Make change. Be a rebel

Dr. Julie M. Wood and Nicole Ponsford

Nicole Ponsford and Julie M Wood are the authors of TechnoTeaching: Taking Practice to the Next Level in a Digital World (2014, Harvard Education Press).

Nicole is the digital leader of @WomenEd, leader of @WomenEd_Tech and founder of @gendercharter. Previously, she was an award-winning AST in Media and New Technologies. Nicole is passionate about gender equality being the ‘new normal’.

Julie’s roles include: International digital literacy consultant. Advisor for US Department of Education. Senior Advisor at EtonKids’ Parents Academy, Beijing. Presenter / panelist. Literacy and technology advocate. Researcher. Children’s book author.

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Image credit: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story // Lucasfilm Ltd. Image credit: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story // Lucasfilm Ltd.

Jim Stark: Nobody talks to children.

Judy: No, they just tell them.

Rebel Without A Cause (1955).

Popular educationalist Professor Ted Wragg once told a whole room full of students that they were all there because they had told someone to “F-off”. This wasn’t a Year 11 detention but the Teaching Award winners lunch in 2005. As a “champion of teachers, a champion of children and a champion of the education service”, Wragg knew that that sometimes you had to cut through the red-tape of educational bureaucracy. Crikey, sometimes you had to put two fingers up, throw the red tape out the window and be done with it.

Nic speaking:

Being a disruptor is something that comes naturally to us. I have just launched a project to challenge gender equality in the UK, with The Gender Equality Charter. Asking ‘annoying questions’ is something that I am now quite experienced at.

At school, I was called the ‘poacher who became a gamekeeper’ by my headteacher as I was crowned a senior prefect, despite my reputation as a hunter of smoking vantage points around the school grounds. When I questioned teachers, they would invite me to make waves for them - and I would. What a pain I was! As a result, ‘the rules’ have always seemed only ‘a guide’ to me. When I became a teacher, therefore, I was amazed by the rules of conduct - not just rules for the kids, but those rules said - and worse, unsaid - in the staffroom. Shudder.

Being rubbish at saying ‘no’ and not really listening when I am told what to do, meant that if I saw an opportunity for the kids to do something exciting for learning, I went for it. Some leaders loved this, some loathed it - but you’ve got to try things, right? For example, my kids wanted to go to Los Angeles for a school trip (Media Studies A Level). I was heavily criticised by some of my peers, but 18 months later I was in a lift with Gary Oldman! Noice. Many of my students never had a family member go to university (I only had one relative who did). I told them they would be accepted if they did what they needed to and ignored everyone else. And they have. Some are even teachers. Boom.

This all means cracking some eggs to make your omelette, as the French say. You have to make your own route sometimes, try new things, and dust yourself off when it goes wrong. The irony about teachers is that the ‘growth mindset’ we try to encourage in the kids often doesn’t reflect our own closed-off beliefs. We beat ourselves up if we make a mistake, we worry if we express an opposite opinion with other staff, and we often say “yes” when we mean “not-on-your-nelly”. Why?

Because being a rebel in school can be an isolating move? I once worked with a group of young middle leaders who were part of a new Labour Academy. I (Nic) had just been given a Teaching Award. I was keen that these teachers build confidence and aimed high - quickly. “At a school that had seen five headteachers in five years, and kids who had no uniforms and regularly smoked at the back of classrooms, we needed to make our presence known - fast. We were there to stay, and therefore different from their previous teachers. We were there to learn them right up. Bbbbbrrraaapppp!

In leading this group, we gave them all ‘Daredevil’ missions to complete. The missions were all innovative and rebellious acts of teaching - teaching without pens / seats /classrooms, using power-teaching, flipped classrooms and video conferencing. Bear in mind that this was 12 years ago, when these methods were all pretty radical. We even had blogs so we could contact each other when ideas came to us late at night.

Other teachers thought we had lost our minds - making noise in lesson times, kids marching all around school, and heaps of new projects with community artists - but we got those learners, we hooked them in reel (ahem) good. Being a rebel teacher was not only good for students, but it also helped us build incredible teacher / student relationships. Plus, the school was awarded the most improved school in the south of England that year.

So, how can disruption help school leaders bring about real, systemic change? Luckily, the timing is spot on. The second half of the school year is a good time to surge ahead with new initiatives - you know the kids, you know where you are going with your curriculum, and you might even be planning ahead to next year. It is time to strut your stuff.

Think what annoys you - those things that keep you up at night, the matters with which you bore your non-teaching partners (or is that just us?). What needs to change? What are you passionate about? Then focus on that. It might be the curriculum you are wading through, an approach from SLT, or something your learners need but no one is sorting out. Or it could be something you know you need to sort out in your own classroom. That is your focus. That is what you will kick the stuffing out of.

Agony Aunting

We have thought about a few ways you can be a rebel with a cause. Here are four problems teachers face, and how to overcome them, based on our combined experiences (note: we made up all the letters, but they are based on teachers we know).

