do a good job, it fitted with my optimal thinking times and worked around my family needs. After a brief conversation it was removed. 

Please don't get me wrong. I am not advocating workaholism and I am not even suggesting that people need to work more. In fact I would suggest that many of us need to perhaps work less and take more time to smell the roses. What I am suggesting, however, is that perhaps we are creating more stress in our lives by striving for this balance. 

Imagine this: we work eight hours in a day and, because we know it is good for us, we sleep for eight hours, that leaves eight more hours in the day for us to; eat well, spend time with our family, connect with our friends, exercise, take care of our hygiene, treat ourselves, spend time learning, engage in a hobby, tidy our homes... you get the picture. We are so often told about the things we should do and if we try to do them in equal measure we fail every time. That feels pretty darned stressful. 

I propose we shift our perspective. What if we saw work as another part of our life rather than something that interferes with our life? 

When I shifted my perspective I found I didn't resent my work when I had a late meeting or an early start, I felt more in control of managing my time, I enjoyed my work more and, most importantly, the guilt was greatly reduced. It also meant that I was kinder to myself with other things too. I was no longer judging myself against the ideal work-life balance I had thought I should be achieving. I accepted that some days the balance is more heavily weighted towards my work and other days my family, some days I would walk the dog for an hour and play at the park and other days it would be a fifteen minute dash, some days would be all about my friends and other days I might be lucky if I messaged one of my mates on Facebook. And it's OK. Balance in my life (work inclusive) is a marathon, not a sprint. 

The big thing this change in focus has given me is permission to not have everything 'right' all the time. I have days where it is full on, I have times where I feel overwhelmed and lack energy for my work, I have times where I'd really like to take a day off and just sleep, or read, or read and sleep. And on those days I dig deep and turn up knowing there are swings and round-a-bouts and it's OK to have an off day. 

What if you hate your job? I know that this is a reality for some people and appreciate that sometimes choices are limited. Even in that situation though, I suggest that work is still part of your life, maybe it is a less pleasant part but it is not an add on or an interference. Acknowledging this can help create a different perspective.  So instead of focusing on the interference this horrible job is having on your life and adding to your angst and resentment, perhaps you can acknowledge that the job is horrible then give more focus and energy to the parts of your life that bring you joy. Again shift the balance. 

So what I am proposing is that we move towards a sense of balance in our lives with kindness and acceptance that what this looks like will differ from person to person and day to day. 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Mighty falling

In Aotearoa/New Zealand there is much wisdom carried in Maori whakatauki or sayings. One that is in mind at the moment is:

Kua hinga te totara i te wao nui a Tane
The totara has fallen in the forest of Tane

The totara is a tall and mighty tree and when it falls it leaves a great gap in a forest. This whakatauki acknowledges when someone of importance has passed away. In the last two months two mighty 'trees' have fallen and I write to acknowledge them, honour them and in some way take heart from the gifts they have left behind.

Both my friend, Liz Bowen-Clewley, and my uncle, Ted (Neil Edward) Gallagher, were champions of those who did not have a voice. They were tenacious and unyielding in their pursuit of justice for others. They did not go around trying to please and placate, they got out there and did stuff and made a difference in this world. They worked between employers and employees, bridging what is sometimes a treacherous divide to reach solutions that met the needs of both parties. They worked in service of others, always. They cared. They cared deeply. They both loved animals. Liz loved the arts, Ted loved his sport. They had enormous respect from others in the fields they worked in, respect earned because of who they were and how they worked. They forged new ground in these fields, they were bold and if they saw a problem they found solutions. They didn't seek glory or status, having made a difference appeared to be recognition enough.

I feel that the world is poorer for the loss of these pretty amazing people. We need more people who are willing to stand and be counted, more people who will go against the tide if it is the right thing to do, more people willing to do the hard yards rather than take the easy path, more people who are committed to pursuing justice for those whose voice too often go unheard. We need more people like Liz and Ted... many, many more.

I am blessed to have had both these remarkable people in my life and they have shaped me and will continue to as I look up to them and aspire to be more like them. Perhaps in my desire for more people to be like Liz and Ted I should start with me.

Go well everyone. Love big, care deep and get out there and do stuff that matters.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Being bold and brave and honouring the New Zealand Curriculum- as we begin a conversation

This weekend I have been involved in a lively twitter chat about the New Zealand Curriculum and how we can use it to re-engage our teaching community with the front end of the document in particular. The front end is where the principles, values and key competencies are explained. I believe that they were put at the front because we put the first things first, meaning that these are the foundation blocks of all that we do within our curriculum. I believe they are aspirational, broad and challenging, they give us scope to be bold and brave (thanks Wendy for those words) in establishing learning cultures in our schools that support our learners to aim high, think deep, connect and contribute. We are required by law to teach to this curriculum (the whole curriculum not just the AOs), we are required to report against national standards in literacy and numeracy but here's the key thing we are NOT required to teach to the national standards despite what we might be led to believe in some circles. 

