What does it mean to be a productive member of our education community?
Hi there. I'm so pleased that you could join me for this episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast, recorded here on the lands of the Palawa people of Tasmania. I'd like to start by paying my respects to elders past, present, and emerging and acknowledging the special relationship that Indigenous peoples of Australia share with the lands and waterways on which we have the privilege of living.
Today's Topic - Being a productive member of our education community
Today in the podcast, we're going to change tone a little bit, and I'd like to talk to you about civility. We have all had the experience of civility and collaborative working, and we've all had the opposite. Basically, I want to talk about what it means to be a productive member of our education community, both in our schools and online. Before you start to speculate about why I'm choosing to talk about this this week, no, we have not had arguments in our office. No, our Facebook group has not erupted into a world of drama. In fact, our Facebook group is one of the places you can go that does not have drama. It's an issue that we've all come across and one that we're often a bit reluctant to talk about, particularly when it comes to how this impacts us in schools. So I think we just need to look it square in the eye and have a chat.
There are times when being part of our community is absolutely amazing. We connect with people, share ideas, and there is a real sense that we're all working towards a common goal. Then there are the times when being part of our community feels like we're on a reality TV show, with producers engineering the next bit of drama for us to have to deal with. In my time working in schools, both small and large, I've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of interactions between grownups. Even in the most complex settings with students with a range of needs, social, emotional, and academic, it was the relationships with grownups that had the greatest impact on my experience. We all know what it feels like to be on a great team. We have flow, we know that we're going to have a tricky day here and there, and we have the safety of being able to speak freely with our comments and viewpoints listened to with respect. That doesn't mean we always agree. It doesn't mean that we don't annoy each other at times, but it does mean that our common goal of great results for children is way more important to all of us than individual egos. When we're part of a strong team with the right people in the right seats on the bus, the agreements we make with each other are honoured, and practice is open. No one is above being held accountable, and everyone can ask for the support they need to learn and grow. Frankly, it's pretty magical.
Are you building connections with some by hating on others?
But when things aren't so cohesive, there's certainly no magic, and I think we can all point to working situations, whether inside or outside of education, where things have not been so lovely. Environments don't feel safe. Teams where people smile to your face and then criticise you when you turn around. In situations where things aren't going well, there are secrets and closed doors, there are cliques and mean comments, and frankly, it can feel like we're all back at high school. There exists a situation that Brene Brown describes where people get together and build connection with each other by throwing metaphorical rocks at the same person. In settings where this is the status quo, where one person or one group becomes the object of people's aggression, there simply will not be strong results for all students because it's egos, not students, that are the motivating factor in decision-making. These conditions exist in the online space too. There are groups where you can ask whatever you like and not feel nervous, and there are places where people feel that it's necessary to preface their questions with the plea of "Please be kind". Unfortunately, it seems that the latter is all too common. Now, I'm not the first person to make the observation that people often behave online in a way that they never would in person. They criticise and call people's integrity into question. They belittle others and generally make life unpleasant. What I've shared today is no news to anyone, either in the physical world or in the online space. We have all been the victim of the mean girls at some point in time. I'm actually going to call the online space the digital workplace because it's how we, as an education community, stay connected. Now we might not technically have to go there, and we aren't employed by those spaces, but maybe if we treated the online space a bit more like a school or office setting, we'd find things a little more productive and certainly more kind.
So what does it mean to be a productive member of our education community?
So what does it mean to be a productive member of our education community, either in a school or online? I think that the first thing to say. Is to stay focused on what matters, and that's the students. When it comes to fulfilling our responsibilities to our students, there is no space for nasty competition. In a competition, someone has to lose, and someone has to win. That's the nature of it. When we take that mindset, we're driven to be aggressive, take no prisoners, fight to the death and do whatever it takes to come out on top. Our viewpoint must be the one that prevails. That kind of energy takes focus away from student achievement and outcomes. But in productive relationships, our energy is put into finding win-win solutions when problems arise. We've all heard the saying, "A rising tide lifts all ships." When we support each other and work together to further the well-being of our students, everyone wins. Sometimes it'll be your idea that makes it to the final implementation. Sometimes it won't. But managing our emotions in the face of disappointment is part of being a professional.
Will you spiral or move on?
