Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher. I’m Dominique Russell.
As an educator, finding the time to discuss matters you are finding challenging with colleagues, to seek advice and reflect on your practice, might seem impossible.
In this episode, from LaTrobe University in Victoria, I’m joined by Dr Anne Southall and Associate Professor Fiona Gardner. For the past few years, Anne and Fiona have been researching the impact of implementing the reflective circles education model they’ve developed for use in schools, to give educators the opportunity to reflect on challenging situations they’ve faced. In this episode, they’ll share the details of how the model works and what the research has shown about its positive impact. Let’s jump in.
Dominique Russell: Thank you both for joining me on this Teacher podcast episode. It's so lovely to be able to speak with both of you about this exciting research. Before we jump into the details, can you tell me about your roles at La Trobe University?
Dr Anne Southall: Sure. My name is Dr Anne Southall and I'm a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, and I also coordinate the Master of Education and we have 3 strings in that, one of which is the Inclusion and Diversity, and I am an inclusive educator as well. So my interest is mainly in the education of students from traumatic backgrounds.
Fiona Gardner: I'm Fiona Gardner. I'm an Associate Professor in the La Trobe Rural Health School, based here in Bendigo, same as Anne. So my role here is partly to coordinate the social work course which we run across 4 rural campuses and as part of that I teach into the course. I've been interested in reflective practice, critical reflection for a long time, and run workshops with various organisations in the field and have been really interested to be working with Anne on now working in schools.
DR: And so in this episode, we're going to discuss your research into the reflective circle education model. Anne, can you explain what the reflective circle education model is for our listeners?
AS: I surely can. So this is drawn from Fiona's very successful model that has worked in other organisations. And Fiona has worked with other colleagues and the allied health field to develop a really effective means of peer supervision and individual supervision.
So what I did was, originally I was using that research in my PhD studies as a form of – it was actually my methodology, it was just a form of actually working with teachers who were working with traumatised students. And it was so impactful on these teachers’ work that actually I started to see if it could be modified to be actually implemented in schools. So, heavily drawn and mostly very strongly adheres to the very successful model that Fiona had established with some modifications for work use in the education field.
And so basically what it looks like on the ground is it is a peer supervision. So 6 teachers or educators – we call them educators because it's been really effective now with principal groups and with education support staff as well. If you're working in education, it seems to be a really effective form of peer supervision.
So 6 people in a circle, that's why it's called reflective circles. It's based on critical reflections, so you deconstruct the experiences that you're having, your professional experiences that you're having, and you have this lovely group wisdom (it's called ‘the group wisdom’), but all these other wonderful perspectives on the same experience that you've experienced. And you see it differently through being exposed to and broadening your horizons about and realising that it’s not only one way of thinking about this, that there's multiple ways of thinking about this.
And then you get the opportunity – so it's sort of 2 halves, it’s what they call the deconstruction half where you start to have these deeper understanding and analysis of your experience, then you have this other part where you reconstruct it and think, well, ‘if this were to happen again, how would I prefer to behave or to think about it?’
So you get this opportunity to actually change that thinking that informs your practice, ultimately, your practice. So it actually constructs and scaffolds you in that change process. So it's heavily scripted. You don't have to fly by the seat of your pants in this or understand it deeply. You can participate with very surface understanding and just follow the process, because the process itself was very powerful. And we all know, I think anyone who's experienced the power of the group and talking deeply with peers, is a very transformative experience.
DR: And Fiona, we spoke with you last year for an article sharing the details of your 2022 publication, Effectively supporting teachers: A peer supervision model using reflective circles, which was published in the Teachers and Teaching journal, and your co-authors were Anne and your other colleague Lindy Baxter. For any listeners who may have missed our article on this paper, could you share the details of that research with us?
FG: Yes, for sure. And I'm conscious, Dominique, that there were things that we didn't actually talk about. I had a look back on that particular interview and I didn't really talk about many of the details. So that research was based on our work in 3 primary schools that started at the beginning of 2019 (pre-COVID) and the plan was to have a 2-year research project.
