Category Archives: Change

Forging connections in these times

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Sunset WA

Wow! What extraordinary times we are in.

Like millions of people during this COVID-19 crisis, I have been on the steepest learning curve in navigating new ways of communicating with my students and colleagues. I am a teacher. A hands on, in-your-face facilitator of learning spaces. And I have always struggled with facilitating online learning spaces. It feels too remote, too impersonal, too disconnected. Through being connected to my learners in physical space and time, I know that I can fix just about any issue: if we’re all in it together, face-to-face, I can work to draw people into a little community of learning. I now ALWAYS begin my groups, no matter the length of the course (even for a one day session), with processes designed to reveal and forge connections. As reflected in my thesis (in-progress), this building of intrapersonal and interpersonal connections has always been paramount for me:

I’ve heard the saying ’Begin as you aim to continue’… often used like a fist on the table in the corridors of VET… ‘We will establish the rules that will guide your participation!’ Our intention was exactly this—to introduce the tone that would guide our learning spaces, our studies together. As has always been the case in my twenty years of teaching in the VET sector, we began at the beginning, however, not with a fist on the table. We began with connecting people and ideas and opening hearts to new perspectives on self, on learning and on teaching. Our rationale and methodology was grounded in a pedagogy of open-hearted collaboration and inquiry-based, transformative learning. We talked about the collaborative nature of the learning and assessment pathway and the ways in which teachers’ collegial participation could support each other and the group as a whole in succeeding; and our hope that sustainable communities of practice might develop through this collaboration beyond the course, and across the organisation. We encouraged teachers to connect both to each other through an open-hearted approach, and to themselves and their strengths to identify the contribution they could make to the learning space for the period that they would be studying together. Not a pedagogy of instruction and compliance so typical of VET, but a pedagogy of possibility.

I still facilitate teacher professional learning in vocational education and training (VET), and over the last 6 years this has been complemented with pre-service teachers’ learning in higher education. Within these contexts particularly, international borders are crossed, bringing associated challenges related to exploring, critiquing and embracing diverse ways of seeing and engaging in the world of learning and teaching. In physical classrooms where people come together in the pursuit of these new knowledges, I am comfortable in cultivating collaborative, open-hearted, inquiry-based pedagogies to support and optimise the process of social learning and critical inquiry. Sharing stories of one’s learning and knowing is central to the emergence of individual and collective knowing.

In these current times however, where all communication with our learners and colleagues is electronic in response to the social isolation required of COVID-19,  I find myself without the ease and comfort I have associated with personal physical proximity in my learning and teaching spaces. How does one optimally cultivate collaborative, critical inquiry in online spaces without the social, physical proximity of being face-to-face?

The most pressing issue for me during these times has been figuring out the logistics and technicalities of bringing together activities and processes designed to promote optimal engagement with the learning required of each space. I’m using both Adobe Connect and Zoom in various contexts, and am fortunate to be working with brilliant chief examiners ultimately responsible for meeting learning outcomes. Even though I’m quite sure my workload has doubled through this, I’m incredibly grateful for my own new learning as I collaborate remotely with my wonderful colleagues. 

Navigating online learning in such complex circumstances, while so absorbed by the logistical and technical challenges over the last months (including of course the ever-present challenge to our online connectivity from a system that struggles to cope with such massive global demands) has been—as for all involved in online teaching—exhausting. The students are all very understanding of the rapid learning curve we are all facing, and we acknowledge that we are all in the same boat, familiarising ourselves with the platforms and with new ways of learning together. The collaborative, open-hearted spaces of shared stories and knowing that have been central to my face-to-face learning spaces are slowly finding their way back as I find a greater sense of ease in this new environment, and I am now beginning to feel an awakening sense of community and connection in my online learning spaces. 

Forging connections in these times has been tough, and so many are facing enormous additional challenges as the impact of COVID-19 changes our world. Even through these tough times however, I see that it has been an incredibly uniting time. We are all in this together as a global community, and we are working towards the collective achievement of a shared vision. I am hopeful that we can hold onto this sense of community as we emerge into new ways of being – whenever that is, and whatever it looks like.

