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.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Keep your head up

Lately I have been reading a book called Presence by Amy Cuddy and it has been a really interesting read. The text is exploring the role of 'presence' in self confidence and gives practical suggestions using body language to build our sense of personal power. 

One aspect is exploring the impact our posture has on our sense of self and it is suggested that an upright posture creates a feedback loop that supports greater confidence. Amy Cuddy shared some thoughts from a NZ physiotherapist Steve August who is concerned with the damage he is seeing from people hunching over phones, and other devices. I share this as I am sitting here writing this on my laptop and very much more aware of my posture. 

As reading, one small paragraph really made me sit up and take notice, literally and figuratively. The
Going to do more looking up and out at
the world just like this wee guy. 
average head weighs a little over 5kg and when our head is balanced over our shoulders then that is the load that the neck carries however if we are bending our necks forward by sixty degrees to read our phones for example, then the load increases to a massive 27kg, Crickey! 

So having read this I made a conscious effort today to be aware of my posture and I didn't realise how often I slouch! When we went walking I focused on keeping my head balanced over my shoulders and it actually hurt a little so I knew that my muscles have gotten into some bad habits. The other thing I noticed was that I saw so much more, clearly I look at the ground or just a little ahead of myself when I normally go walking. It really surprised me at how much I have been missing when I am wandering around with hunched shoulders. Sitting here at my computer I am noticing how I am sitting and have adjusted my position from my normal stance/slouch. I can feel the muscles around my shoulders and neck, I am so much more aware of the weight they are carrying. 

So going forward my intention is to continue to work on my posture and enjoying the new view I have on the world. The bonus is that adopting a more upright position is also thought to be better for clarity in thinking and confidence so I figure this is win/win. 

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Celebrating our brilliant brains

"We can no longer ignore the neuroscience"
Dr Judith Howard

In education, we can no longer afford to ignore the neuroscience. This was a statement shared with us at a course I attended last year. As a neuro-nerd I couldn't agree more with this sentiment, we need to embrace the learning that science can share with us and let it inform what we do in our classrooms. It is also important that we share this knowledge with our learners. 
With this in mind we have started our teaching year with a focus on our brilliant brains and how we learn. And so far it's been fun. There is a wealth of great material online and we have used video, movement, art, discussion and writing to support our learning. 

One of the clips we started with was Ned the Neuron. We actually watched it three days in a row and it is on our class website for further revisits if individuals want to. The first time we watched it I paused at various spots. The class loved being able to say neuroplasticity! We talked about what sorts of things help our brains get stronger, we talked about challenges. In subsequent viewings we focused on different aspects to explore further. 

When we discussed the brain growing and challenges we used the example of learning how to walk to help us understand better. I asked one of our classmates to demonstrate what happens when a baby first tries to walk... our actor did a brilliant job of showing the baby falling over and then trying again and again. We talked about what happened when the baby first fell over and I asked the following rhetorical questions... Did the baby just stop there and go "oh well I tried walking but it didn't work for me so I guess I won't be a walker"? Did the baby go "walking is dumb, crawling is better and I like it better"? Did the baby just stop there and scream out "it just not fair, I can't walk, I can't do this"? and so on. The class laughed as we went through these scenarios and each time we were able to say that no-one would ever learn to walk if we did this. We related this to our own challenges. 

After this we talked about how when we learn something we make new connections and the more we try things the stronger the connections get. We talked about how learning something new or different can feel really hard at first but that is OK, that is what challenge can feel like, just like the baby learning to walk. We stood up and started off being like a neuron sitting there and trying something new and slowly, with a bit of effort, stretched one arm out and then kept going stretching our fingers out too. Then we stretched our other arm and fingers. After that we stretched out one leg and then another. Slowly and with effort until we were standing like strong stars. 

We talked about things that we find challenging and that different people find different things more challenging than others... again that is OK, we are all unique! 

After this we noticed when we were challenged and our mantra in class became 'we try and try again', sometimes adding... 'just like the baby learning to walk'. We notice when we make mistakes and now we know that making mistakes is part of learning, it helps our neurons stretch and grow. 

We have also been watching the Class Dojo Growth Mindset series. There are 5 clips in total and here is the first: 

These clips further expand on the notion that through accepting challenges and persisting when we find something tricky we can improve our learning. We can strengthen our brain. 

To support our learning about the brain we have made images and written short descriptions about one of our amazing neurons. Just like us our brains, which are made up of billions of neurons, all our images are unique and interesting. 

As are our descriptions. Here are a few examples: 

My neuron’s name is Excellent Swimmer. My neuron gets stronger when I sleep. My neuron likes water. My neuron needs challenges. My neuron loves ice cream. My neuron is as nice as chocolate.

My neuron’s name is Bob. He gets stronger when I learn. Bob likes to run. Bob needs food and water.  Bob loves hugs. Bob is awesome.

My neuron is Geoff. My neuron gets stronger by making mistakes. My neuron likes apples. My neuron needs lots of love. My neuron loves sleep. My neuron is strong.

My neuron’s name is Joe. My neuron gets stronger when I give myself a challenge. My neuron likes it when I give it food. My neuron needs water to live. My neuron loves it when I take it to cool places. My neuron is clever and friendly.

My neuron’s name is Disgust. My neuron gets stronger when I work really hard at working out problems. My neuron likes trying out words. My neuron loves the best hugs ever. My neuron is brainy.

My neuron’s name is Bob. Bob is very cool. My neuron likes to do rugby. MY neuron gets stronger when I make mistakes. Bob needs food and water. Bob loves to do maths. My neuron is wonderful.

Our classroom is known as Room 5 the Place to Stretch and Grow. We have developed a learning chant (an idea I have taken from the latest Teachers Matter Conference which I will write about in due course) and are practicing it regularly... we are developing actions to support this
 It is exciting to hear the language the children are using which is empowering. They are encouraging each other to persist. They are celebrating attempts. They are noticing when they have learned something new and they are sharing this knowledge with each other. 

This has been a great start to celebrating our brilliant brains. We are also practicing strategies to help us learn better. Our next steps will be exploring our magic brain and learning the Stop, Breathe, Think, Do technique to help us get back in balance and think more clearly when we get out of synch.

To read more about this you can check out some other posts in this blog: