Thinking about my practice as an educator, and defining it, is an interesting thing to reflect upon. I thought it would be easy, after all, I should know what it is, because I ‘do it’ everyday, sometimes 24/7 according to those close to me!
On the surface, I am a leader, a teacher, and an educator.
Scratch that surface and it is a little more complex.
Communities of Practice
To understand my practice, it is helpful to place it within the context of a community of practice (Wenger & Trayner-Wenger, 2015). In my case, I belong to a number of communities of practice, both within my school and through my professional networks. The focus of this post, is my practice as it relates to what I do within my school.
Within my own school, teaching and learning is our key area of focus. It is what brings our community together and it is what drives us forward as we 'engage in a process of collective learning'. There are three key characteristics a community of practice must have (a domain, the actual community and the practice) and these characteristics are helpful in defining and understanding what my own practice is within my school.
The domain is the collegial network in our school - our teachers and our support staff. As the leader, my practice involves navigating the collective commitment we have to our school community, supporting and growing staff, developing leaders and ensuring our capabilities and capacities are focussed on ongoing improvement in teaching and learning. It is not something I do on my own, but as part of a team, and together we have a shared interest and vision in ensuring the best outcomes for our students. The domain is what we are about as a community.
In our pursuit to work towards our shared vision, we create our community. Our commitment to improve outcomes for our students brings us together. My practice within our community is about ensuring our team has the tools, time, resources, support, professional development and opportunities that allow them to grow and improve. Within our bigger community we have smaller communities of practice, where our teachers and support staff come together to collaborate and improve their own practice. In essence, it is a collective efficacy that brings our community together. The community is the way we function as a group.
This is our actual practice as educators. It is not merely our shared vision but our actual abilities to bring about the improvement in student outcomes through our skills, techniques and professional practice. In this aspect, my practice is to enhance the professional capabilities and capacity across our school by supporting and developing its practitioners. It is a process that is strategic, and when collaborative, grows us all to be a stronger professional group. Our practice is the capabilities that we hone and refine over time.
Wenger & Trayner-Wenger (who define themselves as pioneers in social learning) point out that what makes a community, a community of practice, is the cultivation and development of the characteristics above. As a school leader, my practice is crucial in ensuring our community of practice continues to grow and thrive. A key aspect of this is my role as coach. Introducing educational coaching into our school has been a process that has been able to tie in all the three aspects outlined above in an authentic, solutions focused way that is owned by the staff. Another critical role that coaching plays in bringing together the three elements of our community, is how effective it is at fostering a reflective culture of self improvement. Educational coaching is a powerful tool that assists our community to engage in reflective practice, and that includes me.
Why Reflect on Practice?
I like to think I am a fairly reflective practitioner with a number of reflective outlets I access on a regular basis – some formal (such as my critical friend, coaching, and my appraisal process) and some not so formal (such as my blog, and my collegial catch ups).
I am a regular blogger (well usually when not preoccupied with important postgraduate study tasks!), and I use this format to consolidate my thinking. In many respects, it serves to keep my brain from keeping me awake all night with the ‘what ifs’, ‘if onlys’, ‘I wonder what would have happened ifs’ and 'did I really do thats'. All scenarios from a busy day in the life of a leader, scenarios that like to be rehashed at 2am in the morning when I should be asleep! In terms of blogging as a reflective practice, I am reluctant to say that it follows any particular model. Perhaps, if I was to align it to fit a process, it would be part iterative model (Rolfe) with touches of the vertical model (Mezirow).
However, sometimes my blog is not the best place to articulate my wonderings, given its open nature. For the more private reflections that require a trusted, and impartial collegial sounding board, I meet up with another leader or educator within my professional network outside the school, and together we look at what the current reality of the situation is, what influences are impacting on the situation, what possible responses might be applicable, pathways forward, and any areas that may be problematic. For this, it is more closely aligned to a coaching model. It is not coaching as such, but it does have elements of coaching (in particular looking at the current reality vs desired new reality).
It is in this respect that you can see how using coaching to reflect on practice within our community is a powerful tool that can be both formal and informal.
It has been an interesting exercise to look at my practice from the lens of the communities of practice model. It has helped to consolidate my thinking about the value of coaching as a tool to navigate the domain, community and practice, and helped me look at the many roles I 'pratice' in a new light.
For me, leadership is very much like holding many balloons. It is colourful, uplifting, and if you are not careful you could easily be carried away by the sheer overwhelmingness (it is a word - I checked) of it all. Here perhaps, is where reflective practice really comes into its own because being reflective helps you put things into perspective, review what you do, and find pathways forward when the path seems blocked.
Finally, to reflect or not to reflect - that is your question!
Wenger, E., & Trayner-Wenger, B. (2015). Communities of practice: a brief introduction. April 2015, 1–8. http://doi.org/10.2277/0521663636
Dawson, P. Reflective Practice. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1aYWbLj0U8
Finlay, L. (2009) Reflecting on reflective practice. PBPL. Retrieved from http://www.open.ac.uk/opencetl/files/opencetl/file/ecms/web-content/Finlay-%282008%29-Reflecting-on-reflective-practice-PBPL-paper-52.pdf