And the people began to think differently… and the Earth began to heal

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Wow, we have another week under our belt and we’re surviving!

Like all of you, I am working from home and am navigating new ways of connecting that have never played a big part of my teaching practice. I’ve recognised that for me, learning and teaching has always relied on having the opportunity to come together face to face with my students. We would normally be face to face at Monash having clarifying conversations each time we meet. No COVID-19, no social distancing and no technical difficulties! And yet here we ALL are, trying to make sense of new ways of understanding the world from a physical distance. It’s all very disorienting and sometimes anxiety inducing as we find our way through the uncharted waters we are all travelling.

Isn’t it amazing to consider that ALL of us – all 7 billion+ – are navigating these waters together? What an extraordinary connection we have, even while physically distanced.

My hope is that when the mists lift we will continue to hold these connections. In the meantime, consider Kitty O’Meara’s words

And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.

Kitty O’Meara 🌻

 

My thoughts go out to all those impacted by the current times – I hold you in my heart 

Who do you want to be when you grow up?

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The new love of my life ... I wonder who she wants to be when she grows up?

The new love of my life … I wonder who she wants to be when she grows up?

What a busy year it’s been. I’ve been relishing life as a first-time grandmother, immersing myself in my university teaching with pre-service teachers, and continuing along the way of developing my PhD thesis.

As a reward to myself for a big year, I recently attended a writing workshop with Heather Plett in Noosa’s Hinterland on the Sunshine Coast, where I spent ten days contemplating writing from an open heart in preparation for writing up my thesis. It caused me to reflect deeply on the purpose of all I’ve been working towards over the last years – the point of my research in both my Masters and my PhD.

Reflections on my learning

Last year I read a post of Heather’s on holding space. I was incredibly touched by her words, by the insights she expressed, and by the sense her words made of so much of my experience. She gave me words for something I had known but not named, and I was affirmed by the power afforded the practice of holding space for others. I held her sense-making words and continued on with researching my PhD – speaking to VET teachers (vocational education and training) about their own experiences of returning to study, and the conditions and learning spaces they identified that were catalysts to transformative change.

fb_img_1477780611931Before April of this year, I had never heard of The Big House. Somehow though, I received notification that Heather Plett was coming to Australia to run two workshops. The Big House’s custodian Georgia Bailey had managed to whisper Heather from Canada to Australia, so I came from Melbourne to sit in circle, to learn more about holding space, to learn more about living with an open heart. My schedule for completing my PhD saw me to planning to write up my thesis in December, and I knew I had to be in Queensland in October to learn how to speak my authentic, academic truth from an open heart. Let me share a few insights attained during that time …

Opportunities for growth

For many years I have been on a path of learning. I left school early, married young and made beautiful babies, and ultimately chose to live separately from my boys’ father after eighteen years. Caring for three young boys required a good return on time invested, so a return to study was needed to lift my qualifications and earning capacity. I commenced tentatively and (with various degrees of success) managed to juggle the demands of work, study and sole parenthood. As I completed each necessary qualification and applied the learning in my vocation, I always found myself presented with new opportunities to explore, new spaces I could enter into and learn to inhabit. New identities I could try on.

When I look back on all the iterations of me along the way, the most constant knowing I have had throughout is that of the power of love. I didn’t call it love at the time … it was not until a few years ago when I was researching for my Master of Education and speaking with adults about their experiences of returning to study, that I was able to name it. Through undertaking a critically reflective essay on my own experiences of learning and stretching, it became so apparent that in all the faces of me – daughter, sister, friend, hairdresser, wife, mother, community services worker, fitness instructor and personal trainer, TAFE and teacher developer – I had unconsciously identified the power of love in supporting (or failing to support) people along their way.

