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.

 

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Building a School that Thrives

Thrive

It’s January 1st,  a time to start setting intentions for the coming year. My intention is to build a school that thrives. It’s a long term goal, I know – but how amazing it would be to work in a school where everyone truly thrives.

Thinking about thriving  inspires  us to aim higher and dig deeper.  When teaching my students mathematics, I not only ask, “Are my students learning, and meeting the expected outcomes”, but are they thriving in maths? This means I start wondering how engaged they are, how challenged they are, how connected they feel to the subject, how confident they are to use mathematics.

I also apply that word to my team,  the group of teachers I am responsible for leading and supporting. Are they thriving in their work or are they feeling worn down? Do they have a sense of efficacy and meaning in what they are doing? What conditions are necessary so that my teachers can thrive?

And what about me? Am I thriving in my role. What do I need so that I can thrive? What do I need to do or change to create the right conditions for myself?

And what about you? Are you thriving?

What would it take for everyone in your school to thrive?

Digital Resilience and the 21st Century Educator

If there is one quality that I am being sorely tested in this year, its my digital resilience.

I heard the term during Jenny Luca’s keynote at last week’s Edutech congress in Brisbane when she shared this slide:

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It seems that almost every digital project I have worked on with students this year has hit a wall due to infrastructure problems, blocked websites and security protocols.

For two terms now, I have been trying to get a school news show off the ground. A group of Year 5 and 6 students have been filming and editing news reports which we are putting together into a single news program. We’d planned to have our news come out at least twice a term, and we would have, if we hadn’t hit a brick wall of security protocols and infrastructure failures.

Our first issue was security protocols. At some point over the Christmas holidays, a change was made to the security protocols that allow us to transfer data from our school iPads to our school computers. I’m not sure if it was a school security issue, or an apple update, but no matter what we tried, we could not move the films off our iPads as it they would not ‘trust’ the connected device.

The files were too large to email, so I tried setting up a Google Drive account for the group and we attempted to upload our videos to that. This is when the infrastructure started to fail. Our school wifi, which is usually reliable became patchy. Some of the iPads would not connect at all. Others would, but transferred the data so slowly, it took days to upload the videos we needed. Eventually, I took the iPads home and was able to upload over my home network, but there is still one iPad, containing some of the best videos, that I can’t shift data from.

Our computer coordinator managed to work out a fix for all this, but installing it means wiping all the data off the iPads, including the videos we are trying to save.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working with another group of students teaching them to code using Scratch. They’ve been developing games for a games arcade that we plan to link to our school website. Today, after several weeks, the games were ready to upload. Scratch has a built in uploader which will share games created in the software directly to a user account on the Scratch website. Today I learned that the uploader won’t work in our school environment. We need a password to get through our proxy but the software won’t let us enter one. As a workaround, I had the students save their projects to my USB stick and I uploaded each project from home.

Hitting obstacle after obstacle takes its toll. They slow our projects down, and they frustrate and disappoint our students. It is so hard not to give up altogether and I’m tempted at times to choose non-tech projects in future just to avoid these problems.

I persist for a number of reasons:

  • I believe in the value of these projects. I see how they’ve engaged and excited my students, and the great learning that is occurring by participating in them.
  • I don’t see the setbacks as defeats. I am convinced that every problem can be solved, and it’s just a matter of finding a workaround.
  • After years of trouble shooting issues, I’ve developed a fairly wide repertoire of strategies which allow me to find workarounds to the sort of tech problems I’ve been facing.
  • When I can’t find a workaround myself, I consult with my network of teachers on Twitter and Yammer. Inevitably someone will suggest an idea I hadn’t considered, which solves the problem.
  • When no solution presents itself, I’ve learned to let it go. In every case  learning that has occurred in spite of the problems encountered. While the end result of the project may be different from what we intended, the process has still been worthwhile.

I would love to see an easing of security protocols which impede learning in schools and I would love to have reliable wifi that never drops out. But as technology continues to develop, at a faster pace than our protocols and infrastructure can possibly keep up with,  I suspect we are always going to face issues like this.