So we went to the 3 schools, and we had information sessions and invited people to join the research. Being part of the research meant participating in reflective circles twice a term (and the original plan was for 2 years) and filling in a survey pre and post, and also being interviewed pre and in the middle (was the plan) and then post.
So what ended up happening, because of COVID, that did have an impact on the research. And so we decided that we would use the interviews, the pre reflective circle interviews, and then we did do interviews and towards the end of that first year, and early into the second year, with 9 teachers and 3 principals.
And so we asked them –they were semi structured interviews – but we asked them in quite a lot of detail about what they saw as the benefits of reflective circles and what they thought changed as a result of reflective circles and any concerns that they had about what it was like to be in a reflective circle.
And what we found from that was the findings were really positive. And they divided into 4 areas. So the first area was talking about how supportive and restoring the reflective circles were; how much they encourage mutual support for staff. Secondly, they help people see different perspectives. And that actually was really a major finding, that often people talked about, I suppose, feeling that they had become embedded in seeing things in a particular way and the process of working through the questions in the reflective circles, and before the reflective circles, help them to challenge themselves and then also the process of being heard by other people and being asked things, hearing comments from other people, really opened up seeing things quite differently.
The third finding was that they felt quite empowered and that that experience of questioning their own and other people's values and beliefs. I suppose in the context of the bigger picture, you know, what are some of the constraints on you as a teacher and as a principal? What are some of the challenges that come from working in our society, you know, with poverty, trauma, the kind of range of experiences that children [have]. To be able to say, ‘this is not all about me, actually, there's a bigger picture here that's having an influence,’ that was empowering.
And that led to the fourth finding, which was about an increased sense of agency (is what we called it) a sense of being able to take actions and try and bring about change. Now that might be changing yourself – that seeing things differently meant that you acted differently. Or it might be about asking for some kind of change in in the school or interacting with your colleagues differently. But just having a different sense of what's possible.
And, in that particular article, part of what we wanted to do was use that research to say we believe, coming out of that, that it would be so helpful for people, for everybody in schools really, to be able to use this as a form of peer supervision. That that helps you be better able to work in teaching as a teacher or a support worker or as a principal.
DR: And Anne, you've shared a little bit already about what a reflective circle looks like in an education setting. Can you describe the process of it in a little bit more detail if there's anything that we haven't quite covered yet – what it really looks like in a school?
AS: So there were 2 basic modifications that I had to make to adapt to the education setting and the first one is that there really is no form of supervision, nor sort of a systematic process for supporting teachers in the social-emotional work that they do.
So while Fiona was working in allied health where that is, there's a will and a process to do that. They are afforded the time to do that, so the time factor – and that has come up a lot in our research – the time factor is really difficult to accomplish, because really, these circles can take 2 hours. That space and time needs to really be preserved. People need to be really present for that and not interrupted by that.
And for the first group I ended up having to actually go offsite. We couldn't actually get that accomplished. We couldn't even find a room in a school that wasn't constantly interrupted by someone coming in and getting some stuff or turning on a light or doing something. So that kind of space and time and thinking is not actually afforded [to] teachers. So that has been one of the challenges.
And so what I did was divide the 2 sections into 2. So the deeply reflective personal work is done before you get to the group. So that is done through a reflective journal that a teacher does on their own and that was one of the big differences. So they’re prompted by a series of questions that would have all would have been asked one to one in, you know, in a proper supervision capacity and the teacher works their way through those and those questions by themselves.
Now some people say that takes them an hour. And some people say it only takes me about 20 minutes. So they may write a lot, but it prompts the thinking the deeper thinking. So when they arrive in the circle, they have a story to tell, and they have 5 minutes to tell that story.
