New Zealand (University of Auckland) Deidre Le Fevre: a rebel with a cause

Fortunately for Professor Deidre Le Fevre, her high school teacher’s grim assessment that she was “not university material” couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Deidre Le Fevre, a new professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work, took the audience through engaging and formative moments in her life which culminated in her resolve to “make schools better” in her well-attended inaugural lecture.

“I entered teachers college to be a primary teacher [Palmerston North], complete with mullet (!), with a quite different perspective to most of my peers who had been successful at school and had positive views about their education.

“I, on the other hand, held the strong view that education and schooling needed to change. High school hadn’t worked well for me or for many other young people at that time. I wasn’t interested in maintaining the status quo.”

Fortunately, she said, she started her teacher education in the same year students were allowed to study concurrently at Massey University for a Bachelor of Education degree.

“This is when I really realised education could change, that it could be empowering and that there was a place for me. I remember having to write an assignment about how policy helps schooling. Instead I wrote one on how policy doesn’t help schooling and still got an A+.”

She made special mention of her first position at Ranui Primary School in West Auckland.

“This was a very formative time for me, a period when teachers had a lot of control over the pedagogy and curriculum. I remember on Fridays we would do art all morning, and the oral language and science, the sharing of cultural treasures and other things that came out of this were so exciting.”

A move to the UK for her OE and a period teaching in tough London schools followed.

“I remember walking into a class that had had a different relieving teacher every day since the beginning of the year. Nobody returned for a second day in this class. The principal just asked one thing of me, that I would stay until 3pm.”

Which she did; returning the next day … and the next … and the next, whether they made her cry or not.

She eventually returned to Auckland to complete a masters and lecture at the University of Auckland, and then headed off again to the US to do her PhD at the University of Michigan, where she was invited to be a researcher on the Third International Mathematics and Science Teaching Study (TIMMS).

“It was an interesting choice given I wasn’t strong in either maths or science. But I was strong in analsying learning and teaching, in theorising how to bring about improvement, and I became really interested in the power of video as a tool for learning and change.”

Her PhD went on to focus on video as a pedagogical tool and how video records of practice could be used to improve learning and teaching. Since then, of course, VHS tapes have given way to DVDs and then to digital, but some things have remained the same, she said.

“The power of image, video and narrative to create rich meaning. We make sense of our lives through story and narrative is a powerful tool in learning and change.”

After six years at Michigan, she went on to Washington State Univeristy to take up an assistant professor position where once again, video was central to her work.

“I would video myself teaching my education courses and the students would analyse and critique me! This was when I really realised the importance of vulnerability, of being willing to take risks in order to learn and change.”

It was while at Washington that she got involved in arts-based research.

“As researchers, we performed a play we created from the transcripts of interviews with homeless people. We then did a public performance and the people interviewed came to watch; to critique our interpretation of their lives and to talk to the audience about their experiences directly. It was about empowering a community who typically had little voice in society; this was arts-based qualitative research at its best.”

I would video myself teaching my education courses and the students would analyse and critique me! This was when I really realised the importance of vulnerability, of being willing to take risks in order to learn and change.

Professor Deidre Le FevreFaculty of Education and Social Work

Back in New Zealand, she returned to the Univeristy  again and the same big questions continued to guide her work in academia.

“How do people learn? What makes a good leader? Why is it challenging to bring about change? How can organisations improve and what methods are powerful in researching these questions?”

And she said the same questions persist in education: how can we support our most vulnerable learners? What leadership practices promote equity?

Professor Le Fevre’s work on professional learning and leadership in schools has spanned medical education for anaesthetists, high performance sport and currently, the nursing profession.

“Leaders today face significant, complex, and ongoing problems which demand they lead in spaces where disagreement, uncertainty and ambiguity often prevail,” she said.

Deidre Le Fevre with her family, including her sister Phillippa, who “has been my constant mentor, friend and cheerleader since the day I failed my high school fifth form year back in 1979!”.

And one of the biggest challenges is navigating through complexity and avoiding the temptation to solve complex problems too quickly, and with simple solutions.

“Effective leaders understand that some problems can’t be easily solved, that existing ways of working and existing theories and beliefs won’t serve us into the future.”

She made the point that very few people are actually good at ‘genuine inquiry’ but rather engage in ‘pseudo inquiry’.

“Genuine inquiry is when we really want to understand another perspective, when we’re willing to learn even when it feels uncomfortable, and most importantly, when we’re willing to change our own views and practices based on what we’ve learned.”

In considering leadership, too little attention is paid to how people feel about change, the emotions involved, and perceptions of risk, she said.

Finally, she left us with more questions:

“What motivates me to be curious? How do I respond to information that doesn’t align with my thinking and actions? How do I deal with ambiguity and uncertainty?”

And introduced her ‘stop, start, keep’ philosophy.

“What do we need to stop doing? What do we need to start doing? And what would we do well to keep doing?

“The ideas in my research are not hard to understand, they are however complex to implement. And that’s why I’ve felt so privileged to be able to create an academic career that authentically combines teaching, professional development in schools, research and service in ways that make these ideas come alive.”

Professor Le Fevre thanked all the young people, teachers and leaders in the schools she’d worked, mentors and faculty colleagues, and her family, especially her sister Phillippa who “has been my constant mentor, friend and cheerleader since the day I failed my high school fifth form year back in 1979!”