We can’t all be right all the time – why a little bit of online conflict is a good thing

Early in my career I had a team leader who had a reputation for being highly critical. Other teachers thought this teacher was hard to work with. My team leader could harpoon an idea at any meeting big or small with a simple question:

“Have you thought about…”

It was a highly effective strategy.

I still think ‘what would my ex-team leader say’ when I’m doing something new for the first time. The truth is I learned more from having someone pushing my ideas back than I did from having people tell me what a wonderful job I was doing.

I learned barriers aren’t there to stop you implementing new ideas, they are to stop you implementing bad ones.

Simply put my old team leader taught me how to turn crazy ideas into reality.

At TeachMeet Singapore @robnewberry floated an idea that twitter has become too much of an echo chamber where we don’t challenge each other. It has become an endless stream of sharing ideas of a small group of  educational thought leaders with followers in the tens of thousands that Rob terms educelebrities.

I thought back to a recent incident where someone prominent in the education technology field shared one of my posts on twitter. There was a small problem, a small typo meant the link to the content was incorrect.

Yet that initial tweet with the bad link kept being retweeted.

Which led to me to wonder.

How much content is being re-shared without people actually bothering to click on the links much less read the writing?

Why did nobody (including myself) correct this person?

The numbers of teachers engaging in online communities has grown considerably in the last few years. However we’re engaging with each other on a more superficial level, through shares rather than reaction or action. This  mirco-engagement  is as @TomBarrett pointed out killed the edublogging community.

Image by @tombarrett

People are less likely to comment on blogs than they were 3-4 years ago and I’ve watched a number of bloggers either cut back the frequency of their frequency or give up on blogging altogether. The push and pull of comments often leads to inspiration for further content.

When I started edublogging in 2011 I  held a utopian belief that the internet would be a force to democratise teaching, a first year teacher could have as much of a voice as a veteran teacher or even a principal. But now as the crowd has descended online we’re less focused on sharing our own ideas, just those of a few tastemakers. More importantly we’re becoming less tolerant of those who disagree with us.

Getting shares, likes and positive mentions feels great, but is it really pushing our learning forward as educators?

In another online community I’m a part of there was a discussion about teachers querying other teachers classroom practice. I was bothered by how many teachers stated flat out that it is unprofessional for teachers to disagree with each other online.

On the contrary I think it is unprofessional for teachers not to speak up whether online or in person when they disagree with classroom practice. 

We can’t all be right all the time.

Critical discussion is such an important of what makes us learn and grow as educators, not the number of followers we have on twitter. Those growth mindset quotes and infographics that teachers keep retweeting mean that we actually need to act on constructive criticism.

Yet how much critical discussion is really taking place online?

Could it be a problem within education itself that we don’t actually like conflict, and those who do challenge the status quo are viewed as troublemakers?

To be clear I am not saying that online education communities should descend into full on flamewars – we can still have robust conversations without descending into full on personality attacks.

But because we’ve got out of the habit of being critical with each other, those challenges can make it feel like we are being attacked rather than our ideas simply because we aren’t used to having people disagree with us.

That isn’t a good place to be in.

We should all be worried about the echo chamber the education community has created through twitter chats and edublogging awards is leading to a re-creating of old educational hierarchies in the online environment where who shares the idea is more important than the idea itself. 

Lets have more conversation and push back than shares and retweets.

Lets share content from new faces rather than the same old names.

Lets grow our learning.

image by author...

image by author…

Setting new teachers up for failure – Does the New Zealand education system eat its young?


Photo by author

An interesting article appeared in my newsfeed this morning on retaining ‘quality’ teachers.

The first thing that struck me was the use of language. Would the study of retaining teachers have been as newsworthy if there wasn’t  ‘quality’ or ‘elite’ teachers to contrast with the legion of ‘bad’ teachers in our classrooms.

There’s often a red herring put out when talking about teacher conditions are talked about in the media that our education system and economy would be better if we fired all that bad teachers. However as this article demonstrates we don’t need to worry about that particular problem.

Our system is doing a great job of getting rid of young teachers.

Welcome to the educational hunger games.

