Why A Head Teacher? The Architect’s Influence

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.

Why A Head Teacher? The Leadership Vacuum

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!

The Silver Bullet (continued)

This is the second post in a series; if you haven’t yet, read the first post.

Last time I wrote about how online video has certain characteristics that make it really useful as a means of professional learning (PL). Of course, it would be foolish to ever try and make the case that one means of PL should ever replace others; the point is to work out each one’s unique strengths and leverage those in the right situations. Most would agree, for instance, that one-on-one mentoring in combination with practicum-like opportunities would produce the best learning outcomes for developing teachers. But the economics of the situation dictate that these can only be given to pre-service teachers for a limited number of weeks, and only once or twice during their whole teacher training process. Therefore other PL delivery methods must be employed, which may be inferior in many ways but still provide needed assistance to teachers looking to develop their skills.

Here are four advantages that I thought of for using short-form online video for PL. For every advantage there’s a disadvantage, of course. But that’s not the point! So here we go: online video is accessible, cost-effective, bite-sized and personal.

Let’s start with some of the simpler advantages. Online video is as far away as your nearest internet-enabled device. For many these days, that’s right in their pocket – their smartphone, which is very likely being used to consume plenty of video content already. Alternatively, a home or work computer would provide a better screen and viewing experience.

Assuming internet connectivity (which, though not universal, is not an unreasonable assumption), this is a major benefit that shouldn’t be overlooked. Many PL courses are far away – every single one I have attended has been a minimum of 40 minutes’ drive away from my home, and some have been significantly further (e.g. commuting into the city, MANSW conferences that are held at regional locations and even interstate events). In that 40 minutes, I could have watched a couple of videos, spent some time in critical self-reflection and planning, and gotten back into the classroom to give this new idea a go – all still with time to make a cup of tea.

Online video can be served, with accompanying materials (such as documentation or relevant learning resources), for free. I’m not saying that it should be – in order to make this type of platform viable in the long term, there ought to be a business strategy of some kind to ensure that high-quality PL can be delivered rather than just what can be produced in someone’s spare time – but I’m merely establishing that it can be. Even the most humble forms of PL today have significant overheads, such as a venue, printed materials, presentation equipment and food – not to mention the considerable fee of the person running the session! I do realise that one would need the internet and a device to benefit from online video, but I don’t include that as a relevant cost because the vast majority of people in today’s society will have purchased that already for completely separate purposes.

This is a really big deal. Schools are provided with funds for their staff to engage in PL, but those funds are severely limited (just like everything else in public schools). This is a privilege that not all people or organisations get to enjoy; many need to fund their (mandated) PL out of their own pockets. There are many ideals in education, but a great number of them are constrained simply by costs. What kind of tsunami would be unleashed by a wave of freely available, high-quality PL resources for teachers? It’s a genuinely exciting possibility to consider.

The developers and facilitators of in-service courses have a really tough job. They are typically engaged to provide PL in once-off large-portion pieces, despite the fact that they may not be the best form for participants’ learning. Why do they do it? The reasons, again, are economical in nature. For instance, if I spend two to three hours travelling to and from the city for a course, I want the facilitators to make it worth my while – so I expect them to give me at least four to five hours of reasonably dense content, or else I won’t feel that I have gotten value for my money or time. In a similar way, if we hire a qualified speaker to come and address our staff for a sum in the thousands of dollars, we want him or her to provide us with a substantial amount of content – a 15-minute presentation simply would not do.

So, people are compelled toward giving PL in long formats by financial motivations, rather than pedagogical ones. That’s sad, but hard to avoid. I’ve sat in many a PL session where my fellow audience members on either side of me are fast asleep – not because the content is poor (though it can be), but more because the content is simply long. But presenters are obliged to give these kinds of sessions.

Then a new kind of problem emerges when you attend PL that comes in the form of a conference that spans multiple days. In these contexts, sessions may be broken up and delivered in many smaller chunks, which goes a way toward helping the attention problem. But then the situation arises where your mind becomes filled with so many excellent concepts and new ideas to implement, in isolation from opportunities to actually trial those ideas in the classroom and assess their value for day-to-day teaching.

