Mentor, mentor, on the wall…

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CC0 TobiasMuMo

Something I get asked a lot in my work with teachers and leaders across Aotearoa New Zealand is how to ensure people are ‘on board’ with the planned initiative for the school. It isn’t uncommon for leaders to say in hushed tones, “We have a … range of staff at our school, Philippa,” as if that were a situation entirely unique to their context, and not the reality of every classroom and every staffroom everywhere. In fact, the principles of Universal Design for Learning encourage us to recognise the diversity of people and to embrace this as a strength. Isn’t wonderful that we’re all different, with our own backgrounds, stories, brains, and ways of learning?

But I hear the sense of frustration for what it is: the desire of the passionate to share their passion. And I don’t have answers, nor, more’s the pity, a magic wand. But I do have some thinks, mostly due to reading Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnson, having my own mentoring relationship through CORE’s uChoose programme, and exploring some of the work of Joan Dalton.

So here are a few things I’ve learned and that mesh with what I consider to be respectful practice.

Garvey Berger and Johnston remind us that we’re not logical beings like Spock from Star Trek. So outlining cold facts about why I should embrace a new initiative isn’t all that likely to be effective. Rather, we need to engage people’s emotions. The way to do this is through story and metaphor. These draw people in and help them to get excited about new directions. Garvey Berger and Johnston actually suggest that the kinds of metaphors that are useful are those to do with journeys – but not destinations. And that giving people the sense that they’ve already started the desired change is important.

I really focus on keeping in mind that everyone is the hero of their own story. This helps me to be curious about what stories other people tell themselves about their actions to frame themselves in this way. Seeking to hear and understand other people’s stories is crucial, in my opinion. And this does take energy, empathy and time.

Which is where I bring the following strategy from Joan Dalton into play:

  • Listen
  • Pause
  • Paraphrase
  • Inquire

For me personally, this is aspirational, but I know that on the odd occasion where I’ve managed this, it can be quite powerful. My goal is to support educators to reflect on the decisions they’ve made and to consider these deeply. What worked? What didn’t? What could I do differently next time?

I feel privileged to mentor some fine educators and am on my own learning journey about how to fulfil this role to the best of my ability, but it is an honour to be gifted with their stories and to hear of their challenges and their successes.

To be continued…

So, thanks to a spot of laser surgery to rectify a small tear in the retina of my right eye, this weekend this keen reader isn’t really up to doing much reading. No problem. I have a bank of podcasts I often complain I can’t find the time to listen to. Case in point, this Serial podcast I’ve heard so many people go on about.

And never being one for half measures where text is concerned, I managed to listen to the entire first season in one day.

This is what struck me: nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Everything is complicated. Like, everything. My recollection of an event is not the same as yours. It gets filtered through my experiences, my bias, my senses, my brain. What strikes you is inconsequential to me. And vice versa. This reminds me very much of why Memento is one of my all-time favourite films, with this as one of my all-time favourite quotes from it: “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation…” 

Before I go too far off track here, let me just say that I am profoundly interested in the intersection between stories and identity. The way we interpret and understand the world around us is through stories. Stories are our identity. And stories are multifaceted, they are layered. They are complex.

Image Sources: Change Management, Complexity

Which is why something like ‘change management’ structures irritate me so badly. Change is multifaceted, layered and complex. It cannot be stuck into boxes to follow a set pattern which will magically get everyone working together with the same goal in mind.

A good comeback at this point might be to say, okay, sure Philippa, you don’t like change management processes, but you’re a bit of a raver for design thinking…what’s the difference, really? And fair enough. The way design thinking is often portrayed is as a linear process: first this, then that, and then the other.

But.

The first thing? Immersion: empathy building. Sitting with the complex, the multifaceted, the layered. And seeking to understand it from another’s point of view. When you do this, you honour the stories of another. You honour who and what they are, and who and what is important to them.

I’m still grappling with these ideas (one of the reasons why it’s been so long between blogposts), and you can hear my grappling as well as some more of my thoughts here in a podcast I did with Pete Hall of Network for Learning. But there’s something about language, stories, identity and empathy and what these might offer us in education to invite others into agentic practices that has gripped me and is occupying a lot of my thinking. I guess this is an episode that for me is to be continued…

 

Bedtime Stories

Once upon a time, a Dad read “Winnie the Pooh” stories to his daughter. (With all the right voices, Disney take note.) And thus a love of books, of words, of literature (and of Piglet) was born.

My word for this year was “learn”. This year has been a hard year of learning. But what I’d like most to reflect on is the re-learning I have done this year. 2015 has reminded me of the power of stories.

What seems like a lifetime ago, in early October, I had the pleasure of sitting with my fellow eFellows, and listening to the stories of their inquiries. They were varied, they were beautiful, they were touching. And I felt, that regardless of how different they were, the meta-story was about the power of stories.

Camilla asked, “where’s the person in personalised learning?” Vivita focused on hearing the voices of the unheard. Richard reflected on identity. And I learned that it’s the simplest things that matter: to be heard, and to listen to others.

I’m a voracious reader. As a completely unadventurous person, I love to wander in lands unknown, to meet strange and unexpected people, to be exposed to violence and passion. I’m currently reading about 3 or 4 novels a week. Yes, it’s escapism. And it’s also learning.

Just a few weeks ago my beloved Dad passed away. After dinner one night, my husband and I went for an icecream. As we wandered back down Courtenay Place, I thought to myself: none of these people know my Dad is dead. And my very next thought was: I wonder what tragedies and celebrations, what stories are happening in their lives that I don’t know about?

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Image Source

Engaging with stories is a way to experience things you might not otherwise experience. Engaging with stories is to enter into the life of someone else – to walk in their shoes for a while, if you will. Engaging with stories causes you to reflect on the story of your own life. Is it following the path you would like? Is the main character living a full and rich life? What threads or themes can be observed? Is this way, in a circle of stories, identity is formed and I think empathy is learned.

A key and crucial difference between a printed story and the story of one’s life though is agency. We have the power to change the arc that our story is on. We have the power to act.

But first, we must realise that we have this power. We are not passively living out a pre-determined life. We, if you’ll excuse the cheesy cliché, are the authors of our own lives.

And so, I’ve been thinking. The thoughts are half-formed at best, but I’ve been wondering about agency and the power to be active participants in our lives. I’ve been wondering about the power of language and of stories and their role in forging identity. And I’ve been wondering about this in the context of teachers.

One of the great privileges of 2015 has been to listen to the stories of teachers as a facilitator of professional learning. It’s endlessly fascinating to me the unpredictability of what people will latch onto to take away with them to experiment with. You just don’t know, as a teacher, even as a teacher of teachers, what will have an impact. You never know when your story might spark a new chapter in someone else’s story. But it’s this potential to help light a spark that keeps me going.

Exploring this potential spark was the unwritten story of my eFellowship. And I don’t think I’m done with it yet. I want to learn more, to hear more stories about what might ignite the spark and then keep the spark burning.

We talk a lot about learner agency. It’s a bit of an edu-buzz word. But, in my experience, when we’re using the phrase we’re meaning students. We want our students to manage themselves and their learning. But what about us?

This new story is ill-defined at present, but I think there’s something in there worth chasing. How might the power of stories be tapped into to create agentic teacher learners?

To be continued…