Getting a job – good luck

It disheartens me how many excellent teachers New Zealand loses before they’ve even stepped foot in the classroom. Out of the people I know on my primary course at university maybe only a quarter had permanent positions post-graduation. Some eventually find a job through relief teaching. Many more get disheartened about the lack of job security and leave the profession permanently. That’s a huge waste of resources both a personal and state level to train large numbers of teachers for small number of positions.

Novopay – don’t stuff around with people’s salary
The quickest way to ensure people want to leave a job is not pay them what you promised. In 2013 my annual salary increment was months late. The situation was something that was gnawing away at me and definitely affected my teaching. By the time my salary arrived, it was a large lump sum which also tipped me into a higher tax bracket and I ended up with a tax bill at the end of the year. Awesome.

Teaching in a public school is quite possibly the only job where you will steal things from home to bring to school. The annual school bunfight where schools ask for donations to cover costs and parents quite rightly exclaim that they are entitled to a free education often leaves teachers in the middle. Teachers hate asking, but at the same time that salary will only stretch to a certain number of boxes of tissues.

Best and brightest – pay is only one factor
Don’t demand the best and then set up a working environment that micromanages the teaching profession to the point where all creativity, innovation and passion that new teachers bring to the education system is progressively squeezed out of them. Yet if we look at the current educational policy environment that’s exactly what’s happening. National standards, PaCT, a code of teacher conduct rather than ethics and stripping teachers of the right to democratically govern their profession goes against teacher opinion.

You can’t demand a cordon bleu chef to flip burgers at McDonalds year after year and then act surprised when they look elsewhere for opportunities.

New teachers won’t save a bad school culture
Far from being the superhero there to save the day, no number of new teachers will affect change in a school where the leadership is not inspiring its entire staff to professionally develop. New teachers are a good canary in the bird mine for bigger problems. A good school will ensure that their newly qualified teachers are well supported and mentored in order to establish themselves in the profession. They’ll also have plenty of teachers on staff who could fulfil that role. If you want to retain good teachers, school leadership is a huge and largely unexamined factor.

Class sizes matters
The claim that class sizes doesn’t matter, it’s the quality of the teacher is often made by economists who have never set foot in a classroom. Class sizes matter a great deal to the people on the ground who have to prepare lessons, resources, assess, keep in touch with families and write reports. Hattie’s research says class size doesn’t matter, effective feedback does. But simple maths would show that the finite resource of teacher time becomes smaller when it is shared amongst a greater number of people.

Career opportunities
I’d hazard a guess that the problems with retention start occurring around the fifth year in teaching. Management units are often used as a way to financially reward teachers for taking on responsibilities in curriculum and managing extra curricula activities. But often that means more meetings and paperwork. Like most teachers I teach because I loathe meetings and paperwork!

In a school with a distributed leadership there will be plenty of opportunities to develop specialities and share expertise with others.

But is that enough?

Further study, opportunities to travel and connecting with the private sector will also grow a teacher. We should want our teachers living interesting lives. Part of the job description is inspire those around them that being an adult is awesome.

But to be inspiring sometimes you need time to be inspired.

A global education market 
New Zealand teachers are well regarded overseas and can be found at prestigious international schools the world over and that market continues to increase. Yes adventure plays a part but the standard of living is so much higher than what I had in New Zealand. I currently teach in Singapore where my salary is above what I would expect to make at the top of the teaching scale back home. Throw in small class sizes, resources, a classroom assistant and not having to play social worker means that I can actually focus on what I trained to do, teach.

Weekly Reflection: Finish line in sight

Finish line (or the straits of Malacca) in sight (photo by another backpacker)

This post marks my 40th weekly reflection. If this course was pregnancy, I’d be passing out eviction notices about now.

This week really does feel like the beginning of the end of my teaching studies. Tomorrow marks my last exam and after the exam I’ve got a professional practice paper and then I’ll have officially finished my teaching qualification!

The last few weeks really have been a grind of churning out exams and assignments however the hard work seems to have paid off as the lowest grade I’ve received this semester is B+. However it’s inevitable that my grades will be dragged down as I find exams extremely difficult to complete.  I  pity the poor markers of my papers trying to make sense of my scrawled essays and diagrams.

