Pat Norman

What #AARE2021 meant to me: identity, community, disruption, hope

AARE Conference Wrap: in the shadow of the virus, AARE2021 shines a light (header image from the Acknowledgement of Country at the start of the conference, screenshot by Nicole Mockler)

How can I capture, in a little over a thousand words, such a spectacular conference?

The beauty of AARE conference is that while nearly a thousand delegates come together for the one conference, we all experience a thousand different conferences. So any conference wrap is necessarily a wrap of one person’s conference, and what I offer here are some vignettes from Pat Norman’s conference: a tiny glimpse of a rich and broad week (and I wish I could have got to more).

There are four key themes that I saw emerge from this conference, and I would like to (very) briefly address each of them: identity, community, disruption and hope.


The question of our identities as teachers and researchers was a recurring motif in many sessions.

The Educational Administration and Leadership SIG held a most civil symposium canvassing the identity of the ‘Pracademic’. Scott Eacott argued that we must be careful to avoid hierarchies that reify one construction of knowledge over others, and Deb Netolicky countered that pracademia is a useful way to conceptualise identity:

“It can create possibilities for reimagining who we work with and how, building connections, strengthening networks, reimagining boundaries. The space matters more than the noun that describes the individual.”

In that same session, as she grappled with her own identity as a researcher and a Steiner CEO, Virginia Moller said that the value of knowledge claims isn’t where they originate, but whether they make sense of the world. Well that sounded just beautiful to me!

Kristina Turner highlighted the way personal experience, lifelong learning, and a heightened sense of accountability animates both social entrepreneurs and teachers – and I’d venture similar drives can be found amongst the attendees at AARE as well!


I think a sense of community also animated attendees at the conference.

How is it possible to create such a sense of community online? I felt like we were actually there together, in the flesh. Perhaps it’s because our community was so clearly excited to see each other, to work together after so long apart. Perhaps it’s because of the brilliant coordination of Amanda Heffernan and Stewart Riddle – thank you both for your incredible dedication!

We saw beautiful collaborations between supervisors and students, academic partners and practitioners, and between friends made through scholarship.

Catriona Mach described her duoethnography with Julie Choi, Nicole Mockler presented her vast corpus analysis of media representations of teachers alongside her honours student Elizabeth Redpath who extended that analysis through the pandemic. 

Jessica Gerrard and Helen Proctor invited us not to think of participatory politics as automatically including a progressive impulse: it is possible for conservative forms of participatory politics to exist, and that democratic citizenship is something that must be worked for.

Jen Clutterbuck and Rafaan Daliri-Ngametua synthesised their PhD data to introduce the concept of ‘zombie data’: excessive, purposeless, and redundant data that we are forced to collect. What a notion! Zombie data spent the next four days roaming the digital conference floor (and so enamoured was I with the notion that I had to add it to my slides).

Perhaps the most wonderful expression of community I saw was the support that scholars like Jess Holloway wrapped around a generation of amazing PhD candidates. What a privilege to hear about the exciting research of Rafaan, Stephanie Wescott, Sarah Langman, Tanjin Ashraf, Madeline Good, Sarah McManus, Pashew Nuri, Sarah Gurr, and so many more. I can’t wait to read more of their work!


Many of those researchers just mentioned spoke in a panel about disruption,andhow could we not discuss disruption with the very large COVID elephant in the room (though Bob Lingard literally used an image of an elephant as a metaphor for structural inequality in schools).

Disruption takes many forms. Meghan Stacey apologised for the neighbours drilling through concrete while she and Mihalja Gavin unpicked the disruption of Local Schools, Local Decisions

Babak Dadvand noted that his neighbour liked to start their whipper snipper every time he had to meet someone on Zoom. Fortunately, his neighbour allowed us peace while we learned about the paradoxes and complexities principals face negotiating equity and excellence.

In his Neil Cranston Lecture, Scott Eacott explained that productive disruptions often come from looking outside of our fields, rather than being inward looking and insular. He explained: 

“Society does not have education, society is educative.”

