Friday, 18 December 2015

Drowning In Christmas

It's that time of year again.  Guidance has sent out the annual email imploring for teachers to keep an eye out for students who are being crushed under the weight of Christmas.  Students aren't the only ones.

The people giddiest about Christmas seem to be the ones who least need it.  The giant family Christmases enjoyed by big happy families do a great job of emphasizing what many others don't have.  The kids most excited about presents are the ones most likely to receive them.  As a socio-economic division, Christmas does a wonderful job of reminding many people of what they don't have.

When you see students getting more and more brittle and tense about the oncoming holiday, you have to wonder what they are looking forward to when that last bell rings and they are 'on holiday' for two weeks.

The manic happiness that a seeming majority feel at this time of year drives many of us who are just hoping to survive Christmas underground.

I received a lifeline in an unexpected place this year.  At yoga on Monday after Shavasana our instructor talked about the kind of 'radical self love' that comes from taking a moment for yourself during this highly pressurized holiday season to find calmness.  In looking after yourself you end up looking after those around you.

Christmas is all about giving, but sometimes the best thing you can give is taking a moment to restore your own sanity.  Everyone around you will thank you for it.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Professionalism: it's more than skin deep

Head's meetings give me a chance to think without constantly having to juggle the needs of dozens of students at once.  Our most recent one had us developing a school mission statement.  The idea was that if staff develop the mission they'll be more likely to back it.  It was an agonizing process of planning by committee, but we got it done.

In the process of developing this statement one of the more golden heads suggested that focusing on the dress code would reinvigorate a sense of professionalism in the staff.  I don't entirely disagree, dressing appropriately does help present a sense of professionalism, but thinking that an enforced dress code will somehow improve professionalism in staff had me thinking about what is involved in a teacher's sense of professionalism.

Visual cues like dress codes felt like the crust of something much more complicated, so I went to work on an orange.

If you want a sense of a teacher's professionalism start with their qualifications.  Do they have advanced qualifications (honours, post-graduate, master-technical, etc) in the subject areas that they teach?  

Have they expanded their teacher training from what they graduated teacher's college with?  Do they demonstrate the kind of life long learning they claim is so important in their students?

Are they attending subject specific PD to improve their ability to teach this material in the most current and comprehensive manner possible?  Do they create curriculum?  Serve on their subject council?  Work to improve learning in their subject area in other ways?

Have they developed a diverse personal learning network (this doesn't necessarily have to be digital).  Are they known in their school, in their board, in their province, in their country, in their world, as a collaborative and supportive colleague?  Do they encourage growth in learning?  Do they interact with other educators to improve their craft?

Have they taken on school leadership roles?  Are they known in the school as a dependable fixer?  A colleague who puts the needs of the school before their own?   Do they work in other aspects of the school?  Student competitions?  Sports?  Clubs?  School events?  Academic initiatives?

Have they ever supported the organization that protects their profession?  Volunteering for union work says a lot about how much a professional is willing to put themselves out to protect their profession.  It also demonstrates a sense of belonging to that profession.

There is probably much more you could put into the orange, but these many things are what feed the skin of the orange (the appearance of the teacher).  Dress codes and appearance do matter, but professionalism is much more than skin deep.


At its root professionalism is a self driven desire to improve one's field of work.  Being self driven is the key to professionalism and the major difference between an employee and a professional.  The professional takes their work to heart and self-identifies with how they are doing it, an employee just does what they are paid for and no more.   Employees require direction.  Professionals are self directed. Unfortunately, I know a fair number of teachers who approach teaching as an employee.  If you want to resurrect teacher professionalism it doesn't mean ties for all, it means getting those disaffected employees to approach their profession with a sense of authorship.

... unless you play for Newcastle
The other morning I was watching Premier League Football and heard about how Newcastle has hired an motivational speaker for its players.  The millionaire players who never had to grow up and get paid more per week to play a game than I make in a year need motivation?  This speaks to professionalism in a big way.  Having been coddled and paid ludicrous sums of money since they were teenagers, many of these players have no idea how good they have it playing a game that the rest of us pay to play for leisure.  Can you be a professional without a profound appreciation of the importance of the work that you do?  This situation does point to a key element of professionalism:  an unwavering commitment to your profession and a willingness to seek constant improvement.  You're not a professional unless you're always on the clock, always ready to perform beyond minimal expectations.

A doctor doesn't get to say she's on holiday when someone has a heart attack on the beach where they happen to be vacationing.  It is professionalism that drives her to say that she is a doctor and perform her duty.  When you see Mike Holmes losing his mind about poor craftsmanship in a home reno you're seeing a man railing against a lack of professionalism.  When Newcastle has to hire a motivational speaker to convince its millionaire players to do their job, you're looking at a deep lack of professionalism.

Professionalism seems to germinate in people where the work they are doing is valued, valuable and challenging.  The professional becomes attached to their profession, self-identifying with it and authoring their approach to it.

Professionalism isn't conformity, it's empowerment.  Many workplaces use the word professionalism while offering staff no opportunity to critically assess and improve their process.  In such dictated working environments professionalism is a catch phrase for doing what you're told promptly and without question (ie: being manageable).  These workplaces have a strange democratic flatness to them - we're all professionals here at Xmart!  Perhaps this is why professionalism is so confused in the modern mind - we have a misplaced idea of what it is.

