I knew there was a world out there that I wanted to go and explore

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Interview with Julie Boyd

Educator,Expert Coach and Mentor
Julie Boyd

Julie Boyd is an experienced keynote speaker, professional facilitator, psychologist, educator, expert coach and mentor who has won several business awards for innovation. Julie Boyd is a prolific writer who has written and published professional learning books for teachers for many years and has been published in numerous national and international journals, national newspapers and magazines. She has been published by Heinemann (education) and has self-published a further 18 professional development books and manuals for teachers.

Elena Ornig:

Generally, people have different explanations about what leadership is or means. Some people say that they are born leaders and some people say that they developed their leadership skills. What about you?

Julie Boyd:

I think that some people are born as charismatic leaders, but there are very few of them, like the Ghandis of the world and the John F. Kennedys.  People like that are extremely strong personalities, and that carries them through their leadership, but for most of us, leadership is a set of skills developed over a period of time. I’ve always had very strong opinions and not been afraid to voice those opinions. Some people agree and others disagree. I can’t say that I don’t care, because I do care – I’m always prepared to listen to people, but in terms of being a leader, someone has to make decisions and act on suggestions. There have been lots of organizations that I’ve gone into over my lifetime: in the community, in education and in business where I’ve basically been propelled into a leadership position because of the way that I can be with other people and the way that I can read situations and the skills that I can use if I choose to use those.

My personal perspective on leadership though, is that I lead best from behind. I’m not a good ‘front’ person; I don’t see myself as being a good front person. I’m a really good king-maker or a really good queen-maker, so I’m very good at making other people look terrific. That’s not something I’ve ever been good at doing for myself. So in terms of leadership, I mean, I’ve been a principal of a high school, I’ve been a CEO and Managing Director of a number of different companies, and started many innovative organizations, so I understand what the requirements of leadership are and what the frustrations of leadership can be as well, but for me, I much prefer somebody else to be the front person.

Elena Ornig:

You’re also a very experienced educator. Is a leadership role and an educator’s role different or similar for you?

Julie Boyd:

I believe that a very strong role of a leader is to educate the people that you’re working with and not to try and force them to think about one point of view, but rather to educate them to think for themselves and to be assertive. I have a very specific view of how I lead people and it’s a four-pronged approach. Some people need you to lead them as if they’re children learning to walk. Not necessarily by the hand, but walking in front of them and basically clearing the way, and the obstacles, so they can come along and shine behind you. Other people need you to walk beside them and simply guide them, in terms of the direction that they’re going. Other people need you to actively coach them.  I know I’m a very good coach, that’s something I’ve done for my entire life. I’ve done a lot of coaching and I actually started the teacher-coaching movement in Australia, I know that very well. There are also some people that you need to stand behind and give them a good kick in the backside to propel them forward because they just won’t do it on their own.

Elena Ornig:

But what if they disagree?

Julie Boyd:

Well I don’t usually discuss why I’m with them that way – at the time. I do that later. I make that decision and that’s the way that I’ll act. It’s always fascinating to see them progress through those different stages. To me they are progressing and so if you start off by giving people a push because often people don’t know what they don’t know and you have to start from that perspective with them by helping them to understand what they don’t know and then by helping them to develop the skills to move forward.

Elena Ornig:

‘Sustainability literacy’ is a relatively new term for educators. Can you explain what it means to you? Is it a role or a goal for you?

Skills for a Changing World

Julie Boyd:

Okay, perhaps I need to explain why I use the term ‘sustainability literacy’.  There are a couple of reasons for that. One is because, as an educator, I understand literacy not just to be reading and writing. I understand literacy to mean developing an understanding of a concept and then being able to actually implement and use that concept. To me, that’s what literacy is, it’s not just a form of expression. It comes from an understanding of what intelligence is about.  The concept of literacy originally, was based on the concept of intelligence, that we are intelligent beings. I have a very different view of ‘sustainability literacy’ to some other people and I’ve been struggling to find the right terminology to express the way that I perceive things. Intelligence was explored by educators years and years and years ago. I go back to Jerome Bruner, who was an educator who I follow, who is an absolutely brilliant man. If we followed his view of education, we would be in a completely different place in the world – in the Western world today, to where we are.

One of his students was Howard Gardner. He was the first person to start writing about Multiple Intelligences – so everyone used to think that we only had a very limited number of intelligences as human beings. He was the one who first started talking about the concept of Multiple Intelligences, but even with that, there was a fairly narrow perspective of what intelligence actually was. At the time when I had met Howard and was doing some of this work, I was also doing a lot of work with Indigenous people and what they were saying to me was – that’s all very well, that’s a very white view of what intelligence is, we have a very different perspective. The more work that I did with Indigenous people to explore what their ‘intelligence’ actually was, the more I understood that it was very earth-based and that it was to do with your sensory systems and the way that you interact with the environment. It’s actually a physiological-based response to the environment around you. It’s about your body comprehending. It’s not about a thought-process, it’s about your actual body responding.

