Thursday, April 23, 2009

What is sustainable practice for a teacher?

In yesterday's sustainability session we were asked to visualise what a sustainable practitioner was in the field we teach for (I teach teachers mostly) and then think of things we can do in our courses that will encourage students to become something like that envisioned practitioner.

My first problem was that I had little idea what a sustainable teaching practitioner would look like.. even after thinking about it for over a year now. Using less paper and turning off the lights, and teaching sustainability to students seemed too easy and patronising. So without a good idea of what a sustainable teaching practitioner was, I can't clearly think of things I might change in the courses, and other things I do that influence teaching practices as such...

This problem spiraled in me, and is what lead me to questioning the organisational structure and power dynamics that a teacher works in. My first visioning of a sustainable teacher therefore was one who is self determined - out from under the umbrellas, and directly answerable to their "market" - what would it be like to be the rain?

But more importantly, given that I/we are not yet sure what a sustainable practitioner really looks like, I think our teacher training needs to keep the question open, to not try to make a prescribed picture with specific learning outcomes, but to set up processes and practices in which the sustainable practitioner (what ever it may be in the future) has every opportunity to develop.

That said, I'm wondering about 2 tangible practices a teacher might develop that may lead to sustainability in the profession:

1. What if teachers documented their work in such a way that other practitioners can access, interpret and sometimes use or adapt the practices of others more? Think of the valuable teacher observation.. you've been 2 years in teacher training, but nothing taught you more about teaching than those few days you had observing the practice of experienced teachers. In a way, that opportunity to observe is a form of documentation on the part of the experienced teacher, in that at least one person can access and interpret the methods and adapt what they see in their own practice. Trouble is, simple observation doesn't scale very well.

Active documentation of our work such as what we in the edublogosphere have been doing, can lead to new self consciousness, and connectivity with other practitioners, that in turn lead to professional development such as sustainability. But reflective 'blogging' your work isn't for everyone and so it too doesn't scale very well. Publishing lesson plans could be another way, in the open educational resources vein. We can observe teachers rating and using each others materials, and in some instances this openness and sharing can lead to another sort of self consciousness, and connectivity with other practitioners, that leads to professional development. So what I mean by documentation of our work is any form of record making so that large numbers of other practitioners have the opportunity to observe and interact with your work, and critique or develop further your efforts towards more sustainable practice. I think having documentation as a core practice in teaching will improve opportunities for professional networks to connect and more sustainable practices to develop, so long as sustainability is on the agenda - just as edtech has been on the agenda in the edublog arena for the past 5 years or more.

2. The second thought I had so far is for teaching practitioners to become more accountable to the micro economics around their practice. Like the documentation practice, this could easily be used against them, so a very supportive atmosphere would need to be established first for this to work properly, and it would need to be trialed first - in the private performance appraisal process perhaps.

The idea is for the teacher to become aware of all the financial considerations that surround their practice - including triple bottom line accounting. Much the same as a small business or a consultant would manage their own books, a teacher does theirs. They obviously know their income, but I doubt they know the cost of their work station, the rooms they need to teach in, the teaching resources, the support services.. all these are financial costs or outgoings that I think a sustainable practitioner needs to know about - including ecological and social costs. Equally, that practitioner needs to know what income their practice brings. What is the per student government subsidy for each of the courses the teacher teaches on? I am amazed how many people in our organisation don't even know that much? How much do I save (or cost) by working from home a little more? What about my software choices and abilities? What about how little I print, and how little I use the IT infrastructure and support services here? How much funding do I bring in for my research? How much funding do I bring in for projects? How much is my voluntary community work worth? How much income do I generate if I plant and maintain a food garden in the living campus?

So envisioning what a sustainable teaching practitioner might look like, I'm wondering about 2 things:

1. What can a teacher do to improve collaboration and communication with their colleagues, that might lead to better professional development for them and/or others, that might lead to better sustainable practices emerging and rapidly scaling across the sector? (in the absence of a clear idea of sustainable practice at the moment).

2. How self determined and accountable could each individual in the organisation become, and how could we account for all bottom lines in such a way to be able to determine each person's sustainability, and address short falls in a constructive and inclusive way - not by firing, but through self redirection of efforts, professional development or new responsibilities, and welfare nets for those who fail first times round.

Applying this model to myself...
  1. Clearly I document my work and that has lead to tangible progress in my own and other's professional development.
  2. Regarding the accountability, I did some quick numbers and found that I am $20 000 short in my financial sustainability. I did not apply triple bottom line accounting to that, so I don't know the unit of income I might be bringing in through developing new courses for other teachers, or by volunteering to help with Living Campus and other things outside my core responsibility.

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David McQuillan said...

Good thoughts.

I think that any consideration of sustainability & the teaching profession needs to address work-life balance. This is clearly not at a sustainable point for many.

hadashi said...

I was only able to stay an hour during the opening keynote. I also struggled with a concept of 'sustainable practitioner'. Wonder if I would come up with as many as two ideas after a year or two's thought.

Minhaaj said...