Incidentally, this is why “lunchroom dialogue” is so vital to teachers; it is where short conversations about effective and ineffective practice can be held, new ideas are raised and proposed, and then the avenue for trialling those ideas is immediately presented when the bell goes and everyone needs to head to their next class. In these kinds of situations, there is a very short distance for the entire idea-implementation-feedback loop and so learning happens rapidly. When attending a PL conference, the loop widens dramatically and new teaching ideas tend to get stored away in the resource filing cabinet of our brain, marked as “to be referred to at a later date” – whether or not that ever actually happens. Our minds also aren’t as sharply attuned to the strengths and weaknesses of new ideas being presented, because we are divorced by time and physical distance from our classrooms where these ideas can be implemented. When you’re in middle of the kitchen with pots boiling all around you, cooking techniques take on a new urgency and importance.

For online video, 15 minutes is a long time. 4 minutes is common and 9 minutes is about the median for educational content. Obviously this means that complicated ideas need several videos to develop, but in practice this seems to work just fine with our brain’s inclination toward instant gratification. These lengths are far more manageable than a day-long or days-long course; they allow us to process the ideas and try them out in the real world before rejecting them or coming back for more.

In years gone past, the phrase “online learning” was synonymous with text and images. The internet was essentially a parallel medium to the textbook, and the reason was technological limitation more than anything else. Other kinds of data, namely audio and video, were too large to practically transfer along an internet connection, when it first became feasible it was difficult to imagine anyone streaming video along an internet connection that a regular family could afford. And yet with broadband internet as fast and cheap as it is now (even without the NBN), Youtube is one of the most trafficked sites on the entire internet (smart move by Google to buy it back in 2006).

Online PL is yet to catch up. Today, teachers across the state have to go through mandatory anaphylaxis and emergency care training, and the online sessions are all carried out through text. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but certain parts of the refresher course would be ideal to be presented through online video – a human presenter is far more engaging than reading text, especially for the kind of content that this course includes. People view online PL as a very impersonal kind of medium, and it certainly is not as personal as actual human contact (that is true by definition) – but if video is used effectively, it can be far more personal than a straight body of text. It allows for better delivery of tone and body language, all of which is critical to human communication. In fact, effectively designed short-form video can be a very close analog to the kind of brief lunchtime conversation that I mentioned before.

So, in conclusion – does online video have something to offer to professional learning? I think it has plenty. Who will devote the time and resources to explore that reality? Now that’s the question we must all ask ourselves.

The lightness of being a beginner

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!

Not stressed enough?


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!


Is video the professional learning silver bullet?

Now that I’ve got your attention, allow me to immediately let you down by telling you that the answer is no. But does video – specifically, online streaming video in relatively small* chunks, as has been popularised by Youtube and its brethren – have the potential to solve some really important problems in professional learning (hereafter PL)? Only time (and some significant trial and error) will tell, but I think there may be something really valuable here, if we’re willing to explore it.


To explain, let me give you some context first. Last week I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Chris Tisdell, who lectures in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of New South Wales. Some may think that what I’ve been doing with my Youtube channel is quite new, but Chris has been in this game for over 6 years now (his channel has almost 16000 subscribers)! Admittedly he’s been uploading videos on university-level mathematics and I’ve been covering content from high school, but in principle we’re about the same thing: explaining maths clearly and for free. So it shouldn’t have surprised me to find that Chris and I are on the same page in a whole lot of ways –in our motivations for what we’re doing, in our attitudes toward maths education (and maths educators!), and in what excites us about this new and fledgling platform of learning through online video.

But the truth is that as we talked, I found it utterly refreshing – not just because meeting him afforded a break from the dry monotony of writing year 9 programs, but because I felt I’d found someone who so totally understood where I was coming from and what I was doing. Not only that, but since Chris has been doing this so much longer than I have, he has met many of the same challenges I’ve encountered while “doing this Youtube thing”, and he has come out the other side more confident and convinced of the value of what we’re doing than ever. That’s really encouraging, because one of the things that plagues every educator who’s breaking new ground (especially with technology) is the constant fear that what you’re investing in is just another fad that will come and go, having shown to provide no substantial value for learning. Seeing Chris a few (or, a lot of) steps ahead of me, and discussing how helpful this has been to various students, cements me in my stance that video is something that has genuine value for teaching and learning. It may not be a silver bullet – nothing is, really – it seems to be authentically useful to people, in the kind of way that makes a technology (like the book, or the chalkboard) stick around.

