F is for Fabulous Achievements

Dr Kevin Donnelly is wrong in his Telegraph Article today. As a Principal in the NSW Public Education System (and Fairfield Primary Principals Assocaition President) I strongly refute the suggestion that our system is “an inflexible, bureaucratic model that consolidates the power of the Teachers Federation and the department’s centralised bureaucracy.”

1. The Gonski funding has allowed my school the freedom and flexibility to engage a community nurse, speech pathologist and occupational therapist for the provision of early intervention support of our students and families. In a bureaucratic system, the majority of education funding would be centralised and dribbled out for targeted programs with schools told how to use it while our students would be struggling in learning while on a public health waiting lists for support. Other schools have used their funding to meet their own needs. Gonski has made a huge difference to our school and Minister Piccoli gets an A for his Advocacy.

2. I have a lot of input about my staff component in my school through either a merit selection (choosing staff through an interview process) or choosing teachers through a graduate recruitment program, or accepting transfers from other schools. Good teachers flourish, while struggling teachers are supported by various mentoring programs and collegial teamwork. Just this week, one of the new 257 NSW Department of Education teachers started her teaching career via the graduate recruitment program in my school (my school’s choice and not the so call bureaucratic system). The old bureaucratic system never provided for mentoring programs, instructional leaders to work with new scheme teachers, nor gave additional time to adequately plan, watch colleagues teach and evaluate their own performance.

3. My staff and I have a lot of say in the curriculum and the pedagogies that we use in our school. The starting point is to look at our students and their needs. Our school is different from the school down the road, around the corner and to other schools throughout NSW and Australia. No two schools are alike. Our student population is predominantly Middle Eastern, European, Asian and Pacific Islanders with disruptive schooling through various reasons. English for many students is an Additional Language or Dialect. Therefore, we do not just pick up the curriculum and start off by saying these children are in Year 3 and this is their curriculum as those all students are a homogenous group. We look at the whole child and personalised their learning so that those students who are struggling receive the additional support they need but work at a particular level while other students may be able to work beyond their designated stage of learning. What does this mean? We have students who code well, design websites, explore robotics, and create animations and movies, write books and all while still learning English. At the same time, we want our students to excel in sport, the creative and performing arts and having outstanding citizenships skills with a voice to speak up against social injustice and bullying.

This term, our students will be embarking on a ten week social entrepreneur program while other students will be continuing with their coding experience. A bureaucratic system would prescribe what my teachers and I have to teach, and every student would receive the same, regardless of their cognitive development.

4. My school has taken a lot of practicum students from many Universities over the years. The majority of students are successful in both their University Studies of a Teaching Degree and also in their practical component. I should know as our school has accommodated many former practicum students as casual or temporary teachers. However, like all profession, my personal opinion is that we do need to lift the entrance standard in education courses so that we are back on par with many other courses. A teaching course should be seen as something that you aspire and work towards rather than a lesser option based on a low ATAR. This is just one option to lifting the standard of teaching rather than just rely on my teachers and I at the end point after teachers have graduated. It is a joint collaborative process of lifting the standard of teaching in NSW but it starts at the entrance and not after the exit.

5. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again that NAPLAN is not an external measure of my school and students. Every year, all our students sit NAPLAN regardless of their length of time in Australia. Yes, that means some of our students will struggle without the required English skills to just simply read the questions and we don’t add to the state’s exemption figures. When the results arrive and sent home, not one parent has come to my school in the past few years to discuss the results. Why? We take steps beforehand to talk to parents about their child’s achievements and outcomes. In other words, like most schools, we know our students and we provide realistic judgements about their learning beyond just NAPLAN.

6. Our school has just commenced the 4th year of flexible schools hours from 8am to 1:15pm. This initiative was made from extensive community consultation and a survey which indicated 72% of families wanted the change to suit their needs. It was also support by the NSW government and the ‘so call’ bureaucracy. In my opinion, a bureaucratic system would mean that all schools would have the same or similar starting and finishing times with little room for deviation regardless of community contexts.

7. My staff and I are trusted to make the necessary changes to our school environment and to create learning spaces for the present and future. We have made tremendous strides in this area after extensively research into of space used by the way corporation and business work in the community and no longer does our school look like a factory where teachers stand out the front and do nothing but direct instruction. Our teachers use a range of pedagogies for our learners and utilises a range of learning spaces. There is no ownership of classrooms, furniture or even space and teachers’ desks have become extinct. In a bureaucratic system, I would be told how my classrooms and my school should look and the way children should learn.

The freedom and flexibility of the NSW Public Education system has resulted in our students being more engaged with learning and having a lot more tailored programs according to needs. In 2015, our suspension rate for aggressive behaviour or continued disobedience was 0% while our students were able to demonstrate knowledge and skills in various situations. Our students are not failures and our teachers are not in a performance competition with Victoria nor any other state or territory. Instead, we work collaboratively with educators from all sectors and all educational jurisdictions to ensure that we have the best possible learning opportunities for our students. A bureaucratic system would have us all work in silos, not knowing what other schools were doing and left wondering one school was resourced differently from another.