1. “I just want to teach and keep my head down. I’m not comfortable calling attention to myself. I mainly want everyone to like me, yet I feel like I need to ignite some sort of spark in my school. I need to do ‘something’. Help!” - Timid in Taunton

Dear Timid in Taunton,

We hear you. Sometimes you just want to fit in with others in your school. You don’t want to seem like a show-off when you come up with a new idea that is not only a hit with your students, but that has clear learning outcomes. Maybe it’s the way you’ve taught your students to use the whole G Suite. Or maybe it’s that stop-motion film your kids made in that tricky Year 9 Biology lesson.

The Japanese have an expression about not wanting to call attention to yourself: “The nail that sticks out will be hammered down.” Is the problem that your fellow teachers and administrators lack vision when it comes to edtech? Are they stuck in the past?

You say you want to ignite some sort of spark in your school. We say go for it! How about this for a two-part plan:

First, work on your own edtech skills. Step up your teaching game with free or low-cost tools you’ve never tried before. These might include 3D printing, Adobe Spark creation tools, AR or having your students record their own podcasts.

Second, find a venue for your students to show off their work. It might be an open evening for your school, a town-wide event, or even online, like a Twitter account or blog. Have your students be the ones to explain how and why the created the projects they did. Have them answer questions about how they used technology to help them learn what they needed to know. They will be your best agents for change.

You will have set the stage for learning - and thrown the spotlight on the next generation of leaders. All without calling too much attention to yourself. You will have become a quiet daredevil. And your missions can help others in your school be a little bolder in their teaching practice.


2. How can I be an innovator at school when most of my energy is taken up at home with my young family? - Overwhelmed in Oxford

Dear Overwhelmed in Oxford,

Been there. Bitesize and manageable chunks is my advice. There is a range of online Twitter chats that can be accessed during nap times and after dinner. Join in with some of these and you will be spoilt for innovative choice and ideas. Search for ones that use your school’s digital platforms or teaching stage. Also sign up for international chats, as this is a great way to get advice from all over the globe!

Make sure you integrate new edtech ideas into your established lessons first, and then it won’t seem like extra work. Choosing to work with learners who will be confident about trying out new things can be one way to build in success. Alternatively, try setting up a lunchtime club (points all around) to swap ideas about innovative teaching.


3. At our school, we know that parents play a key role in the use of edtech. But when we invite parents to open evenings, very few come. How can we partner with parents more effectively? - Need Ideas in Nottingham

Dear Need Ideas in Nottingham,

Inviting parents into your school to strengthen your partnership is what it’s all about. A large body of research shows that when parents get involved in their children’s education, everyone benefits, both academically and socially.

But it’s not always easy for parents and teachers to come together. An important lesson I learned when I worked on a parent engagement project in Boston Public Schools is this: Today’s parents are often very stressed out. Many need to hold down two or three jobs to try and make ends meet. Some parents have several children to care for. Their time is in short supply. So, while parents might want to attend school events, it can be difficult for them to fit it into their schedules.

You say that you schedule your open houses for the evening. How about offering parents a wider range of options - a morning gathering over tea or coffee, a mini-open house right after school, and an occasional evening event with pizza and tea-time snacks? By switching things up you’ll increase the odds that parents will be able to make it.

Also, think about what your school typically offers parents when they come to events. Do you give them a few tips on things they can do at home to help reinforce learning (eg how to share books with their child in an interactive way)? Do you showcase student work? Do you provide babysitters/a creche so parents of young children can meet without being pulled in different directions? Or is going digital the way to meet your parents on their terms?

Good luck. Keep at it. Parents can be your very best partners.


4. I’m the leader of an edtech committee in my MAT. The problem is, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, my own technology skills are pretty outdated. I have a few tricks up my sleeve, but other whizz-kid NQTs are way ahead of me. How can I catch up? - Keeping Up in Killarney

Dear Keeping Up in Killarney,

It’s hard to stay on top of everything in our rapidly changing world. But the good news is that today you have more options than ever to help you stay on top of edtech and become an innovative leader. You just have to put yourself out there, and be open to learning new skills. It also helps if you have a like-minded buddy so you can keep each other on track.

How about going to a TeachMeet that focuses on edtech for your students’ age group? Alternatively, you might want to go to edtech conferences where other teachers tell their stories and show examples of how they rocked their world with edtech. You can join an Edmodo, sort of a Facebook for teachers. You can also take one of many online courses.

J & N

Going forward

So, what’s standing in your way of becoming a rebel with a cause? Start by identifying what it is that’s holding you back. Fear? Shyness? Concern about a lack of resources? Some sort of blind spot we haven’t mentioned? Or others who fear to tread where you are about to strut your stuff?

We suggest you take on one Daredevil Mission at a time. Get a ‘gang’ together to support the process. Then, really give each ‘mission’ your best shot - raise an eyebrow, kick the door down, see where the Daredevil adventure takes you. Get your cause - and then rebellion the hell out of it. You might even enjoy it.

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