Monthly Archives: March 2013

Week 2 of the writing experiment.

So it’s well into week 2 of my writing experiment and there is lots of writing getting done. I’m not convinced of the quality of all of that writing, but it is a starting point for development and rewriting.

I started with trying to quarantine a little bit of time each day and so far I’m getting hooked on it. If I get to the end of the day and I haven’t done any writing then I start to feel a bit niggly, I need a little fix of writing and once I’ve done it I feel better. I’m following the argument that, like any skill, writing can be developed and that investing time in it will lead to ongoing growth. I used to have this idea that writing was an innate talent and ‘good’ writers didn’t need to work at it – a view that contrasts with my belief of teaching and talking about the writing ‘process’ in my classes at school. I had this idea that the process – brainstorming, drafting, redrafting, editing – all that was fine for other people but surely I should be able to reel out a perfect first draft?

When I started running, I used to have to force myself out even when I wasn’t feeling like it. I’d strap on my sneakers, clip on my iPod and hit the road. Soon, running became a habit and if I hadn’t been out for a run, I’d be grumpy and irritable. At night, I dreamt of running and my legs scissored back and forth as muscle memory kicked in and I tried to run in my sleep (just like my dog!).

Maybe writing has been doing the same thing, but until recently, I haven’t really been listening to it. I think of all the nights I’ve woken up with half formulated thoughts, lines, arguments, and examples in my head. Most of the time I try to push them aside, willing sleep to overtake me as the ideas filter out into the darkness of night and are lost.

Now though I’m trying to grab hold of them when I can, to pin them down on the page and see where they take me. I talk about my ideas as if they have a life and force of their own and that I’m just trying to wrestle them into some coherent shape. I find myself returning to the same metaphors in my writing too, and I wonder if that is because I’m devoid of new ideas, or if it is because the other metaphors resonate so strongly for me?


Currently under construction

I’ve had some interesting responses to my post about the persona of perfectionism and yet again, those responses have got me thinking. A friend sent me an email saying that perhaps the reason teachers apologise for lessons where PSTs ‘won’t see much’ is because they know that their lessons are underprepared, or crappy, or boring and they feel guilty about that. That got me thinking again, and for a couple of reasons, partly it is because in some cases I know it can be true – like any profession there are those who don’t seem to care so much and don’t seem to work hard at preparing and teaching, those who just go through the motions (but even then I want to know why, what has led them to this point where they are just going through the motions?).

The other reason, though, is because I’m a hopeless optimist at heart and I like to believe that most of us who work in schools, do so because we want to create lessons that are engaging and which help students grow and develop (hmmm I really must do some unpacking of that word one day soon- what is engagement? When does it get confused with entertainment?). If we feel guilty though for not delivering a ‘great’ lesson, (and Hargreaves explores teacher guilt in his 1994 book too), maybe it’s because we know as teachers that perhaps our students aren’t getting the ‘best’ of us and the ‘best’ learning experience they could. So what is it that prevents us from showing and giving our ‘best’ on a daily basis?

 If teachers can ‘turn it on’ for model lessons or programs of observation by department heads for example, what is it that prevents them from doing that day in and day out? I keep coming back to an the old argument that the conditions of school life make it challenging for teachers – there is never enough time to do all the things we need to do, we wish for a few more moments to plan the perfect lesson, we hope for no interruptions, we wonder which students will be upset or angry or worn out with the world when they enter our classroom today.

We walk into the school day each morning to see the worlds of hundreds of young people clash around us and we try as best we can to give something to each of them. There are quotes from teachers I interviewed as part of my doctoral work that loom large in my brain, imprinted on my memory forever and one of them said about her work, ‘It’s about giving kids what they need’. Each day, teachers try and work out what it is kids need and how best to give it to them. Lesson after lesson, as 28 more people pile into the room, we look at them, read their faces, their body language, their voices and we try and work out what it is they need that day. In doing that our own lives collide with theirs, sometimes they will get the best of us as teachers, sometimes they might just get a shadow of that.