Now what's different about that for in the education – and I think again health professionals are used to talking in this way; teachers are not. They just talk about themselves and their feelings, the background experiences that have led to their thinking; they have to identify that and share that with the group, which is a very different way of interacting for teachers.
And nobody interrupts them. They tell their story in silence, and everybody is present to their story and has a tremendous power. So partly the complexities are in the shifting of the way teachers interact, because they're used to working in groups, they’re used to getting around the table and nutting out problems of practice, but they're not used to doing this in a deeply personal, reflective way. So to get them to behave differently is a little bit of a challenge. So it's very structured and very prescriptive because of that. And people have to stick to the script. So that was one of the modifications that this offline work (offline being before you get to the circle).
And the second one is that there's only 2 needed. So really trying to pare down how many times they need to meet and how powerful we can make that particular session? So it's very structured in how long they get to say each thing. One person facilitates the group and all they really do is keep to time – that's their main role – and ask the scripted questions. So it's monitored very strictly with time, and we find only 2 per term and needed. And we find 6 to 8 is the optimum group number.
And so they mostly change that facilitator. But sometimes we've tried different models with an outside facilitator coming in and doing that. One of the Department of Education Social Workers used that as her role in a school, to facilitate those groups. We’ve facilitated them ourselves. We've done a whole variety of things, but it does really work when that facilitator rotates and everybody in the group gets an opportunity to do that as well.
So we've had to develop online training materials to teach people how to do that, because you need to implement that circle with fidelity, that you have to stick very closely to this script. We need to actually really train people and we've just run out our first training session, so they’re the modifications that are needed for education. I think social work do this as part of their undergraduate training – it’s very new to teachers and it's a very new way of interacting for teachers. So we really have to be very explicit about the training.
DR: And Fiona, what would you say this research really suggests about the positive impact of implementing reflective circles education models in schools? Do you think it's got a particular relevance now, you know, in this climate of teacher shortages and teacher burnout?
FG: Yes, I certainly do. And that's one of the aspects of the feedback that we get constantly both informally and part of the research. So Anne and I would still participate in running either reflective circles or research about them. And I would say that almost always at the end of the reflector circles that I do, somebody will make a comment about, ‘I feel so much better’. So it's very interesting. I think it's partly around feeling less alone. I think there's a quite a strong culture often in schools and in our society generally to say, ‘you should just manage, you should keep this to yourself. Don't tell people you're struggling. They'll think you're a failure.’
Whereas this model is based on an expectation that everybody finds some things difficult in their workplace. Doesn't mean you're not a great teacher and a great worker. It's just normal for this to happen. So people emphasise that a lot, how good it is to hear from other people that they're experiencing either a similar struggle or that they are having their own kind of struggle, you know, I think that's incredibly reinforcing.
Actually I found a quote and I thought that I might read it when I was just thinking about doing this today. Because it is partly also, I think, what I said before about that often talking about your own experience opens up being able to see things differently. So, sometimes for people what's really stressful is going home, thinking about a particular experience they've had, feeling cross with themselves that they didn't react differently and somehow more helpfully, having huge expectations about what they should be able to manage, and then having other people in the group say, ‘oh, of course, how reasonable’ on the one hand, but on the other hand saying, well, ‘what else do you think might be going on?’
Sometimes that frees people up. I remember someone talking about a child who had been quite unreasonable, what they did with the piece of school property they were using, and the teacher was so cross about it. And then people in the group offered different perspectives about why the child might have done that, that were quite reasonable from the child's point of view. And it just really meant the teacher could say, ‘oh, okay, that kind of frees me to be able to interact differently with this child and have a conversation about it’.
So the quote, it's just a really brief quote. That's, ‘we walk out that door walking on Cloud 9 and it doesn't matter how deep and serious and full on the conversations are or the topics that we've talked about, you walk out the door feeling like “phwoah, something has lifted off my shoulders. We're not in this alone.”’
So I think that really sums it up for me.
