Take Back the Education Agenda

At the start of the year, one of my principal colleague tweeted that 2017 is the year we take back the education agenda from critics and not be sideline. I can resonate with this view as the agenda in education seems to be clouded each year with an ever increasing terrain of so called experts stepping into education and trying to tell teachers how to teach, what to teach and what makes a difference.

The term confirmation bias in not new but it seems more common, not just in education but in the political and commercial world. It’s the tendency of people having a hypothesis and then finding the evidence to support their views while discarding or placing less weighting on other evidence. At the high end, multi nationals are commissioned to write reports to support the decision making of an organisation.

Currently there is a myth that education is failing across the Western world and that we need a broad range of intervention programs based on evidence to lift the results of students. The tenor of this argument is that scores are dropping in the OECD PISA or TIMMS – that means systems, schools, teachers and students are failing. It can even bring out emotive reactions from politicians like “I’m embarrassed by the results”. But is this true?

In education there is an industry that is slowly growing of statisticians who will use data to prosecute a particular position. They even go as far as to tell teachers that their pedagogy is the panacea though it’s a one size fits all. Commercial material from multi-nationals who sell package education materials are renown for this as they will often conjuncture up a climate of failing education only to position themselves as the solution – at considerable financial cost to a particular consumer. However, they are not alone, as we’re seen a lot of experts with very limited or no teaching permeate their way into education systems all around the world and then having a voice about teaching and learning. We even have people that are providing advice to schools with limited or no experience and expertise in their field. Imagine if I told a brick layer how to lay bricks or a builder how to build!! This happens far too often in education – the rise of the so call experts.

Teaching and learning is not about statistics that lead to judgements about the success or failure of a school or the quality of education that is provided by teachers. Teaching is about people and the interpersonal skills that can inspire students to have a love of knowledge and new skills, to be able to synthesise and process information and articulate a particular point of view. Teaching is about the development of self-worth of individuals and collective successes (like playing team sports or working on a group project). Teaching is having someone inspire students to fulfil their dreams and aspirations that far exceed their own expectations. You cannot put a measure or a statistic on how teachers do this, nor can you say this is the strategy that inspires.

Of course, teaching in a primary school is about the development of Literacy and Numeracy and the provision of foundation skills. However, it is also fostering a love of reading or problems solving rather than just having the necessary skills to answer test questions in a standardised test. Reliable data is used to support rather than discredit, and help inform decisions within a context. And, each context is different.

This year, our school has continued with the Reading Recovery program for Year 1 students after engaging one of the state’s best and now former Reading Recovery tutors as our school’s Deputy Principal Instructional Leaders. Some broad data and commissioned reports will indicate that the program is not very successful in supporting students. One thing I do know about the authors of such reports is that they are not Reading Recovery trained teachers, nor have they spent much time really understanding the principles behind Reading Recovery. When you have high quality teachers, regardless of whatever program you have in a school, the impact will always be there. Reading Recovery has been a success over many years in my school because of the quality of teachers and trainers. Parents are thankful.

Success for teachers is measured on so many variables. The teacher that makes a notification about abuse so that the child can be safe is success but not measured by a statistic. The teacher who puts his or her hand in their pocket to fund an excursion or a meal so that the child will learn is not measured by a statistic but rather a smile of thankfulness. A teacher who gives up their own personal time to transport a child to an event or coaches a sporting team after school will be measured by their commitment and devotion.

At the end of the day, my accountability is geared towards my current and former students and to their parents. Most teachers and principals know that they have made a difference when a former student comes up to them and shares about their school experience while talking about the profession / career that they have moved into. Yes, we have the odd doctor and dentist from our school but at the same time, we also have a plethora of other professions and non-professions. The one common attribute between all former students is that no one talks about statistics or scores but rather their interpersonal relationships with peers and the joys of schooling. Schools do not fail but systems can fail schools.