Nevertheless all I’m after is a passing grade so I’m trying to stay positive that I haven’t tripped up just a few weeks before the end of the year. I’m sure in a few months time  I’ll be wondering why I didn’t savour my last few weeks of being able to sloth in my PJs till noon on a weekday study when the alarm starts going off at 5.30 each morning. But I’m really looking forward to my adventures next year.

Next week I start operation ‘deep south’ to get my meager possessions and I relocated to the capital. On Tuesday I’m heading down to Wellington to find a flat and checking out the new school for next year. I’ve yet to met anyone from the new school in real life so it will be very cool to put some faces to avatars.

Watch out Wellington, I’m back after a 20 year absence.

Weekly reflection: The junior juggling act

Image used under creative commons licence (image by Criss Cross Circus via Flickr)

Before I went out on Teaching Experience, I had a couple of people mention that year 1/2 teachers have it easy because all the kids are learning at this age group is their 123s and their ABCs with some finger painting thrown in for fun. I’m convinced that anyone who thinks this must never have set foot in a junior classroom. Sure we all know our ABCs and the prospect of teaching that part of the curriculum might seem easy until you are actually staring down the barrel of 25 youngsters at various reading levels and keeping them engaged with reading.

During my first week I quickly found myself in awe of my associate teacher’s ability to juggle 8 reading groups plus the few extra students that come into the classroom for reading knowing full well that in no time at all I would be taking the reigns. Having only observed English classes at my last placement, where the students were reading George Orwell’s 1984, I knew reading was going to be tough task but I’m here to learn so last week it was my turn.

29 junior students, 8 reading groups, 60 minutes and 1 student teacher what could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

This school’s reading programme is based on small-sized reading groups for more individualized instruction. However the corollary of this type of programme is that a teacher doesn’t have much time with each group, maybe 10 minutes but certainly not 15, which is how long I spent with my first group. This meant I didn’t finish going through all the groups I needed to during the session. I had some kids way off task which inevitably led to trouble which I didn’t pick up on soon enough because I was concentrating on putting the theory of what a guided lesson is into with practice and wasn’t scanning the room.

But with so many balls in the air it is perhaps unsurprising that I might have dropped some. I keep reminding myself that it took me about a week to remember to mark the roll back on my first placement so it is unsurprising that I’m finding the reading session hard when I am still literally finding my way around someone else’s classroom. Right now I have to think about things like where are the marker pens, student-sized whiteboards, modelling books and reading books for students while keeping an eye out for off-task behaviour and also trying to keep focused on the task at hand, taking a guided reading lesson.

Eventually I will remember where the marker pens are kept, that student A and student B have a habit of distracting each other from the task at hand so need to be split up and will make better use of the extra space that the collective indoor courtyard area attached to the classroom has since there are extra bodies in the class and activities going during reading that require extra room.

This is learning at its best: messy, unpredictable with lots of mistakes and the best thing is that I get to make some new mistakes next lesson!

Yes there was stuff I did well. I’m good at using questioning strategies to promote thinking and understanding, the students were moving between activities quickly, the dexterity check is a good way to get the class’s attention and at the end of the lesson the students and I did some collective trouble-shooting of problems encountered during the lesson (which we will recap on Monday) but I’m definitely my harshest critic.

Hopefully next week will see some improvement because I have a lesson assessment with my visiting lecturer which Murphy’s law dictates will be during the class’s reading session. Last placement I taught my best lesson when my visiting lecturer came to visit which was an awesome ego boost but also meant we had trouble generating next learning steps for me. So I’m trying to use this assessment as an opportunity to improve rather than to feed my Type A desires of wanting a nice gold star for my learning.

Weekly reflection – Holidays are for learning too!

Aside from Nethui and EdCampTT  the other thing I’ve been doing with my holidays is visiting  schools that I had an interest in teaching for in 2012.

Although each school had a different organisational culture and leadership style the common theme I’ve had from talking to the principals and teachers I’ve met along the way is that your first teaching job really shapes you as a teacher. These interactions really got me thinking about the purpose of operation job search.