DR: Absolutely. That's says it all, doesn't it? Anne, this year, you've also published a new paper. It's called Transforming trauma-informed understanding into trauma-informed practice: The Reflective Circle Education Model. So what did this research involve, and why was it important to conduct this research?
AS: So this is sort of the connection between – it's funny, it's sort of a full circle, because I set out in my earlier PhD work to really improve the teaching for traumatised students. And when you do that work, you realise that the very central part of trauma-informed education is the student teacher relationship. They need to reattach to belong, to trust.
These are really important aspects of the work, and yet we don't do enough to support the teacher in that work, both in their growth and development in that work. And the other aspect of a trauma-informed education is that when you are trained in trauma-informed education at this very complex neuroscience, you'll do some training to understand, because we're understanding more and more that neuroscience is sort of filtering into education.
It's still only in a very general and generic form. It is, this is what the experience of the effect/impact on the brain. But of course, trauma is an experience, and like all experiences, it's intensely individual. And depending on what age they experience that trauma, how ongoing that trauma is, the kinds of other supports they have, like supportive siblings, grandmas, in their life. It's intensely individual, so the title of this paper is actually about that transference from general information about trauma-informed education and transforming that into interpreting that in terms of an individual student that you're teaching. It's actually quite complex work. And so the reflective circles have been absolutely instrumental in that.
So I went back to my PhD research, so these are the original 6 that I worked with, to go back in and see what was it about the circles that informed their work, that supported their actual work with traumatised students? So what I came up with was – the themes that arose were very similar to what Fiona has said already – we're not in this alone, whereas I think that a teacher who's struggling with a severely behaviour-disordered student feels very alone.
The other thing they feel is judged. Now it's mostly their perception, but they think that other people are saying, well, you know, ‘if they are really good teacher, they should be able to handle that’. Or, ‘I thought they would have had that behaviour sorted out by now’. That's what they think other people are thinking. When we work in the group and the group actually say what they're thinking, they're thinking things like, ‘wow, I'm glad you've got that student and not me.’
And they actually think, ‘wow, I think you're doing an amazing job with that student.’ So that was very affirming of people. And so this lack of efficacy you feel when you're working with severe behaviour disorders – takes a very long time to alter one aspect of that behaviour, very long and patient time. And when you're taking a long time, it's easy to feel that you're going nowhere, that nothing's happening. And what the group tend to do is to point out those incremental changes along the way that, ‘yeah, but remember at the beginning…’ – groups remember stuff, ‘yeah, remember, he was doing this. He's not doing that anymore’ and you start to realise you’re making progress, even if it's small.
So the group were instrumental in building that sense of confidence and efficacy. Particularly, one of the people in the group was a graduate student and what she also found a great deal of power in was that there was also a teacher in there with 40 years’ experience and she realised she was struggling with exactly the same things that she was. And she realised it wasn't the fact that she was inexperienced or incompetent, it was the fact that this is really complex work. And she accepted that, and that's part of what Fiona saying, it’s, ‘pwhoah’, it's like, of course, this takes a long time.
Now I think in teaching there's a real myth about good teachers can control behaviour. Good teachers can know it all, they know what they're supposed to be doing and expert teachers do too. When a 40-year-old teacher says, ‘I have no idea’, they actually said, ‘I have thrown everything I know at this child, and nothing has moved it. Nothing has changed. I'm really struggling’. Incredibly powerful for other people to hear that and also affirm the tremendous progress you had made. So they were really important findings. Again, the multiple perspectives was a really strong finding.
People, we sit in our silos thinking one way. It's so liberating to say, ‘oh my goodness, I thought this way’. And very often it's because that's the way my experience has taught me to think, that's the way – a lot of people, there's a real mismatch between backgrounds of students from traumatised backgrounds and teachers, often. And in those gaps, a great deal of misunderstanding takes place. So the group can help fill those understandings about where the student may be coming from, exactly in that example Fiona used, made that teacher really look differently at how that particular student and why that student was behaving like that.