Thank You Minister Adrian Piccoli

Thank You Minister Adrian Piccoli

One of the NSW Public Schools value is a Fair Go for All. I can honestly say that NSW Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli truly reflected this value through his actions in listening to the profession and delivering on so many reforms. Sometimes those reforms have caused a headache or two but that’s more about implementation rather than the inherent purpose of the change. Fair go for all also means that the new education minister should have their chance at the helm but I think that it will be quite difficult to emulate the achievements of the former Minister.

Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli visited Merrylands East Public School (MEPS) on the 29 October 2012, soon after our announcement of the school hour changes and spoke to staff and parents (We’re just about to start our 5th year of starting at 8am). He was supportive of our changes which personally gave me a lot of encouragement in the face of some adverse media. He understood our school context and realised that it wasn’t a one size fits all. By the the end of the visitation, the Minister had left an indelible mark on our school through his interactions with our staff and students.

Tomorrow will be the start of my twelfth year of principalship at MEPS. My first few years were a struggle with very little school funding to support staff and students. We relied heavily on grants and undertook a lot of maintenance ourselves to ensure that our students had the very best within our available resources.

Tomorrow will be different due mainly to Minister Adrian Piccoli’s support of the Gonski’s needs based funding and many of the educational reforms in consultation with keystakeholders.

For a start, the increase in Gonski funding will extend our Speech Pathologist and Occupational Therapist (OT) program to two days a week, and capture more students in their early years of schooling. The alternative is for our students to be part of a long public health waiting list with the high probability that they will never get the required support while struggling with learning at school.

Complementing Speech and OT, we also have a school nurse to manage all the medical needs of students, including anaphylaxis and asthma plans, and other medical conditions. The nurse will also support prenatal parents and assist in early intervention of pre-schoolers.

Under the Early Action for Success program, we have a new highly experienced Deputy Principal Instructional Leader (DPIL). The DPIL will provide the support, coaching, mentoring and training for early years teachers so that our students will have the best possible literacy and numeracy programs.

I cannot recall the number of times that Principals have raised the issue of Assistant Principals receiving additional support for their increasing role. Assistant Principals are full time teachers on class with so much added responsibility. In some ways, it can be one of the most difficult roles, along with a teaching Deputy Principal. With Minister Adrian Piccoli at the helm, our school (along with other primary schools) has a flexible staffing component that provides additional time that can be used by Assistant Principals to support teachers. He listened to the profession – an attribute that was valued and appreciated.

Meanwhile, New Scheme Teachers seeking their accreditation will have additional time from face to face teaching with a mentor to support their teaching and learning, and eventually their accreditation.

Aside from Gonski, the Minster took a huge interest, almost a personal goal in the Connected Communities Schools in rural NSW and closing the gap of Indigenous students’ outcomes with practical measures. It seemed that every year, his twitter feed would contain pics of his trips to those schools with positive changes occurring. He will be remembered as the first Minister for Education to build a road to one of those schools along with other major capital works.

Just last year, the former Premier described Minister Adrian Piccoli as the Rockstar of Education at the NSW Primary Principals Association Conference. He wasn’t far off the mark. Following that compliment, the Minister attended our PPA dinner and once again, principals lined up to share their stories of Gonski impact and to have their obligatory selfie – I doubt that the Fisheries Minister, nor any other Minister receives the same response but that just highlighted the high esteem held by the profession for the Minister.

It saddens me that the perception of politics is more about factions and whose turn it is to obtain a ministry rather than merit, and a person who genuinely went into politics to make a major difference will no longer be the education minister by his choice. However, the impact that he did make for the staff, students and the community at my school will be remembered.

Thank you Minister Adrian Piccoli.

The Apocalypse of Education : TIMMS and PISA

The Apocalypse of Education : TIMMS and PISA

Scream! Run! Hide! The release of the TIMMS and PISA results have spark one almighty apocalypse in the education world. Cometh the results, cometh the hyperventilating opinions of why Australia is lagging behind other countries, and what we will need to do in order to improve our global standing. Independent think tanks and social commentators will be lifting their broad shoulders and shouting that our system is failing (“I told you so….”) while the Federal Government will be saying it’s about teacher quality, school autonomy and not the money.