I remember fondly when the New Zealand Curriculum came out in 2007, I was so excited by the wonderful opportunities it opened up. (Yes I am a bit of a nerd to be fair) It made me want to return to the regular classroom but I soon realised that in education we had gotten into a comfortable habit of putting children into 'boxes' and this broad, open curriculum challenged that. We didn't have long before the talk of standardisation started, and then after a while we were given the National Standards. I remember hearing the minister of education at the time telling principals at a NZPF conference that no civil servants had the right to choose what pieces of legislation they adopted and that National Standards were happening and that was that. 

Moving on. 

I returned to the classroom a couple of years ago, Unfortunately I made a dreadful mistake, and to my shame it took me a while to work out why the wheels were coming off for me. You see I felt that as I had been out of the regular classroom (whilst still in education and using the New Zealand Curriculum) I was terribly out of date and needed to focus on what I hadn't been trained with which was, among other things, National Standards. I then felt driven by what was newer to me, due to my sense of inadequacy, but that impacted on my teaching and my engagement with my class. I forgot about the front end of the curriculum in my haste to 'catch up' with and embed things like the National Standards in my practice. In short I lost the educational plot... and the sad thing is that I don't think I am unique in that. 

I am lucky that I reflected on this and began to reconnect with what teaching and learning is really about and what we are required to deliver in schools in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Oh the relief, the joy returned. 

And so I ask these questions for myself and others to consider when thinking about how we honour the intent of the New Zealand Curriculum (2007) 

  • How do we ensure that we are reflecting the vision, values, key competencies and principles of our curriculum? 
  • How often do we refer to  vision, values, key competencies and principles when we are planning? 
  • How often do we talk about the front end of the curriculum with our colleagues? 
  • How often do we refer to the front end of the curriculum when we are talking about our learners and their achievements, strengths and  needs? 

I don't have all the answers by any respect but I do have lots of questions and I know there are many more questions I need to be asking.  I look forward to continuing the discussion we have begun. 

I also invite you to join in with the dialogue. We are exploring the option of creating a regular twitter chat to help us stay connected and reignite the enthusiasm and passion there was in 2007 when we were first introduced to our curriculum, we have a very short google survey about this possibility and welcome your input. 

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

On becoming curious in the classroom

It's been a long time since I last wrote, the excuse is that I am doing my masters research this year and any time I go to write something that isn't related to my research I feel guilty! Crazy huh?! But today I am putting my guilt to one side so I can share a wee thought that has been rattling around in my brain for a little while now.

A few months ago I read a headline for an article on behaviour management called Be Curious Not Furious and it was a great read and supported a lot of the stress and brain development material I have spoken about previously. But it also sparked another thought and this was about the power of curiosity in my wider teaching practice.

Curiosity for me as a teacher means not constantly anticipating and predicting children's responses, losing the predetermined nature that can sometimes feature in classrooms especially when our planning is too tight, too rigid. It means letting go of the tension built from trying to squeeze every last educational drop out of every minute for every learner in your room. It also means getting comfortable with doing less so you can see and learn more as a teacher. I see it as mindfulness embedded in teaching practice.

You cannot be curious and rushing at the same time, you cannot be curious and furious at the same time, you cannot be curious and absent minded or otherwise occupied at the same time. To be fully curious you have to be present, immersed and engaged in what you are doing.

When I am teaching from a place of curiosity I see more, I hear more and I understand more about my learners, their strengths and needs. When I am teaching from a place of curiosity I am also a lot more attuned to my own intuition and make better use of the time I have. When I am teaching from a place of curiosity I walk alongside my learners and we delve deeper into the learning opportunity happening at the time. And the funny thing is when I teach from a place of curiosity I achieve more as a teacher, my time is better spent and I give more to the learners that I am working with than I ever do when I am rushing, pushing, trying to do more and be more.

Curiosity is intense. It is not for the faint-hearted. It means that you are using all of your senses to teach and learn from. It takes practice and energy. And I am still learning, still working on avoiding distractions, making sure I give myself permission to continue to be curious more often. It makes a difference in so many ways.  

Sunday, 28 February 2016

A mind working over time

I've gotta stop my mind
Working overtime
It's driving me insane
It will not let me live
Always so negative
It's become my enemy
(From Save Me by Jem)

Last month I was presenting at the Teachers Matter Conference in Wellington. It is a real privilege to attend these professional development events and to be invited to present is a huge honour indeed. And one I didn’t take lightly.