Persevering can be stressful, but if the project is worth doing, then it’s better than giving up. If there isn’t a workaround, then  adapt the project. Our twice a term news project looks more likely to become a year in review video, and that’s okay. It’s not quite the project I’d intended, but the students are still learning and developing their skills.

And there is an unintended but valuable consequence for our students. Our students get to see us learn. They witness us solving problems from different angles, trying new strategies until we find the one that works. They see us research answers and consult and collaborate with others. And they see us remaining positive in the face of set backs. They see in action the life-long learning skills that we would like to see in them.

So when faced with set backs,  stay positive and persevere. Be digitally resilient. It’s worth it.

Does being a parent make you a better teacher?

Just over a week ago, Teacher and Blogger Craig Kemp wrote a heartfelt post on his blog titled ‘Being a Dad makes me a better educator‘. It’s a lovely piece which has clearly resonated with many people. It’s been shared several times in my twitter timeline over the past week by different people, and I’ve spotted many comments from people who related to that post and felt that parenthood had impacted their teaching in a similar way. But his post raised some issues for me…

I am a woman in my 40s and will never have children.

When I learned that  this would be the case, I had to confront the painful idea that my life would lack any meaning or significance. The schema I have been raised in as an Australian female had taught me that family is the most important thing and that the most important contribution I would make to society as a female would be that of a mother to my own children.

I grieved for the children I would never have, and feared for my future, imagining a shallow, barren existence. I still wonder from time to time, who will care for me when I’m too old to care for myself, and who will visit me in the nursing home of my future.

I had to work hard to reimagine a future for myself without children and challenge the notion that a woman’s life can only be fulfilled if she is a mother. Some years down the track I now realise what garbage that notion is.  I do live a life that is enjoyable and  fulfilling, in which I thrive and in which I contribute meaningfully to society and to the lives of others.

However other people, raised with the same assumptions about womanhood, find my childless status hard to understand or appreciate. When they discover I have no children, I am given either bewildered,  pitying or judgemental looks. Some, apparently trying to relate and empathise, will tell me how sorry they feel for me since my life must be so empty. Others are more judgemental, assuming I’ve put my career ahead of children. These tell me that I really should get on with it or I’ll run out of time. I’ve even been told that I’ll never truly understand what it is to be a woman until I’ve given birth, so apparently I’m just half a woman.

I’m used to these reactions now. They irritate me, but they no longer sting.

But one part of my experience as a childless woman, that I never, ever will get used to is the prejudice that I encounter as a teacher. 

I’ve been told, when a fellow teacher disagreed with a decision I’d made, ‘If you were a parent you wouldn’t have made that decision.’

Parents of students I teach, who’ve discovered I have no children of my own, have openly marvelled at the way I can still relate their kids.

And on countless occasions now, I’ve sat and listened respectfully as  parents, who are also teachers, talk about how parenthood has improved the way they relate to their students, helpfully  telling me, ‘until you’re a parent, you’ll never understand ‘  As if somehow I’m incapable of truly relating to my students and having empathy without children of my own.

Apparently, my childless status means that not only am I incomplete as a woman, I am also incomplete as a teacher.

I’d like to make something very clear.

BEING A PARENT DOES NOT QUALIFY ANYONE TO BE A TEACHER OR MAKE THEM BETTER TEACHERS THAN THOSE WHO DO NOT HAVE CHILDREN.

Successfully completing a teaching degree is what qualifies us to be teachers, on going professional experience, learning and reflection is what makes us better.

This is not intended as a criticism of what Craig Kemp has described. His experience as a father has added depth and perspective to his work as a teacher. And he never suggests that his experience is universal, or that all teachers who are parents are better than those who are not. He writes from a personal perspective about a powerful life experience.

All life experiences impact and change us, and add to what we bring to our work as teachers.

