I was incredibly fortunate to receive an invitation to the 2016 NSW Education Symposium, a cross-sector gathering of state leaders in education and industry to discuss – as the conference tagline stated – “future reform directions” for the school system in NSW. It was a pretty incredible group of people, with internationally-renowned speakers and proven educational practitioners sharing the stage.
As with many others, I was busy on Twitter trying to (a) engage in the conversation and (b) ensure that those who couldn’t be present could get a window into the room. Here are a few of the things I shared, though for a more comprehensive account I definitely recommend Matt Esterman’s full Storify of the #nswedu16 feed.
As I accurately predicted, I’ve had less time to write than I wanted to. That doesn’t say very much, though – ever since I was about 16, I don’t think I’ve ever had enough time to do all the things I was interested in doing. That says more about how many things I’m interested in doing than it does about how much time I “have” (the latter of which is the same as everyone else in the universe not travelling at relativistic speeds – namely 24 hours each day). But that’s okay – I’ve still gained a lot from having this blog and I anticipate to continue to do so.
The point of me writing this is not to lament my inability to post more frequently, but simply to stop in on the last day of Term 2 and say: I’m still alive after my first six months as a head teacher! I know that probably doesn’t sound like much to many of you reading this (“What, it isn’t even a whole year yet and he’s already celebrating?”), but I honestly feel like I’ve climbed a mountain since the year began. I am tired but still love what I’m doing, and I count that to be a small victory worth smiling about.
I feel this is an appropriate time to stop and say thanks to many of the people who’ve encouraged me in the last few weeks and months. I’ve been through my fair share of moments filled with self-doubt, and many kind people have done the equivalent of patting me on the back and saying, “Keep going, mate – you’re doing alright.” This is particularly meaningful from those of you who have already taken the executive/leadership step up that I have just made – either in recent times or a long while ago – and therefore have a deep and personal understanding of the specific struggles and tensions that I’m now encountering for the first time.
There are too many people to name individually, but I’m thinking of people like @corisel, @dickfaber, @glenn_langford, @sailpip, @jennyluca and many others, whose positive words to me carry a tremendous amount of weight because I know they come from years of hard-earned experience. To everyone who’s nudged me along, thank you! (As a side note to this side note, this reminds me of how we should all recognise that even our small words here and there can have a surprisingly disproportionate effect on those around us!)
Happy holidays, everyone!
This is the third post in a series; if you haven’t yet, read the earlier posts:
Something that everyone must struggle with to varying degrees is working out how much of their identity and character is inherited from the surrounding culture. The reason it’s so important to struggle with this is because I’m convinced that every culture gets things wrong, but when you are in the middle of the culture they don’t look wrong – so you can be unknowingly carried along with what everyone else is doing, even when it’s a really bad thing to do. Of course, it doesn’t usually feel like you are being carried along – it usually feels like you are following the desires that you yourself want as an individual – but that’s because your culture is at least partly responsible for planting many of those desires in you, so of course they feel like they are yours.
This is evident to anyone who looks at history (or even other cultures in the world today) and wonders how people in other cultures can be so stupid. I mean, take the slave trade. (Forget for a moment that slavery is still a modern problem, it just gets given a different name – “human trafficking” – and it isn’t officially endorsed by governments. It’s still just as real. I’m referring right now to the institutionalised relocation of people with particular racial identities, selling them to others for financial gain and then forcing them into labour and inhumane living conditions.) We look back on the slave trade and wonder, “How could people ever think it would be morally justifiable to own another human being and deprive them of their basic human rights?”
But to say this is to ignore the pervasive influence of culture. The culture (for instance, in the United States) of the time accepted this as a given, and it was unusual to think otherwise. When this assumption was challenged, it was met with (literally) violent opposition. As you can see, our cultural context has a far greater influence upon us than Western post-Enlightenment individualism would have us believe (which is ironic, since Western post-Enlightenment individualism has itself had a massive cultural impact on the society that we live in).
So what does this have to do with becoming a head teacher? Well, my cultural identity is bound up in my “generation” (Gen Y, for anyone who’s keeping score at home). Gen Y is renowned for refusing to grow up and take responsibility. My generation is famously filled with man-sized boys who prefer to live at home into their 30s playing video games while their mothers do their laundry and cook meals for them – rather than moving out, getting a job and starting a family.
It took me a long while to realise this, but I began to see that part of the reason why I had resisted becoming a head teacher for so long is because I was doing the Gen Y thing: saying to myself, “That job is for someone else – just leave me alone and let me keep doing the thing I’m enjoying.” To be sure, there were other reasons why I didn’t want to become a head teacher, but at least some of it was this selfish thing that my generation is so good at: refusing to do the hard thing and take responsibility for something beyond my own personal comfort.