Before I embarked on this process, I must confess that I was more interested in finding a position for the age group I wanted to teach ideally located in a place I wanted to live and hope that there was a vacancy for 2012 that I could wrangle my way into. Now I’m thinking more about the organisational values and culture of the school and hoping there’s a vacancy for 2012 that I can wrangle my way into. An important change I think.

What kind of school would I  like to work at?

  • Collaborative – As a beginning teacher I’ve got a lot to learn about teaching and am going to make mistakes and ask questions. My ideal school would have a culture where mistakes are a learning opportunity and the relationships are there to ask questions of other members of staff. I would also like to work in an environment where I can make a contribution to learning even though I’ll still have my PRT training wheels on. I want to be part of a community of learners.
  • High expectations and high trust – Most students on my course worked up to 5-10 days of full control bit by bit over the 7 weeks we were on teaching experience. In contrast my associate decided that after doing bit by bit for the first 4 weeks, I would have 3 weeks of full control and plan a unit putting my own spin on the programme. At the time I wasn’t feeling at all confident and spent the holidays before I started teaching freaking out. What got me through the freak out were the parting words my associate teacher gave me before the holidays, “I trust you.”  Having a person who I respected put their trust in me made me want to do my best and was a far better motivator than fear (bad grades) or even a reward (good grades).  A few months on I recognize that my associate had given me a massive learning opportunity which I am immensely grateful for. This is also something I need to do as a teacher for my students as well.
  • A culture of happiness –  Perhaps this is Pollyannaish way of me saying I want to work in a school with high morale. But I like the idea that happiness is valued in the workplace. Not the ‘you will be happy OR ELSE’  but I want to be amongst people who love their work and have a strong sense of purpose as to why they are there. Teaching is hard work at times but there should also be joy.
  • Connected – If I were to sum up my teaching philosophy in a soundbyte, it would be that great Stephen Johnson quote, ‘Chance favours the connected mind.’  Working an ICT savvy school, or a school that wants to be ICT savvy, is something that I value because I’m all about using tech as a tool to help future students make connections to support their learning. Obviously reflective blogging is an important part of my practice and something ideally I would want to continue as a beginning teacher.
Going through the thought process of what the key features of my utopia was useful  process if only to make it a lot easier to craft my own interview questions. Now there is the small problem of finding a great school to work for in 2012.

Despite making some inroads into the goals I set myself finding teaching job still has me quaking in my boots. There’s a certain vulnerability about putting yourself out in a job market where there are so many people who are super-fabulous not mention better qualified, I’m going to hear ‘no thank you.’

I’m trying to keep in mind that when schools say no it might be for a reason that has nothing to do with me as a person or even as a teacher. It just means I’m not right fit for a particular school which in the long run will probably be a good thing. I should (touch wood) find a place that is a best fit for my current talents and skill set as well as a place I can learn and grow. I may very well be singing the ‘have diploma, will teach’ tune if I find myself unemployed post-hiring season.

For any student teachers out there I would encourage you to visit schools you are interested in well before an interview perhaps even before vacancies are advertised. It’s a good way to find out about what makes a school tick without the pressure of being under the microscope of an interview panel. In reality you are still being interviewed (so you do need to be professional) but I’ve found the process useful in thinking a bit more about what school would be a good fit for me and the kind of teacher I want to be.

While this holiday hasn’t been a traditional holiday of me watching a lot of bad TV or travelling to offbeat places, I’m feeling energised and excited about getting through the next half of the year so I can start teaching in 2012. Undoubtedly there will be some bumps along the way but it is good to start the semester on a high.

What do you think are the key features of a good school culture for beginning teachers?

How do you identify a school with a good culture for beginning teachers?

Weekly reflection: If you want to learn, don’t let the geek touch your device!