Another teacher commented on my facebook post that his ideal day was one where ‘in one out of six lessons I get close to Dead Poets. Sill working on that’. I read that comment and it made me smile. It reaffirmed my belief that most of us are in a constant state of being under construction – we keep working, planning, teaching, reflecting, hoping- we keep looking for the moments that are those when we walk of out our classrooms knowing that this is why we teach. I remember as a graduate teacher writing a piece for a national newspaper where I too pondered on the likelihood of having a Dead Poet’s moment – maybe no students have ever got up on desks and proclaimed ‘Oh captain, my captain’, but sometimes in the interactions and relationships formed with students I get enough reward anyway.

Enough for this morning, I need to get in the car and get to school. There are young people waiting.

PS. A case of semantics.

So in the hustle and bustle of yesterday I didn’t have time to post this on the blog and came home to read an email from a friend about the blog post – and in our usual ESP way she had started thinking about ideas that were starting to circulate in my brain about semantics and what we each mean when we speak or write about our understandings of teaching. I highlighted in this post when I wrote it that I wanted to unpack more about the notion of engagement – what does it mean? What kinds of understandings do I have about engagement and how might they differ to someone else’s? When I write about students getting the ‘best’ of us I’ve got it in quotation marks as I need to think more about what this actually means. What is the best of a teacher, does it not, therefore, imply a worst? How do we move beyond the simple categorisations to something more meaningful? This, like my work as a teacher, is all currently under construction….

The persona of perfectionism

I had a little group of pre-service teachers at school today observing in a range of classrooms with teachers who are relatively fresh to teaching and others who have been in the ‘game’ for quite some time. When I introduced my PSTs to some of the teachers, one teacher made a comment which almost was an apology about the types of things the PSTs might see in the classroom. One of the pre-service teachers commented, ‘This happened at my observation school last week too, teachers kept saying either you won’t see much today or we’re just in the middle of a task –sorry or this might not be very exciting”. I’m thinking about his comment and what it reveals about teachers, our work and the ways in which others perceive us. These are some initial thoughts, not particularly well formed, but I’m trying to capture them while they are fresh in my mind.

I’m wondering if this pre-emptive apology about what PSTs might see is an indication of the pressure teachers feel to perform? Hargreaves (1994) described the ‘persona of perfectionism’ (p. 149) which creates an environment in which teachers find it difficult to share their doubts for fear it will be perceived as ‘bad practice’ (p. 150), and Shapiro (2010) contends that teachers try and present the façade of the model teacher, someone she describes as ‘a pedagogical whiz who appears pleasant and calm in all situations and is imminently able to exceed the expectations put upon her by state, school, parents and students’ (Shapiro, 2010, p. 618). I wonder whether this pressure to be the pedagogical whiz is one which some teachers feel when PSTs or other teachers are in their rooms?

Last year when collecting feedback from PSTs about some of their classroom observations, some of the students made extremely critical comments about the quality of some of the teaching they had observed in their initial observation days. Not having been involved in their observations, or in the unpacking of these, I wonder if they had expectations that fed the cult of perfectionism among teachers? We all have our bad days, the lessons that don’t work as planned, the times we struggle to find the means to get students to the next stage of their journeys. I know that on some days if people were to walk into my classroom they would not see the pedagogical whiz, some days they will see me battling with ways to link concepts together in a manner that assists all students in learning. Some days they will see me tired, frustrated, and trying to respond effectively to a range of unexpected events. Other days they will see me in what Csikszentmihalyi would describe as ‘flow’, days when everything clicks, when the kids are caught up in their learning and when the classroom dynamic all moves together like clockwork.

I think it also highlights a problem with the way teachers have been subject to observations in the past – with a critical focus on the teacher alone, rather than on the students and their learning. This should be a central part of our focus when we are in classrooms – how are students progressing with their learning? What is aiding them? What might assist them further?