Which brings me back to why I started writing this post. Something I didn’t expect about my meeting with Chris was that, while we talked plenty about various types of students and how video has been valuable to them, Chris had more of an interest in using video as a learning tool for teachers. This is something that I have only given passing thoughts to before and haven’t dwelled on much, but the more the idea circulated around my head, the more attractive it became. Let me talk you through why.

I’m obviously speaking from the perspective of a maths teacher, but from what I can tell, many of the things I’m about to describe apply more or less to all secondary teachers. (I don’t know enough about primary teaching to make a judgement call, but some of this may be even truer for them than it is for us; I’m just not sure.) Educators need PL the way a room needs open windows; even the best of the first become stale after a while without the second. This need is particularly acute among mathematics teaching, for a number of reasons: (1) critical shortage of effective maths teachers, which has led to (2) a large proportion of retrained teachers from other subjects, which is great but leads to its own problems; and (3) the subject matter is cognitively intense!

(Teachers of other subjects, please don’t hear me saying that other subjects aren’t cognitively intense; anyone who knows me personally and is familiar with my proclivity for the humanities would know that I would never say such a thing. I’m making a statement of fact, not of comparison: maths is just plain hard work for anyone’s brain!)

So the maths teacher population in general needs PL, and it needs it badly. The problem is that maths teachers – not all of them, but a lot of them – don’t want to do it. Why is that? Like most things in the real world it’s complicated, and there is whole range of reasons – but pretty close to the top of the list for most teachers, I think, would be time poverty.

Teachers are famously time-poor people. The vast majority of tasks that a teacher does are bottomless time holes – they aren’t necessarily bad things to do, but they just suck up as much time as you give them and happily ask for more. That exam you’re writing? You can spend more time to make the questions more balanced. Those students who need one-to-one help with troubleshooting questions? You can spend more time with them outside class. The lesson you’re planning? You can spend more time to make the explanation clearer and tie in more closely to the exercises you’ve set. The extra-curricular group that you’re running? You can spend more time researching and implementing new ideas for how to run its activities better.

I could go on and on – and I haven’t even gotten started on the myriad of tasks that a head teacher has to do above and beyond the tasks and responsibilities of a normal teacher (nor have I mentioned those perilous phrases, “having a life” or “raising a family”)! The point is that there are unlimited worthwhile opportunities to spend time on, and only limited time to spend. Everyone has the same 168 hours every week to spend, and no one gets extra to spend. I know schools can spend money to free up their staff to attend PL, and this is a good and necessary step – but it is problematic for a variety of reasons (not least of which is that there is precious little of that money to go around for the amount of PL that needs to be done).

That segues back into my original question. What does online video have to offer that can alleviate this situation? Of course it’s not going to be perfect, and it’s certainly not going to be a substitute for the other kinds of PL that exist out there. They’re all different and they each fit into their own niches. But the more I think about it, the more I think online video has may have something worthwhile to offer. What is that exactly, you say? Well I think this blog post is about long enough right now, so I’m going to end on a cliffhanger and let you stew on the question yourself until I post the next half of my thoughts on this topic!

Twitter beginner

I’m a bit of a paradox, really. I suppose everyone is in some respect, but I seem to be self-contradictory in a whole variety of ways. (Warning: prepare for stereotypes!) I’m Asian, but I studied no sciences in high school. I went to a selective school, but I became a teacher* (and not in any of the subjects I majored in at school!). I’m Gen Y, but I started a family early. But of particular note to me today is that I’m a technology enthusiast (and generally, an early adopter) – but I’ve only quite recently started using Twitter.


I was reminded of this fact when I woke up today and noticed I’d passed this milestone (100 followers), which is notable because of how infantile it is. (In the Twittersphere, 100 followers is hardly any. It’d be like a marathon runner celebrating that he’d run 100 metres.) The number is small mainly because it’s a function of how long (and how much) I’ve used the service – which is to say, not very long (or much) at all.

This year I want to change that, since I’m convinced there are real benefits – to be had and to be shared with others! Let’s see how prescient that statement turns out to be.

* That’s a stereotype I’m determined to erode in the years to come. 🙂