This week I took my PLN building offline. Initially I was just going to Internet NZ’s NetHui, however when @fionagrant offered up a seat to the  Tai Tokerau Educamp, I got up at stupid o’clock on a Saturday to make the journey up to Whangarei to see what these camps are all about. The week was hugely rewarding not only because I meet so many people, but also because I met people I had interacted with on twitter. Nevertheless four days of back to back conferencing, means I’m pretty tired, but the conferences were unlike any I have attended in the past

NetHui was a multi-stakeholder conference initiated by Internet NZ community organisations. The first two days of the conference were more participatory discussions on different aspects of the internet such as cyber citizenship and overall internet governance while the third day bought the discussions into a panel format.

The last day I spent in a corner with my laptop (laptop battery is currently dying a painful death) quite happily tweeting while listening to keynote speeches and report-backs from panels. Unsurprisingly for a conference full of internet junkies the #nethui twitter stream was highly active which bought in further conversations and learning from people in different cities and even countries!

Towards the end of the day I tweeted that I wished my university education was like the conference. However reflecting on this further I’ve realized that my learning is like NetHui. I’m well accustomed to having facebook and chats via text with other students in my course about the week’s bulletin board/upcoming assignment/teaching experience. I’ve proclaimed my love of twitter and obviously reflective blogging is aiding in my practice. So perhaps what I want to do as a teacher is facilitate an environment for my students’ learning to resemble a conference like Nethui.

This could be done by

  • Starting the day with an interesting keynote speaker (the @lessig speech from NetHui was brilliant as was Rod Oram’s) perhaps a child like Adora Svitak.
  • Encourage students to blog/tweet about their ideas, opening up their learning to people outside the classroom.
  • Offer students workshops to choose from, information booths to browse between sessions and spaces to have break-out conversations.
  • Ask students to present their own sessions, scaffolding where necessary.
  • Have students interacting with different people then they would normally encounter, experts, students from other classes, other schools, other countries.

One of the key issues that came out of the last day was the digital literacy of New Zealanders or lack there of.  We have a high level of internet usage but in general we use the internet to shop and pay bills but  is there more we could be doing. Are we only to be a nation of shoppers? How do we learn to unleash the potential of ultrafast broadband?

The general consensus from hui was that learning was something ‘done’ to them. A lot of speakers from the floor were concerned by the idea that we are currently developing digital literacy with people learning from each other.  But really isn’t one person acquiring the knowledge and then sharing it with others, who then share it with more people go to the very core of what education is all about? It’s like a virus, software or otherwise.

Which is where unconferences like educamp come in.  Educamp is basically a group of educators, some people have things to learn others have things to teach, and we learn from each other. I found the experience highly stimulating, especially during the smackdown session at the start of educamp where lots of cool ideas and apps were floated from the floor. What was also rewarding is that I was able to help others learn how to create a google doc and what the docs can do, the basics of twitter (I consider myself by no means an expert on twitter). I also managed to actually put into action what one astute NetHui attendee had remarked, don’t let a geek touch your device!

Speaking as a geek, it is to just take the device away and do whatever it is that the user wants do for them issuing long rambly instructions as I go. I know from last semester (and my own experience as a learner) that this sort of teaching is not very effective. It is little wonder that tech remains a great mystery to large sections of the population. So for anyone who happens to reading this blog who has some techphobia my advice is be open to learning from geeks, but keep your hands on your working device at all times!

What did I take away from this week?

  • To be digitally literate means that you need to commit to be a life-long learner yourself. You need be open to pulling out ideas and tools learning with them, playing with them, and then passing on your knowledge to someone else.
  • The importance of collaboration in learning. At educamp a not yet graduated teacher was helping out teachers with decades of experience to get to grips with new tools which benefited both parties.  The real teachers were learning about new tools they can use in their practice while I had an opportunity to explain how tools work without taking over and doing it all by myself meant that I was also learning too.
  • Be open to learning from anyone, experts come in different forms. Effective organisations take a bit of expertise from one person and add it to someone else’s expertise and share, something I need to think about when I’m looking for a school to work in next year.

But perhaps the most important thing from this week is that I have a vision of what I think a classroom might look like, sound like and feel like for students. Now I’ve got to learn how to effectively implement that vision into my teaching practice. I expect that might take some time, certainly a lot longer than the 6 months I’ve got left in my diploma.