In all vocations I fought for recognition in systems that seemingly took no heed of the individual and their unique strengths. Against typically industry-focused perspectives in education, I pushed for recognition of the need to create safe spaces where people could find themselves, so that they could succeed in learning whatever they chose to do, according to their strengths. That without these safe, nurturing spaces to stretch and grow … and fall over as is always part of true, sustainable learning … ultimate potential could never be reached. Truly fortifying life changes could never occur. I also realised after a time that it wasn’t enough just to affect individual students in my classes – I knew I had to research ways of developing and embedding an open-hearted approach within this industry-focused, standardised education system.

Consequently, my work as an educator and researcher in teacher professional development focuses on identity work as the primary foundation for cultivating potential learner capability. I have supported teaching practitioners across a broad range of professional development programs in universities, TAFE colleges, Adult Community Education, private and not-for profit sectors and have contributed to an International Boys School Coalition (IBSC) research project exploring masterful teaching practices in the education of boys. My current PhD research examines the experiences of vocational teaching practitioners as they unpack their own transformative stories of learning and teaching, and I am passionate about cultivating learning and learners.

My students and I speak a lot about social justice, about how our responsibility as teachers is to cultivate safe spaces where our young people – and adults returning to study – can learn about the world, locate and exercise their voice, and find courage to speak their truth. We speak about contesting our assumptions about life; about how we have the opportunity and responsibility to take action; about waking up to our place in the bigger picture of life. Heather Plett wrote a poem about this journey into the self – Waking up is hard to do (referenced in my last blog post). It is an incredibly powerful reflection on this journey, and I have shared it widely in my learning community. It asks us to consider how we experience new ways of being as we begin to wake up.

Applying the insights gained through my writing retreat

20161104_071430I have realized great gifts through my time at The Big House with Heather, Georgia and the learning companions I have come to know and appreciate with love and deepest gratitude. Previously unnoticed connections in my life, and long held truths have been reinforced and brought to the fore. For example that the spaces I create for people, and that people have created for me, are spaces where we ‘hold space’ for each other as we stretch and grow in understanding … that I am part of a container of magnificent souls who are here for each other in this life. I have also learned … and am beginning to integrate … to have the courage to be me, in all my quirkiness, in all my peculiarity. And to accept and celebrate others in their difference as they try to make sense of this often disorienting life … to accept others in their humanity.

Are we asking the right question?

Today I’ve been reading feeds on Facebook and LinkedIn about investigations, from various sources, into the professional development of teachers, and the education of our young people. It dawns on me that my inquiry into education – building on the inquiry of so many critical pedagogues – is asking a different question to that typically posed in traditional educational approaches.

When our children are growing up and entering the world of learning, we often ask “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And as we move along through life and take up additional personal and professional development, the same question is often presented … “What will you be once you’ve completed this qualification?” This certainly has been my experience, and I’ve always wondered why I felt so stuck in knowing how to reply. I wasn’t doing it to take on a specific title, to be able to tick a certain ‘box’, to become someone else’s notion of who I should be. I wasn’t able to name it at the time, however I’ve come to see that all the personal and professional development I undertook was because of what I intuited the learning would help me ‘become’.

I believe that education is about ‘becoming’. It is an evolving process that calls us to continuously interrogate what we know to be true about ourselves, about the world, and about our place in the world. I don’t believe it is about locating ourselves in a place that we can be squeezed into, I believe it is about locating ourselves. It is about finding the truth of who we are so that we can offer the strengths of ourselves to the world in the most authentic and powerful way.

So I think we’re asking the wrong question. Rather than ‘What am I going to be?’ I believe it must be ‘Who am I going to be?’. If we are to truly steel our society, to build strength and capability in our learning spaces and in the broader landscapes of life, we must create spaces where individuals – children, young people and adults returning to study – can connect with the strengths of their own offering. In all contexts, but particularly when there is an imbalance in power or privilege related to gender, ability, age, educational achievement, race, culture or socioeconomic standing, we need to hold space for people as they rise to the fullness of themselves.

We have one life to make our gifts count, and I believe an open-hearted, truly person-centred approach is the way to achieve the most authentic and beneficial expression of ourselves.

 


 

This article draws on another, submitted by me for publication in The Big House’s blog