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An MC’s reflection on the 2023 QASSP Conference

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

By Phil Slade

One of the most privileged things about being MC at a conference is that you get to see every session and meet every speaker. I have been to literally hundreds of conferences over the past 20 years as either an MC, guest speaker, sponsor, or even as part of the organising committee, and I can say that this ranks up there with one of the best.

Strangely enough, one of the best litmus tests to gauge what people actually think of a conference, is how many people mention the food in the immediate aftermath. ” The best conferences are where they are talking about its impact on them, not the technical aspects. It is fair to say that in the immediate aftermath of this year’s QASSP conference, I haven’t heard anyone discussing the quality of the food.

Usually, I find that if I walk away with one or two things from a conference that help me in some way, and one or two new connections, then I’d take that as success. It is so rare that I take one or two things away from every single session. Yes, there were a few minor logistical hiccups, but these all pale in comparison to the quality of the content and the flow of the event. When I reflect on all the speakers, there seemed to be five key themes that reverberated throughout many of the keynotes.

  1. Play with freedom. Work hard to constantly assess your beliefs and assumptions and create a psychologically safe environment where you and your staff can play with new ideas and challenge the status quo.

  2. Learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. It’s okay to not know what the outcome is, have professional courage and lead the change.

  3. Be emotionally intelligent. Understand when you are in and out of control. Learn when your instinctive (red) brain works for and against you.

  4. Work with the power of awe and wonder. Create moments of inspiration to give curiosity energy, and creativity voice.

  5. Put your own seatbelt on first. Take care of your own wellbeing, so that you can help take care of others and model better self-care behaviours.

The conference kicked off in style with Beau Lotto giving the John Cochran inaugural address on the Wednesday night, and then opening the conference on the Thursday morning. His in-depth and scientific dismantling of how the brain hates uncertainty and how we are better off when we embrace it was both inspiring and enlightening.

Beau has a particularly magic way of challenging our perceptions, our core cognitions, the very essence of what we rely on as our reality. By pulling at the strings of our biases and core beliefs about the world, he was able to help give us a framework with which to reconstruct our approach to judgement and decision making.

This led perfectly to the presentation that resonated strongly with many of my fellow conference-ers - Dan Haesler’s humorous walk through the red and blue brain, and how he coaches high performance in teams. It was a basic guide to emotional intelligence. How to train your highly emotional, reactive, and aroused (red) brain to give more control over your behaviour to your more controlled, responsive, and calm (blue) brain. His many examples of sport coaching were both humorous and relatable, with particular note to the Australian bobsled champion who overcame an upturned sled in the middle of a run to finish (literally) back on her tracks.

As a clear fan of building better emotional health, it was so good to see how well this resonated with everyone (this is exactly what Switch4Schools practically operationalises in schools for teachers and students, so I’m a little biased). Dan then tied this back to psychological safety – which he described as a state when people “…believe that no one will be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”.

Dan and Beau’s inspiration was aptly supported by local superstar, and Principal of Graceville State School, Zoe Smith. Creatively using a Mary Poppins umbrella and bag of tricks to illustrate the core tenants of educational leadership in the modern era, Zoe crafted a beautiful story that looked at Leaderly Pedagogy (see image below), full of enablers, characteristics, and leadership styles. What I love about this is that it looked at enablers as the things that protect us and different leadership styles as the foundations that we stand on, which is the opposite to how we often think about these elements.

Image: Zoe Smith’s Toolbox of Leaderly Pedagogy

Day 1 was then rounded out with a magnificent Neon Ball at Brisbane City Hall, that had been lit up in all its majesty for the event. Not only was the band and the conversations excellent, but the surprise performance from Queensland Opera singers was simply sensational. A fitting end to a big day.

Day 2 kicked off with a live presentation from London by internationally renowned educator and research rockstar, Amelia Peterson. While a virtual presentation to a room of 500 can be very tedious, Amelia expertly navigated the divide to challenge us about passion, purpose and play. By the end of her presentation we were all challenged about defining our purpose toward ourselves, those around us, our community and the planet. Which was a perfect segue to the next speaker, the enigmatic Thompson Morrison.

Thompson launched into what it means to be active learners and creative problem solvers in the joyful sandbox. We stepped through what agile as a mindset is, what lessons from the corporate world we can learn about innovation and productivity, and how we can create a better learning mindset in the 2020’s. Practical, insightful and intriguing.

Now, with a lesser conference you may think that we would be winding down by now, but no! We had one final firecracker, a showstopper of epic proportion. A keynote by resilience expert and wellbeing guru, Dr. Adam Fraser – the only speaker that I have ever introduced to the sounds of Iron Maiden! One particular insight Adam reminded us of is that relying on end of term holidays to try to refill our ‘wellbeing cup’ is not a good strategy. It is not the size of the intervention, but the regularity of the intervention that matters. Multiple micro moments are much more powerful. Adams parting challenge was to do daily, weekly and monthly things that help reset our brain, to not trivialise the stressful things that happen to us, and make sure we don’t ridicule others for looking after themselves. I think I can safely say that most people rated this session as the best session of the whole conference, and that’s saying something considering the high quality of speakers!

Overall, we were challenged, inspired, surprised, filled with wonder and optimism, and leaving with some very practical thoughts about how we can change things for the better. It really was, in keeping with the theme of the conference, a joyful sandbox.

More on the speakers:


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