Your school might be looking for a new resource or program, and staff are asked for viewpoints about particular options. You might have worked with a program in a previous role, really liked it, and feel that it would be a good choice. But when leadership makes the final decision, your suggestion isn't taken up. You have two choices here. You can spend a few moments in your disappointment, feeling all the feelings, and then get behind the decision. Or you can begrudgingly do the bare minimum that's required of you, feeling resentful that your preference didn't make it to the finish line. You see, your disappointment in this situation is understandable. You looked ahead and saw a possibility that you thought would be great, and then it didn't work out. How you deal with that disappointment makes a huge difference to the outcomes and experience of your team. If you choose to take things personally and give in to an internal dialogue that the decision is proof that you aren't appreciated or taken seriously, you will spiral into a world of grumpy, uncooperative, obstructive misery. But if you run with an internal dialogue of you win some, you lose some, and then you move on. If you look for the positive in the new program or approach, if you are open to the new possibilities and outcomes for students, both you and everyone around you will have a much better time of it.
Assume positive intent.
We also have decisions when it comes to how we operate online. When someone makes a comment or asks a question that triggers us, we can react with judgment, or we can assume positive intent in the other person. I'm going to invoke Brené Brown's name here again, and if you haven't read or listened to her book, Dare to Lead, I highly recommend it. Brené Brown talks about staying curious in the face of disagreement. When someone says or does something, and you feel yourself armouring up for a fight, (that's her terminology), that's a signal to settle down and start asking questions with a genuine desire to find out the answers. Is there something for me to learn here? Is the other person really responsible for the thing that's bothering me? Can I take an approach here that gets us a good outcome? If I knew that the other person was learning in this space and was actually trying to do a great job, how would I think about them and speak to them? Is my comment or reaction going to get us closer or further away from our goal of great outcomes for all students?
Reach for your best self.
When we can pause and breathe, reaching for our highest selves instead of stooping to the lowest common denominator, we are going to get much better outcomes than if we give in to the temptation of drama and criticism. Is this always easy? It certainly is not. So how can we create the conditions in our schools and online that help us reach for our best selves? Step one is to get clear on our values. What values are we agreeing to live by? How do we want to be known? What outcomes do we want to achieve? What example would we want to set for our students or our own children? One of the things that you can do, either on your own or with your team, is to develop a statement about your intent, your purpose, and your desired outcomes. You can think of these as characteristics if talking about values muddies the waters for you.
In our organisation, we have three positive characteristics. Number one, we put people first. Always. This means that we treat people with respect no matter what. We seek to affirm others, and when challenging feedback or criticism comes our way, we ask ourselves if there is truth to the comment and learning in the situation for us. If there is, we welcome the chance to grow, even though it's not always comfortable. If what's said isn't true, we don't engage, and we certainly don't obsess over it, taking our energy away from the core work that we do.
Our second characteristic is to make things simple, and that's been a guiding principle since I wrote my first blog post in about 2019. I know what it's like to be an overwhelmed teacher and then a leader, just trying to put one foot in front of the other to help students achieve great results. The last thing we need is for things to be overcomplicated, either for you or for us.
The third characteristic we live by in our organisation is to produce quality efficiently. Now I have to tell you that the last one isn't always easy. Sometimes quality takes a long time to achieve. We agonise over every instructional decision, making sure we are serving you and your students as best we can. Achieving efficiency while delivering quality is sometimes about spending a significant amount of time getting the foundations right and going like the clappers to build out the rest of the things. We also want to make sure that we're producing resources, tools and training that reflect evidence as best as we can determine what that is in any given area. There are loads of things that evidence doesn't exist for yet. So when that happens, we rely on what we do know and consider things like cognitive load theory and knowledge of how memory works and, dare I say it, our own experience as teachers. That's one that I think schools can take on board.
Our highest purpose is to teach students to read and write.
Sometimes the angst we feel and the anxiety we experience is because we just want to get it right. But when there isn't evidence about every single thing that we do, it can make us feel really insecure, and our interactions with others, well, they might not be so good. Now putting people first, making things simple and delivering quality efficiently is nice, but it has a higher purpose, and the why of our organisation is that "Every child has the right to learn to read and write through evidence-informed instruction, and every teacher has the right to support to make that happen." It's wordy, but it's where we come from. We also have elements of our big picture, such as business growth and making sure that we're financially viable. Otherwise, things like this podcast, the Structured Literacy Bus Facebook group, and the 100 per cent free courses we run twice every year simply won't exist. For us, keeping the lights on is part of putting people first.
