Leading Futures: The Collective Network, Australia

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Andrea Stringer shares her thoughts on building a collective network. She argues that a collective network promotes collaborative leadership and collective efficacy by including all stakeholders in education. Andrea Stringer is a teacher in Sydney, Australia, who has received the The Keith Tronc Award for the most outstanding teacher from the Australian Council for Educational Leaders.

“Not cut out for teaching leave & do what you love. Students suffer as much as you do for staying.”  (Oct 3, 2016)

Posted by an education consultant on Twitter, this comment reflects little understanding of the passion and frustration most teachers have for their profession. Many teachers report that they are not motivated by monetary or personal gain, but by their desire to support students, contribute to society and make a difference. What contributes to and affects the motivational level of educators over time? Globally, early career teachers are exiting the classroom at an alarming rate . In Australia, researchers are estimating around 30-50% of teachers will leave in the first five years. With the amount of time and money invested in our early career teachers, the expectations are high. Defining the problem is simpler than being part of the solution.

Dinham (2013) calls for educators to find their voice and four years on, I question if they have found or utilized their voices effectively. Listening is the prerequisite for voices to be heard. In education, do we actively listen to each other? As a coach, I recognize that active listening is a crucial component of coaching and to support each other within our schools and beyond, this essential skill is acquired and developed with practice. My postgraduate research involves listening and learning from early career teachers’ and their experience of coaching. Fullan and Hargreaves maintain that if you ‘attract, select and develop teachers with high levels of human capital in terms of knowledge, skill, and talent’, you will receive a good return on your investment. They suggest we need to continuously challenge and support all educators as professionals through structured experiences and feedback. This teacher and teaching investment must be long-term and well supported.

Coaching is about supporting the growth of others, while respecting their self-determined learning and professional needs. Supported by the research I have recently read, the top-down, mandated accountability and compliance approach, which currently dominates the Australian context, does not generate the most passionate, effective educators. Coaching is not about telling teachers they need to improve or how to improve. Instead, it is the process of having one-to-one conversation that focus on developing the educator’s learning through increasing self-awareness (van Nieuwerburgh). A coach has a belief and faith in another’s ability and their capacity for growth. A principal once inquired where I’d like to be in five years and then asked how she could help make this happen. With her sincere support and genuine interest, we established a collective long-term vision of improving student achievement. This is vastly different to the more common evaluation and accountability model.

A parent recently asked my view of Australia’s ‘dismal’ PISA results because according to the newspaper and social media, Australian education is getting left behind. Very few practitioners were quoted in any of the media reporting or political discourse that follows such statements. My intention is not to discuss our students’ ability or inability, but to simply ask a question. Whose voice represents Australia’s education? Is it a soloist or we all part of a choir? Politicians, academics, government agencies, education organisations, school leaders, teachers, parents and various associations are all stakeholders. All perspectives are important and significant and we need to engage and listen to each other, especially our students. They are our focus and the product of our education system.

The main feature of any education system is the curriculum and to assist students to live and work successfully in the 21st century, the Australian Curriculum includes general capabilities, such as critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding, and personal and social capability. Teachers are required to include these in various subject areas, but are all the education stakeholders modeling these skills, attitudes and behaviours?  DeWitt defines collaborative leaders as those who ‘find a balance between leading initiatives and fostering cooperative learning between adults with diverse ideas’. According to Donohoo, we can strengthen ‘collective efficacy’ in schools by doing three things:

  1. Create structures and processes for teachers to engage in meaningful collaboration
  2. Promote teacher leadership and extend teachers’ decision-making power
  3. Build awareness that collective efficacy exists and that it is the number one factor that influences student achievement

A ‘Collective Network’ would incorporate collaborative leaders and collective efficacy and expand to include all those stakeholders in education. This concept prompts some questions.

  • When academics and universities work with schools and classroom teachers, is the process straightforward and transparent?
  • How many politicians personally seek the ideas and expertise of general classroom teachers?
  • How could agencies, such as AITSL, seek teacher voice through genuine connections, not surveys or apps?
  • Before implementing any learning resources or strategies, could schools seek knowledge and research data from academics?
  • How many members of the New South Wales Education Standards Authority (formerly BOSTES) represent the classroom teachers or parents?
  • How do educational consultants who provide professional development and resources commercially, connect personally with classroom teachers?
  • Could practitioners share their practice by writing more journal articles?
  • How are other agencies, policy makers and stakeholders held accountable for their impact and effects on the profession?
  • What is the balance between individual agency and impact versus collective impact & responsibility?

For expertise in the classroom and in leadership, colleagues, my professional learning network, professional reading and discourse support me. I also tap into the expertise of academics I have connected with via Twitter. With that broad depth of expertise, I learn, explore, implement and reflect. It is about connecting, building relationships, increasing awareness and developing empathy. Social media has provided a platform for this to happen, although some sectors have restrictions. Social media decreases the traditional hierarchy within education and allows more stakeholders the opportunity to connect.

Scotland has the International Council of Education Advisers to provide a broader insight into bettering their education. Australia first needs to effectively connect and utilize the knowledge and expertise within our country. Here is my ‘call to action’ Australia. To develop insight, understanding and build empathy, academics could connect and speak with teachers and teachers reach out more to academics. All accreditation agencies converse with classroom teachers to promote professional growth, as well as compliance. Focus beyond the mandated professional hours and more towards personalized learning. Hold companies providing professional development more accountable using transparent feedback. Educational journals could invite more practitioners to share their practice. Instead of independent hierarchal structures, we should create the collective network to ensure all stakeholders have a voice and all students are supported.

The Collective Network

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