Adjusting the Sails

“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”

John C. Maxwell

There is definitely a “Wind of Change” blowing through the hallways of education. Now, I’m prepared to bet that many of you started singing The Scorpions song from 1990; admit it, you know I’m right. The song celebrated Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, which put an end to The Cold War. Unfortunately, in far too many schools, or mine at least, there is still a Cold War in progress.
Personally, I’ve always embraced change; indeed it’s how I’ve kept myself (largely) sane across a career in the classroom that has now stretched beyond thirty years. In that time I’ve been the Head of a Subject Department, a Pastoral Coordinator and an Assistant Principal. In July of 2012, however, I accepted the newly created position of Learning Technologies Coordinator at the high school where I have been employed for the past seventeen years. And that, as they say, is when the war began!

My school, Aquinas College on Australia’s Gold Coast, will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 2014. The school, which is Catholic, accommodates just over 900 students from Years 8 to 12. We have a teaching staff of just fewer than 80, the majority of whom, like myself have many years of teaching experience. In 2015 our school population will swell to in excess of 1200 as Year 7 students in Queensland become part of high school for the first time. We are therefore rapidly approaching a future that demands our immediate and shared attention. Except, you guessed it, I’ve hit a brick wall the size of the one that Gorbachev brought down! (OK, I know that’s melodramatic, but you have to admit it’s a nice link.)

I’ve always been more than just a little OCD but I guess that at age 53 I’m still an unlikely “tech junkie.” I decided in my naivety that all I had to do was extol the virtues of new learning technologies and my colleagues would come running to join my Perestroika. (Yes, another link!) No surprise that the response was decidedly underwhelming. I had decided that it was all about skills; I would simply show fellow teachers how an application worked and they would go off and use it to great effect. It took me more than six months of delivering under-attended (and voluntary) professional development sessions to realize my fundamental error.

I had begun to “hang out” on Twitter and it was there that I came across the statement that sent me running headlong in a new direction. Canadian elementary school principal Greg Miller had delivered this insight:

 

The most important 21st century tool in any classroom is the attitude and mindset of the teacher.


 

In placing such emphasis upon skills or a “tool set” I had ignored the fact that “mind set” was, in essence, far more significant. Having been appointed as an international guru by Haiku Deck, I used their exceptional presentation app to fashion an appeal to my colleagues to adopt “The New Mindset.” After presenting to the entire staff I received polite applause, one or two restrained compliments and an inquiry as to why I had to engage in “such obvious hyperbole.”

The New Mindset – link to above Haiku Deck

At the same time my presentation was posted online and has now exceeded  4500 views. I have received far more effusive compliments, incisive questions and requests to present at conferences.  As pleasing as all this is, I have still made no discernible progress at my own school. I realize and appreciate that my PLN will always be onside; after all, where they are concerned, I am “preaching to the converted.” I have, at times, despaired and stated as much on Twitter. Fortunately, others have been there to remind me that it is all about “Small Wins and the Long Game.” (Thanks, to Matt Esterman for allowing me to use the title of his excellent February 24 blog post, which you can find at http://mesterman.wordpress.com)

I’ve had a few small wins; so small in fact, I would rather not list them here. But what about the “long game?” Who or what are my opponents and how will I win? For, as Matt rightly says, “… the future thrashes around in our mind like a chained beast, frothing and straining …” (Love it Matt! I know; Gorbachev, chained beasts, adjusting the sails and I still haven’t made it to the armchair!)

THE UN-HOLY TRINITY

  • I firmly believe that many schools, my own amongst them, have become bogged down in what I recently saw described as administrivia. Schools have lost sight of the fact that we are in the business of learning. The day-to-day fixation upon uniform, litter duty and examination timetables is simply, in my opinion, wrong.
  • The Leadership Team is largely responsible for setting the tone of any school. But, any Middle Manager in a role such as mine will struggle if the administrators are not active champions of both learning and technology.
  • Too many long serving teachers have fallen victim to what I see as lethargy. They have allowed themselves to sit comfortably for too long, reliant upon long outdated paradigms. As author James Thurber once wrote, “The past is an old armchair in the attic …” (There it is!) The most common complaint from these teachers … “I don’t have time to learn that!”

Well, I don’t have a lot of time either but I believe and indeed insist that as a teacher I have a responsibility to be an active, lifelong learner. Nicholas Provenzano (@thenerdyteacher) points out in “Professionals Make Time for Learning” that the “I don’t have time …” excuse is “… the most devastating to students in the classroom.” Provenzano goes on to assert, quite rightly, that no other profession “… gets away with ignoring tools that can make their job … valuable to their clientele.” As he says, would you want a doctor to tell you that he is too busy to learn a new technique that could save your life?

So, what to do now? Well, in my own classes I will continue to introduce technologies that enhance student learning. Incidentally, my students never ask for PD or complain about being time poor; rather it is their mindset to embrace and explore technology. I will campaign for a change of emphasis in our staff meetings; a campaign to forego the long, tedious discussions about graffiti or jewelry policy and focus instead upon learning. I will, somehow, have the school and its administrators signed up to Twitter before this school year ends. But, I am still uncertain as to what can I do about that lethargy? George Orwell told us in a 1945 edition of Partisan Review “… the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.” The fact that technology will continue to transform and enhance education is, to me, “grossly obvious.” So with a final nod to one of my favourite playwrights, Henrik Ibsen and his work Love’s Comedy, “I go to scale the future’s possibilities! Farewell!”

 

Image courtesy of Flickr, M Hooper.

4 Comments

  1. Hi Simon,

    Great post, thank you. I’m feeling your pain : ) I hear you about preaching to the converted. What came to mind as I was reading was ‘seek first to understand then be understood’. If you identified lethargy in your students, what lengths would you go to to identify the source of their lethargy and who would you look to for a solution? I need to blog about this myself as I think we go about it all wrong by separating motivation into age groups i.e. student, teacher etc. Motivation is motivation. We all have paradigms, some that serve us well and some that don’t. What if we were to work on exploring the concept of paradigms together instead of the outcomes we’re trying to achieve? Would that be more powerful and more effective? I think we need to be growing people, not students and teachers, and the principles we apply in the classroom about learning are applicable to all learners e.g respect, ownership, autonomy, choice, responsibility, purpose. I believe that’s the key to the change we need for our education system to be be/stay relevant.

    I really like this from Hargeaves and Fullan in Professional Capital:

    “You can’t understand the teacher or his or her teaching without understanding the person the teacher is. And you can’t fundamentally change the teacher without changing the person the teacher is either. Human growth is not like producing hydroponic tomatoes. It can be nurtured and encouraged but cannot be forced.” p63

    I really appreciate where you’re at and I know that there are many in the same boat. I think you’re spot on when you identify mindset as the key. Do we treat all members of a school community as learners or only the students? I think ‘voice’ is also an important concept and one that relates to motivation. We’re valuing it in students so much more. How well do we develop that in staff? What difference would it make if we did? Keep fighting the good fight!

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