I have been in an educational leadership role for seven years – a PYP Coordinator in two schools and now a Director of Learning.
I have been wondering what is wrong with me for some time. I feel depleted, drained, like the life force and joie-de-vivre has been sucked from me. I fall asleep on the sofa. I’ve stopped all my hobbies.
I am boring. So boring that I bore myself.
Today, I had a bit of an epiphany about why I might be feeling this way.
I think I’m malnourished… if we think of inspiration as nourishment.
Inspiration comes from multiple directions when you’re a teacher, it comes from your colleagues, from your students, from professional learning, from books, from that TED talk, from the world around you. It also comes, or should come, from the educational leaders in your school.
As a leader, people depend on you for inspiration, and so you provide it… and provide it… and provide it. At first, if you’ve just come out of a teaching role, it’s fairly easy and natural to do so. You have your experiences, your approaches, your materials still in your hand, still warm. But those gradually fade and your new reality takes over. People continue to take, but little or nothing replaces what is taken. You look outwards for inspiration, for nourishment, for things that re-connect you with what you loved about education.
But, where is it coming from? Where do you look for it… and why should you have to look for it? That’s kind of tiring in itself! Looking for inspiration can quickly become more work for you to add to your interminable to-do list.
People in educational leadership positions need nourishment. Even if it’s not inspiration, they need someone, sometimes to acknowledge their work, to say “hey – thanks for setting that up”. 99.99% (I just made that up) of all feedback given to people in leadership positions is negative – not “thanks for doing this” but instead “why isn’t this like that?”.
Sure, we know what we’re getting into and, as I often hear people say “that’s why you get paid the big bucks”. But, correct me if I’m wrong, none of us got into this profession for the money. And, its a well-known fact that there’s often teachers on staff in schools who get paid more than people in leadership positions.
I don’t want to turn this into a wining, feel-sorry-for-leaders blog post. Instead, perhaps it could be a provocation for the people who exist around leaders, on every angle. Have you sent your principal an example of something amazing your students did? Have you let your director know how a recent decision they made turned out well for you? Have you popped in and told your coordinator about an idea you’re developing?
Try it. Nourish them.
They’re probably hungry.
The best teachers are always on the lookout for their students.
I don’t mean in a pastoral way, or a supervisory way.
I mean, in a way that shows an innate curiosity about what their students are doing, what their students are saying, how their students are reacting or responding to particular situations, the kind of questions their students are asking, the kind of prejudices their students have, the kind of misgivings their students have, the kind of biases their students have, the kind of misunderstandings their students have, the misconceptions, the relationships, their interests, their tendencies.
To be aware of, and fascinated and motivated by these things is… the work of the Teacher.
Something has been bothering me for a very long time, I just haven’t been sure how to put it into words. Today, as I flicked through the TV channels, I think I may have figured it out.
No matter how much of an ethical position we may take in bringing up young people, both in families and in our schools, all is undone the moment they engage with mass media. Turn on the TV and we are fed a million messages that undermine all teaching.
In this posting, I will focus on violence.
Violence is glorified and war the playground of muscle-bound-heroes-in-the-making. Explosions, bombs, machine-gun fire, collateral damage, drones… you name it, Hollywood has glorified it, sanitised it and told us “it’s OK… this is normal, accept it, worship it.” Sure, a few mavericks have managed to squeeze some anti-war sentiments past the censors, who undeniably act in the interest of warmongers, but war is generally packaged, gift-wrapped and presented to us as something to revel in, not question. Either Hollywood is forced to take responsibility for the messages it transmits, or we have to take matters in to our own hands, turn our backs on it and make the production of war films less lucrative.
The violence doesn’t just remain in the realm of war, oh no, we have our violence tailored both to suit and feed our daily fears. The vast majority of TV series are about murder. In fact, if you fancied a bit of a career change and decided to become a murderer – which many people do, TV is a perpetual “how-to” guide that comes full of helpful advice and tricks of the trade. To go one step further, CSI and other similar shows, provide in-depth information about how you can avoid being detected.
Potential terrorists can also seek inspiration from TV shows and movies, with the creators of these forms of media constantly ahead of the game and coming up with all sorts of wonderful ways that you can be a terrorist. If you’re a terrorist that, sadly, lacks ideas and needs a bit of inspiration so you can raise your game, simply turn on the TV or go and watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster, and there you go… a wonderful menu of horrific acts to choose from. Take the ending of shite “cult” movie Fight Club, for example, and tell me its not rather similar to 9/11 – which happened two years later. I wonder how many people who lost loved ones in New York still think that movie was cool? Never mind those who’ve pointlessly had their faces punched in by shirtless morons trying to emulate Brad Pitt after seven pints of lager.
