The Missing Superheroes

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As a young girl who aspired to greatness, I couldn’t think of too many people I’d rather be than Bat Girl. Bat Girl had a cool outfit and rode a bike and beat up bad guys.  But I was always conscious that she was living in Batman’s shadow, following a path he’d already trodden.

Wonder Woman was my other favourite.  She wasn’t following in anyone else’s footsteps, or being a slightly less powerful version of a male hero. She was a hero in her own right.

WONDER WOMAN

UNITED STATES – JANUARY 22: WONDER WOMAN – “Formula 407” – Season One – 1/22/77, Diana Prince/ Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter) goes south of the border to recover a top secret formula stolen by the Nazis. The series was based on Charles Moulon’s comic book superheroine., (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

It used to frustrate me that there was such a dearth of female heroes. I loved that Princess Leia was strong and heroic, smarter than both Han and Luke, but she was still a victim, held prisoner by Darth Vader, needing to be rescued.

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I became increasingly aware of the lack of women in public life. I remember one Saturday, my sister and I were making a mix tape of songs from the radio, and pretending to be DJs,  recording chat and making announcements between each song. For a brief period in the late 70s/early 80s I thought I might like to work on radio when I grew up, but, as my sister pointed out to me, there were no female announcers on the radio, just men. We wondered why that was, and concluded that mens voices just sound more convincing than women’s. A high pitched female voice on the radio would sound silly. Or so we thought, having never heard a woman on the radio.

It was around that time that Deborah Lawrie was the first woman to make a commercial flight in Australia. This was after a prolonged sex discrimination case against Ansett Airlines. My uncle was a pilot for Ansett so my family paid close attention whenever they were in the news. I remember Ansett arguing it would not be safe for a woman to fly commercially, especially if she were having her period. I was delighted when she won her case.

We often hear the expression ‘It’s a man’s world’. That was certainly true when I was growing up. No one was TELLING me it was a man’s world,  but it was apparent, even to a 7 year old child that there were opportunities and paths available to men that were closed to me, simply because of my femaleness. The lack of female role models made some careers seem impossible or absurd.

I started high school at a time when a poster campaign aimed at breaking these barriers was running. On classroom walls and corridors all around our school were posters of women in jobs typically considered to be men’s work. The two I remember most clearly were the car mechanic and the scientist. They all bore the simple message “Girls Can Do Anything”.

It was a simple campaign, but for us it was powerful. Until then, we hadn’t been aware of anyone challenging the norms of what women could do. The feminist movement had of course been happening for years, but as Year 7 students, we were oblivious to all that.

My friends and I weren’t sure that we wanted to be mechanics, but we liked that the posters suggested that we could. We felt stronger when we saw them. We loved that they challenged the way things were. They gave us hope that maybe being female wouldn’t stop us doing what we wanted. And of course, when the character Charlene, who happened to be a mechanic appeared on neighbours, we felt elated. Barriers were being broken all over the place.

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A simple poster campaign made a difference to my friends and I, in a time when there were few female role models in public life, in literature or on television. While women have come a long way (and still have a long way to go), there are still many marginalised children in Australia growing up in an environment which tells them, through the absence of representation, that they can’t aspire to greater things.

How often do we share literature that features people with disabilities or diverse genders, or from diverse backgrounds?  How often do we feature their stories in our history lessons?We need to be challenging the absence of role models, and actively seeking out texts and role models that represent the diversity of our student populations.For schools to be truly inclusive we must examine not just what we teach, but what we leave out, and who we ignore. We owe it to our students to show them that there is a place for them in this world, that they can participate fully and aspire to whatever it is they wish.


This post was inspired by  @Obi_jon_ , @debsnet and @drsriddle who all wrote blogs inspired by cartoons recently.

Trouble Brewing at Snake Mountain High

The Indexcardification of Education

A pedagogy of Astro Boy: education and social justice

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Evidence-Based Practice: Supporting decisions or a stick to beat us with?