Just aside, the measure of the Minister Piccoli’s successful work, (along with Secretary Bruniges and the NSW Department of Education) was seen at the 2015 NSW Primary Principals State Conference where principals throughout the state lined up one evening to share stories about the impact for their students from the Gonski funding and the NSW Public Schools Reform Agenda while having the odd ‘selfie.’….. I guess that’s a good sign that Minister Piccoli gets an F for Fabulous Achievements.

Gonski Unites and Provides

It is incredulous and contemptible towards the Australian public that a Federal Government would even be considering an option of fully shifting the full funding of education or just shifting public school funding onto states and territories. This is on top of the “No cuts to education” pledge made by the prime minister at the last federal election. While according to the Federal Education Minister that there is no “emotional attachment” by the Federal Government towards public schools, there is however a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure that all children receive an adequate and appropriately funded education regardless of whatever sector of schooling. Shifting funding onto the states will result in a signifcant drop in school funding and a total abrogation of Federal Government responsibility.

The Review of Funding for Schooling by David Gonski AC and his panel in 2010/11, highlighted the need for a schooling resource standard to form the basis for general recurrent funding for all students in all schooling sectors with recognition that schools with similar student population required the same levels of resourcing regardless of whether they were located in government, catholic or independent school sectors. The report recognise a need for a transparent funding model that addressed students that than education sectors.

The NSW Government and Education Minister need to be commended for their ongoing support and advocacy of the full 5th and 6th years of Gonski funding, often called the outlook years. It was the first State Government in Australia to sign up to a joint Federal-State model for school funding. It is here that we see a difference in the way both State and Federal Governments perform in education – the State Government places a huge importance on the success of all students regardless of their life circumstances, ethnicity and language backgrounds or socio-economic levels. Time and time again, I often hear the minister speak at meetings with educators about the importance of the Gonski funding for students’ success. However at the Federal level, the Government seems to be divisive, commissioning a report by pseudo experts that lambaste teachers as using progressive and fad ways of teaching and being guides on the side, yet failing to work or accept advice from the various professional organisations representing principals and teachers, and committing the necessary resources.

In my school, the additional Gonski funding has led to the engagement of a speech pathologist and occupational therapist over the past two years. Imagine students with expressive and receptive language delays, articulation issues or fine motor skills having to wait on the public health lists for years while languishing at school without the adequate and necessary support. The stress and despair from both teachers and parents, while the frustration of students can be heartbreaking. Gonski funding has allowed our school to provide, and fast track the resources necessary to support students schooling. It has enabled our parents to reduce travelling time or attempting to find multiple services by having them at the doorstep of our school. It has allowed the case conferencing of students with multiple complexities and needs, without parents placed in stressful situations of explaining their child’s circumstance over and over again to each medical para-professional.

Gonski funding is not wasted in NSW public schools. There is no one installing swimming pools, new tennis courts or hiring a rowing coach (not that I know) to expand their facilities. Instead, many of my colleagues are addressing student needs by implementing programs that support students, hiring additional staff members to support the linguistic or disability needs of students and or purchasing the required resources that students and their families often cannot afford. Gonski funding has allowed teachers to be released off class to watch others teach and to provide feedback, collect and analyse data, develop personalised learning plans and collaboratively plan learning for students.

In my opinion, the Gonski funding in NSW has reduced the virtual divide between the government, catholic and independent teachers in professional development and the discourse of learning. Teachmeets and social media are prime examples of where principals and teachers, regardless of sectors, are often collaborating about learning, students’ outcomes and best practices. It is this new paradigm of collaboration that has seen the strength of many schools undertake a transformation to engage students in the best possible way within the available resources. I know firsthand that many of my catholic and independent colleagues would like to see a fully funded public education system based on needs just as much as their system is funded. However, if the Federal Government proceeds with some of their options, we could be back to an even greater divide of the school funding in Australia with a foreseeable widening of the inequity gap of students.

It is time for educators to take an advocacy role to ensure that our students are adequately funded. I give a Gonski. To do anything less would be to the detriment of my students and their needs.

School Transformation – Not That Easy.

I am thankful for the support of so many global educators in the public, catholic and independent sectors who have followed the transformation of my school over the past few years. This following extends to the philanthropy world that generously donates in kind or via social capital to our school.  Together, with my staff, we’ve been able to have rich and deep dialogues about how we would go about engaging our students in a much more meaningful level by using technology and the general capabilities of the Australian Curriculum, and with the underpinning belief that our students can learn anytime, anywhere and with anyone.