When it comes to your school or online group, you might like to come up with your own characteristics and purpose that guide everything you do. This will likely tie into your existing school values or the school's motto, and it could go something like this.
In our school, we place our students at the centre, work together with kindness and openness, and strive for continual improvement in practice so that every student reaches their full potential in our care.
In the online space, your characteristics and purpose could be,
I choose professionalism and kindness in all things. Ask questions to better understand the people I'm interacting with and seek to always support those around me so that we, as an education community, can grow our skills and knowledge and ensure great outcomes for students.
Is the problem just in your head?
The other thing that I'd like to mention to you is the stories we tell ourselves in our head, and this comes from Brene Brown, of course. Brene Brown talks about the stories we tell ourselves in our heads and how they can impact the way we move through the world. So if we don't have open communication, if we're basically making up what we think is going on in a situation or in someone else's head, we create a story that is usually not that fun. It often goes something like this, "I'm sure they think I'm silly. I'm sure that when they get together and talk about me, they're saying, 'Ah, she's alright, but she's not that good.'" What happens then, is that we respond through our imaginings, not through reality. So we've already imagined a worst-case scenario, we've imagined how we're going to armour up, and we aren't going to be taken advantage of, and "I won't be treated that way." Even though no one's actually treated us that way in the first place. We go into situations, discussions and planning sessions, armoured up already, and then we negatively impact what happens in the space. I think we have all done this at some point in time, but if we were open, If we left our judgment of ourselves at the door, if we went in assuming positive intent from the people around us, we're not responding to the negative story in our head. We're responding to what actually happens. Don't tell stories in your head and when you catch yourself doing that, well, stop it and then be open with the people around you. But if you know that someone around you does not wish you well. (on the rare occasion when that happens) don't be all open and share your secrets, but be clear that most people have positive intent. Most people are just worried about doing a good job the same way that we are. So let's be clear and open and spread positivity, not negativity, in our workplaces.
Got a problem? Speak with the right person, not every person.
One last thing, if you have a question about someone's work, if you have observed something that didn't sit well with you, or if there's a situation you think needs addressing, talk to the individual in question, not everybody else. We've seen this on the Channel 9 show, The Block. What happens when someone goes around and they chat with every person but the person who they need to talk to and if you're not prepared to put your big girl pants on or your big boy pants on and go and have the conversation with the individual, don't have the conversation with anyone. It just leads to discontent and incivility in the workplace.
Never be afraid to say 'I don't know'.
Finally, and I know I said the last thing, don't be afraid to say that you don't know something and throw questions over to someone who's better placed to share an answer with the group. This one's particularly hard for school leaders who feel intense pressure, and the story they tell themselves in their head is, "If I say I don't know this thing, what will people think of me? They will think, why are you getting paid to do that job? You don't even know things." We need to knock that on the head and acknowledge when there are things we don't know. It will actually make us stronger, better teachers and leaders.
To sum it up, don't get caught up in the spectator sport aspect of social media drama or the cliquey staffroom discussions. Not everyone chooses to be kind. Not everyone is respectful and generous of spirit. When you hear comments or see posts that leave you rubbing your hands together, reaching for the popcorn and anticipating the argument that might be coming, recognise that that's a signal to ask more questions. Approach this through that poster that we know so well and ask children to reflect on it before they open their mouths.
Is it true?
Is it helpful?
Is it inspiring?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind?
If the answer to those questions is no, back away now. Remember, this is the guiding point, the fundamental principle that we can use to judge whether we should be involved in something.
Is what I'm about to say or do going to get us closer to our goal of amazing outcomes for students or further away?
If we are not moving closer to great outcomes for students, then we need to zip it, examine our own thoughts and feelings, and take a moment and find the win, win.
Being part of the education community is a real blessing, and I thank you for inviting us to be a part of your world. We do our utmost to be productive members of our profession, and I know that you do too. Have a lovely week, everyone. Remember, choose kindness, and all will be well. I'll see you next time. Bye
If you are looking for a place in social media that is kind and you never have to be afraid to ask a question, join us in the On the Structured Literacy Bus Facebook Group here. (remember to answer all the questions!)