There are days like today where I feel more tired and jaded than usual about the push for evidence based practice in schools, which sometimes seems more a stick to beat educators with than a tool to guide and inform our practice.

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Increasingly I speak with teachers who have either lost confidence in their ability to make professional judgments, or don’t have permission. Perhaps the pedagogy they have adopted (or been told to adopt), isn’t  effective. But instead of questioning the pedagogy, they assume, or are told they are failing,  doing it wrong. I suppose it’s a natural conclusion when evidence is treated as proof, and learning is regarded as something that follows a predictable path.

The truth is, no one really knows what will work in education. As much as politicians, consultants, ‘edgurus’ and the publishers of scripted  DI programs might like us to believe  a particular input will produce a predictable outcome, we know that’s not true. There are always students who don’t fit the mould and for whom that approach is ineffective.

No one better positioned than the classroom teacher to judge how to best teach their students. Every classroom has its own dynamics and unique variables. There is no template for practice which can fit each situation perfectly. It is the teacher’s job to work out if it can be applied at all.

Standardising instruction, behaviour management techniques and so forth, whether across a year level, a school or a system may work for those students who fit the mould, but there are always those students who don’t fit, who don’t thrive, and for whom a standardised ‘evidence-based’ approach is setting them up for failure. All too often, students who don’t fit are seen as the problem. They must change to fit the system, rather than reshaping the system to fit the students. Those students who can’t adapt fail, or are marginalised. They quickly learn that they don’t belong.

I’ve taught many marginalised kids. Students who are very difficult to teach because they don’t fit the mould. Some traumatised, some  highly anxious, some with diagnoses such as ODD. Students who are still  learning to regulate their emotions, to form positive relationships with other students, to trust adults and to communicate effectively rather than lashing out physically or verbally. Students who are also learning reading and writing, mathematics, art, science and so forth. They are difficult to teach and learn in different ways.

Some, with a desperate need for control, are best provided with choices and opportunities for self-direction. They will resist, rebel, undermine and refuse to engage if they feel they are being ‘told’. Others, with extreme fear of failure, thrive when provided with clear, explicit instructions, repetitive activities, and only a gradual increase in challenge. Some learn best with and from other students, they are motivated by their peers. Others, need to have their own space, and not be disturbed or interrupted. Some can only sustain activity for a short period of time. Others will have meltdowns if forced to end an activity before it is complete or perfect.

There is no template for children, there is no one model of best practice we can adopt and say ‘This is what works’. Frequently what works on Tuesday will be a complete failure on Wednesday. Yes we refer to research, and we seek out evidence to inform our practice, but we adapt and modify everything we do to suit the children in front of us.

Every child needs an education, but not all children fit the education we provide. It is our obligation to ensure that we don’t marginalise those outliers. We must instead do what we can to provide the education they are entitled to. We must become flexible, let evidence inform judgement but not dictate it. Rather than force our students to fit in or fail, we need to shape our practice around their needs. That is what teacher professional judgement is all about, and why it needs to be privileged in our schools.

 

Starting Out

STARTING

In 3 days I’ll commence a new school year, in a new role as relieving principal for a special purpose school that caters for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties. I’m expecting to be there for a term, but it could be longer depending on how long it takes to fill the position permanently.

Working with these sorts of students is always challenging. While I’ve developed expertise working with similar cases in a mainstream setting, working in a school where EVERY child has significant behavioural or emotional needs will be a new experience.

However, this sort of work is rewarding. I usually find that once trust and rapport has been developed with a child, they make great progress. I love seeing them develop self awareness, emotional control, belief in themselves as learners and as valued members of a school community. So often their first experiences with formal education is negative, and they feel alienated. A lot of work needs to go into reversing that, building their self esteem and confidence. If we can help them with this during their early years at school, I believe we have a far greater chance of seeing positive outcomes for them in the future.

I’m looking forward to working for a cause that I am passionate about.

I went into the office last week and started transferring dates to my calendar. It is already bursting with deadlines, meetings and so forth. I have 8 meetings in Week 2 scheduled already, along with enrolling a new student. There are 8 the following week as well.