Even escapist, fantasy, costume dramas like Game of Thrones descend rapidly into the provision of violence-porn which give us all a guilty tingle as we are shocked, disgusted and slightly turned on by another jugular being slit, wet slurping sounds and all. But, its alright, there’s dragons and bare breasts, its not real life… or is it? Tell that toddler who just watched his junkie-father have his throat slit in front of him that it isn’t real and watch his tragic, confused face as the tears drip down his cheeks.
If I was to continue with examples, this would become an extremely long blog post. And, we all know nobody has the time to read those. So, I will end with a few thoughts about how schools might respond to this situation:
- Completely and explicitly reject mass media. This would not be censorship, as that is more along the lines of pretending it doesn’t exist. Instead, acknowledge its existence and then take a strong stance on it.
- Make the deconstruction of mass media a key part of education, teaching students to be cynical about its messages – of which the glorification of violence is just one.
- Make it very clear to parents that there will be little tolerance of these stances being undermined at home. Parents of the little thugs, for example, brought up on a media diet of Ben 10 since they could first throw a tantrum about it being turned off, will need to be on board.
Next, it may be time to look at the News.
I recently gave this talk at the Learning2 Conference in Manila. What I am basically saying is that things need to change, that we need sudden and urgent change in the world and that schools – if we stop deluding ourselves – can be a powerful source of that change.
There are many things about life today that we passively continue to accept:
- that success = money
- that waste is OK
- that pollution is inevitable
- that destruction = progress
- that new is best
- that media = truth
- that Hollywood represents social/cultural ideals
- that school = work
- that education is the key
- that its OK for technology to lead the way
- that we have no control over the future
I could go on… its really interesting to start a list like that! However, its more interesting, and indeed sobering, to look at education and schools through those lenses and to see just how much we perpetuate the things in the list, to see how much we transfer those ways of thinking to kids.
In my talk, I use the metaphor of moulds… and I think I can take this idea one step further by saying that moulds help us to play it safe. I think schools persistently play it safe – we go about our daily existences in fear of persecution from parents, governing bodies, governments, testing companies, universities, media companies, big business, religious groups etc… As a result, not only have we become passive, we have also become rather bland.
I challenge any school to seriously reflect on its impact on society. Has it made a positive impact? Has it made a negative impact? Has it made any impact at all? What is it doing about that?
Everybody goes through school. People’s school “careers” define their futures. So, what kind of futures are we defining? Do we know? Can we be bothered to find out? Are our alumni making a positive impact on society?
These are HUGE questions. But, surely its time to start trying to find out, trying to discover what our actual impact is as perpetuators of the status quo or as agents of change.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not happy with the status quo.
Life is short.
Childhood is even shorter.
Children deserve to come to school and be excited, challenged and motivated. We have our students, in our space, for one year. During this time, we are creating narratives – stories – with them. What are those stories? What stories do our students tell about their days at school?
On Sunday night, my daughter said “I can’t wait to get back to school to work on my project, Daddy. I love what I am doing.”
Wouldn’t it be great if each student said those words to their parents on the night before school? Wouldn’t it be great if every student was totally engrossed in their inquiries. “It feels like playing” she said later.
The first half of the year, in many schools, can be very business-like. Some things that have always been on the agenda may now be expected to be done with consistency and quality. Some familiar things may be done in unfamiliar and better ways. Some new things may be added to the equation in order to take teaching and learning to the next level. This all takes time and effort. It is hard work.
In the second half of the year, however, there may be no surprises. So, focus on those narratives I mentioned above. Focus on working with students so that each day, each week and each month of their lives at school unfold as interesting, exciting, surprising stories of personal growth and learning. If some old habits need to be discarded to make that happen… discard them. If a few risks need to be taken to make that happen… lets take them. If a few people need to be challenged to make that happen… challenge them.
Teachers put a lot of work into figuring out what our students should or could be doing. But, we also need to take a good long look at why. How do we get our students to want to read, question, write, draw, build, listen, design, argue, solve, play, win, collaborate, research, experiment, notice, think…?