The Merrylands East Public School transformation is well documented through various journals, media articles and this blog site. Each story talked about the changes that have been made but none of them actually highlighted some of the difficulties that we’ve experienced.

1. Schools cannot transform without a long term principal and stable leadership team.

Having been in a school where the principal and leadership teams changed every couple of years can be frustrating. A new principal walks through the front door and outlines a vision for a school but then walks out soon after.  There is no sustainability in overall school plans and vision. No wonder staff can often be disillusioned and cynical of a new principal. I experienced it with some previous staff members and needed time to build up credibility for change.

I’ve just read the latest Harvard Business Review called “The Most Innovative Companies Have Long Term Leadership”. The article references some of the most successful companies as having long term leadership at the helm of their organisation. Schools are no different. Last term, over 50 NSW Public School educators visited three well renowned innovative and creative Melbourne primary schools. While people marvelled over the learning spaces and the various programs at these schools, a common factor of each school was the long term tenure of the principal – all have been at their school for at least 20 years and now reaping the rewards of their long term vision. I’m not saying that every school needs a principal that stays at a schools for 20 years but they do need stability in principalship and leadership density to ensure programs are sustained.

This year, I am coming up to my tenth year of being at the same school. I am thankful that a few staff members have been with me during the whole ten years and part of our long term transformation. It hasn’t been easy as we’ve had to scramble for funding to implement programs, forge partnerships with para-professionals and philanthropic organisations, complete our own maintenance in order to reduce costs so that we can redirect funding directly to students, and build teams of staff who were willing to let go a lot in order to venture into the unknown. We’re also had to battle critics, some of which included people in my own system while at the same time establish credibility for change with our school community, and not to mention teach at the same time. All of this can be emotionally draining and energy sapping, so be prepared to build up your resilience during school transformation.

2. Schools cannot transform without leaders at all levels of a system having an understanding of 21st century learning.

During the rugby season, I often sit in sporting crowds and listen to people yell out advice to the referees, players, coaches as though they were the experts. For many, their own experience in the game is either at a local park level or vicariously. They try to have a conversation with others as though they are experts but in reality, they’ve never played the game at the same level and all their advice is nothing more than crowd noise. We need leaders at all levels who not only can “talk the talk” but also “walk the walk,” Nothing is more frustrating to school transformation than to have internal and external leaders that are not supportive of change and add nothing but crowd noise.

In the past, I have found critics to have a superficial and uninspiring approach to school transformation. They often cannot see past their past, and see their role as more important than students and their learning. I recently heard the term CAVE people  (Citizen Against Virtually Everything) and we have them in education whenever school transformation occurs.

School transformation needs empathetic and supportive leaders. They need to be co-designer and be prepared to understand that creating and designing during a period of transformation is a long term process and not measured in simplistic metrics such as NAPLAN or other standardised tests.

Over the past nine years at Merrylands East, I have appreciated my former directors and relieving directors for their support in our school’s transformation and understanding the concept of change. They have enable my staff and I to make the changes that have been needed, battled and ran interference with critics, advocated on our behalf whenever there’s been an injustice or a better way forward with a solution, and been prepared to be actively involved in our school. Most importantly, they have been receptive of school transformation and had a deep understanding of processes.

3. Schools transformation cannot take place without adequate resourcing and support.

Can you imagine a business not investing adequate resources in research, marketing, innovation, staff training and ultimately product design? I don’t think the business would be around for too long. School transformation needs more resources not a reduction of resources. Too often systems work on a deficit model whereby schools that have shown improvement continue to find their resources are diverted or reallocated to other schools, and the whole momentum of driving change slows down or comes to a grinding halt.

Proper school resourcing is a vital element for school transformation. I am full of praise for my brilliant staff and their willingness to undertake so much change for the betterment of our students. It’s been exceptionally difficult and we’ve done it the hard way both physically and emotionally – with a reduction of resourcing.  In an era of increase commonwealth and state funding to our school, our school community has seen an overall reduction of resourcing to our school in the past three years. Our English as a Second Language allocation has dropped from 2 full time teachers and a one day a week part time teacher to 1 full time teacher and a 2 day a week part time teacher. We’ve also  seen a reduction of a teacher who specialises in children with learning difficulties from a weekly fulltime position to a half a week part time position. In other words, we have lost staffing during the Gonski period of funding (Unbelievable in a low socio-economic school with 90% of students from a non English Speaking Background!!) but at the same time we don’t begrudge other schools receiving additional resourcing.

This year will be challenging for my staff and I. We’ve seen a decline in our resourcing but we’ll be continuing our school transformation with one resourcing hand tied behind our back. We’ll continue to work with our para-professionals and with the support of our wonderful philanthropic organisations like Social Ventures Australia.  Nevertheless, we’ll stay focused but it is disappointing that when we’ve undertaken school transformation, the resourcing is not there to back up what we’re doing.