Of the 5 teachers (There are 5 teachers and 5 learning support officers at the school) only two were there last year. Two of the three new teachers coming in have done some casual relief work at the school and are highly regarded, but this will be their first experience running their own class. The third teacher has never worked at the school before.

All of these teachers are early career and on temporary contracts. The assistant principal, who seems very capable, dedicated and insightful is also a temp. There is one permanent teacher on the team at the moment.

I think at least two of the five learning support officers (formerly called teachers aides) are also new this year. So, of the 10 staff,  5 are new. And then of course there’s me – new as well. A priority will be to ensure that all the teachers are well supported, with the less experienced  having access to good mentors.

With so much change I want to try to keep things as normal as possible for the students. Often children with diagnoses like ADHD, ODD and autism experience a lot of anxiety when there is change. Returning to school after the holidays, being put into new classes with different peers and a new teacher is anxiety inducing enough. Introducing several unfamiliar adults will likely add to this. There may well  be some boundary testing, and greater chance of meltdowns in the first few weeks.

On TeachMeets, EduChats and Marketing

YOUR VOICE

Following from my earlier post, in which I grappled with the ethics around blogging about freebies, I wanted to start a broader discussion about the way our social and professional networks are being harnessed by marketers.

When I first entered the world of Teach Meets, and education Twitter discussions, I found them refreshing, fascinating and empowering. They seemed to me almost revolutionary in the way that they were giving practitioners voice. Instead of teachers being talked TO by ‘experts’, consultants and so on, here was a platform which elevated the voice of the practicing classroom teacher and brought their expertise to the fore.

We were hearing from each other and it seemed to me to fill a much needed void, while also bringing respect back to the profession. Collegial networks formed as teachers became aware of others working towards similar goals, whom they could learn from or team with. It was inspiring, it created support networks, it helped teachers build confidence in their own practice, and respect for the practice of others. No longer were we just recipients of other people’s wisdom. Our practice, our innovations, our stories were being shared and were of value.

Twitter chats were a fast paced, short form version of the same. Led by a moderator around a topic, teachers would share their insights, practices and resources. As with TeachMeets, we were sharing genuine experiences of what was working in our classrooms, gathering ideas, sharing resources and forming communities of practice.

But then the marketers arrived. The last 4 TeachMeets I organised had more product reps than teachers signing up to present. They jumped on the sign up forms as soon as they became available. I was thrown by this at first, not sure how to respond, but eventually settled on a policy that any TeachMeet I organised would be marketing free. Listening to commercials is not what TeachMeets are about, at least not to me. At a TeachMeet, I want to hear the stories of teachers not the pitches from sales reps, no matter how good their product.

Sponsership of an event is less black and white to me. Museums, tech companies and other organisations will sometimes provide free space for TeachMeets as part of their community outreach. On those occasions, it seems fair that the venue host give a brief overview of the services they make available for educators. An interesting venue, sometimes with catering included, provided in exchange for a five minute overview of their education services seems a pretty good deal. But how far should one go down that path, I wonder? My favourite venue for a TeachMeet will always be a pub. It’s relaxed and there’s beer. Many pubs provide space for free if its mid week and they know a group of teachers will be eating and drinking there.

Twitter chats also started to attract the marketers a year or so ago. Some with products to flog would join, they’d seem friendly at first, but then I’d notice they contributed little other than links to their product or websites. I felt very uneasy with this. It seemed our networks, formed by teachers for teachers, were being infiltrated by people who wanted to use the guise of professsional discussion to market their product. It was insincere.

A more honest approach to marketing seems to be the hashtag chats that have grown up around some books and tech products. The marketing agenda is clear from the tag used in every tweet. However, I choose not to participate in them. Back in the mid 80s coca-cola branded t-shirts were inexplicably popular for a short while. I wanted one and remember my father spluttering with disbelief that people would actually pay money for the privilege of advertising a product on their shirt. Perhaps that influenced the view I have now. I refuse to tweet in chats using a tag that provides free advertising for a profit making venture. That seems like exploitation to me, and I don’t wish to be a part of it.