My experience of being bullied in primary and high school has taught me to care deeply about that issue, and work proactively in my school community to minimise bullying and to support victims.

My childhood experience of being lousy at sport, and finding it a humiliating experience,  has given me special insight in to the experience of children who struggle with sport, and led me to arrange special opportunities for those children to learn the  basic motor skills required for games, to arrange mentoring for them in playground games, and a range of other  opportunities that help increase their participation in and enjoyment of sport.

Life experiences, with or without children, will impact us all. I’ve experienced grief, trauma, heartbreak, loneliness love, joy and friendship. Each experience touches me, changes me and makes me who I am. I bring all of that passion, wisdom, insight and empathy to my work.

Life makes me a better teacher.

Why teach?

When I decided to become a teacher back in 1989 these were my reasons:

  • I wanted to spend my time making the world a better place, not making myself or others rich.
  • I loved learning. What better way to share that joy than to become a teacher
  • I loved to create, innovate and problem solve. Teaching would allow me to do this all day, every day.
  • I enjoy variety and I was pretty sure primary school teaching would allow this.

Looking back on my reasons, I have to say that every one of them is as true today as they were then. I love teaching because I know I am making a positive difference in the lives of students every day.  20 years on, I continue to find it challenging, creative and varied. I could count on one hand the times I’ve felt bored or haven’t wanted to go to work. It’s hard work. There are long hours, high expectations and a lot of stress. But there is also so much fun and laughter each day.

I love my work because I know it matters. At the end of each day I come home with the knowledge that I’ve done something good, that I’ve helped another person and set students on the path to a better future. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

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Are you a teacher? I’d love to hear why you became a teacher and what keeps you in the profession.

Lesson Preparation: It Gets Easier

Tonight on #Teacherwellbeingchat we were talking about planning.

When I think about my early years of teaching, there was so much planning. Every single lesson I taught for the first year was being taught for the first time, and every teaching situation was being encountered for the first time. I had no repertoire and  no experience to fall back on. It was hard. I had to not only learn the content, but figure out how to teach it. A I was new, I didn’t trust my choices and I spent a lot of time second guessing myself, trying to figure the best way to teach a concept. I would spend most evenings staying up late, planning my lessons and creating resources for the next day. It took as long to plan the lessons as to teach them, if not longer.

If you’re in your early years of teaching, you’re possibly experiencing a similar sort of stress. You feel like you’re a constant slave to the job and you can’t slow down, because if you do, your students will suffer, or your class will be out of  control, or you just might not be asked back to teach again next year.

Well it gets easier – much, much easier.

As you build your experience a few things happen:

  • You learn to trust your judgment. When you stop second guessing yourself, planning becomes a lot quicker and easier.
  • You stop being such a perfectionist. After experiencing more than a few lessons that don’t go the way you planned, you start to realise that its not a disaster, and you start to work out how to plan lessons that might not be perfect, but are good enough to get the job done.
  • You build a repertoire. Every time you teach a successful lesson, you store it away – both the content and the strategies, so next time you teach that subject, you have it up your sleeve ready to go.
  • You know your content – you do eventually become familiar with all your content. So there’s less time spent on researching and understanding it.

There are also some fabulous resources out there to help you like this:

Do you have any tips to help with the planning process? Share them in the comments below.

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Making a Difference

Sometimes the demands of school life can become so great that it becomes easy to lose sight of the reason we are there.

We aren’t at work to please our colleagues, our boss, the parent community. We’re not there to be popular, approved of or well-liked. We’re not even there to be the most perfect teachers, with the most innovative, rigorous programs and the most immaculate classrooms. It’s not a competition.

The core business of schools and of teachers is our students.

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It’s the final week of term in Sydney. With that comes many distractions. I’m battling tiredness, the cold I regularly get at the change of season, and have quite a few deadlines that I need to meet.

As I go to work each day this week, I plan to ask myself this question:

How can I make a positive difference to my students today?

When I keep that question in mind, it helps me get past all the distractions and I remember why I’m there