 

Get Out, Visit and Learn

My time in the US is coming to a close after a few days in San Diego. I arrived last Sunday from a beautiful rail trip from Los Angeles that eventually hugged the west coast beaches and reminded me that home was only across the ocean. San Diego is close to the Mexican border with a massive convention centre along the harbour shoreline that hosted the world biggest comic convention (130K people flooding into the city over the past four days.) Thankfully, they the city was a lot more settled after the event.

In contrast, today, I took a cheeky trip down to San Ysidro and crossed the border in 2 minutes through turnstyle into Tijuana, Mexico. It was different to do on this trip and something that I contemplated overnight. I didn’t stay too long in the city as I felt uneasy about the number of police walking around with semi-automatic guns on the streets and seeing lots of people hanging around streets seemingly doing nothing but staring at you and making awkward propositions (need I say more). There wasn’t much at Tijuana that really inspired me so I eventually recrossed the border after queuing for 1 1/2hours in the sun.

One of the lovely aspects of travelling is meeting people. Prior ot my trip to Tijuana, I caught up with Shelley Burgess, the wife and treasure of Dave Burgess over the world’s biggest breakfast. We all know Dave as the author of Teach Like a Pirate. Shelley is a wonderful educators in her own right and had a lot to share about the District that she worked as an Assistant District Superintendent. I also caught up with local tour guide extraordinaire and educator Amy Illingsworth at the same breakfast meeting and exchanged some local insights about the changes in education.

Dave was interstate this morning but my school executives had organised for him to Skype during our last School Development Day for a session, unbeknown to me. It was a wonderful example of how technology could be used for professional learning on a global scale. I thank Dave for taking the time to be part of it.

During my trip, I have ticked off so many items on my bucket list and people have started asking me about my highlights. I would say that studying at Harvard and learning from great minds cannot be described easily in words and the primary reason for the trip. The challenge they presented through their artful and often majestic presentations lead to self reflections about my own leadership and the potential of what’s to come in a constantly changing global education paradigm.

Another key highlight has been the opportunity of meeting face to face people on twitter and sharing stories and laughs but also discussing local and global education issues. I have learnt so much from the people that I’ve met and have admired their resilience and drive for their students. Globally, educators are collaborative by nature and want to share practices with one another to ensure that every students can achieve their potential and life’s ambition.

Sometimes we can be too insular in our schools and not know what our colleagues are doing down the road or in the next suburb (district /county). Visiting educators and schools in all sectors has been a major strategy of our school professional learning over the past couple of years and often a lot less expensive when all the costs are calculated. We’ve been able to learn principles from each other and walked away with some driving questions to answer in our own context.  I note via social media that more and more educators are taking up the opportunity of making connections and visiting each other schools and even doing exchange staff programs. How exciting!

Over the past couple of years, MEPS staff have been fortunate to be in national programs that involved local and interstate travels. It’s through these programs that we’ve been able to visit schools and learn from other educators. At the same time, many of my staff have taken various types of leave to broaden their own general knowledge of the world by travelling overseas. It’s through all these rich lifelong experiences that we become better teachers and school leaders, understand global contexts and gain that experience that there are different processes for the attainment of school and personal goals.

As this is my final US blog post from my travels, I thank the Teachers Mutual Bank, Harvard Club Australia and the Public Education Foundation for their gracious support of my trip through the scholarship, and the Department of Education and Communities for my approval of my leave. It was quite generous and kind of them to do so and speaks immensely about their ongoing support for public education. I like to thank all the people that I’ve crowdsourced on twitter for your advice about places to visit. Without you, I would have been a lonely global traveller but you’ve made the trip such and enjoyable learning experience. Last of all, I need to thank my Assistant Principals and my staff for their distributive leadership in my absence.

In a final note before jumping on a plane back to Sydney, I need to warn my colleagues that I will be encouraging them to apply for the Public Education Scholarships early next year (and nominate their students now). We have so many amazing leaders in our Public Education system that we sometimes undersell ourselves. Each day, I see on twitter the amazing work of our educators and the diversity of programs that we offer for our students. Each day, I see the hopes and aspirations of our students being fulfilled due to the creativity of our teachers. It’s fitting then that my last post be written at the end of a fabulous week long celebration of NSW Public Education.

 

Supersized What?

I’m sitting here in Newark Airpork waiting for my plane to take me back to the West Coast for a couple of days prior to returning to Australia. The invaluable learning experience over the past month will be shared with my colleagues on my return.

Over the past month, I’ve noticed that everything in the United States is supersized. From cars to grand tall buildings, food portions and coffee cups, (in which I had to tell waiters for entree sizes and point to the smallest coffee cups when ordering) and the glamour of show business. Supersized is also in quantity from yellow school buses, yellow cabs, museums (and I’m museumed out) and the number of professional dog walkers throughout the major cities that I’ve visited.

