In a Teaching Out Loud post written a couple of weeks ago, I posed some questions about the role of school principal in the 21st Century. I’m very grateful to Trevor Owen who took the time to write quite an extensive reflection about his own journey as an educator—a journey that has seen him brush up against many of the edges offered by this profession. As an educator who has spent many years “on loan” to other institutions, Trevor continues to embrace his teaching self in reflective, passionate and rather surprising ways.
Ontarioʼs “Additional Qualification” courses for teachers (“AQs,” as they are known here) are wide-ranging, offering what amounts to in-service teaching credentials in key areas of professional practice and learning. Although I would come to query the practical utility of qualifications acquired early in my career as I came closer to the end of it—how is it reasonable, for instance, to think that one might actually be assigned to teach an area in which one had never taught simply on the strength of a long-ago acquired AQ, after all; Iwill return to this topic later—my own experience as a candidate in Ontarioʼs Principalʼs Qualifications courses came early. They were great experiences—rich in context, operating at the intersections of areas that so often divide us, and, perhaps not surprisingly, brimming with ideas that are often only possible when engaged in the kinds of border work, if I may put it that way, that any leadership role both summons and sustains. Indeed, I have long regarded “Part One” of this set of AQs to be so professionally informing that I wonder what our system might be like if all Ontario Certified Teachers were required to take it. Certainly, it is with this in mind that I have recommended it to colleagues—as a form of professional development—quite apart from whether one might seek (or even consider an interest in) pursuing career paths in administration. For my part, I found much to recommend the experiences, both during, and beyond, my own involvement in the AQs.
For me, such considerations began when I found myself in an administrative role in a small alternative school—an accidental administrator, if you will—after I had been teaching for some five years, so I enrolled in the Principalʼs AQs in order to inform and understand the role (roles, really) I found myself in. I was lucky; I found strong allies and mentors in the group of superintendents in the area of Toronto where I worked. Some of their assistance was, well, necessary, it must be said—I wince only slightly less at the memory than I did then at some of the perils they identified, and then guided me through, resolving both immediate problems—including those I was an unwitting accomplice in creating—and teaching me a good deal about my future work in the process. But, perhaps more to the point, it was inspired and inspiring work. More than any detail of developing this policy or that strategy to get whatever it was done, I retained a career-long respect for their work and mentorship.
I began to pursue other prospects in my education work, serving in a variety of consultative and administrative roles, “broadening my horizons,” as they say, though a more apt description might be “broadening-my-understanding-of-what-capacity-to contribute” might mean (and require.) I also enrolled in a “four-over-five” leave plan in my district, the leave portion of which provided opportunities for great travel and deep reflection on my career. When I returned to teach in a so-called “traditional” inner city school, many of these ideas came together, including what would become the Writers in Electronic Residence (WiER) program, a national online creative writing program that will celebrate 25 years in the 2012-13 season.
On the administrative front, I applied for my districtʼs “vice-principalʼs eligibility list” process. Happily—or so I thought at the time—my application was successful; however, at the same time, I received an offer to work on secondment to the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in B.C., which had actively supported WiER in its earliest years, hosting the program on their systems. In addition to working with pre-service teacher candidates, the focus of my secondment was to be on understanding the experiences of WiER in an effort to explore prospects for then-new (though for a long time quite user-hostile) group communications technologies in professional learning and practice. I accepted the secondment, and found the experience both personally rewarding and professionally rich. I recall thinking how odd it was that on one side of my districtʼs policy ledger, the eligibility list clock kept ticking, while, on the secondment side, it stopped: I would be ineligible to apply for vacancies while away. Accordingly, my eligibility ran out while I was at SFU.
I did not know, going in, that secondments to a variety of positions at faculties of education would comprise my education work over the next decade, or that they would lead to similar work following my return to a district that, through amalgamation, had not existed when I left, on the one hand, and knew little of my work while away, on the other. Although I deeply enjoyed my return to classroom teaching, where I served in a “position of responsibility” as a head of department, it was here that I encountered something I had never experienced before: the need to distinguish between the work of teaching, which is wonderful work, and the job of being a teacher, which was, well, impossible, although I appreciate that the kinder among us might not make the same distinction I have here.
