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Another year of change, but is anything different?

As we come to the end of another year, it is often a time of reflection on the year past and all we have achieved, as well as the disappointments, personal and professional. At the start of any year, twelve months seems like a long time away. However, as adults you soon come to understand how quickly that time will disappear, especially when you are busy and have lots you want to do. In education, as in other sectors, we are always thinking and planning ahead of ourselves. A lot of our thinking is often focused on the future, whilst our bodies, and responsive reactions, remain firmly fixed in the present. We can spend our working lives consumed by the future, and all those things yet to appear over imagined and real horizons. This is especially so if you have a formal leadership role. Too often perhaps, we fail to stay in the moment, mindful of all our current experiences, and how these are changing us, or we dwell to long in the past, especially on things that have gone wrong, rather than all the things that went well. The average educator can be a strange mix of angst and worry, no matter how much we have to celebrate. There is always much to celebrate at the end of any year, so perhaps we should focus more on that than any negatives.

Anyway, I want to look back over the year in order to consider the changes we may have experienced or initiated, whilst considering the impacts of those changes. What difference have they made to our thinking, our practice and for our learners? Although I am very much situated in the Scottish system, I am sure many of the experiences we have had within this are common to other systems as well.

On a personal note, I stood down from my role as a headteacher in April. The first term of the year, in the run up to Easter was a strange and emotional one. Once I had made the decision to retire, it felt almost like I was in limbo, personally and professionally. I had one eye on the future, but I was also acutely aware of my current responsibilities to the schools I led, their pupils, parents and  staff. I tried to carry on as normal, but as soon as I had made the decision, I started to feel more and more detached as everyone else retained their focus entirely on the present and the future, whilst I started to contemplate my own different future. I was given a great send off from both schools, and they carried on under different leadership, as all schools do following any changes in staffing. I have always said that a school is composed of the people in it, not the physical buildings and structures, but actually these are the only things that remain over time. People move on, as they must.

Once finished, I used my free time to complete the writing of my new book, which I had barely managed to start at that point. 'Practitioner Enquiry: Professional Development with Impact for Teachers, Schools and Systems' is published in January 2018. A great deal of time has been spent working with the publishers and their agents since I submitted my original manuscript at the end of June. If you have ever produced a book for publication, you will have some understanding of the process. If not, just know that, as a writer, it is far from over when you submit the manuscript!

I have spent time writing for other publications, including the Times Educational Supplement Scotland (TESS), a chapter for 'Flip The System UK' and a number of online professional magazines and research sites. I have been actively involved with the Scottish Parents Teachers Council (SPTC) and a couple of other education related organisations that asked me to consider getting involved with their work. I have read a lot and continued to engage closely with teachers and colleagues, as I still wanted to comment on, and hopefully have some impact, in supporting them and all they do. I may be retired as a school leader, but I still feel there are things I can do to make a difference, for learners, teachers and schools.

I knew before I retired that I still wished to be actively engaged in our education system, in whatever ways I could, to try to be a voice for the profession. The way I could do that was to utilise my experience and my knowledge in order to write and comment on what I saw happening, and to directly support teachers, schools and their leaders whenever I could. This will continue next year and I am already sitting on invitations from within Scotland and further afield to help and share, directly or through my writing, which I am only too pleased to do.

Through all of the above activity, I am hoping to still have an impact for learners. Such impact is hard to assess or measure, but I believe that if I am able to help one teacher or one school, then I am still impacting on many learners. I see my role now as very much a system leadership one, that utilises my experience and knowledge to go on supporting those I can, and to continue fighting for an education system that our country and our children deserve. Not having one or two schools to directly lead frees my time so that I am able to contribute in different ways.

So, what about your year as a teacher? What has changed for you this year, and how have you developed your thinking and practice? I am a great believer in the desire and commitment of teachers to do the very best they can for all their learners. That is the point we should start from in every consideration of teacher development. Keep recognising and celebrating all that we do which impacts positively on learners and families, then build from this to get better when we can. We can all improve our practice and our understanding of our role, and we should seek to achieve this over the course of every year we are part of the profession. I always saw it as a professional responsibility that I sought to get better at what I did each year, not by throwing out everything I had been doing the previous year, but by identifying small decisions and steps based on another twelve months of experience and learning.

