The Unicorn Teacher

unicorn teacher

I was always that kid at school. No, not the kid that was acting out or throwing spit balls or climbing onto the roof. No, I was the kid that sat at the front, put my hand up to every question, did everything that I was supposed to and absolutely adored every single minute of school.

School was always super easy for me. There was always lots of exciting things to do, I could read, I could write, I could occasionally colour in between the lines and I had some pretty amazing teachers. So I guess in retrospect it was no surprise at all that I went into teaching, after studying a variety of other things at university. To be honest, I wasn’t a very good teacher. I'm not a good teacher of children because I don’t plan well, I'm not terribly consistent and I want to do all the things that are exciting and fun. The kids loved me but I'm not sure that they learned terribly much.

I have discovered, however, that I'm pretty bloody good at teaching adults because most adults don't need more specific skills; by the time they've gotten to a professional role, they just need to be shown how to use that knowledge wisely and build on what they know.

Like many of you, I love to soak in new information. Whether that's reading or listening to podcasts or attending conferences - new information is just like heroin. However, I can name on one hand the professional learning that still sticks with me.

Some of the most amazing professional learning that I've ever done, and I continue to do, is with the very wise team at HPT Schools – Dr Pete Stebbins, Dr Alastair Kerr and Dr Danielle Stebbins. Their work on how to design systems and processes that build high performance teams in schools is extraordinary. And it's not just about processes. As psychologists who have led large teams, they fully understand the need for the balance between processes and people. They understand how people work; how they change and how they like to learn and grow.

Dr Pete often talks about the concept of a Unicorn Teacher - that incredible teacher that you remember 35 or 45 years later. So, as I said before, I loved school. There was nothing about it that I didn't enjoy but I remember twice having the privilege of being in the classroom with Mrs Joan Retallack. As a ‘notice me’ child, I felt really privileged when my mum's friend became my teacher and I did everything I could to get her attention. I sat at the front of class screaming out the answer to every single question, volunteering for everything, but I just wanted to please her - I wanted to show her how much I knew and how worthy I was of her attention.


Aside from all the amazing art and activities we did, I actually remember a couple of times when she was brave enough to admit that she didn't have all the answers. It was in the days where in maths we had to learn long division in a particular way. Joan was actually married to a maths professor at the time, yet I remember her standing at the front of the classroom and saying, “I really don't understand how long division works this way”. She said, “I can show you the procedure I am supposed to teach you, but that's not how I do it”. That was the first time I realised that not everybody did things the same way and it was OK to say I don't understand. I am pleased to announce that in the 40 something years since that memory, I have never needed to do long division in the way that the syllabus wanted us to learn it in those days. As a side note …Do you remember when teachers would say, “Don't use a calculator you won't be carrying a calculator in your pocket everyday”?  I laugh at that every single time I pull my phone out of my pocket to use the calculator, or use the calculator on my watch.


But let's get back to the notion of a Unicorn Teacher. We've all read Professor Hattie’s work around collective teacher efficacy being the intervention with a high effect size, the belief that teachers together can make a difference. When you read those statistics and you logically understand what that means, it sounds absolutely obvious until you've tried to get a team of teachers working together. I realised that my coach training was really useful when I wanted to lead a team, but when I wanted to encourage teams of teachers to work together, it wasn't as useful as perhaps understanding some of the systems and processes that allow psychological safety in a team.

I have this belief - Teachers will always tell you that there is no time; we have no time to collaborate, we have no time to talk to our peers, we don't have time to plan properly, we don't have time to delve deep into things.


I completely understand that teachers are extraordinarily busy human beings but what I find is when that they do get together to collaboratively plan, or when they do get the time to undertake professional learning together, they participate in something that I call ‘co-blaberration’. These valuable opportunities for collective teacher efficacy are often unstructured, they don't have a purpose, norms or agreements about how things will work, there's often no outcome or action that needs to happen.

Instead, what we too often experience is one teacher dominating the conversation, or they have to listen to the whinging and complaining of their peers. This causes teachers to shut down and become disengaged and disinterested. It’s not hard to see why they feel meetings and Professional Learning Communities are a complete waste of time. Yet - in those groups there are Unicorn Teachers like Ms Retallack – skilled, committed and amazing – and we wonder why they are silent.

I really enjoy showing schools and teams in schools how that they can implement the processes from HPT and how these structures, the expectations, the norms, and the processes that surround their work, really allow for collective teacher efficacy. Why- because there is psychological safety and everybody knows that they're going to get listened to. That their opinion matters. That they're going to be heard. And when people step out of line, something is going to happen to bring them back to the place where true collaboration can occur. If you are interested in listening or learning a bit more about HPT, or how I work in schools then shoot me an email and I will get back to you.



HPT Schools

Email Me!


Jenny bio with border


There are no comments yet. Be the first one to leave a comment!