When Karen asked me if I would be interested in coming along I didn’t hesitate, I was in and I was excited. This would be my third opportunity to work at the Teachers Matter Conference and the previous times had been massive for my own learning as a presenter as well as providing me with the opportunity to be inspired both personally and professionally as a teacher, parent and general human being.

As the time passed I started to become anxious… I didn’t recognise it as such at the time however, I just thought I was uninspired, stressed, tired. I found it hard to get what I wanted sorted easily, it was like writers block I guess, and then the self-doubt kicked in and it was brutal…
  • ·         Perhaps Karen made a mistake? Or she was being too kind.
  • ·         What do I have to offer? I have nothing to offer.
  • ·         What makes me think I am good enough to stand in front of other teachers spouting off stuff? I am not as good as I think I am, I am a complete fraud.
  • ·         What if I screw this up? I’ll ruin the conference and let everyone down!

Wowsers, I was being pretty tough on myself at the time and in hindsight I was actually self-sabotaging quite skilfully.

Why would I think such things
Crazy thoughts have quick wings
Gaining momentum fast
One minute I am fine
The next I've lost my mind
To a fake fantasy
(From Save Me by Jem)

This is the crux of the matter, I was projecting a negative outcome to an event that was still a few weeks away. I hadn’t actually recognised clearly this was what I was doing at the time so I didn’t press the STOP button and get off the beat-myself-up merry-go-round when it would have been healthy to do so.

The closer the day came the more wound up I became as the thoughts twisted and turned in my mind. I so wanted to do a really good job for Karen who I admire enormously and the conference delegates who had paid to be there and were attending in their holiday time. I felt that what I did would impact on the quality of the event for the delegates and the reputation of Spectrum Education and I so wanted to give my best for all. The pressure I had put myself under was really intense and unnecessary. It didn’t help me at all.

And the thing was… that NONE of this was real yet… the conference still hadn’t started!

Insecurities keep growing
Wasted energies are flowing
Anger, pain and sadness beckon
Panic sets in in a second
(From Save Me by Jem)

And then the day arrived. Did I give my best? I did the best I could at the time but I still feel that I could have done better if I had relaxed and enjoyed it more. Watching the video (which is useful once you get over the cringe factor!) I can see the moment where I actually relax and start enjoying myself. I get a buzz presenting and sharing ideas with others and it did come but the energy I wasted in getting there robbed some of this for me and therefore it took it from the presentation too. And the thing is I had allowed it to, unwittingly perhaps, but I still let it happen.

Be aware it's just your mind
And you can stop it anytime
(From Save Me by Jem)

So why am I sharing this story of insecurity with you? Well firstly because it is still wandering around in my mind and I need to let the words out. It is also because it isn’t all doom and gloom, it has been a really interesting learning experience and part of what I do is share learning.

After the conference I went through a little self reflection, obviously, I have realised I have some perfectionist tendencies. If you look at my messy garage and abysmal filing systems you might, like me, be confused by this as I was but it isn’t about having things perfect. Brene Brown describes perfectionism as “a twenty-ton shield that we lug around with us thinking that it will protect us when, in reality, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.” Pretty heavy huh? (In more than one way!) And when I think about it, this is where the self-sabotage comes in… it’s almost like it is a way of protecting us from potential hurt/failure from flying too high but it actually holds us down and holds us back from what we could be if we were truly authentic.

I have also read a book called Presence by Amy Cuddy, an easy but informative read that gives practical explanations for research and concrete strategies to apply the learning in real life… largely based around faking it till you believe it using our body to give brain positive signals of presence and power. In this book Amy also talks a lot about imposter syndrome, this is where even despite evidence to the contrary, we feel that we will be found out to be not as good at something as people might believe. We believe ourselves to be frauds undeserving of our achievements, that we were lucky in our successes, and that at any time our lack of ability will be discovered and others will be dreadfully disappointed. It robs us from the joy of when things go well and has a tendency to have us exaggerate our limitations or failures.  

So what is the cure? Well I don’t quite know but I happened upon the following forty minute clip and have noticed it has helped me. The clip is called The biggest disease affecting humanity “I am not enough” by Marisa Peer. I thoroughly recommend the investment of time if you think you might be susceptible to a little negative mind chatter… like many of us!

So where have I come to now. Well I am enough. I am worthy. I do not need to prove myself to anyone, let alone the biggest critic, my own mind! I am enough and the realisation of this is quite freeing. I am remembering to enjoy the little successes along the way rather than minimising them and looking towards the things that have gone wrong or the next step. And I am looking forward to presenting again with this much clearer insight. 

Ok so here we go
If it works I'll let you know
(From Save Me by Jem)

I love the music of Jem and the song quoted ‘Save Me’ is one of my favourites. I have used it throughout this piece as it quite accurately sums up some of the thinking patterns I am describing.