So that's this interpretation of these, and the trauma that is feeding this behaviour. And that takes a group work. It's complex and it's not simple, and the student can't even tell you what that's about. So the multiple perspectives, the developing confidence, the shared concern. What they found was over the year – because I actually did this particular group over a year – and what they found was they all started looking out for each other's students. The students that they were struggling with and were listening to deeply about, they suddenly realised that there were 6 other people that had their back that and understood that. And it also had this spill over effect. What they said is, ‘I now walk up to an incident with a student, and I don't just jump to conclusions about what's going on there. I realised that that could be very individual for the student. There's a lot of reasons for that, and I ask questions rather than jump to conclusions about that.’ So it had a real generalising effect on their behaviour, the way they approached other students and their behaviours.
And they all deeply valued the time, too, that was dedicated to process those emotions. It's very complex emotions and the emotional labour studies say that the intensity of the emotions felt and the intensity of the emotions you're actually allowed to display, there is an emotional labour in that. So it actually takes hard work to suppress fake, conceal, hold down and manage, sometimes feelings of rage, because some of these behaviours disrupt whole lessons, hurt other children. They're very strong emotions [that] are felt. And yet in the teacher profession we are not allowed to display the intensity of those emotions. A lot of unhealthy ways to deal with emotions, and they started dealing with it by processing it by laying it on the table, ‘this is how I feel’ and people validating that, saying, ‘I know how you feel, I feel that way too’. And they’re negative emotions and it's okay.
Now in the teaching profession, negative emotions are not really spoken about either, but people really valued having a chance. And you can move past those negative emotions, of course, to understanding, to feeling differently about a person. But if you're faking it, you can't fake it for long. And what I would say is, in the trauma field, the students know. They are high-wired to know faking it.
And if you want a genuine relationship – and this is where it really is instrumental in the student-teacher relationship – you want to genuine bona fide healthy relationship with that student. You need a process to process the negative emotions that go with the tremendous high level of frustration working with very behaviour disordered and often attachment disordered students. It's very complex and very difficult work. And you need somewhere to – and that was the teachers really highly valued that process.
DR: I'm wondering if there's anything we should add to the discussion about any limitations or potential challenges associated with the reflective circles education model?
FG: Yeah, that's a good question and an important question for people to think about.
I think one of the things is the time (that Anne talked about before) and people making a commitment because of time. And it's interesting, you know, I often say to people, ‘I think in the long run, reflective circles save a lot of time’ because people spend so much time being stressed about a particular experience and often the reflective circles just removes all that stress. So it saves so much energy.
It helps if a school is committed as an organisation to making the time and building in the time for people to have the reflective circles. I'd say in the schools where it's worked best, everybody does them, from the principals right down to the educational support workers. So it becomes part of the organisational culture.
I think one of the other challenges that people have to manage is, it is uncomfortable initially to come to a group and to talk about an experience where you haven't maybe been your best self. You know, maybe you've done something that you regret, you've reacted in a way that you regret and that you are talking about this with other people, so it requires a certain amount of openness, willingness to be vulnerable, and that requires trust in your other group members.
So it does take time to build that trust depending on how groups are organised. And it's important for schools to think through do we make this voluntary for people or do we have an expectation that people at least try this process before they decide whether or not they're prepared to do it?
Power differences can be an issue as well. And so we're pretty strong in advocating that each reflective circle has people who are at the same level in the school. So we would have separate groups for principals, for example, so that people don't feel they are being vulnerable about something they're not doing well with somebody who's going to be making judgments about their career and their success. Anne, what do you think, what would you want to add?
AS: Yes, I suppose part of the stuff that we've written about when you're translating from allied health to education, is this misunderstanding about supervision. And supervision in allied health is a very supportive process. In education, it actually has a power balance where a mentor is with a less experienced mentee and it's kind of about goal setting, about improvement of your practice and it is sort of aligned with progression, with promotion, with pay.