We learn from society, it teaches us, it pushes us to new things, and as Scott reminded us, “education is embedded and embodying of its context.” And those contexts are subject to power and negotiation: policy moments crafted in mobile relations beautifully theorised in a symposium featuring Kal Gulson, Steven Lewis, Glenn Savage, Jessica Gerrard, and Radhika Gorur.

Perhaps another reason disruption was so core to the conference, pandemic notwithstanding, is because research and education are inherently disruptive enterprises. As Jessica Gerrard said:

“The logic of our discipline is a projection of something, a transformative moment, a something in the future that is coming…”


The notion of the future that we are bringing to life sits nicely with this final theme, and the theme that I think captures the whole of the conference: hope, and the transformative power of research.

Recounting her experiences as a classroom teacher, Catriona Mach explained: 

“My affect has become consumed and exhausted by unhelpful practices of neoliberalism, but there is hope and helpful practices associated with research knowledge and mentor/mentee relationships”

Those relationships extended right through the conference. Scott Eacott, recently promoted to full Professor, observed that soon there will be a generation of professors in the field of Educational Administration and Leadership research who will have studied under scholars who also completed their PhDs in Australia. What does that say, he asked, for the future of Australian research? Good things, I think, if this conference is our litmus.

In his Radford Address, Martin Nakata showed us that change is possible: that we can support and build the capabilities of Indigenous students if we really are committed to it. Showing us the work being done at James Cook University, Nakata has seen the gap close on the pass/fail rate, and now his sights are set on the front-end gap: Indigenous learners in school who want to go to university.

The conference was book-ended by two incredible keynotes: Nikki Moodie’s opening plenary and Raewyn Connell’s closing. Moodie challenged us with the question: “what does it mean to have a purposeful life? A purposeful Indigenous life?” In her stirring imagining of self-determination, Moodie explained: 

“Reimagining education research isn’t just about creating space for Indigenous knowledge, but also asking what Indigenous empowerment of Indigenous lives means.”

Nikki’s keynote reminds me that the acts of teaching and of research are identity-forming ones, at the same time as they are socially transformative. That goes for us as individuals, and for the individuals with whom we work and for whom we care: how do we come to exist in the world, and what does that world look like? Research is also an act of reimagining because it prompts us to ask what should that world look like? Or, to put the problematic in Connell’s words:

“Whose past do we look back to, and which of the possible futures do we look towards?”

Connell ended her keynote with that famous invocation: “Another world is possible”.

Back in April, 2020, Arundhati Roy speculated that the pandemic might be a portal, and we can walk through it without the baggage and prejudices of the past. I doubt I’m alone in wondering whether the transformative potential of COVID-19 has been lost. However, it did show us that another way of living is possible – for better or worse – and it showed us how valued and valuable teachers and researchers are.

In the shadow of the pandemic, whenever it may end, this year’s AARE conference has been a bright reminder of the power of reimagining, the hopefulness that comes with research, and the goodness of community when we come together. That is a portal that is open to us every day, and every day we take our steps towards another world.

Dr Pat Norman is a researcher, teacher and liaison librarian at the University of Sydney. His doctoral thesis explored teacher professional identity, professional ethics, and policy enactment in the context of neoliberalism. He is interested in the politics and sociology of education, social theory, and is obsessed with science fiction. He tweets at @pat_norman

The shock of dealing with Covid-19 has made teachers even stronger and better at their craft

Cast your mind back to the end of the first school term for 2020: Australian states and territories were rapidly moving into lockdown because of COVID-19. Political leaders were signaling – often using mixed signals – the likelihood and need to close schools and transition to distance learning. Here in New South Wales schools switched to distance learning for about six weeks, forcing teachers to adapt their programs very rapidly to support students and their parents with learning from home.

Currently around Australia we now have the whole range from fully face-to -face schooling, to partially remote learning, to fully (with some essential worker exceptions) remote learning. Random schools are thrown into immediate lockdown whenever a teacher or student tests positive to the viral infection. Teachers pivot their programs very rapidly between the different ways of delivery depending on the advice from health officials to their education authorities.

My doctoral research explores the way policy is enacted in teacher practice, and I seem to have landed in the middle of a system where policy has flown into flux.

