If a thing is worth doing …

Recently I’ve been involved in a leadership course around digital learning.  It’s been an incredible thing to be part of over a relatively short period of time.  I’ve been exposed to a lot of things that I’ve known for a long time (aspects of social media in learning, use of technology in the classroom, engaging means of using 21st century tools in education, online collaborative thinking via professional learning communities, etc.) and a number of new perspectives too.  I describe myself as someone that, generally speaking, embraces new ways of thinking and encourages more outrageous uses of technology in learning.  And yet, in the past I’ve ignored the fact that brushing off social media as largely a negative waste of time is doing the exact opposite.  For some reason, this particular course has got me worked up enough to have a rethink about my attitudes towards learning with technology and modelling my own online behaviours to others.  I suspect that this movement towards something new has been largely prompted by my embarrassment in realising that I haven’t moved on from the email age of the early 90s.  In an online sense, I’m getting old and irrelevant very quickly.

And so, this leadership course has been quite profound in the manner in which it has shifted me, at least for now.

In a practical sense though I’ve done a really bad job of it.  I haven’t completed the weekly tasks.  I’m yet to complete the final pieces of assessment (that are due tomorrow – yikes!).  Many of the readings got pushed to the ‘when I get all my reactive jobs finished’ pile and didn’t get a look in.  I’m actually usually pretty good at all that stuff too.  I find the time, and this time I haven’t been able to.  In every academic sense I’m actually failing to complete what I need to.  I find myself metaphorically wrapped up in a ball of guilt.  But in so many respects that may or may not be visible to the facilitators of the program, I’ve found many aspects of personal success via my involvement.

All this brings me to a G.K. Chesterton quote that a wise friend me once shared with me:

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

I’ve done a lot of things in a half-baked manner in the past, but I think it’s only now that I’ve been able to put myself in the shoes of the learner who’s struggling and yet succeeding.  I wonder though, how often don’t we see this nuanced success in the learners in our classrooms.  The sustained impact of lessons, moments of inspiration and revelation, philosophical paradigm shifts – none of which can be measured by a test of academic achievement.  We need to ask the question “What is the sustained impact of this learning, how do I visibly recognise it and how can we celebrate it even though this student is ‘failing’?”  I’m not suggesting that large swaths of society are answering this well, but I’m sure that as an education system we rarely even engage in articulating a response.

So, how do I placate my grief around doing something so badly with respect to the leadership course?  Perhaps I should own the guilt as a future prompt to do better next time.  I also find some solace in a statement I heard this week from Michael Fullan, who I had the privilege of hearing f2f at a ‘New Pedagogies’ workshop in Melbourne.  He established what should surely be the priorities of all schools by simply stating:

“Be satisfied with getting a C in compliance as long as you’re getting an A in learning”.

And so, what remains for me personally is to see if I can wrest a C from the F I’m currently presiding over by completing a few more pieces of assessment tonight!

Mentally incomplete.

I was really encouraged last week to be ‘confronted’ with various reminders of mental health week in Australia, particularly via the ABC’s various shows on radio and TV.  It’s such a vital area to be considering and regularly and honestly reflecting upon, and yet we get so much more excited about terrorism, consumer spending and whether further increases to housing in metro areas constitutes a price bubble.  I will confess that my wife is a social worker, and my mother and mother-in-law are psychologists, so via osmosis I take a keen interest in mental health matters through the calendar year, but regardless I was encouraged about how ‘natural’ the conversation seemed to pan out last year as people continually reflecting on their own capacities to cope with mental illnesses.

In my relatively recent role as an Assistant Principal, I am coming across mental health issues all too frequently, in our student, parent and staff populations.  At times it’s been intense and confronting to share in what are some pretty horrible experiences that human beings are subjected to.  And I know I’m only hearing about the tip of the iceberg in most cases.  Mental illness or ‘unwellness’ seems to me to be on the increase, though of course this could just be my perception due to increasing exposure to it.  Regardless, I find myself often caught in the trap of just willing the other to show resilience where it’s needed before the problem gets out of hand.  Whilst I might be able to walk around in someone else’s shoes, I find it difficult to think and feel around in someone else’s brain.  I don’t have enough experience to truly understand the magnitude of hurt and depression that some students and parents are going through and so I have sympathy in abundance and empathy in the shadows.  Of course we know that learning for students in their state of mental unwellness is effectively stalled.  And as was regularly reported last week, it’s not a matter of popping a Band-Aid onto the brain and waiting for the scab to heal.  It’s so much more complex and requires so much more patience.  And we’re not well equipped in schools to adequately address these needs of our students.  We so desperately want them to be well and able to learn, but we tend to want them to engage in our particular area of curriculum first.  Students progress in time, but not in effective, retainable learning.