So today I’m thinking about the ways we can build school cultures and spaces where teachers can take professional risks, where they can break down the personas of perfectionism and talk freely about the good days and the bad. Perhaps the pedagogical whiz is one who is able to acknowledge both the crunchy and the smooth, and who takes both as opportunities for learning?



Doing the right thing even when it’s wrong

So I found out that someone had asked a mutual friend if I ‘done the right thing?’ in dropping my academic load to 0.5 and taking on a 0.5 load in a school. Something about the question bugged me and so I’ve been thinking about it this afternoon. I wanted to work out exactly what it was that was irritating me, I needed to scratch the itch that the question had caused in the back corners of my brain.

After a bit of thought I think I’ve come up with the solution – the reason I’m irritated is that the question implies that there is a guidebook somewhere that gives us the rules on what are the right and wrong moves to make career wise, and as someone who hates the feeling of being trapped in a box, I don’t like this. I’m not convinced that what I’ve done is the right thing (especially not on the days when work is falling down on me from all directions), but all I know is that I am doing the right thing for me at this moment, even if that right thing may turn out to be wrong. Is it a mistake? Who knows, but if it is, then it is my mistake to make and my mistake to learn from.

It might sound ridiculous, but sometimes doing the wrong thing can be so right in so many ways.

I know that dropping a permanent ongoing academic position to 0.5 to teach 0.5 in a school might not be the conventional academic path. I know that a 0.5 job in academia is not really a 0.5 job (my research doesn’t stop just because I’ve worked half a week already, papers from my editorial internship don’t stop needing to be reviewed and my writing doesn’t stop).  Similarly, I know that a 0.5 job in a school isn’t 0.5 either. There are parents that need to be called no matter what day it is, there are classes to be planned, marking to be done, projects to be organized, and all these things creep out to fill up every waking working moment. Some days I look at my ‘to-do’ list and the very sight of it makes me want to crawl back into bed and hide under the doona.

Still if I had not decided to do this I would be sitting in my office at uni wondering if my place was there or at school. Now I have a better sense of what my place is (and I’m not telling you the final verdict yet…no spoilers). I get the chance to move between two worlds that I love and in doing so I see things anew.

Returning to school I am reminded of the relentless nature of teaching. Everything is rushed and there is never enough time to do the things that I would like to. More than ever I feel the pressure of implementing a curriculum that has been stripped and pared back to a series of parts, a sequence of identified skills that are decontextualized and which are then tested, categorized and filed away. I have ideas for projects that will enable students to link between big ideas and to represent their knowledge and understanding in creative ways, and I feel trapped by teaching schedules that confine thought and pedagogy to a pre-determined list of tasks to be ticked off and completed. I see parents of year seven students asking for an indication of where their child sits in the class ranking and I wonder when this became the key focus of educational endeavor.  When did ranking become more important than the child’s ability to form relationships, develop independent thought and develop their understanding of who they are in relation to the world?

Some days I wonder if I have changed too much to fit into the world of school teaching. There are things that once I would have accepted that I now cannot. I cannot stay silent. I question, I critique, I challenge, I wonder. I cannot stop myself, and nor do I want to. These things have become a fundamental part of me and I wonder why it is that on some days I work in an education institution and I feel that it would be easier to not think. Thinking makes things more difficult, it makes it harder to fit in with colleagues, with leadership and with the system more broadly.

I wonder if the teacher who asked if I have done the right thing asked this question because as teachers we can so often be forced into taking the paths that are safe, that are traditional, that are expected. In some schools we are advised not to challenge, to quell our voices, to adopt without question. In taking this path I am doing the unexpected. I don’t see it as particularly revolutionary and yet it is not the norm. It is not the safe, expected, required path. Some university colleagues say they ‘couldn’t go back’ and the words themselves imply regression. I have begun to use the word return, as it is indeed a re-turning. While the simplest definition of returning is indeed to go back, if we explore the implications of the term more deeply we can consider it as a coming and a going, a reoccurrence, a conduit for moving something again to the starting point. In turning again to my life as a teacher in school, I have returned to the starting point of my journey.