Each day, ask yourself these crucial questions:
Would I want to be a student in my class?
Would I be interested in what we are doing?
Would I be inspired by me?
Would this unit excite and motivate me?
Would this experience stimulate my curiosity?
Would I be at my best here?
You want the answers to those questions to be “ÿes”. You are teachers. It is your purpose in life for each of your students to feel that way. It is your source of pride and satisfaction when they do feel that way. It is what gives you a thrill and makes you feel as though all of your effort has real meaning.
Life may be short. But it is shorter when waiting for each day to end, when waiting for the weekend, when waiting for a meeting to be over, when waiting for the next holiday to come. This time is your time, and it is the most important time for your students.
It is their childhood. Help make it an amazing one.
Image by Patrick Breitenbrach
A school is a part of a wider system, a bigger picture.
But what is that bigger picture?
How does your school reflect the systems, cultures, communities and directions that lie outside the school… and what role does the school play in those?
I wonder if many of the international schools we work in have anything at all to do with the bigger picture of the city, community or culture they are part of. I also wonder if they reflect that bigger picture too much!
Imagine, as I am at the moment, that our schools represented and lived up to the ideals and visions that were espoused in their mission statements. Can we truly say that we see those ideals and visions being reflected in society as a whole when we step outside the school gates? If a school is an idealistic island surrounded by the ills of society, is it truly going to have any effect on the world around it? Indeed, it may be more true that those ills are equally present in our schools. And, soberingly, the very existence of the school may depend on the presence and perpetuation of those ills.
I’ll leave you to decide what they are…
I recently explored an old colonial building here in Saigon. Tiled corridors, sweeping staircases and Art Deco features. Cool little boutiques and cafés juxtaposed with shady family apartments. And, what can only be described as a whole village in itself on the roof.
Beautiful? Yes. Tragic? Almost certainly.
It is quite soul-destroying inhabiting these cities in this part of the world. It is a perpetual cycle of coming across amazing bits of history only to to find them flattened the next time you go past.
There is a direct relationship between this cultural impermanence and the distinctly impermanent nature of international schools in this region. Though they may physically remain in place for some time, the attempts of their transient teachers to have a genuine affect on their transient students often comes across as fleeting. Students and teachers keep passing through as though on some conveyor belt both oblivious to their surroundings and incapable of shaping them. Never the twain shall meet.
Everybody needs to feel as though they are part of something that lasts. How do we create schools that affect and shape culture? How do we create schools that symbolize cultural strength and wisdom and not exploitation and destruction? How do we attract great teachers to those schools and get them to stop looking for a place where the grass is greener? ‘Cause it ain’t. The grass is green back home.
I was recently very fortunate to attend a keynote speech by Richard Gerver (@richardgerver) during the IB Annual Conference in Singapore.
One of Richard’s quotes that really resonated with me was:
“One of the most important things we need to do in education is get out more.”
This a short and simple statement but, like many short and simple statements, it asks many questions!
How often do we venture beyond the walls of our schools?
It’s funny… “field trips” are viewed as a special event and are done, in most schools, pretty rarely. In my school, for example, most grade levels have ventured out of the school only once. There are many reasons for this – costs and the fear of anything “happening” are often the biggest barrier. Indeed, I know of one IB school in Australia in which it is strictly not allowed to take students on field trips! How about that?
Yet, every time we take students outside of the school there are learning experiences above and beyond those we planned for:
- Genuine connections with the real world
- Improved sense of place
- Observations of people’s behaviour
- Improved ability to look, see and notice
- Rich language and conversation
- Emergence of prior knowledge and wisdom
- Natural curiosity
- Greater bonds between students
- Bursting the bubble by going somewhere new, expanding horizons
- Revealing information about students as individuals in different contexts
- … and more
You see, very often teachers have a limited understanding of the learning objectives that will be reached by taking the kids out somewhere. But, if we realize that everything is learning, everything is an opportunity to develop, everything is a formative assessment – from how well students behave in an art gallery, to how curious they are in a botanical gardens, to how well they talk to strangers at a market, to how they sit and eat during a picnic. It is all real learning.
How well do teachers know the world outside the school?
I work in an international school and, of course, you get all types. In Bangladesh, I worked with local teachers who had never stepped foot in the local markets – that was for servants to do. In China, I worked with people who detested China and refused to enter into society at all, purely frequenting expat restaurants and bars. In Thailand, I worked with people who spoke literally not a single word of Thai. In Vietnam, I work with people who go from school to home and back again over and over and over each day, week, month and year. Of course, there are the complete opposites in each school too – one of my colleagues here speaks the language pretty fluently and has covered nearly every corner of the country in his travels.