Out of high school I became I millwright's apprentice.  One of my mentors, Leo, was an older Caribbean gentleman who was incapable of sugar coating things, though his honesty was presented with a Jamaican easy-goingness that made it easy to listen to.  One day he told me the story of our department supervisor.  This was the guy who used to take night shifts and then roll himself under a truck and fall asleep for hours.  He had one of the worst work records in the shop and was known for being the guy you shouldn't go to see if you were having technical problems.  He got promoted off the floor to minimize the damage he was doing there.  Leo looked me in the eye and said, 'that's what most management is.  If they were good at something, they'd still be doing it.'  I've tended to approach management with a suspect eye ever since.

Leo was proud of his mechanical skills, he was a master of his trade.  He took great pains to perform his job at the highest level and continually looked for challenges to grow his skill and knowledge.  That one of the most impactful mentors I've ever had wore coveralls while the clown running the department showed up in shirt and tie every day has meant I've always preferred to see what people do rather than what they look like before I start to form an opinion about their sense of professionalism.

Between the smoke and mirrors business-appearance sense of professionalism and the demonstrated excellence of the true professional there is a lot of social static.  Things are further complicated by organizations eager to use the term professionalism as an adjective to encourage compliance and conformity to corporate norms, but for professionalism to germinate the person doing the work has to have control over their approach to the work - and germination is indeed the process.  You can't force professionalism with a dress code.  What you can do is create a fertile environment where people are engaged in their work.  Where the work is challenging and complex enough that it makes demands on the worker to continuously develop their own approaches to it rather than being managed into a conformed response.  Systematized work environments are the death of professionalism.

In spite of the business blah blah that greets you when you look up professionalism, there isn't a single, regimented pathway to it unless you're in business where your can-do attitude and proper attire matters more than any specialized skills you may have.  Professionalism blooms out of expertise and works in service to it.  Some of the best teachers I've ever had wore overalls, many of the worst wore suits.  Appearance can be as much a distraction as it can be an indicator of professionalism (unless you're in business).


True Colours offers some real insights into personality types.  Being a green / blue I'm not beholden to social expectations or image.  The Gold who suggested adhering to dress codes is though.  Where she thinks that professionalism can be generated by dressing nicely, I've experienced the opposite.  I try to keep this in mind when I hear someone suggest something that I have an immediate negative reaction to.  What works for them might work for them...

Friday, 4 December 2015

Risk And Danger In Play? In Learning?

Should play always be safe?  Does risky/dangerous play offer opportunities that our helicopter-parent/granny society play doesn't?

Mathias Poulsen got me thinking about this on Twitter.  The related educational question is: does safe learning lead to limited chances to improve your knowledge and skill?  Are there advantages to risky and dangerous learning?

In most circumstances learning is a risky proposition.  A friend of ours, Heather Durnin, said how her farmer husband was a sink or swim kind of teacher when he said he wasn't a teacher at all.  He expected your attention and then threw you into the work directly, expecting you to get a handle on it.  Most jobs I've had are the same way.  For that matter teaching itself is pretty much a sink or swim proposition.  Most of the world makes hard demands on learners.  Ironically, it's only in education that learner engagement is so tenuous, dare I say optional?

I was struck a couple of years ago with how rigorous and unapologetic my introduction to motorcycle training was.  Students who could not manage the physical, mental or emotional requirements were failed, students who slept in on Sunday morning were cut.  It seemed a stark contrast to the fifty-is-a-pass/attendance optional approach that drives learning in school classrooms.  You can't have stringent, risky experiential learning when you're more focused on anything other than that learning.

The implication of risk is failure.  If we remove failure from learning we end up with what we have in Ontario education today: students lacking in resiliency with a poor metacognitive idea of what they are capable of.  The grades they earn reflect the political will of the current government rather than what the student is capable of.

Risk taking shows us where the edges of our skills are.  We risk failure when we overreach, but this isn't a bad thing.  Fear of failure creates a false sense of our limitations which is why overly coddled students have no idea of what they are capable of.  Students who never have the opportunity to take real risks turn into self-oblivious narcissists who think they know everything but can do nothing.  One of the reasons I enjoy teaching tech is because my subject matter doesn't coddle students.  If it doesn't work you need to buck up and figure it out; opinions matter little to reality.

The only time in life you'll find the padded learning/guaranteed success formula is in today's classroom.  The rest of the world isn't geared to make you feel good about whether you feel like trying or not.  Fortunately, for those of us who want to learn in a more realistic way, the world is full of risk and danger, and reward.


A Possible Computer Technology Project?

It's basically a how-to guide for online hacking...
At the moment Anonymous is counter trolling some of the biggest trolls on the internet.  This feels like an opportunity for students to exercise their skills and take action based on real world issues.  But I've always had doubts about directing student political action, it feels a bit too much like indoctrination when someone in a position of institutionalized power tells the people beholden to them what they should believe and do about it.

Internet activism aside, the Noob Guide offers insight into the various tools needed to hack online.  From a purely technical point of view this offers students a chance to comprehend the nature of online communication by looking at the frailties of its architecture.

It's happening right now in the real world.  It's potentially risky.  Sounds like a real world learning opportunity.