Interestingly, when I’ve expressed these views on Twitter I’ve been fairly heavily censured. One commercial hashtag chat convenor spotted my conversation with a friend on the topic and accused me of having an ‘attitude problem’. I’ve been accused by others of being too negative, and that expressing these views is not a constructive or positive use of Twitter.

I found it strange that speaking out against the marketers provoked such a strong response. I speak for and against all sorts of things, but it’s only my tweets on marketing that seem to anger people. (Aside from one time when I happened to mention phonics while a lot of UK teachers were online) It’s odd, because my intention is actually one that is positive. I love TeachMeets and I love education Twitter networks. I speak up about this sort of thing because I hope, in my small way, to preserve what is great about both: that they elevate the voices and expertise of teachers and provide a space where they can be heard. That’s a rare thing, and I don’t want to see it disappear.

An Ethical Dilemma

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photo by zeevveez on flickr

People trust recommendations from ‘real people’ more than they trust advertising. Consumer reviews on sites like Amazon are trusted for this reason and it’s why marketers pay people to post positive reviews there. However, in doing so, they erode the usefulness of those sites as the deceptive practice makes us uncertain which information we can believe.

Another strategy marketers use is to recruit ‘ social media influencers’ to promote their products.  These ‘influencers’ have built a reputation with an audience who see them as trustworthy, so their recommendations are of great value.

Over the last 24 months, I’ve been offered money, gifts and VIP access in order to review or raise awareness of various education events and products. When an offer comes in I’m flattered but conflicted. On one hand it’s a huge compliment, and often a great opportunity. On the other hand, I worry about the ethics and the impact on my integrity. I don’t want to be seen as someone whose opinions can be bought. I don’t like ‘cash for comment‘.

When ABC Splash employed me for a couple of months in 2015 to raise awareness of their work on social media, I tried to get around the dilemma by declaring on all my profiles that I was working with ABC Splash to raise awareness of their product. Without that disclaimer, I felt it would be unethical to even retweet something they said.

In addition, instead of providing my own reviews of their product, I provided a space on the TER Podcast for their spokesperson to inform the audience of their latest releases. I also made a somewhat clumsy declaration in each of those episodes that I was receiving payment to raise awareness of their work.

Access to events such as conferences has also raised this ethical dilemma. While there’s no agreement that I provide a positive review of events when I’m issued with a media pass to attend, even so, I wonder if podcasting about them is a form of cash for comment.  I don’t believe I have any entitlement to access and when it’s granted, I’m grateful for the privilege. This makes me less inclined to be publicly critical. It would seem discourteous to accept hospitality and then speak negatively. My reviews therefore focus mainly on the positive aspects, and I feel more circumspect about sharing any criticisms I may have.

Microsoft recently gave me a tour of their office, a Surface 3 and a really interesting overview of how their products can be used for education. There was no demand, but they did express a hope that I would blog about it. I haven’t done so yet, mainly because it was fourth term and I was tired and busy.

I like the product, so my review will be mainly positive, but having accepted a gift, am I turning the trust and good will my readers place in me into a commodity that I trade on? Am I letting that trust be exploited for profitable ends? Where does benefiting end and exploiting begin?

Being transparent about benefits and agendas is an important first step. It saddens me that in 2015 I came across a number of blogs and tweets, and sat through TeachMeet presentations, from people receiving incentives without declaring their interest.  When this occurs, it erodes trust in just the same way as fake reviews on Trip Advisor or Amazon do, and I hate seeing our education networks exploited for personal or commercial gain in that way.

But are those of us who declare the benefits we receive any different? Is declaring enough?  If we are allowing our network influence to be used by companies for marketing, to bring them profit, are we becoming part of the problem? Who is benefiting, who is being exploited, and does it even matter?

I’d welcome your comments on this dilemma, so please make use of the comment section below.