When I returned to classroom teaching at the secondary level following my various secondments, I was troubled by what I saw as a shift emphasizing compliance over contribution, and even credential over experience. Certainly, I did not see my aspirations reflected in this shift—a point that called attention to itself during this interval. I was never assigned to teach Special Education; indeed, I had taken Part One of the AQ in the hopes that I might learn more about the students I was teaching in my “regular” classes who had, or may have, special needs. The good news here is that my AQ did deliver this experience; however, it also delivered a qualification, which I felt was no longer warranted. (I asked whether such qualifications, once acquired, could be withdrawn or rescinded. To my astonishment—I am being kind here—the answer was that they could not.)
From a practical perspective, this was never tested in practice, and I am happy to think that some close work with teaching colleagues in special education, guidance and other areas served students well; although some good work at Yorkʼs Faculty of Education (where I took my own B. Ed. in the ʻ70s, and worked on faculty in a series of evolving secondments through the ‘90s) developed professional learning “cooperatives,” which brought the resources of school districts and the Faculty together in the service of the teachers whose professional interests they shared; these programs could lead to AQ certification, but they could also lead elsewhere, say, district-based initiatives, promotion tracks, and the like. They also led to greater awareness and understanding—something that would have suited my aspirations in special education quite well, which I mention to call attention to the distinction I would draw between the acquisition of professional credential, and the value of the development of professional knowledge and engagement as an intentional act.
I would leave, and return to, classroom teaching several times over my career. I can report to feeling a certain sense of caution, even nervousness, at the thought of this “return”—at least, the first time it happened. What I hadnʼt appreciated was how my work while “away” both informed—and was informed by—these experiences, an unintended consequence of which turned out to be that I have now worked at all levels of our education system, comprising K-12, pre- and in-service teacher education, and graduate school, in a variety of teaching, non-teaching consultative/resource, and, yes, administrative roles. Simply-stated, I was a better secondary English teacher because I had served in university-based administrative and program development roles. And I was a better administrator because of my work at the elementary and professional teacher education levels. For me, it was the relation between—thereʼs that “border work” again—the various areas that I found so rich.
Like others who have responded to Stephenʼs thread,I retired (yes, early…) in part because I could, and in part because I wanted to focus on WiER, which I am doing now. I also began teaching part-time in the community college system—until a few years ago, the last remaining area of our system in which I had not worked—and I have now taught a wide variety of courses there, ranging from pop culture programs in music or 1950s America to creative writing and business English. I enjoy them all, and I do just two each term, but I think my favourites are the business writing classes, filled as they are with students at varying stages in their acquisition of English. I should probably have taken that AQ in ESL—I may yet seek qualifications in TESOL—but I have learned to support the work my students are willing to do with the time they need to do the job they imagine. When I look at the qualities of leadership I see at the college, perhaps it is my own studentsʼ work that makes me grateful to be so well supported, on the one hand,and that instills the desire—I could say “requirement” here—to ensure such support exists, on the other.
I know from my work in WiER that there is a reciprocal benefit to engagement in work of purpose. Certainly, the students benefit from the insights of, and interactions with, the professional mentors with whom they work online, but so do the teachers, who consider learning and teaching practice from new perspectives as a result, and so do the writers, who are often surprised by the influence of being a mentor on their writing practice. “It was an odd pleasure,” one student wrote about her WiER experience, “to be taken so seriously.” I enjoyed that statement, although the time-release dimensions of it escaped me for the year or so that it took me to see it differently—why, after all, would being taken seriously be an odd pleasure for any student in school? Nurturing that sense of “surprise,” as well as the opportunities likely to create it, has served to link all facets of my work in education, and to guide my appreciation for exploring the richness of the associations that may be seen between them.
