Don’t be a donkey

One of dilemmas faced by dynamic professionals is where to focus and prioritise their energy. This is often the case in early and mid-stage educators. And it is certainly the case for outstanding educators who tend to be pretty good at, and passionate about most areas of education. There is an increasing smorgasbord of options available for growth,  professional development, specialisation, and post-graduate study.

But there’s a danger here…

There’s an old fable about a donkey who is both very hungry and very thirsty. He is standing halfway between a stack of hay and a bucket of water. He keeps looking to the left at the hay and then to the right at the water. He is equally attracted to the hay and the water but is unable to decide on an option. Eventually he falls down and dies of both hunger and thirst.

There are many exciting, emerging opportunities and platforms for education practitioners to make an impact both in their classrooms and beyond. But real impact requires expertise. And expertise requires a choice and a commitment. And this, in turn, requires courage and a long-term perspective.

Otherwise, the three alternatives for enterprising and progressive educators are:

  1. Deciding to remain more of a highly-skilled ‘generalist’ rather than an ‘expert’ – which is perfectly fine.
  2. Deciding to try to become expert at many things and burning out in the process – which isn’t fine.
  3. Not deciding at all. (But that didn’t work out well for the donkey.)

Good enough

As an educator, can you ever become good enough?

No.

Last week, I met a career teacher in his final year before retirement. He was one of the most engaged, interested and committed participants in a high quality professional development workshop.

I imagine that some of his colleagues do think that they’re good enough. But I can’t be sure, I didn’t get to meet them. They weren’t at the workshop. They gave up on commitment to systematic growth and development the day they decided they were good enough.

Feedforward

Feedback, especially critical feedback, often isn’t pleasant to receive. And it’s really hard to hear it when it’s about our work. So why do we put ourselves through it? Why do we go out of our way to seek high-quality, genuinely constructive feedback from peers or mentors? Because it helps us grow. Feedback drives learning.

But when you give feedback, your intention matters.

Is your intention to deconstruct a performance from the past and give your view on what would have been better or what you would have done instead? Because that’s hard to listen to. That’s the kind of feedback that can easily demotivate someone or make them defensive.

Or is your intention to help illuminate someone’s future by highlighting inherent strengths and tools that can help them be even better? When we show that we genuinely care by walking beside someone in the process, helping them see a new path, that feels really different.

Some people call this feedforward instead.

I don’t know where to start!

Systemic changes, fundamental shifts, philosophical pivots – these are all big journeys to go on. And so a comment we often hear from school leaders and educators who are attempting to adopt a whole-school approach to wellbeing is: ‘I don’t know where to start’. 

Although we now have a pretty well-honed roadmap that provides support and direction for schools, each journey is different because each school is unique. But each of these journeys always begins the same way: with a first step. This is often the hardest and most important step of all because it leads to the next step.

The poet Rumi perhaps said this best when he wrote:

“As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears.”

Get outside the jar

I was reading Steven Kotler’s book, Stealing Fire¸ recently and I loved an old bit of “southern folk wisdom” quoted that says:

“you can’t read the label while you’re sitting inside the jar.”

This is why coaching and other intentional reflection strategies are increasingly being embedded into performance development plans in some of the most innovative schools in Australia and internationally. These kind of processes enable us to gain such an important perspective and view of ourselves as professionals.

If you don’t have a deliberate, regular, meaningful ‘feedforward’ process that enables you to ‘get outside the jar’, it’s unlikely that you are growing as an educator. And if your professional skills aren’t growing, they’re either stalling or dying.

You are not perfect

As we develop experience in our profession, we are able to become more independent. Our experience serves as a reference to help guide decisions. We recognise familiar situations and know how to respond. And we draw on experience to adapt to novel situations.

This independence, however, can lead to an experienced educator going to work, surrounded by hundreds or even thousands of other humans, and enjoying close personal connections, but still feeling lonely, professionally. Once we reach a certain level of experience, a kind of self-imposed expectation can set in that causes us to feel that we should just be able to ‘get on with it’. It is surprisingly rare for experienced, skilled educators to seek help with fine-tuning their skills. Sure, there might be different teams or networks designed to encourage supportive collaboration, but day-to-day, many experienced educators feel reluctant to (or don’t know how to) ask for help.

But here’s the thing. High-quality teaching is very, very complex. There are so many different interconnected skills required – everything from advanced computer skills to relationship counselling and a thousand others in between. Despite what you might think, every educator you meet is better than you at one or more of those skills. And even if you have some super-star, legendary teacher at your school who you hope to be like some day, you are better than them at one or more of those skills.

Imagine what the profession might be like if we were all able to demonstrate just a little more vulnerability and growth orientation – to be a little more willing to ask for skill-based help, guidance, and advice from each other.

 

Be 1,000 hours better

Imagine if you played a computer game for 1,000 hours or practised playing the piano for 62 days straight and only took breaks to sleep. You’d improve quite a bit wouldn’t you! Your development would certainly be noticeable and measurable.

This year, if you’re a classroom educator, you will complete approximately 1,000 hours of teaching practice. How much better will you be at the end of the year? Will your development be noticeable and measurable? Are you a significantly better teacher than you were this time last year?

Here are four of the most critical variables that research has identified will determine your development:

  1. Your motivation and attention. How much do you want to improve? How much are you focussing on becoming even better as an educator?
  2. Focus on specific ‘micro-skills’. What precise, targeted skill are you specifically working on? Teaching consists of hundreds of different skills. Pick one. Start there.
  3. Your willingness to seek and respond to feedback from a mentor or coach. Do you have someone you admire, someone more skilled than you who can critically analyse your skill and guide your growth.
  4. Repetition. How many forehands do you think Roger Federer hits each day? Work out how you can practise and practise the skill you are developing until you master it. Then move on.

Those factors don’t just predict teacher development, by the way. If you’re a lawyer or a chef or a police officer, the same fundamentals apply.

Wouldn’t it be cool to look back in January, 2020 and think, “Wow, I really am 1,000 hours better!”