Stuck in the Mud – A Challenge to Educators

Of the many things I have learned working at HPSS, three key principles have helped me to be more responsive and responsible for my practice and to have a view of education that is future focused.

1) Learn your Duty as a … (insert appropriate wording as necessary – Teacher, Coach, Principal, Head of Department, Dean, Critical Friend, Educator, etc.)

If we are to do what’s best for our students, we are to be responsible to them, their parents, and their community. Therefore we must begin by learning, understanding and accepting those things that will most benefit their learning today and in the future. I see my job as including a moral obligation or responsibility to act in the best interests of my students. This includes challenging long-held views I might have and being willing to learn, seek understanding and acknowledge when change may be necessary. Merely, having a desire to do what is right or best is not enough.

In the story of Alice in Wonderland, Alice does not know which way to go, so she asks the Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

The cat replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

Alice says, “I don’t much care where.” “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” says the cat.

2) Make the Decision

Ultimately, the choice is ours whether or not we act according to the new knowledge we gain. Choosing to act on that new knowledge frees us from the incapacitating burden of ‘what I’ve always done’ and affords freedoms only experienced by those willing embrace a perspective that is truly future focused.

Uncertainty and indecision prevent us from achieving most of what we set out to accomplish. Ciaran O’Connor explains that “indecision is an Illusion. (It) implies that we are unable to decide…That no matter how much you might like to think otherwise, you are constantly, unrelentingly forced to make choices…Even when you are not making a decision, you are deciding not to decide.”

3) Act Accordingly

After learning our duty and making the decisions that are associated with that learning and understanding, we must act accordingly. Simply put, if there is something that we believe will benefit our students, then why are we not doing it? For example, deliberate acts of teaching do not require the approval of the Principal, Head Master or HoD. In fact, that’s what we’re employed to do. Claire Amos suggests, “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Everyday I am faced with challenges, left undone they would consume me. Every time I choose to act, I open myself up to new possibilities. It is difficult to receive feedback on something we have not done. It is even more difficult to change something we are unwilling to be a part of.

Lately, I have been trialling new ways of delivering the English curriculum and have challenged myself to create resources that would support these new ways of thinking. The reality is often far less glamorous than what I had imagined, and sometimes exceeds expectations, however it is the act of doing that empowers me with confidence to learn more, make further decisions to act and to act accordingly.

As a profession, we seem to be paralysed between making the decision to act and acting accordingly. We revel in deep discussions about our practice, our students and the things that could change or transform learning, but somehow we neglect to act on those things. We can grasp a vision of what might be possible and almost immediately begin to rationalise why it is not possible. Really, we become stuck. We can become totally consumed by the need to ‘rescue’ the profession, our school, our students or other teachers that we forget about ourselves and we are careless in acting on those things we know can change the outcome.

Teaching can very much feel like being ‘stuck in the mud’. We know what to do and how to do it, but we become stuck. If we are totally consumed by the need to ‘rescue’ others we forget to look at ourselves and are less focused on learning, our own included.

The story is told of a panic-stricken hen who is convinced that her beloved chick is meeting his doom in the farmyard’s deep, thick mud. A succession of helpful animals get stuck in the mud trying to get the chick out. Responding to the squawks—“ . . . My poor little chick! / He’s stuck in the mud . . . / and the mud’s deep and thick!” — Cat and Dog, Sheep, Horse and even Farmer run to the rescue, only to find themselves muddy and stuck. At the peak of the carnage that had unfolded, the chick casually hops out, having never been stuck in the first place, and cheerily skips away, clucking “Mud is great fun! / I’m sure you’ll agree. / I love mucky mud—thanks for playing with me!” One of the most interesting things about this story is the struggle of the hapless and chagrined group toward a totally unnecessary rescue. (Stuck in the Mud – Jane Clarke)

At HPSS I have been given the freedom to explore and experiment with truly transformative practices which has been demanding, frustrating, exhausting and time-consuming. At the same time I feel liberated and exhilarated by the possibilities for change and growth.

My challenge for each of us is to learn our duty, make the decision to act and then act. Educational change can only occur if we make it happen.  Those who know me will know, I love to talk but in the words of Aesop, “after all is said and done, more is said that done”. Go and get it done.

Growth Mindset and Writing Report Comments

At times, writing comments for school reports seems to be one of the most futile endeavours facing teachers. Often, we attempt to condense an extended period of time with a student (at least a term if not more) into a confined space of a limited number of characters. We decide which behavioural qualities of a student were significant enough to prevent them from learning some snippet of information or a particular skill. Then, (sometimes) we devise ways in which to word a comment as not offend either the student or their parent but still send a strong ‘message’ about the behavior which is preventing them from achieving. The ‘Ctrl C’ comments are also popular. We write a few generic report comments and zealously employ the Ctrl C (copy) & Ctrl V (paste) functions. Write a comment, copy, paste and change the name.

These methods, particularly in secondary school, of writing comments for reports reflect larger issues in the profession around time and pressures for a single teacher to respond to increasing numbers of students.

However, it is irrelevant that comments are ‘creative masterpieces’ or ‘cloned’ if what they say exerts no positive influence on a students learning.

In many cases, students (and their parents/whanau) will receive two ‘written’ reports a year, especially in Years 9 and 10 (reporting is usually part of a bigger picture which will be covered in future blog posts). These reports tend to be formative in nature and come at the end of a term. At which point, feedback about behaviour that has been ongoing, seems a little redundant if issues have not been resolved beforehand. In addition, report comments often reflect the incapability of a student and lack any focus on their abilities and how to build on these.

Who are report comments for? Is it the incompetent parent who needs to improve their parenting skills? Is it the delinquent child who needs to improve their behaviour in society? Is it the school, under pressure to meet demands of a relentless education system? Certainly none of these fit the intended audience for report comments. Most likely, the intention is that report comments are written for the child with the child in mind. In other words, a student can easily understand their learning progress, know what they need to do next and their parents and whanau can easily make sense of the report so they can help learning to move forward. Therefore, the way in which we frame comment on a students progress should enable a student (with the help of their parents and whanau) to change something in order to progress or improve their learning.

Changing the way we write comments may seem like a trivial thing however, as part of a bigger approach to student centred learning, how we feed back to students about their progress, in whatever form it takes is hugely important.

At Hobsonville Point Secondary School we are attempting to develop a framework for writing report comments that is informed by Growth Mindset thinking, which is directed to students and provides clear direction of the next steps in learning. The example below illustrates how we view writing comments for reports.

HPSS guideline for writing report comments.

HPSS guideline for writing report comments.

Undoubtedly there are other ways to offer feedback about behaviour and certainly more efficient ways rather than writing about it in a report comment. In some way the misbehaving or absent student contributes something and can contribute something more to their learning. It is simply not enough to say they have behavioural problems and that they were not present (‘so and so is never here’). In the case of the absent student, obviously they know they were not at school so what good does it do to tell them that they were absent? Even offering a solution like “you need to attend more regularly in order to achieve” does little if anything to help a student see value in their learning. Surely, timely communication with whanau/family is far more productive in addressing these issues?

When we think about communicating with students, parents and whanau, report comments tend to be relegated to the back benches. However, they offer a significant opportunity to contribute to the learning discourse of each student. The key is in reframing how we view reporting and maximising the opportunity to effectively communicate about learning with our students, their parents and whanau.