My concern is that we are, in these schools, teaching many students who live in a privileged bubble, our schools are often bubbles themselves and many teachers also live in a bubble. What are we teaching them then?
I find it fascinating to provoke people in international schools by asking what difference it would make to the curriculum if the school was suddenly picked up and dropped in a completely different country in a completely different city. Rather soberingly, in some ways, the answer would be “not much”.
What connections does the school have with the community?
Inspired by the stories of two-way community connections that come out of Reggio Emilia, I do wonder about how schools can become genuine parts of their local community. Like a watch, schools seem to have become a “single-function device” – kids get dropped off here and we teach them. How else do we serve our community though? Is student art displayed in local restaurants, shops and public places? Are the students encouraged to initiate projects that feed into and have an impact on the local community? Are the expertise and talent from the local community brought into the school to create those connections? Are the students visible in the local community?
It seems we are stuck in some rather tired looking moulds (schools excel at that!). We can break those moulds by getting out more, as Richard says.
How does your school do it?
“Nearly the weekend”
“Holidays coming soon”
In schools, you can’t go five minutes without hearing people saying these words, or something similar. In that sense, I suppose it is no different from the average workplace. What does make it different to other workplaces though, is that kids might hear us. What is the main lesson they will learn from hearing those words?
That people wish their lives away.
It’s such an astounding contradiction. Nobody wants to get old quickly, yet everyone consistently wishes the weekend and the holidays would come sooner. Weird.
One of the main causes of this problem in schools is the cycle of “busyness”. We make our days, weeks, months, terms, semesters, years so frantic, so chock-full of frenetic activity that we are constantly in desperate need of a break. We exhaust ourselves…
Who is to blame? Well…
- school leadership has to take some of the blame. As soon as we step out of the classroom we unavoidably and instantly forget what it is like to be a classroom teacher, so we pile things on with little empathy or understanding.
- the “mould” of schools also has to take the blame – they are expected to be these busy and rather frantic places!
- teachers are also partly to blame, we are not exactly Masters in the Art of Saying No – either to ourselves, to our students or to our colleagues. As a result, we take on more, and more, and more, and more, and more, and more… and then we struggle to put our finger on the exact reason why we are so busy (except, that is, for those who are able to simply point their finger at school leadership and say “its their fault we’re so busy”!)
The funny things is… you know who isn’t to blame?
If they could, they would hang out, relax, play, be creative, come up with ideas, start their own little projects, socialize and probably do a massive amount of learning!
Some things to ponder:
- Make clearing out your school calendar a regular and rather therapeutic process. If nobody really knows why things are done, chuck ’em. If events don’t go right back to your school’s vision, chuck ’em. If there doesn’t seem to be learning involved, chuck ’em!
- Find ways to break the mould, to seek more time rather than seek more activity. Instead of filling time with things, take things away. Instead of valuing “busyness”, value being purposeful. Instead of trying to do too much and ending up not doing it well, do a few things and do them well. Instead of segmenting your days into little portions, spread things out to create bigger portions. Instead of creating huge, ever-evolving to-do lists with your students, sit back and see what they come up and then decide how and what to teach. Just try, and keep on trying. It is the only way to break these stubborn and damaging moulds and traps we consistently find ourselves in.
- Be kind to yourself. Keep things simple, don’t try and do everything that comes into your head. Empower your students by letting them know anything is possible, but keep your own agenda for teaching short and simple. If there are things you have to do, do them – it is amazing how much time can be wasted sitting around moaning about the things you have to do instead of just doing them!!! If you believe you shouldn’t have to do them, be part of driving for change – suggest alternatives, do the research, stake a case.
So… there you go. Believe me, I am equally prone to all of these things and equally guilty of falling into all the same traps. I am writing this as much for me as for anyone else.
Most educators agree with almost everything that Sir Ken Robinson says. But, how many of us fight tooth and nail to make what he says become a reality in our classrooms and schools? We laugh at his jokes, nod meaningfully at his nuggets of wisdom and shake our heads mournfully at his painful truths. But, what do we do about any of it?
This is his latest piece of brilliance. As he speaks, think carefully… what lessons have we learned from him and are we actually making them happen?