 

Intentions for 2016

 

1. Read more books2. Get a new hobby3. Try rock climbing4. Be more creative

I’m writing this on New Years Day, a temporal landmark that helps me leave all that happened in 2015 behind and start fresh.

So what is to come in 2016? For me new challenges.

I’ll be starting the year as relieving principal of what’s commonly called a behaviour school, for students in Kindergarten to Year 4. These are students who for various emotional and behavioural reasons do not do well in a mainstream setting, but the aim of the school is to get them to the point where they can.

Students attend the school four days each week, remaining in their home school on the fifth. The teachers work closely with their home schools  to support their re-integration into the mainstream setting. By the end of their three term placement, the number of days at their home school increases, until finally, they return full time.

It’s a good program. I’ve worked with a number of children and families who have had their lives turned around by this and similar programs. And its so important. These children’s first experiences of school are often of alienation, and that can colour their experience throughout life. If we can’t turn things around, these children are at high risk of poor social, emotional and educational outcomes.

Aside from the obvious challenge of working with such high need students and families, I’ll be responsible for leading a team of teachers and learning support officers who are operating in roles which are both physically and emotionally demanding.

There’ll also be the steep learning curve of managing school finance, and of being a site manager.

And I’ll be working with a broad range of stakeholders. In addition to parents and students, I’ll be working with the Department of Health, an NGO who will be managing a residential part of the school, the home schools for all the different students, and even the taxi drivers who provide transport for students to and from the school.

On top of this, I’ll be commencing a Master of Education (Research).

So, my priority going in to the year is to ensure I remain healthy and fit enough, both physically and mentally, to manage all of this.

I’ve learned the hard way that if I over commit, I don’t do well in any area of life, and given my recent ‘episode‘ I’m even more cognisant of the need to take care of myself.

To bring myself back to a state of good health, I  put in to place practices that I need to maintain. Having a healthy diet and regular exercise were obvious, but the other that was vital to my recovery and to my continued well being was ‘me time’.

I have always been a reflective person, and need time to think, process and make sense of things. If I’m busy, always involved in activities or surrounded by people, I go under. Making time to simply be in my own headspace is essential to my wellbeing. It’s also one of the things that can most easily be sacrificed when I’m busy, because it seems hard to justify the necessity of simply ‘being’ when there are so many demands on time.

So, the practices I began last year that I mean to continue include:

  • No work on weekends. This probably won’t be possible in 2016 if I’m combining work and study, but I still need to quarantine some time. I need to learn what the demands will be to determine how best to manage, but hope to quarantine at least one day of the weekend. Another option might be to schedule weekends off or away every few weeks.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. This is going to be the hardest part as I’ve struggled with insomnia for years. But I found avoiding wine on week days, staying hydrated, going to bed at a reasonable time, and reading a book rather than surfing the net on my smartphone before sleeping helps a lot.
  • Get up early. I started getting up at 5:30 am last year, even though I didn’t need to leave my home until 8. I loved it. The sun would just be rising and the only sound was bird song. I’d read, write, have a leisurely breakfast, make lunch and bid a somewhat smug farewell  to my partner who would leave getting up until the last minute then fly out the door feeling stressed – which is exactly what I used to do. Making time to start the day slowly made the whole day run well. Work didn’t feel as if it was taking over, but was just one part of a varied day.
  • Walk or run every day. I NEED exercise to clear my head and to get rid of tension. In 2015, I would either walk to and from work (45 minutes each way) or go for a late afternoon run. I won’t be able to walk this year, and I’m not sure how late I’ll be working. I’m considering  using the school grounds after hours for exercise. The school has large grounds, with a walking track and a swimming pool. There could be some good possibilities there.

Since I’ve already begun these practices, this is not so much a list of resolutions as of intentions. The main priority for me as I head into 2016 is to prioritise those things that will keep me well. If I don’t have my health, I’m not much use to anyone.

 

2015 The Good, The Bad, The People that helped me Through.

How to define 2015?  There were such highs and lows.