In school I find the focus of my research is sharpened. I am returning to concepts that emerged in my doctoral work about the ways in which teachers’ working lives are mediated by micro and macro social/political/cultural forces. I am returning to my questions about the ways in which teachers navigate their working world when the space for intellectual and pedagogical freedoms seems to be shrinking. I find myself questioning how it is that teachers find a sense of agency in this world, how they align their personal and professional values in a culture that is driven by standards for accountability.

I am reminded more than ever of the importance of the relational in teaching. The work we do with students in schools is fundamentally what drives me back to school and the connections I form with students as we undertake a journey of learning together is one of the things that is sustaining my professional practice as a teacher. My year 7 French class has been one of the highlights of my return to the classroom, a room filled with 28 students who are bursting out of their skins to learn a new language, a new culture, a new way of interacting and of being in the world. In teaching French I feel more freedom to experiment, to use creative pedagogies and to play with the system. There is no NAPLAN for my French teaching and so I feel less bound by the constraints of the schedule.

Have I done the right thing? Well it depends on what we consider right to be. I am finding what I am doing hard, it is tiring, it is challenging and yet, already, it has been rewarding. I move between teaching adults to teaching adolescents and in each of these spaces I interact differently as a teacher. I speak, move, relate and think differently. I am learning more about myself as a practitioner, as a researcher, as a thinker and a writer than I had imagined I might. I’m intrigued as I watch my year unfold into and onto itself and I wonder where the re-turning will lead me.

Food for thought…

Over the last week I’ve been thinking about my writing more than I have since finishing my PhD, and I’ve been thinking about it in ways that are more than just ‘I must finish that paper’.  The spark was Pat Goodson’s book and I decided after beginning it that I needed to invest more time in my writing. The first couple of days I scheduled writing sessions for the end of the day, knowing that I wouldn’t find time to write during the school day and that I would have to do all those home related things that are looming when you walk in the door from work.

I was aware that this probably wasn’t ideal, particularly as I don’t really see myself as a night owl – I’m probably more productive in the morning than at night. The last few nights it has been after 8pm by the time I sit down to write. Normally at about 8pm I’m beginning to think of what I will read when I pull on my pj’s and crawl under the doona (told you I wasn’t a night owl). Instead the last few nights, I’ve sat down on the couch and started to write. One of the things that has been most striking to me is how good this feels.

The first couple of nights I’ve felt tired and grumpy and sure that I won’t be able to find a word, let alone form a sentence. Despite my misgivings though I’ve been keen to not deviate from the calendar schedule I set myself so I pick up the laptop and begin with a 5 minute writing exercise. Soon I am lost to everything around me, focused on the screen and thinking about what I will write. I write for a while and then I fill out my writing log (I snuck ahead in Pat’s book and thought I’d give the log a go to see how it worked for me). Like Pavlov’s dog I’m responding to the little buzz I get when I see on my log that I’ve actually managed to achieve something  (I wonder what Dan Pink would think of that?) and most nights I find myself continuing to write, and 15 minutes stretches out to 30 minutes and 30 minutes stretches out to an hour.

I’ve been surprised by this and maybe it’s because I’m starting to think about my writing in different ways. When I decided to start on my writing journey and decided to try and invest some time in nurturing my writing I emailed Pat Goodson to share my first entry with her. Getting an email from Pat and seeing her comment on my blog has been a great way to start – it reminds me that as academics we are entering a community of writers. Sometimes the competitive nature of academic life can lead us to forget that we share common experiences and common goals. With Pat’s feedback and with emails from my good friend Maryann I begin to feel part of a community who are investing in writing, taking time to find our authorial voice and to weave our stories through our research.  

