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:
- Deciding to remain more of a highly-skilled ‘generalist’ rather than an ‘expert’ – which is perfectly fine.
- Deciding to try to become expert at many things and burning out in the process – which isn’t fine.
- Not deciding at all. (But that didn’t work out well for the donkey.)
As an educator, can you ever become good enough?
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.
If you’ve ever visited Vietnam you’ll be familiar with the ‘experience’ of crossing the road on foot. If you haven’t, you might struggle to imagine what it feels like to walk out into a swarm of oncoming motor scooters that seem to be oblivious to the laws requiring vehicles to stop at pedestrian crossings.
Against your instincts, locals will tell you to step confidently out into the scooter-stream, look straight ahead and walk at a steady pace across the road. Somehow, scooters rapidly zip behind and in front of you – as if perfectly choreographed. It sounds and seems crazy, but it works.
It works because everyone knows the intention and direction of each other. The scooter-riders know that you are trying to get from one side to the other. And they know that you are going to walk straight and steady. You know that they are going to steer around you – as long as you walk straight and steady.
In amongst the apparent chaos, these predictable behaviours create an effective and efficient system. Everyone gets where they need to go safely and reliably.
There are times in our lives when it makes sense to embrace experimentation, growth, challenge, and innovation. And there are other times when it makes sense to keep our head down and walk straight and steady…just to get to the other side.
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.
If you work in education and haven’t been living under a rock for the past ten years, chances are you’re familiar with Dr Carol Dweck’s work on mindset. For decades, Dweck has been studying the effects that our beliefs about ability have on learning behaviours and our future success.
If you believe that ability is mostly the result of practice and hard work, you tend to work harder, practice more, accept more feedback and tackle more challenging problems. And guess what happens…you get better at whatever you are working on. Dweck calls this a growth mindset.
If you believe that ability is mostly the result of predetermined genetic factors or inherent ‘talent’, you don’t practice as diligently, are resistant to feedback and tackle less challenging problems. (After all, there’s no point practicing if ability is genetic.) And guess what happens…you don’t get better at whatever ability it is you think is ‘talent’ based. She calls this a fixed mindset.
Despite some vocal critics of Dweck’s work, there are significant benefits associated with nurturing a growth mindset in children. But like all psychological theories, we need to be careful not to skim the headlines of research and, consequently, develop blunt, broad-spectrum, low-resolution approaches.
Here are just a few of the situations in which Dweck herself, a staunch proponent of growth mindset, has explained that a fixed mindset is healthier and beneficial:
- When faced with certain acute mental or physical health conditions, those who believe they will be able to work their own way through it or ‘get over it’ may be less likely to seek professional or medical help and therefore increase the risk of harm.
- When faced with issues associated with sexual orientation, those who accept that this is who they are and this is who they’re meant to be seem to respond more effectively and adjust more healthily than people who think they should be resisting or trying to change something about themselves.
- When faced with the realisation of aging, graceful acceptance of the inevitability of physical change is often associated with more healthy adaptation of behaviour. In Dweck’s words, we are less likely to “run around nipping and tucking”.
As educators, we should be consuming high-quality research findings. But when we do, it’s important to read the headlines and the ‘fine print’.
Does this story sound familiar to you?
Jane is in Year 7 at school. She submits her assignment and feels good about the work she has done. But that night, her teacher reads the assignment and is taken aback. The following day, the teacher calls in Jane’s Head of Year, a very experienced educator, and requests a meeting with Jane’s parents. Jane’s parents come in for the meeting with the Head of Year, Jane, her teacher, and two other of Jane’s teachers who have been called in too.
Jane’s teacher welcomes the ‘committee’ that is now present and begins the meeting. “Jane, I think you probably know why we have gathered everyone today.”
Jane quietly nods.
“The piece of work you submitted yesterday is outstanding. It is not perfect, but, as you well know, that doesn’t matter to us at all. What does matter, is that it demonstrates a new level of creativity, insight, and passion that I haven’t seen in your work before. Although you have always worked hard and done very well at school, this is different. It is so important that we diagnose and understand exactly what went right. I know your parents and teachers are so keen to help you continue to realise and nurture your strengths and so we have formed this committee today to investigate your success fully. You need to know that I will be personally writing a report about these developments that will be sent to the principal and permanently recored on your student file. I am so proud to have the privilege of working with you as your teacher. Thank you Jane.”
How different schools would be if ‘feedback’ wasn’t primarily about fixing deficits.
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.”