One of the funny things that all of us do in one way or another is look down on others for doing exactly what we are doing, so long as it is different enough to us so that we can distance ourselves from it. So we might mock those who earn twice as much money as we do and live in obscenely extravagant and wasteful ways, but the people who earn half as much as we do would say we do exactly the same things but on a smaller scale. I was looking at others who weren’t growing up and taking responsibility (especially with regard to family life, an area where I am relatively advanced for my age) and scoffing at them – not recognising that I was doing exact the same thing, only in the professional sphere.
This is the second post in a series; if you haven’t yet, read the first post:
Head teachers may spend less face-to-face time with students than regular teachers, but they actually have a much broader effect because they make decisions that don’t just affect their class; they make decisions that affect all teachers in their faculty, and hence all classes for that subject. In some ways, classroom teachers are like builders but head teachers can be like architects: the latter design things according to their convictions about what works best in their context and the former are responsible for implementing these designs in concrete ways. (The analogy isn’t perfect – the line is not nearly as clear cut as that, but you still get the idea.) I can illustrate this idea anecdotally.
I knew a head teacher who was the first to enforce an exam-setting system from year 7 to year 12 that involved all assessments being set by teachers who did not teach the course (i.e. the year 7 exam must be set by someone who does not teach year 7 that year). Obviously, this is not the only way to do it; the opposite approach is far more popular (where the year 7 exam is set by one or several of the year 7 teachers). I won’t go into length on the pros or cons of each, but I will say that this specific head teacher firmly believed that exams should not be set by those who taught that year (or that course). His decision had a massive impact on the faculty and on students as a result; it led to higher standards for classroom teachers (they had to be very diligent in teaching every single aspect of the course, because they had no idea what might be assessed in the exam) and became a crucial part of students’ preparation for the HSC.
Let me tell another story. In my recent years of teaching, I’ve noticed a few alarming trends. One was increased stress levels (particularly in the senior years); another was a higher prevalence of distractedness (which manifested in many students’ inability to focus on a single task and do it well, both in academic and extra-curricular contexts). But the thing that irritated me most was the increasing frequency of this kind of conversation:
Me: So that’s why this kind of question is so interesting and challenging.
Class: Do we need to include that line to get full marks in an exam?
M: Ummm, well, it would probably be a good idea – but more importantly, do you understand this concept and see how it makes sense of so many other things you have learned about over the past few years?
C: Yeah, but we want to know how to do the correct setting out. Will we lose half a mark if we forget to mention the plus minus?
M: I’m not sure, maybe, but the point is that the plus minus actually tells you something significant about the kind of equation you are solving…
C: But can you find out whether we’ll lose marks or not?
M: Fine, I’ll go and ask…
I despise having this kind of discussion. It embodies everything that I think is wrong with maths education in school (particularly high school): all the emphasis is on getting the right answer and being able to perform well on an exam, rather than on actually understanding an idea and seeing how that reveals interesting and sometimes surprising patterns and relationships.
The thing is, I know it’s not the students’ fault. They aren’t asking me these questions because they have thought about the philosophy of maths education and come to the conclusion that it is all about exam performance. They are just responding naturally to a simple reward/punishment stimulus: working that doesn’t have every single required element gets marks deducted, which leads to a lower overall mark, which leads to a lower ranking, which leads to being put into a lower class, which leads to the parents being disappointed and being really strict. (I’m exaggerating a little… but not that much.) So they learn very quickly: learn what hoops the maths teachers want us to jump through (whether it’s writing “or” instead of a comma, or including restrictions, or drawing things to scale, or add in some seemingly arbitrary lines of additional working), and then jump through them regardless of whether you understand the concept or not. It’s the hoops that matter.
How did things get this way? The short answer is: one head teacher’s incredible attention to detail and unrelenting desire to maintain high standards of mathematical working and setting out. In the staffroom, the head teacher makes the final decision on what receives marks and what does not, and he was a firm believer in the “half mark”! Since he held that kind of belief about how maths should be taught and assessed, it trickled down to all the staff and then through to every student until it led to those kinds of conversations that I described earlier.
So, what’s my point? In both cases (and I could name dozens of others), a head teacher’s conviction led to certain decisions that had an enormous impact on the learning environment of the day-to-day classroom. This is part of the head teacher’s role as an “architect”: to lead the faculty and hence direct student learning – and that’s a level where I want to have a positive impact, not just in my own classroom.
Some teachers set their eyes on “career climbing” from a very early stage, but I wasn’t one of them. It took me a long time to warm to the idea of even wanting to become a head teacher, let alone trying to become one. In the process, I reflected a lot about what matters to me as a person and as a teacher, which I’ve found to be a difficult but very worthwhile process. I’ve discussed some of these thoughts with various individuals recently, and hope that sharing them here will be beneficial to others and open up further dialogue. So this is the first of three posts where I try to articulate why I became a head teacher. Today’s reason sounds negative, but it’s a necessary starting point: it’s the leadership vacuum in mathematics education.