Such personal and professional development attitudes need to come from within, not imposed from outside. Teachers should be reflecting on, and adapting, their practice in the light of on-going experience and their developing knowledge and expertise. They should view this as a professional disposition and need to be supported to do this in ways that are grounded in where they are in their development, their professional context, and through collaboration with colleagues. However, we still have cultures and structures in the Scottish system, and others, that seek to tell teachers what they should be doing to get better. Such a one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to failure, as each person is likely to be in a different position in terms of context and personal development. Approaches we adopt have to reflect this reality, not some idealised notional position imagined by those at the upper levels of the persistent hierarchies.

When teachers can ground their development in their personal and professional contexts, and the learners they have in front of them, then they can continue to have greater impacts for all those learners. I know that schools all over Scotland have been spending incredible amounts of development time this year engaging with the new 'Benchmarks' produced by Education Scotland, with associated directives from them, and their local authorities, that these should be used to assess whether learners have achieved a 'level' in Curriculum for Excellence. Programmes of work, or 'curricular pathways' have to be matched to the new benchmarks, or developed so that they are. The use of these is particularly important for P1, P4, P7 and S3 learners, as these are the ones that teachers, schools and local authorities have to report on to government. As such, they have garnered a lot of attention this year, unfortunately at the expense of teachers improving their knowledge of, and practice, with learning and teaching. All the development hours that have been spent focused on the new benchmarks are hours taken from school development time, that could have been focused on developing teaching, which would have impacts for all learners.

I struggle to see what the positive impacts for learners are, for teachers and schools to be focused on the a method they are being told they have to use to report on learners progress. This is a perfect example of critical teacher time being diverted onto the structures and needs of the system, at the expense of learners and learning. I have no doubt that, in addition to all this focus on the benchmarks for each curricular areas, teachers have also found themselves in schools with other busy development agendas, some of which will be focused and relevant, but some of which may be driven by local authority agendas, or others made by school leadership, with little reference to teachers and their wishes. All in all, I am sure every teacher in Scotland, or elsewhere, has been very busy over the course of this year. The question now to be asked by teachers and school leaders is, what has been the impact of all that busyness, and what has changed?

Too often the answer to those questions above is, not very much, we are continuing as we have always done, because we know what works for us as teachers, or our learners. Often, the best course of action in the face of so many directives on your time, is engage as little as you can and get on with what you want to, which you know works. Yet, we plough on with all this busyness year after year, adding to work loads, and no doubt stress levels. Why? If we take it as a given, that we as teachers and schools are going to be busy every year, then doesn't it make sense that we ensure that all that busyness actually makes a difference in what we do, bringing about embedded change? Focused busyness can be good if there are positive outcomes for our learners, as well as our own practice. Busyness, just because we have to be seen to be busy, helps no-one, nor the system as a whole.

I spent enough time in schools, both as a teacher and as a leader, to see how easy it is to be constantly busy, but actually making little progress. I once heard this described as rocking-horse development, in that there was lots of movement and activity, but like a rocking horse we were going nowhere. How many years in school are characterised by lots of change heralded by government, quangos or leadership, which then leads to everything remaining exactly the same, if not worse, for learners? That has to change. The only way it can change is if teachers and schools take control of their own development, shaping this themselves for their learners, and refuse to be deflected by outside agendas.

When teachers and schools take charge of their own development, they begin to take small steps towards continuous growth that is deep and meaningful, but which, most importantly, is more likely to produce deep embedded change. At the moment we have too much surface-level compliance, to much pretence around the impact our changes are having, and not enough authentic development. I know there are still lots of schools and teachers who are producing deep embedded change in their practice and for their schools, despite the onslaught of initiatvitis from above. They are the ones who have decided that they know themselves and their schools best, and have enough data and evidence to tell them where their focus needs to lie. The ones who allow themselves to be dominated or deflected by the agendas of others  will constantly be at the beck and call of everyone, constantly being busy and producing little change that is embedded into practice or thinking.

Education and learning are too important for continual game-playing.

Perhaps 2018 can be the year when more schools and more teachers stand up for what they believe in, and take the steps they know they need to take to improve? They will still be busy people and establishments, but perhaps they will really be different entities at the end of the year, rather than just another version of their former selves.

Good luck to everyone. Have a great Christmas and a very happy New Year. You deserve the break and the chance to rest and relax for all that you do and achieve in the face of the challenges presented by so much of the system, and those who claim to know better. Imagine what we could achieve if the system supported and helped everything we needed to do, and we didn't have to waist so much energy finding ways to by-pass it? It still feels that too much of what we achieve is despite the system, not because of it.


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