I was with you during the first part of your argument about sustainable practice for teaching. I agree to the opening up of knowledge, dissemination of information beyond possible thought-control jurisdiction, breaking even, considering sociological, ecological and environmental costs but my questions come from what i've read in last part of your argument. You said you are running short of $20,000. You helped me shape an ideal of sustainable practice for teacher and back in my mind i'd an image of sustainable practice as a practice which would secure both teachers, students, environments and learning from economical and social catastrophies of time. Now when i juxtaposition this with your estimate here, i have no possible reason to believe that you could have a $20,000 deficit when all your courses are licensed under Open IP policy is digital and uses less environmental resources and consequently time of your students, courses being online and flexible. If you are equating it in terms of business profitability and plausibility, i would say it has little too with sustainability in preservation of knowledge but thats one point you could write in 'pros' for economic sustainability i assume. You also applied that model to yourself and didn't explain it in an expense sheet which quite honestly wasn't needed and that might be the reason for it to sound a little incomprehensible given the immensity of that figure. $20,000 might sound like a good number for OPT's overall deficit but for individual short-change it sounds rather astronomical. Overall a great post.

Anna Hughes said...

Hi Leigh

A few points come to mind for me when I think about what a sustainable practitioner in the teaching field might look like:
1. Operations - this is what we do, the switching off of lights, not using a classroom at all, paper-less etc. This will ever change as we find new and better ways to operate sustainably.
2. The content of what we teach - holistic, considering all the interconnections, working with other teachers/subjects to really show connections and role modeling all the things we do operationally and as a person. Wow Leigh rides his bike every day, rain or shine, I'm inspired. Just like parenting, there is no need to teach, just model!
3. The process of how we teach - student-driven or at least negotiated, facilitation rather than teaching, working with the students to all learn more rather than being the bearer of all the knowledge!
There's a few anyway. I'm tired so I won't try to think of any more. There are definitely things that can change in the system to help these ideas work. I also think that if teachers work together more, deliver holistic (less subjectified - is that a word!) information, let go of some 'control' and let the students drive their learning this will help with work/life balance! My 2 cents worth anyway. Glad we got you thinking yesterday and the feedback on people struggling with the concept of the sustainable practitioner will help us guide our future staff development in this area. Cheers. :)

leo said...

Hey I was thinking abt something abt this topic lately , something to do with curriculum

Marg O'Connell said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Leigh, I am taken by the overall question: what does a sustainable teacher do/or, look like? Big question when you think about it!

I follow your first point. To me it sounds like critical pedagogy which is revealing and holistic and responds to a work-life balance - a tough ask but high time we moved along this path more!

As for your second point, I am wondering if we can move away from an economic measurement? The reason I ask is that we may not come to a new understanding of 'teacher' if we continue to try to define teachers and their activities within our current economic-rationalist paradigm. Hmmm. I don't have an answer for this and it's very easy (indeed alluring) to start to see the dollar signs when you spell it out as you have - sure there's merit in assessing value but perhaps in a way that does not silence other value forms? We seem to be at an impasse when it comes to accounting (see what I mean? :oD) for teacher hours spent online as a way to rationalise staffing and resources in our institutes with ever-shrinking budgets (or so we're told).
I'd like to think about other value forms in terms of sustainability because I just don't think economics (on its own at least) cuts it if we are truly seeking sustainable practices in education.

Leigh Blackall said...

Hi Marg, thanks for stopping by. I agree, and Minhaaj is saying the same.

I wonder if triple bottom line accounting will assist us reach this way of thinking within the economic paradigm we work?

In a post (before or after this) I'm working on a project that attempts to pin down that triple bottom line approach, and simplify it within a standard business pan template, in the hope that it will offer local small businesses something usable in working towards a more holistic understanding of sustainability.

If that project works, maybe I'll be able to extract ideas out of that and apply it to the practice of teaching. I realise it is an approach that keeps us in the economic paradigm, but if it is possible to account for social and ecological capital, perhaps it will help us clearly articulate what we are trying to point out here... let me know if you guys would like to help on that triple bottom line accounting incorporation within a standard business plan. I expect it is going to be very challenging, so we need experienced and creative economists and accountants helping out with the writing.

Marg O'Connell said...

Happy to look into this further Leigh - we are checking out the landscape at the moment too with a view to establishing some guidelines (and benchmarks) in our internal business planning across teaching areas/Centres (then extending outwards I would imagine). Am gathering together some background reading - there's some early stuff from the business ethics area for example that may apply - will forward you any notes/articles if you like.

Leigh Blackall said...

Don't forget to check out what we already have here

Phil said...

Hi Leigh,
Took me awhile to get to this post, which I must say was really quite thought provoking - thank you. This whole concept of a "sustainable practitioner" in whatever is itself really quite challenging. How do we define it beyond sustainable practice for everyday life?
I found your economic conception of sustainable teaching practice interesting and useful. It would be easy to dismiss this as just good old economic rationalism, but the reality is that teachers do have to earn their keep - something many struggle to come to terms with. A challenge though is to measure more comprehensively, and objectively, "earning your keep" - it is more than the income which each student taught brings in, but then everything we do does not necessarily add to earning our keep from an employer's perspective. Perhaps it is a case of being more explicit about what counts. At least that way we would all be able to make better decisions.