Q & A with recipient of the 2017 Pat Clifford Award

Dr. Pamela Osmond-Johnson presented with the 2017 Pat Clifford Award by Associate Dean Paul Clarke. Photo credit: Shuana Niessen

Q & A with Dr. Pamela Osmond-Johnson, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership, Faculty of Education, University of Regina

Recipient of the 2017 Pat Clifford Award

1. As an emerging researcher, how did you feel when you heard you were the recipient of the Pat Clifford Award?

It was great to have my work around teacher professionalism recognized. Broadening understandings of the work of teachers and the valuing of teacher voice in educational policy is critically important to the future of the teaching profession and I was pleased that the awards committee placed value on that area of scholarship.

Broadening understandings of the work of teachers and the valuing of teacher voice in educational policy is critically important to the future of the teaching profession

2. What commonly held assumptions do you attempt to disrupt in your research?

The idea that teachers simply deliver curriculum, that a teacher stands in front of students and teaches all day. Teaching is surely the most important work they do but it’s their involvements during the regular school day in extra-classroom work that will really serve them in the work they do with students: their involvement in high quality professional learning, in mentoring other teachers, in curriculum development, and in collaborative work with their colleagues. Those experiences build professional capital and capacity to not only be better teachers themselves, but also to aid others in being better teachers.

3. What is the state of educators’ professional learning in Canada?

Teacher professional learning is certainly a hot button topic in Canada, particularly in tough economic times. It’s often the first item cut from budgets since it “doesn’t directly impact the classroom” (which is so far from the truth). That being said, we have some very strong teacher federations in this country who are advocating for access to relevant and practical professional learning. Across the country, there are many innovative and exciting learning opportunities for teachers but they are not always equitable in terms of ease of access. Teachers working in the north, in rural areas, and French educators seem to have more difficulty identifying quality PL, either because of the high travel cost or the lack of qualified facilitators.

4. What is your definition of the teacher role? What practical differences will result from redefining the teacher role?

For me, the work of teachers extends beyond the work they do directly with students. Teachers should also be engaged with the broader context of schooling – as leaders, as learners, as innovators, as mentors, and as collaborators. Their voices should matter in the creation of our policies and how we go about defining what is important in education. Practically, reconceptualising the work of teachers in this manner means rethinking the daily schedule for teachers. In Canada, we place the most emphasis on teaching time, which constitutes anywhere from 100% to 80% of teachers work during regular school time. This leaves little time for any of the extra-classroom work that I mentioned. In other countries, teachers spend much less time actually teaching (less than half their day in Singapore, for instance) and spend much more time working with their colleagues and participating in governance. This would be a huge paradigm shift but one that could potentially really improve education in terms of honing the skills of individual teachers while simultaneously developing the capacity of the profession to contribute to educational decision making more broadly.

5. In your own experience as an educator, what was a defining moment, when you knew that the way educational policies and the system defined your role as a teacher was inadequate for the practical realities of your role?

I had just finished my Master’s and was asked by the University to come to a conference and present a paper I wrote. The school division wouldn’t grant my request for leave. It sent a clear message to me that my research and my voice didn’t matter. I decided then and there that I would spend the rest of my professional career advocating that these things did matter.

6. Was it due to your efforts that the recent name change from Educational Administration to Educational Leadership in your department came to be? Why is this an important change for our Faculty?

This was an idea that had been discussed long before I came to the Faculty. I put the idea out there again and my colleagues were totally on board. Our programming has certainly evolved in response to the needs of our partners, and now conceptualizes school leadership as including, but not limited to, formal administrative roles. Informal leadership from teachers is equally important, and in many cases, is often the driving force behind educational change. We wanted to make sure the program name was inclusive of the content with which students are engaging and reflective of our belief that leadership isn’t just for school principals.

7. What has surprised you most about the findings in your research?

The resiliency of teachers to continue to exert their voices and to continue to strive to be heard in the face of a mountain of challenges. Participants in my research tell me they do what they do because they know it helps them better their practice and improve teaching and learning, not only in their own classrooms, but beyond to the classrooms and schools of others. They give up their weekends and evenings, and they drive hundreds of kilometers, just to continue their learning and extend their professional networks because they consider it a professional responsibility to always be learning from and with other teachers. And yet, they also tell me they feel guilty for doing so because they are missing class time. That’s the saddest part for me: hearing the stories of guilt. If these experiences were embedded in their daily work and accepted as part of the role of teachers, perhaps they wouldn’t feel so bad? This is an area the profession certainly needs to continue to work on.

8. Has the focus of your research changed since you began your study? If so, how and why?

Somewhat. In the beginning, I was specifically focused on teacher involvement in action research. Now my work is much broader and focuses on teacher engagement in a host of extra-classroom work – I see the boundaries of the work of teachers in a much bigger way than I did 10 years ago when I started this journey.

9. What are your plans for overcoming systemic obstacles to redefining the role of teachers? (How do we empower educators in Canada?)

I think the teacher federations’ professional agendas are an important piece of this puzzle. They have a legal mandate to advocate for the profession and so I see their work in supporting this reconceptualization as incredibly important. This doesn’t mean strikes and traditional labour action typically associated with unions. Rather, I see advocacy as being a little more outspoken and proactive on policy issues, particularly around professional learning and other issues of professionalism, than has been the case for some federations. However, the onus also falls on current teachers to become involved in their federations, to add to that collective capacity. “Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean” (Ryunosuke Satoro).