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.

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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.