It began on a promising note. I was in the final phase of my coaching accreditation with GCI education and looking forward to taking on a coaching client, being coached myself and gaining my credential.

At school, I was trialling a model of learning support which focused on coaching, goal setting and building teachers’ capacity to work with students with specific learning needs. I was anticipating push back from colleagues who might not welcome this new way of working, and wasn’t sure if it would succeed, but the early signs were promising. Students were making strong progress right from the start, and teacher feedback at the end of Term 1 was very positive.

But all of a sudden everything changed. A news report reminded me of a time when I survived a violent assault and whether I lived or died was in someone else’s hands. The memory was like one of those tiny chips you get in car windscreens that cause fractures to spread across the glass.

For two or three weeks after hearing that news, the fractures spread across my psyche. And then one day I fell completely apart, as if I had been shattered into thousands of tiny pieces. I couldn’t function for weeks. I was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic-stress disorder, and needed a term off work to put myself back together.

I spent weeks in almost complete isolation. Aside from my partner, the only people I saw regularly were my psychologist and doctor. I was re-living trauma on a daily basis. For quite some time, I was afraid to leave the house, open email or even answer the telephone.

When I finally returned to work in Term 3 I’d lost confidence, not in my ability to do my job, but in my ability to manage everyday life. The PTSD had been so disabling. I’d  been forced to face the fact that I was vulnerable. I felt breakable.

But, moment by moment, one step at a time, I picked up the threads of the what I’d been doing before my breakdown and continued on. Now that there’s time to reflect, I realise how much I was able to learn and to achieve.

In spite of several weeks’ interruption, I achieved my coaching accreditation. I’m grateful to my supervising coach and to my client for bearing with me and being patient and understanding when our coaching cycles were put on hold for several weeks.

The model of learning support I began in Term One continued in my absence. I’m grateful to my colleagues who so willingly embraced what was a significant change and worked in that manner throughout the year, even when I wasn’t there. We have more to do to refine the model, but our 2015 evaluation has shown that it is making a real difference for our students.

Other plans I’d been working on also started to come to fruition. My principal and I began the year aiming to develop our teachers’ understanding and use of formative assessment, but this was put on the backburner. However, we were able to send a team to train with Dylan Wiliam in Term 4, and are ready to run a whole staff  professional development program in 2016.

Another question that had been rattling around in my mind throughout the year was how to develop a coaching culture at my school. Fortuitously, this coincided with the introduction of a new performance and development framework for NSW teachers which requires us all to participate in peer observation. This provided the impetus for my principal to approve training for our entire staff in Peer Coaching from Term 1 2016.

And, in the final week of school, of my professional life suddenly changed. After putting in an expression of interest, I was offered the role of relieving principal of Arndell for Term 1 2016. Arndell is a K-4 for students with emotional and behavioural needs.

So, in spite of setbacks, the year ended well. I’m moving forward with my professional goals and my school is heading towards greater things. 2016 is going to be an exciting time of growth and development.

The fact I’m running towards challenges, not away from the risks, shows me I’m finally healed, the breakdown is behind me, that I’m able to move ahead with my life. I heard from a few sources that a colleague said of my breakdown “Well, she’s blown her chance of ever being principal.”  I’m happy to be proving her wrong.  And that’s the thing about mental illness – It doesn’t have to define us.

I’m indebted to the many people who supported me through a difficult and confronting time:

  • My principal who supported me both personally and professionally in allowing me the time I needed to recover before returning to work.
  • My colleagues from school who sent messages of support, and then welcomed me back so warmly when I returned from leave.
  • My colleagues from Twitter who looked out for me when I needed it most and continue to check in on me frequently. You know who you are.
  • My friends who met me for lunches and coffees, and who were forgiving when I’d refuse invitations because it was all too overwhelming.
  • And most importantly, my partner Michael, who was so accepting, patient and supportive. He carried me through much of this year.

I’m extraordinarily fortunate to have so many wonderful people in my life. Thank you all. I wish you the very best for 2016.