You, us, we…

Photo by mauro mora on Unsplash

Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi

With your food basket and my food basket the people will thrive

The well known whakatauki above encapsulates the notion that while working in isolation might result in survival, working together can take people beyond survival and onto prosperity.

As inspirational as this notion is, it’s not something I see manifest in much of how we operate in the education system at present. Yes, at a local level we can celebrate instances of this – but at a system level we remain focused on the silos we inhabit and the roles defined for us in these positions. Consider the following…

  • “Let us decide what PD we need, and you provide the funding for us to do so.”
  • “Leave us to develop the assessment requirements for your students and you get on with the job of teaching them.”
  • You focus on teaching your kids good manners and how to behave, and let us focus on their academic needs.”
  • You need to change the policy to let us teach our kids in different ways.”

These reflect statements I’ve heard – and keep hearing – in different areas of my work, albeit expressed in more subtle ways. They convey a sense of ‘binary’ thinking about what are essentially collective problems or concerns. There is generally no ‘two sides’ to the issues here. Rather, such statements reveal an abdication mindset – a ‘passing on’ of responsibility (or blame) for particular issues or concerns that at times can seem overwhelming or with no clear solution. It becomes ‘someone else’s fault or problem to solve”.

I thought of this as I was reading the latest NZPF newsletter this week. As a collective group within our system, the principals of our primary schools hold a significant role in our education system – and at a local, community level. Their experience and expertise represents an enormous part of our system’s intelligence, and collectively they represent the engine room of a significant part of our education system. In their newsletter their executive share a list of 15 top priorities which they, as a group, have agreed to focus on for 2021.

Their list captures many of the things that are currently challenging our education system – and certainly don’t lack ambition. The encouraging thing about they way they are expressed is the inclusive wording – with no less than three of the statements mentioning ‘partnership’ as the means of achieving the goal, and many others using terms such as ‘influence’, ‘advocate’, ‘work with’ etc. to describe how they’ll act. In other words – a clear intent to work to achieve a collective outcome, as per the whakatauki.

The challenge comes, of course, when it comes to making this happen. The devil is always in the detail. For example, one of the priorities reads…

To see a Curriculum Advisory Service established in the Ministry of Education and ensure it is staffed by practicing educators. The loss of our trusted and talented curriculum advisory services dealt a blow to the provision of coherent thought leadership for schooling. We have not recovered from this loss and their absence is keenly felt. We would ask that the Ministry of Education builds strong relationships with curriculum experts in schools so that these professionals can be empowered in national leadership roles.

I’d have to confess to holding a ‘neutral’ position on this one. It’s interesting though, to see the request for more ‘centrally provided leadership’ promoted by the same collective that, more than 20 years ago, contributed to the decision to abolish the advisory services as they then existed, claiming that the service provided was failing to meet their needs (a typical “you“, “us” moment). At that point we were in the midst of the Tomorrow’s Schools revolution, where principals were accorded the role of CEOs, responsible for all decisions about their own PD including who they had to facilitate it. A range of providers emerged to fill the gap of the Curriculum Advisers, many (most) of whom were recent classroom practitioners.

More recently schools have been encouraged to collaborate within a local Kahui Ako, a key premise of which is the assumption that the expertise for building teacher capability exists within the schools already, and that by sharing this expertise across a cluster the needs of participating schools can be met in a timely and relevant manner, and at the same time, provide a career path for educators in the roles of in-school or cross-school leads.

There is no doubt that teachers and schools are currently facing enormous pressures in terms of the constant demand for updating in terms of new curriculum initiatives, and in terms of building capability to respond effectively to the complex demands of learners in the modern settings. But this constantly ‘shifting blame responsibility’ appears to me to be counter productive.

To truly achieve the sort of progress we are after requires a far greater commitment to working as ‘we‘. Only then will we address the complexity of the current (and future) situation in our schools and our education system as a whole….

  • You must to provide the support for our teachers” becomes “what can we do together to ensure all staff are equipped to do their job effectively?”
  • You should decide the curriculum for us to follow,” becomes “how can we combine our respective areas of expertise to design a curriculum that is authentic and contextually relevant?”
  • etc.

While this may sound simple, it’s definitely not straight forward. There’ll be many who read this and argue that we do work together in these ways, with representation on working groups and consultation processes associated with many of the changes taking place.

But the fact remains that we are all under time pressures to meet the demands of various parts of the system. Each of us is constrained in our thinking by the particular context we operate in and the circle(s) of influence we are exposed to. As a result we concede to operating in silos, operating most effectively within the spheres of influence we have and seldom venturing too far from the comfort of that position unless we are really pushed.

True collaboration is complex, and requires deep understanding and complete commitment to be truly effective. It’s not achieved by holding the occasional meeting or ‘team development days’ – or even after work social gatherings. Those things are simply about being collegial.

The collaboration that’s needed occurs when relationships are treated as genuine partnerships. In a true collaborative partnership, obligations are broadly distributed, the possibilities for cooperation are more extensive, understanding and solidarity grows among the collaborative partners, communication is frequent and intensive, and the interpersonal context is rich. It involves courageous conversations, and addressing personal areas of bias or prejudice – which can be uncomfortable and confronting. In addition, responsibility for the outcome is jointly owned – there is no ‘blaming’ or ‘I told you so’ when things don’t go according to plan!

My hope is that we will see this sort of collaboration flourish in our profession – at all levels – as we face an increasingly uncertain future together. If not for our sake, then for the sake of our tamariki and mokopuna. Only then can we truly realise the wisdom of the whakatauki…

Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi

With your food basket and my food basket the people will thrive

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