I’ve enjoyed seeing everyone lining up on the streets of New York City for entry into Broadway shows, even when all the seats are designated as though this is taught at school from early years. It seems that lining up is a sport along with baseball, NFL, ice hockey and basketball. The US has it all, or do they?

It was visiting places like Harlem and museums that highlighted the struggle for social justice and equality that brought home the truth about America for me – that is, despite all the supersized, it’s the people like Ida Wells who was a slave and eventually campagined against lynching laws after being dragged from the carriage of a train on the basis of race and colour, or journalist Moses Newson travelling with the Freedom riders back in 1961 when their bus was attack and burnt for similar reasons. No doubt, there have been many more people throughout history who have been part of change but their stories are seldom told as publicly. It was also quite moving on my second last day in Washington DC to visit the Holocast Museum (and viewing horrific photos that reminds us that decisions have consequences), Arlignton Cemetery, Lincoln Memorial and finally ended the day at the memorial of Martin Luther King and the steps of where he gave that great speech.

In a modern world, we need supersized advocates for social justice, freedom, equality and those that strive for peace and tolerance, especially since parts of our world is currently in crisis. Schools have a role to play in developing students with values such as fairness, respect, care, integrity, responsibility and democracy through the provision of student voice, modelling by staff and the display of daily interpersonal relationships by all keystakeholders. As educators, we need to encourage students to speak out against injustice, bullying and any forms of discrimination, as those this is the norm.

Yesterday, I walked into the Charles Sumner School Museum and privately walked through the four floors of exhibitions. It’s one of the less know museums but displayed school photos and portraits from surrounding schools in the last century. It was quite evident in many of the photos that African Americans went to separate schools, whether it was by choice or Government policy. It was advocates with strong values, that could see how the world could be rather than how the world existed that ultimately made change in equality in some of these schools. it was quite noticeable that some of these school photos with graduating years changed in cultural diversity in more recent years.

Everyday in the US, Australia and globally, there are so many wonderful educators working in difficult circumstances. I’ve been fortunate to meet and speak to so many school leaders in the past month and to listen to their world of complexities. Yet, they strive to instil the values of excellence and fairness with their students, despite the circumstances of their context. These educators are truly making a difference, far beyond what is measured and valued by those not involved in schools on a daily basis.

So let’s supersized the Ida Mays and the Moses Newson in our world, and the global educators that continually make a difference to children’s lives, and the social advocates that strives to make a change against the injustice that exist in our world.

Engage the Disengage

I’ve spent a lot of time walking around Manhattan and exploring the various villages, boroughs and communities to gain a real sense of New York City. While many of the tourist sites were fascinating, it’s some of lesser known places that I’ve found more interesting than others. Take for example the Museum of Mathematics  located, just off 5th Avenue in midtown, and  not widely known and certainly not mentioned in any major tourist brochure. This museum was full of interactive problem solving maths activities with descriptions and links to a wide field of learning. Visitors of all ages were drawn to the activities  because they were hands on tasks and the tasks presented some form of challenge.

During my exploration, I’ve noticed daily groups of American children wearing different coloured bright T-shirts engaging in field trips to libraries, museums, playgrounds, shorelines. I have since learnt that these children are taking part in either daily or weekly education camp.

Before making any change at Merrylands East Public School, a fundamental question needed to be asked and that related to what is student engagement and what does it look like? it seems that the children that I’ve seen throughout New York City during my stay have been truly engaged in the various experiences by their inquisitive minds in asking questions, their conversations with each other about a shared interests and taking part in hands on activities. Yet, they were on school vacation.

I would start off by suggesting that students are already engaged in the world that they live in through their daily social discourse. These interactions are often quite pragmatic and related to needs and wants. Even the students that facebook in class is engaging because of the need to be connected to someone for information sharing, no matter how we as educators may perceive as important or trivial.

Therefore, learners are engaged already but sometimes not necessary in the classroom programs that we offer. Students could be planning their after school or weekend activities, discussing the previous evening’s television shows, daydreaming in class or using social media to connect.

Schools and classrooms are not the sole repository of knowledge and skill anymore. Information once the prize possession of teachers is now in the shared domain on the web with immediate access at anytime and anywhere with a device. Students can learn in any curriculum area globally on line with the rise in massive open online courses (MOOCs), some of which are cost free. Students are not limited to their assigned teacher but to a global connections of teachers, experts and lay people.

Our concept of engagement is often couched in terms of students taking part in our lessons, answering questions and completing the tasks that we set. We’re predetermined in our values and beliefs, and assumptions, that students must be engaged in our lessons otherwise they won’t learn. The C2st, students doesn’t think or work within these paradigms anymore. They learn in any modality and not restricted to the four walls in a classroom and the adult in their presence. This notion is something that educators need to understand before engaging students in our daily program.