By the end of the week I was feeling confident that all this public talking was more than just cathartic, but I wasn’t sure where to go with it all.  Then I came across this statement over the weekend (paraphrased):

We are not finished – we are all in the making – we make the road of life by walking it.

Initially it provided me with pause for personal thought. What am I achieving in my life?  What am I in the making towards?  Am I following a ready made path or forging one for myself?  Then I started to contemplate the life of someone going through mental unwellness.  I think a statement such as the one above is one of hope.  That there is a tomorrow that is slightly better than today and that we are all as incomplete as one another.  In this sense all of my students are equal, regardless of their current mental state.

I have a few quotes up in the office and one of them is the story below.  I suspect there are times when we all feed one wolf and then the other.  In the context of mental incompletion and unwellness I think it has something to add to the ongoing discussion that is so important for our education community.

An old Cherokee was teaching his grandchildren about life.
He said to them, “A battle is raging inside me … it is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The old man fixed the children with a firm stare.
“This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”
They thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee replied: “The one you feed.”

Cherokee Indian

Several near misses

Yesterday I was driving home from a family holiday in Robe in South Australia.  All was going great – we’d made it back into Victoria when I happened to look into the rear vision mirror and noticed the bike racks (with kid’s bikes attached) literally falling off the back of the camper trailer.  Of course we stopped, turned around and picked up the tangled mess – the weld joint had broken off on the trailer attachment and the bikes had come off second best.  Usually I’d be a bit upset that it had happened and the cost now involved with replacing bikes / repairing trailers, etc.  But in the moment there was an enormous sense of the relief that greater damage hadn’t been done and that I’d noticed it at all.  At various points there were cars right behind us … I can hardly imagine what would have happened if the bike rack had broken off right into their driving path.

I’ve actually had a few near misses recently when it’s come to cars – in each instance I’ve been find, as have the people in the other vehicle, but it could’ve so easily been a different story.  In these moments when the adrenalin has been coursing through my veins and shock draining blood from my head, relief has been the overwhelming response that has come to mind.  So much damage could have been done, and yet was somehow minimised.  And then ultimately I am thankful, which seems such a strange reaction when you’re sitting at the side of the road staring at a car (or bike) that is now broken.

I wonder whether there are parallels with the way we educate our children these days.  In my role as Assistant Principal I increasingly witness a number of causalities when it comes to learning.  Blame is often apportioned on the child as the driver of their own education, but in reality it’s a shared responsibility.  There are mitigating and complex circumstances in every single case.  And so, having tried and failed we pass the child casualty onto someone else to ‘deal with’.  If learning has been the causality however, the positive life pulse may take some time to be recovered and it probably won’t come from a formal school setting.  There is a sadness in this from parents, carers and the school community.

Yet there are surely many near misses that we don’t necessarily hear about.  Whether by accident or design, students are ‘rescued’ and able continue learning in what Sir Ken Robinson would describe as their ‘element’.  I suspect more often than not, the rescuing is more via chance than anything else.  And we rarely give thanks for it – we’re generally more fixated on the broken elements of the past instead.  I’d like to think that as a school community at Warrnambool College we’re trying to design a learning environment that promotes near misses rather than causalities when it comes to personal learning.  The great thing about accidents is that, like mistakes, you can learn from them and try to strategise on how to either avoid them in the future or reduce the impact they will have.  Of course accidents are also a great way of labelling a particular group of people, presuming they’re at a greater risk of repeating the behaviour and taking the stick approach (in and outside of the classroom).  I hope we can be more like the car designers who put in air bags and electronic stability controls for learning than the insurers who simply increase the annual premiums.

A Disclaimer (of sorts)

OK, so I’ve decided to use this blog (amongst others it seems) to collect my thoughts on where I’m at ‘professionally’.  By that I guess I mean ‘teacher-wise’ at present, though knowing me there’ll be a fair smattering of personal guff as well.

If you’ve happened upon this and you’re wondering what it’s all about, I can assure you that I’m not intending to read lots of other blogs and summarise their thoughts up here – it’s not going to be a blogging literature review.  I’ll probably end up posting some interesting bits and pieces that others throw my direction, but if you really interested in web stuff, check out much more regularly updated and tech savvy blogs.  What I am about is noticing – myself, my students, my school, my teaching and most importantly my learning.  I’m hoping there’ll be lots of reflections on that.  And of course I’d be hoping you’d be happy to comment as you go.

Shalom,

Dave.