In WiER, I saw how the professional writers regarded student writers as writers. At the level of stature, no meaningful comparisons can be made—the published authors are “the pros,” after all, which defines the student authors as “the novices.” However, at the level of interest, many meaningful associations can be, and are, made, as both student and professional writers see their aspirations reflected in each other, and engage each other accordingly.
If the direction in which writing is travelling is “publication,” in effect, or what I have come to regard as “production,” then we have a good grasp on the work schools do in the service of skill acquisition, demonstration, assessment—including the assessments of teachers—and the like. However, if the direction in which writing is travelling is “having the conversation,” then a different dynamic comes into play, and into focus. I have seen many teachers who, after participating in WiER for the first time, come to see their students in ways they had not seen them before—perhaps a bit startled, at first, by learning more about the very students they thought they knew well—embrace rather than balk at the certain distance at which they find themselves as the students and writers explore their shared interests with each other.
When this work is teaching, it has guided me to adopt changes, and I will note three here: the first focuses on just one specific curricular example, while the second considers learning relationships within—and, crucially, across—the constituencies that separate them. The third example considers the influence of that last point; of being a kind of “visitor,” bridging the chasms that so often separate us from the possibilities of shared work, on the one hand, while creating the disruptions that may establish and sustain those possibilities, on the other.
I am willing to bet that any student one might ask would define “revision” in writing as “improvement” of some kind; a process undertaken before producing a “finished” or final copy, typically to demonstrate abilities in meeting a variety of exit criteria. No problem there; indeed, I canʼt think of a professional writer who doesnʼt do just that before submitting a manuscript to her or his publisher. However, in my work with the writers, I began to see how they saw “revision” more generally as “seeing anew,” or, quite literally, re-vision, casting this work as how, in effect, one could know something differently because one had written about it, and, perhaps more to the point, where could this new knowledge lead them; what questions could now be asked?
It was really these experiences that caused me to see students as “learning colleagues.” This does not connote an abandonment of my work as a teacher—far from it, in fact. Rather, it accepts that everyone involved in a shared experience is in a learning relationship and, as I think I have noted here, that there may be different facets to the nature of this learning, both within and across the constituencies engaged in it, is all to the good.
For my part, I have always favoured pursuing opportunities for contribution over, say, opportunities for “advancement” as defined by particular positions, although it is true that sometimes these were associated with particular roles—in the K-12 arena, for instance, it was consistently more difficult to get things off the ground in my role as a teacher than, say, in my role as a coordinator, principal, department head, or resource teacher. Certainly, I am pleased to have had such varied experiences; however, I also have to ask why this should be the case, and who is served by it.
The Value of Life On Loan
The nature of seconded positions provides, I think, some insight here, operating, as they do, at the intersections of constituencies that see reciprocal benefit in association. A little more than a third of my career was spent on various secondments to other institutions, and I can report that these provided great platforms for program development, professional development, graduate study, research and the like. Over the years, I saw how some of my seconded colleagues felt a loss of contribution quite deeply upon returning to their school districts. Others were valued greatly by the districts from which they had been seconded, while still others found a bit of a “cold shoulder” upon their return (I recall one district that seemed to have considered the secondeeʼs work “in the ivory tower” to be little more than “time off.” I know many of us were astounded, both having worked with that secondee, and, perhaps, at the prospect that our own efforts might be diminished in a similar manner.)
Although I can see elements of each of these in my own experience, overwhelmingly, the secondments were worth doing, and often, profoundly so. I would consider myself to be most fortunate to have had any one of them, let alone the multiple opportunities made available to me. No doubt, this underscores my satisfaction with having pursued experiences I considered worth doing no matter what the contractual position may have been.
In the early days of WiER, a teacher in Calgary noted that the program was “the best professional development Iʼve had in years.” I think sheʼs right, and that the dynamic nature of learning relationships is largely why. No teacher participates in WiER for the purpose of acquiring professional development, after all, but every teacher does acquire professional change.
All of which brings me back to the questions Stephen posed. Of course, all of them are appropriate, insightful, worth asking, and worth thinking more about; however, if I had to pick one, it would be that last bit of #2: “What has surprised you?”
Everything. All the time.