So, does that mean giving them a device is the answer to student engagement? There is a lot of global discussion at the moment that technology engages students. It’s as though technology will simply solve the issue of student engagement. Probably one of the biggest errors that I made at Merrylands East (now looking back in hindsight) is making an assumption that installing fixed interactive whiteboards in every classroom would enhance teaching and learning. While fabulous at the time and led to teachers learning new technology skills and devising resources on line, there was the issue that the interactive whiteboards would become the dominant feature in  classroom lessons as though it became more like entertainment rather than a learning tool.

The second common myth is that having a device will increase student engagement. True! It will increase engagement but maybe not what we expect if we don’t have a purpose for their use. Students are so savvy at the moment that they can create, design and connect to each other regardless  of whether we are providing instructions on their use or not. Just a walk through the Museum of Mathematics was a reminder of how the youngest child could use devices to interact with some of the activities. They didn’t have a crash course in the different use of devices but simply worked it out by engaging in the tasks.

My recent classroom observations suggest that student engagement is not related to technology at all but to students’ interests and passion for what they are learning, and the interpersonal skills of the teachers who are scaffolding learning. However, the technology does makes the learning easier for students due to the immediacy of information and the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in different processes and products. It is here that teachers and school leaders need to increase our expertise in how technology can be used to engage learners. In other words, engaging the disengage all comes back down to pedagogy and meeting students’ needs.

 

 

 

 

Failure Only Comes When We Fail to Act

Failure Only Comes When We Fail to Act

Harlem is a culturally diverse community in the uptown (north) area of Manhattan Island with a steeped African-American history, civil rights moment, and the famous Apollo Theatre on 125th Street for famous musicians like James Brown, Quincy Jones and Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. The ornate buildings adorn the surrounding streets of the theatre with high rises to the east and west.

Yesterday, I took the opportunity to walk the Harlem streets extensively to get a vibe for the area and experience a different side of New York City. In comparison to the downtown (south), where Wall Street and the financial district are located, Harlem is a complete contrast in social inequity and justice, especially since the glamour and riches of 5th Avenue is only a few minutes walk away too.

The more I meandered the streets and saw people trying to do start ups on the streets with any product they could muster, the more heartbreaking it became. I came across a number of schools and churches with signs that they were providing free breakfast and lunch for children. I ventured into one of these buildings, introduced myself as a traveller and asked how many children were fed each day. To my astonishment, over 200 in one place with an explanation that many of the children in the area were fortunate if they received one hot meal a day.

In Australia we have communities with social inequity and generations of  unemployment that have wonderful teachers engaging students daily. We can never underestimate their contribution in the provision of the very best education in difficult circumstances, and quite often unmeasured in the quality of children’s lives.  Public school teachers in these schools are on the same pay scale as those in more affluent public schools with the same number of years experience – something we often forget when we complain about a “difficult day.”

The social support for students can never be underestimated in any school, regardless of educational sector or socio-economic level. Even the most affluent schools can experience social issues. Principals and teachers in the public education system perform a magnificent task each day that is often unrecognised or unrewarded. The voluntary service in coaching teams, organising excursions, rehearsing for a performance and providing professional development for others, is often underpinned by goodwill. Like many other public schools, it’s also not uncommon for Principals and teachers to quietly and discreetly dig deep into their own pockets to pay for the incidental or the experience that students would miss out on due to their family socio-economic circumstance.

When we talk about a measuring a school, we need to look at the “big picture” of a broad range of data – something that is genuinely lacking in some US States. Attendance, student engagement, academic, performing arts, sporting, leadership, student voice, student and parent satisfaction, social support are just to name a few areas to measure within the context of school resources. Not one single measure should be taken into isolation over another.

A key recommendation from the Gonski report was the need to invest in education from philanthropy (and we need the 5th and 6th year from the Federal Government). Sometimes we can overlook these partnerships at the expense of our students. My school has entered into many partnerships with organisations over the past year to help fund our school and students without the feeling that we’ve been taken over. Social Ventures Australia, Club Merrylands, Microsoft Partners in Learning, and University of Sydney are just a few of the current and former partnerships along with local community donations in kind. The invaluable contribution funding from these organisations have and continue to support our school and students. I am thankful for their support. Likewise, I am thankful for my current learning experience from the Public Education Foundation, Harvard Club Australia and Teachers Mutual Bank – wonderful supporters of public education.

While I am sadden to see Harlem school signs that provide free meals to children in a community, I know that fabulous principals, teachers and community members want to truly make a difference by their service. These people are highly successful in their own way through compassion and a sense of moral purpose, not to mention their education provision. When I think of failure in the context of schools, it only occurs when we fail to act and children’s life chances are eroded on a daily basis.