My fieldwork actually started in the midst of one crisis – the Black Summer bushfires – and ended during another – COVID-19. I was fortunately able to modify the shape of my research to allow for interviews with teachers to find out how they experienced the rapidly changing work environment during the virus response.

I’m sure some of the findings are familiar to many teachers and researchers out there, and they aren’t specific to schools. For many people, the switch to working from home was sudden and required quick thinking and adaptation.

The teachers who participated in my research reported a number of interesting, and not all negative, experiences.

Workload increased dramatically

Teachers already faced significant workload demands going into the crisis, an issue plainly described in a partnership study between the NSW Teachers Federation and the University of Sydney. The teachers I interviewed explained how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this big time.

Teachers spend a huge amount of time planning and programming a school term, and much of that planning is premised on the physical environment in which they work. Educators take for granted the material contexts of their work – it helps them to improvise when necessary, to draw on a repertoire of skills and capabilities built up through experience.

In the Sydney school where I did my research the staff made a very rapid shift to online learning. This led to late nights preparing lessons, in some cases over-planning work for students in order to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction.

Some students felt more comfortable online

A number of teachers reported some students coming out of their shells in the online space. Otherwise shy students felt more empowered to contribute to lessons. Students with strong digital literacy skills were able to support teachers and fellow students in creating dynamic and interesting contributions to online learning.

While there has rightly been some attention paid to students who missed out because of inequitable access, there are also lessons that can be learned about engaging students who are less confident about speaking up in front of a classroom of peers. The digital world is here to stay: being confident learners in digital communities is an important life skill, virus or not.

Professional communities were more important than ever

The staff at the school scheduled an impromptu staff development day focused entirely on delivering learning remotely. Colleagues ran sessions on platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Faculty members headed to different classrooms to practice running Zoom lessons with each other. The New South Wales Department of Education also facilitated a ‘virtual staff room’ on Teams, and many teachers reported the value in sharing ideas with their colleagues both within the school and further afield.

When I spoke with the Deputy Principal of this school, he suggested that their quick response to COVID-19 was possible because of the school’s proactive approach to professional learning. The school saw the Professional Development Planning (PDP) process not as a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise, but rather a way to learn about the strengths and opportunities facing the school. He explained:

“What professional learning is about is foreseeing what obstacles might lie ahead, so that you can be properly prepared for when they do happen and you couldn’t get a better case in point than COVID.”

A year-round professional learning calendar helps staff at this school see the connection between their own Professional Development Planning and the whole school plan. Qualitative analysis of Professional Development Planning goals and professional learning needs helps inform the school planning process. And the teachers I interviewed were consistently engaged in improving their classroom practice.

Teachers felt their practice had improved because of the crisis

Each teacher I spoke with said that they had learned something during the crisis and that their practice going forward would improve as a result, sentiment echoed in a survey conducted by researchers Rachel Wilson and William Mude. This included their ability to incorporate Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into their lessons, the different ways they can engage with their students, and their professional knowledge in the domain of online teaching and learning. As one teacher explained:

“I think there will be good development in our skills that will make us better teachers going forward. It’s been a baptism of fire, but I think we’ll all be better practitioners and have a wider repertoire of skills.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned a lot of things on their heads: it is a black swan event, something gigantic and unexpected that shifts the way we understand the world. Nassim Taleb, who wrote the book, The Black Swan, followed that with another book, Antifragile. He explains that the opposite of fragility is not resilience, but antifragility: where something responds to a shock by getting stronger.

The teachers I worked with pre and post COVID-19 (as far as we can say that we are ‘post’ this virus) are a perfect example of antifragility. So far, 2020 has delivered some of the biggest shocks imaginable. And out of it the teachers in my study have become even better at their craft thanks to the strength of their professional communities and their school’s meaningful approach to professional learning.

Pat Norman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, looking at the way politics and political events shape the rationalities of policy and practice. He is particularly interested in the way neoliberalism and globalisation impact professional work. His current research in schools looks at the way teachers experience and enact policy, and how an understanding of good practice is produced in real-world contexts. He tweets as @pat_norman.