It’s generally recognised that there is a shortage of qualified maths teachers out there at the moment (mainly because people who are good at maths tend to gravitate toward professions that use those skills but earn more money and have better social status, such as engineers and actuaries). At the same time, maths teachers are among the least likely to want to enter leadership and management roles because – to put it bluntly – mathematicians can be pretty weak in the people skills department! This means that there seem to be relatively few people who have genuine interest in becoming mathematics head teachers.
This is a problematic situation in and of itself. But it becomes drastically worse when you realise that, up there with English and science, maths is one of the biggest subjects in our schools (and therefore needs many teachers and HTs). Not only is it a big subject in terms of sheer enrolment of students, it’s a big subject in importance: any time any country does a large-scale review of its education system and school curricula, maths figures prominently in what needs to be emphasised (and the reason political chaos in connection to Christopher Pyne and his proposed review of the Australian Curriculum is no exception).
Now, that whole discussion may seem high and lofty compared to one teacher’s decision with regard to his career – so what’s the point? The point is that if competent maths teachers don’t step up and become maths head teachers, it’s not that there is no head teacher. This is a required role. There must be a head teacher. So if competent maths teachers don’t step up, the bar gets lowered and we get bad educational leaders in head teacher positions.
So, I decided to step up to the plate because students and schools deserve good leaders, and there aren’t enough of them around. I think I have a skill set that can be genuinely useful in serving in an executive capacity, so – hopefully – I will be doing more good than harm by taking on this role!
So, how was my first week at a new school? I’ve been asked this plenty of times over the last few days, and I keep coming back to one particular metaphor. I think the influx of new information has been like trying to drink from a fire hose – you end up all wet, but still thirsty! (Actually, for the record I think that’s a simile – but who’s keeping score anyway?) Since Tuesday I have lost count of how many occasions I did something “for the first time”. That’s been exhausting, but it’s also been refreshing – in a way that reminds me of the Stanford commencement address delivered by the late Steve Jobs back in 2005. Describing how he was fired from the company that he himself had founded, he said:
“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
The crucial phrases are there in the middle, where Steve talks about how he experienced “the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything”. When you first start teaching, you aren’t sure about anything you’re doing – whether it will work or not – because you’ve never done it before. So you repeatedly try new things because you have no other choice!
In theory, you can fall back on the methods that you remember of how you yourself were taught (and research suggests that many people unintentionally incline themselves this way). However, the truth is that there is no guarantee that these ways will be effective for you anyway, because you are not exactly the same kind of person as any of your teachers was, so the way they taught may not fit your personality or skills. The early days consist of the journey to discover who you are as a teacher, how you will structure things to fit your own idiosyncrasies, how you will discipline students in a way that’s consistent with your character and how you will explain things to most clearly convey your particular ways of thinking.
I am going through that experience all over again, but this time as a head teacher. I’m not sure about anything, and that frees me to form new habits and create new structures. How will I interact with parents? With the rest of the executive? What kind of relationship will I form with my own faculty members?
(Interestingly enough, I had a conversation on the weekend that reminded me one of the benefits of starting out as a head teacher at a whole new school rather than becoming head teacher at the school you’re already at. It’s true that there is a steeper operational learning curve due to your lack of familiarity with the new school’s people, policies and procedures. However one of the major benefits is that you don’t need to awkwardly transition from being someone’s friend to being their boss. Of course these aren’t concrete mutually exclusive categories, but it’s really hard to take the hard line and make judgement calls with people who used to be your mates.)
So in summary, it’s a time when I get that wonderful and rare opportunity to remake myself. To question everything I once took for granted. To reassess the ways I do things and turn over a new leaf where I need to. I don’t know what I’ll keep doing and what I’ll ditch – but one thing’s for sure, when I come out the other end I’ll be a very different person to who I am now!
P.S. I haven’t forgotten about that post which I started but didn’t finish. It’s on its way. Just wanted to write about a few more urgent things first!
I know I’ve only been in my job for three days – not even a full week! But in that space of time I’ve had the same unusual conversation with three different teachers independently. With only very slight variations, it goes like this:
Them: So, how are you finding everything?
Me: It all seems to be going okay so far.
Them: Really? Adapting to the new school and all the head teacher stuff alright?
Me: I think so…
Them: Actually, I did want to tell you that you don’t look very stressed.
Which makes me kind of wonder – is that intended to be a compliment, or an insult? Is it, “You don’t look very stressed – you’re doing really well to stay composed!” Or is it supposed to be: “You don’t look very stressed – are you sure you’re actually doing your job?! You should be more stressed!!”
Early days yet – but loving it so far. Time will tell!