 

 

 

Space – A Place to Dream, Imagine and Learn

Space – A Place to Dream, Imagine and Learn

One of my major learnings over the past couple of years is the importance of space for children to relax and learn in a stimulating environment, especially students from refugee backgrounds that have experienced displacement and trauma from violence. I’m not quite getting space in New York City at the moment, with daily heavy traffic, and crowded streets of people where being bumped on the corner W36th and Park Avenue is the daily norm.

During my time at Harvard, I had the wonderful opportunity of discussing learning and space with so many fabulous school administrators (equivalent to principals and senior leaders) working in very diverse and often highly complexed environments. These administrators were all at Harvard to make changes back in their own school  but quite often hamstrung by external factors. One secondary principal remarked to me that she would love to create learning spaces but concrete walls and a school board are his impediment for change in spaces, while another principal commented that some of her classrooms had tables bolted on the floor and in rows. Somehow, these schools are surviving  and more often than not, doing a fabulous job in educating their students with outstanding leadership and teachers despite their context. I know these cases are not true for all US schools as administrators on twitter often share a different story and the change that they are making in their schools.

Over the past couple of year, Merrylands East has transformed many of their classrooms to become learning spaces and addressed an issue of how and where children learn. An old hall dating back to 1928 has become a shared learning space servicing four traditional classes. Isolated classrooms walls have been removed to join up with adjacent rooms to create larger spaces and new furnishings replaced the old desks of the C20th to promote sharing and collaboration of learning.

In the quest to create learning spaces, we must cautionary and remember to create a pedagogy that allows for C21st skills rather than a model of the C20th. There is no point in having different furnishings if students are going to do worksheets or low order learning. Just like there’s no point in having laptops if students are asked to simply google. You might as well keep the furnishings of the last century and invest school funds into something else. In other word, there needs to be meaningful purpose in making change and it’s not about looking good but rather promoting and enhancing student engagement in learning.

Returning back to Harvard for a moment, one of the school administrators asked me about classroom management in an open learning space and whether it caused disruptive behaviours. Here, I commented about pedagogy and replied that the most crucial aspect of classroom management is student engagement. Sometimes, it is easy to provide “work” to students rather than teach and for students to learn. It’s easy to open a textbook and ask students to complete an exercise where the answers are more often than not in the back or in the middle sections

Merrylands East staff is less reliant on worksheets on a daily basis. Some teachers have barely gone near the photocopier and if so, it’s for the purpose of administration rather than for any teaching and learning purpose. Some stages are paperless. I am forever grateful for my teachers who have boldly created teaching than matches their learning spaces and continue to evolve their pedagogy. It hasn’t been easy but now they are seeing the joy of high student engagement, and highly diverse student processes and products.

Yesterday, I took a boat around the Hudson River to view the Statue of Liberty. It started off well with a humid bright day but descended into pouring rain so that I could barely see an outline shadow of the statue. On return to shore, the US aircraft carrier Intrepid was docked about 50metres away and opened for public viewing along with a submarine that could be entered. This is not a major tourist site and certainly not advertised widely. I took the opportunity to visit the ship and learnt the contrast space by walking in the large open spaces of the air craft carrier and then the confines of a submarine – a place of awkwardness. However, I never imagined the opportunity and surprise to view up close the actual Enterprise Space Shuttle covered in a large marquee on the flight deck with all it’s tiles and design in tack as part of the exhibit – a unplanned bucket list tick off!! Comparison between the three vessels indicated that we don’t need small spaces but large open area where we can dream, imagine and learn.

 

 

 

Are We Futuristic In Our Thinking?

Are We Futuristic In Our Thinking?

Yesterday I had the  privilege of spending a day with Miimili-Anangu School Principal @loukaparry at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Louka and I have tweeted with each other for a while (he has camels in the back of his school while I have chickens, rabbits and ducks) but only met face to face once in a Social Ventures Thought Gathering in 2013. Louka’s school is predominantly Indigenous students 1200km north west of Adelaide and 450km from Alice Springs. It’s a remote school, full of complexities as you would imagine for a remote rural community. Louka is on his way to Harvard for a short course while I have just left the same place.

The Guggenheim is a famous museum in New York City exhibiting some of the best artworks from around the world. Current exhibit is the Italian Futuristic collections from the period 1909 – 1944. It is important to say that Louka and I don’t subscribe to the Italian futuristic manifesto which glorified war and militarism while at the same time demeaned women and the various institutions of the era, and ultimately led to Italy being involved in WW11.

Louka and I observed artworks that were quite advanced in thought and showed technological advances well beyond the years of the era. Many of the artworks focused on transport and architectural designs of buildings that were quite remote from the era in which they were painted.

Louka is a futuristic thinker and has provided opportunities for his students despite the complexities associated with being in a remote rural schools. In one anecdote, Louka shared how they have driven their students four hours to a main bus stop to catch a greyhound coach (with no certainty) that the bus is on time) to Port Augusta just so that his students can learn about living in a major town, and experienced a beach with waves. While we may not consider this to be futuristic, the processes that Louka undertook to see a need for his students and then making it happen is an example of future thinking – that is, solving a problem for his local community school.