I’ve been talking about writing more with my friends over the last couple of days and some of them have been reading my blog and sending me links to the work of other people. This has been great and has reminded me that there are lots of sources for me to read about writing and that these will help fuel my love of writing and will help my writing develop. I’ve loaded a couple of books onto my iPad, including Helen Sword’s ‘Stylish Academic Writing’, which was a recommendation from Pat. I’ve ordered a couple of other books and am picturing them, clad in brown cardboard, nestled in planes, winding their way towards me from the U.S. I figure that if I want to grow my writing, I need to give it some food.

 This week has made me hungry for more. 

An eye for details

An eye for details. Sometimes I wish I had one. Normally I wish this when I am at the tail end of writing a journal article and am cross-checking in-text citations with the reference list. Sitting with a hard copy of my paper, I munch on the end of my pen and wish I was important enough to give this type of task to someone else. No reference checker magically materializes and I realize that I need to do it all myself. This kind of mechanical checking of details, of checking there are the correct number of spaces between headings, that the right things are in italics and that the font size is consistent – all these bore me stupid. Important parts of the process they may be, but they take all the joy out of writing for me. While working on a paper I can get caught up in the process, I get trapped in the way ideas flutter in the air and then assemble on the page, I even like the way the writing can be difficult and challenging as when I get to the end there is a feeling of accomplishment. I can stand back, look at my paper and smile.

Then I realize, it’s not over yet. There is still the proofreading, the redrafting and finally, horror of horrors, the reference checks, and the checking of proofs should it be accepted to a journal. It’s like being forced to wash the dishes after preparing a rich, decadent feast – surely there is someone else who can do the clearing up? 

Searching for the perfect word

Thinking about the things I enjoy about writing is more challenging than I imagined it would be and makes me reflect on what it is I do as a writer. When I was a teenager, I loved to write and used to sit in my room and write narratives where I would be transported to other lands and to other people’s lives. One of my friends told me I needed to leave writing aside and head out to the pub with her, apparently I needed to ‘be seen out’. As a teenager I wasn’t interested and so this claim that I needed to be seen out with the rest of the pack didn’t really appeal. I stayed home bunkered down with my tales, my brand new white note books and a crisp black pen that sliced through the paper as I wrote.

Now, I think about writing differently. In my jobs as both a teacher and an academic I have to write such a diverse range of things that I have a very different relationship to writing. There are things I consider ‘writing’ and other things I don’t. I’ve never really thought that my applications for ethics, awards and grants are ‘writing’, despite the fact that the act of grant writing is quite obviously a very particular kind of writing task. Writing presentations is another thing I have not really considered ‘writing’, nor is writing reports for school students or research reports for committees.

What then do I consider writing? In my current categorization ‘writing’ is papers, my regular journal column, books, blog entries and ideas for future projects. I love these types of writing tasks and get caught up in the process of thinking about how I will link ideas together and structure my writing. It is something about the open nature of these types of writing that make them seem more like ‘proper’ writing to me – other types of writing have a pre-determined purpose and audience, sometimes with a very clear instruction that I need to fill a box with no more than 300 words. In these kinds of writing tasks I am focused on achieving a goal and sometimes feel limited by what it is I can achieve in those tasks.

In contrast, ‘proper’ writing for me is not a pre-determined path, it drops me in the forest and lets me find and write my way out. On the journey, I develop the path and I take the reader with me. It is these moments of writing that I love, the moments when I can construct a path for a reader, when I can sit quietly musing over the choice of words and over the way I want to present an idea. It is the words I love most about writing. I love the way that one word in the right context can do so much. I read a novel by Danielle Wood (The Alphabet of Light and Dark) recently and commented that the prose was so good that it made my teeth ache – sometimes words are like that, just achingly beautiful and perfect.  

So when I think about writing this is what I love, the search for words that are perfect in the right context. Words that shift, challenge, transform, trouble, soothe, agitate and guide. Words that begin with my understanding and take it further. Words that add something to the cacophony of conversation that occurs. On a rare day I find the perfect word, most days I just keep searching.