Others will come out and say that students will need more sleep time, less sleep time, more technology, less screen time, more school time, eat more, eat less, change your diet, more iodine, more sport, less sport, more discipline, less discipline, and then attribute every pedagogical strategy in the past to the solutions of the future.

Then we will get the so called self acclaimed external pedagogical theorists (who by the way, often vacated schools last century to become commentating guides on the side but have very little credibility with teachers) that will say the issue is the curriculum and that not enough time is spent on Literacy, Numeracy and now Science, and we need more and more testing, and more and more evidence so that no child is left behind. Bring back direct instruction as the only way to teach will be their cry. Suddenly, there will be a plethora of the global corporations coming out to say, “Buy this spanking new Literacy, Numeracy or Science program to fix up your school’s results, and the assessment pack – scientifically proven (and without the steak knives)”

Yes. Everyone will have an opinion except the exhausted teachers who will be fronting up to their 8S5 Science class on a Friday afternoon in period 6 and thinking about the weekend of marking assignments ahead of them, or the primary teacher making school resources to all hours in the evening while at the same time organising the next school excursion (and slaving over risk assessements) to give students a concrete rather than a vicarious learning experience. At some point, these teachers’ wellbeing will suffer from the endless pounding away of the relentless shift blaming while at the same time rejoice in the fact that they have made a difference in the lives of so many.

Teachers know that our students are not failing but achieving outcomes at differing stages of their schooling. For one student, learning to write a sentence in English in Year 4 may be a major breakthrough after missing years of schooling due to being in a refugee camp, or children showing resilience by attending school each day when they have been exposed to domestic violence. Teachers know that students who struggle learning in one curriculum area may end up excelling in sporting and cultural pursuits – areas that are not measured globally.

Over the past two months, I have coincidentally come across some of my past students and listened with joy to some of their success stories – sort of like the ABC Television show Australian Stories. One student was at Harvey Norman, just on Parramatta Road, Auburn. As I walked into the store, he recognised me and called out Mr Goh, in a nice loud voice while wearing his coloured Microsoft T-shirt, and then proceeded to remind me of his schooling in a low socio-economic school community. This person is studying law at the University of Western Sydney and working part-time to raise income for his studies. A second student caught up with me at the University of Technology Sydney Sparks Festival and he owns a business that involves teaching students about astronomy. His company funds students to attend space camp in America. At the same time, he still lives in the same low socio-economic community. A third came from the local florist who telephoned me in tears to say that her nephew and my former student was called up to play for the Wallabies – the Australian Rugby Union Team.

Similarities exist between all three people:

1. No one talked about their Basic Skills Test, NAPLAN or HSC marks. Achieving a mark does not define who you are or your future success (when was the last time you went to a school reunion and someone talked about their marks or grades). Achieving a piece of paper that says I finished school does not define your self-worth. In fact, many employers in some of the largest companies in the world are now looking at skills: teamwork, collaboration, problems solving, resilience, caring for the environment and others, and being able to speak up for issues that matter are more important than whether you achieved the top mark.

2. All three had enthusiasm, passion and commitment in what they wanted to achieve. One student had a passion of astronomy, starting from primary school, another in sporting field of rugby and the third in technology. Primary School is the starting point, high school enables you to set goals to aim high and take a step closer to what you want to achieve.

Just last weekend, I finally caught up with the NSW Schools spectacular. To see over 5000 students perform in the largest Variety Show in the world is an example of what schools do best – giving opportunities for students to learn and dream big. Each one of those students were not global failures as the Federal Government would make out, nor are the students’ schools.

The notion that Australia is failing in the global education world is not panic stations when we listen to former students share their own success stories. Nor is it a time to start apportion unfounded critiques of schools or teachers. Success is not measured in a score and certainly not compared to other countries in a corridor of curriculum areas. Politicians, after all, never sat through NAPLAN and I doubt many sat TIMMS or PISA. However, we are lagging in the closing of the equity gap to enable all students to fulfil their full potential – that’s where Gonski kicks in to ensure that all students are funded according to their needs, and teachers taking the opportunities to continue developing themselves for the betterment of their students.

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.