In education, we need futuristic thinkers that can solve problems at all levels, from classrooms to whole school and school areas. We need leaders that can imagine the unimaginable and have the thought processes to make it happen. Each day, it’s quite easy for school leaders, including myself (and quite often) to fall into the trap of consuming most of their time managing a school instead of leading a school. We can be drawn by parents or systemic issues that drag away our time from thinking and making the future become more remote.

Over the past 20 years, I have been involved in writing school plans from year to year with a focus on improving student outcomes with data measures based predominantly on standardised tests. Sometimes, this becomes a hit or miss solution as we devote additional resources to English and Maths coupled with a vast amount of professional development of teachers in a broad range of programs. Despite this, spending tens of thousands on English resources have not produced a consistent major spike as intended (there I said it), nor has spending the equivalent amount on teacher professional development at conferences or workshops. So we need to be more strategic about what we do and reflect on how students learn currently. To do this, we’ve had to unpack assumptions and beliefs that we’ve held as a starting point to recreating and building.

This year, we have been working in partnership with Social Ventures Australia Bright Spots program and invested a vast amount of time imagining what our school would be like in 5 years time. We have drafted our 5 year plan, not predicated on achieving the odd change in NAPLAN scores but focusing on major structural reforms in the way we organise our school to meet the pedagogy and learning of our students, and with an emphasis on C21st skills and student engagement. This is major shift from my own education sector and truly welcomed as we can strategically imagine, create and develop with an element of authority and freedom.

Our school is aiming to be classless, where all learning is personalised and students can learning anytime, anywhere and with anyone to solve local and global issues through project based learning and adventure time. Some might say we’re radical but we don’t see ourselves in that way. Instead, we view what we’re doing is solving a futuristic problematic situation in our school context and being researchers in the process.

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking – The Most Important Harvard Lesson

Thinking – The Most Important Harvard Lesson

It’s the final full day of the Harvard Leadership an Evolving Vision course and the whole week has be a massive thought gathering of self reflection and challenges about change in the most ambient and historical learning environments in the world. Along with the wonderful keynotes and workshops, the privilege of being at Harvard and forming global connections with outstanding educators have been memorable highlights.

Today, I was elated to sit in the Harvard Wideners Library and walk through the book stacks that almost goes back 100 year. The Library was built as a memorial by the mother of Harry Widener who died on the Titanic back in 1912. As part of the bequeath, mother stipulated that no brick should ever be removed from the building so consequently extensions over the years have gone underground.  The long tables with their lamps and the complete silence provided the opportunity to reflect on the week about education for the future and what it would look like in concepts such as:

– How we learn?

– When will we learn?

– Where will we learn?

– What will we learn?

– Why will we learn?

Sometimes as school leaders, we get caught up in the daily operations of our schools and spend an onerous amount of time managing rather than demonstrating true leadership. Part of this course has taught me to be a futuristic thinker and go beyond the now to imagine and create the possibilities by evolving my leadership skills. Taking risks is acceptable if we have a true picture of what we value and believe, and provided that we test our assumptions. Staying inactive is not leadership but purely holding the status quo and being a maintenance provider. It’s quite a daunting task when you consider all the variables that are around you including the vast array of political and non political agendas that permeates the workplace each day and the high expectations that we place on ourselves to succeed in the presence of our superiors and colleague.

Earlier in the day, I took a tour of Harvard with a 1st year student and she mentioned that her SAT scores were not the highest in senior years but managed to gain acceptance in Harvard through her essay and interview. No one knows the exact criteria for gaining admission to Harvard but I would say the power to think and follow a passion are high on the list. Not everyone who has completed Harvard ends up to be successful as we would predict. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and the Oklahoma Bomber was a graduate.

Harvard professors make people think and ask profound questions about themselves rather than tell them what they should be doing. The power to think has been the true learning throughout the week for me. This sounds self evident but quite often as school leaders we wait until the next curriculum, resource or pedagogy to emerge rather than try and create from our imagination that’s underpinned by our values and beliefs. In addition, the professors have provided self reflection tools of strategies to implement and carry through our vision.

Over the next few weeks, I will be continuing with my travels and reflecting on what I’ve learnt at Harvard. This will be my time  for futuristic thinking and to imagine the education that I would envisage for our students in their preparation for the future world, rather than accept the present social norms as the best possible model.

The Public Education Foundation Harvard Club Teachers Mutual Bank Scholarship has provided me with the opportunity to learn and understand myself as the  construct to be able to be a futuristic thinker. I remember they said that the scholarship will be life changing – so true! Next year, I trust that many of my colleagues will apply and attempt to share the Harvard experience with me.