So it's a contaminated process which we have to actually step away from. And so we don't – one of the reasons we called it reflective circle education model, and call it reflective circles, is to get away from this idea of supervision and the connotations in education being a very different way of thinking about it to allied health. But it is important that we start to understand the need in education for professional supervision, for the emotional work.
And one of the things that I read very early about in Fiona’s work and have adapted it for education – I always start with this – is the person of the teacher cannot be separated from the work they do. So there is no such thing as a personal and a professional self, there really isn't. We are one thing, and particularly in teaching it's a very up close, personal, dynamic thing. And so teachers really do need professional supervision in the work they do. And until that's recognised, and what happens is a lot of administrators will say, ‘well, we do supervision’, but it's really a hire an expert to a mentee and it is very much tied to their performance. It's performance-oriented.
And as Fiona said, the really critical part of this is you need to trust a certain place. To come in and say ‘I'm doing badly. I'm struggling with this’. And so nobody goes to a supervision meeting with their mentees, which are usually administrators, they're usually leaders in the school, and say ‘I do this really badly. I think I'm, you know, I'm not coping’. Nobody says that, and this is what they need to be saying. So we have that, link in education with what is understood to be supervision, is a big problem for us.
DR: And, so, just finally, I'm interested if there's any scope for any future research in this area?
AS: Yes, so much scope, Dominique. We have so much work to do. So as Fiona said, we've only worked in a specialist school and primary, so we definitely need to now start – and schools have started adopting it in secondary sectors. We want to go in and do some research around that to see whether there's further modifications, how it works, you know, how they can organise that. The other things that we don't understand, as Fiona said, is power imbalances. Who should be in a group? And we need to understand more about the implementation process.
So every school's done it differently, so far. We've just had a very large school with a staff of 80 basically say ‘we're doing this and you're all going to be doing it’. So I'll be very interested to know how they as that goes down.
But there's a great strength in doing something altogether. All of the resources of the school, the leadership, everybody's behind this, so that's really important. But do individuals, how do they experience that? And is that productive for them? If they're made to do it, I don't know. We would really like to know about that.
And also we really do still need to trial in a whole range of settings because schools have different identities. Each context is different. And one of the things that concerns me in education is we get wonderful initiatives, and I was involved, for instance, in restorative justice practices, that can get watered down very quickly when they're allowed to be flexible and adaptable and change for each school. Suddenly within a few years, they're a completely different thing.
So I think what we want to do is know what we need to really maintain with strength and fidelity in the in the model. And what's a little bit flexible? Because we've got some people work in early childhood setting and there are very different cohort, in that a lot of the people who work in early childhood don't necessarily have graduate training. So they're doing some work with play therapy in there that are playing with that. Now is a completely different thing? Or what do we need to remain about the model that, you know, what's the important parts and what's flexible are still something that we're still exploring; have no answers to as yet.
That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening. You can find links to our 2022 article with Fiona, and to the 2 research papers we discussed in this episode, at our website, teachermagazine.com. We’ll be back with a new episode very soon.
Gardner, F., Southall, A.E. & Baxter, L. (2022) Effectively supporting teachers: a peer supervision model using reflective circles. Teachers and Teaching, 28:3, 369-383. https://doi.org/10.1080/13540602.2022.2062727
Southall, A. E., Baxter, L. P., & Gardner, F. (2023). Transforming trauma-informed understanding into trauma-informed practice: The Reflective Circle Education Model. Australian Journal of Education, 67(1), 62–75. https://doi.org/10.1177/00049441221146555
Associate Professor Fiona Gardner says one of the major findings from this research is that participating in reflective circles can help educators see different perspectives.
As an educator, reflect on the last time you had the opportunity to discuss an issue openly with a colleague and listen to their perspective. Was this a long time ago? How did you feel after this interaction? Did you find this process to have a positive impact on your professional practice?