Multiple Intelligence Theory

Howard Gardner was the first person who extended my thinking in that direction. The second person was Jerome Bruner’s other student, Bob Samples. Bob went in a different direction with his research for his Doctorate. He started looking at human sensory systems and the last time I spoke to Bob, which was, oh heavens, it’s probably fifteen years ago now; at that stage he’d actually verified that the human body has not just five sensory systems but it has a minimum of twenty-two.

Because I was doing so much work with Indigenous people at that stage, Bob’s work made a huge amount of sense to me. He was able to explain how Indigenous people make sense of their world without using the senses that we, Western people, understand. And so, my understanding of sustainability grew out of an understanding of how we interact with the world and how we impact as humans. How we impact on the world, but also in return, how the environment and other people impact on us as human beings. In terms of looking at sustainability, what my understanding of sustainability is, is reaching a point where we can interact with the world without destroying it and where the world can interact with us without destroying us.

So that’s kind of it, in a nutshell. But in order to achieve that, we need to understand how all of that works and that’s where the ‘literacy’ part of ‘sustainability literacy’ comes into it for me. In order to understand that more, I looked at the work of Dr. Paul Pearsall.  He also had a very profound impact on my thinking. He was a Hawaiian Kahuna, but he was also a cardiac surgeon and he had also studied neurophysiology. His particular interest was in how the heart impacts on us. He wrote a wonderful book called The Heart’s Code, which I would recommend to anybody to read, it’s just brilliant, it’s my favorite book of all time. He talks about how the heart, how the cellular structure of the heart impacts on us. His belief was that the heart is actually the center of the body, not the brain, because the heart can change the brain. The brain operates more on a mechanical system, whereas the heart operates on feelings and senses.

I think that’s where a lot of the confusion has come in for people, so we’ve got people using the word ‘sustainability’ all the time inappropriately. It’s like the word ‘resilience’. When I first brought ‘resilience education’ to Australia back in 1990, nobody had ever heard of it. I introduced that concept and then, all of a sudden, I start finding people selling resilient pantyhose. I’m thinking – what? That doesn’t make any sense! So words get bastardised in English and I think that’s really unfortunate. I didn’t understand, until I started working with architects to design new generation schools a few years ago, that the same word has very different meanings for different professions and that developing a common language and set of common meanings is one of the biggest challenges of the English language.

Elena Ornig:

Can you explain what you mean when you talk about building new generation schools?

Julie Boyd:

I was first approached to be the Education Consultant for a large multinational consortium which was looking to put in tenders to build next generation schools across Australia and Asia. One of the things that I found was that we had to try to develop a common language. In this particular consortium, the biggest one that I was working with – there was one representative of each of sixty companies, sitting on the board. Most of the time, they were high level representatives, a Director or a CEO or a CFO. Occasionally, you had very large meetings which consisted of everyone, from the person who was organizing the finances to the person who was actually designing the building or the companies that were designing the buildings, right down to the guys who were going to be putting in the doors and the toilets.

So, as an educator, the first thing I said to them was we need to have a common language around what we’re doing here so that these guys have an understanding of what they’re building, they’re not just building buildings,  they’re building a future education for our children. The first time I said that, they kind of went oh, that’s a bit ridiculous you know. I just said to them no, if they’ve got an understanding of what they’re trying to achieve – they’re more likely to achieve it – so that’s what we’ll do.  I actually ran several Professional Development learning sessions for the entire group because I figured that was the best way for them to understand.

The biggest impact on them was the one that I ran on Developmental Psychology for Children to explain how children learn at different stages in their life and at different ages in their life and then how we need to integrate that into what we’re planning in terms of planning the schools.

Elena Ornig:

You mean their environment, because it’s a physical environment they were creating, correct?

Julie Boyd:

That’s right and so we had to plan the built environment based on what I was telling them about how kids learn and they were so fascinated by what I told them. It’s not that they didn’t think about it but they didn’t understand how the brain develops and how the body develops and what’s needed at different times in a child’s life. I remember a number of them came up to me afterwards or rang me afterwards and said: now I know what to do with my own kid. They were really rapt from that point of view but the architects were the people that I found to be unbelievably creative.  I’ll never forget this one guy who was sitting beside me as I was talking and he was actually drawing the school, to say this is what we’re going to need to build for these kids. By the time I’d finished my Professional Development session, he basically had a design of a new generation school.  He turned what I was talking about into an actual drawing. He had this whole outline of what a new generation school would look like, using these principles.

New Generation Schools

Elena Ornig:

Can you draw a picture of your ideal new generation school? What does it look like?

Julie Boyd:

Well, a next generation school for me is one that actually meets the needs of both the children and the adults in the environment of a whole community. I know there are some people who believe schools will be unnecessary in the future, but I disagree with that- particularly for young kids. For me a next generation school would start at pre-school where we’re looking at a pre-school age up until the age of about five or six. What we’re looking at is developing kids’ sensory systems and what they need to be is in ‘play’ mode. They don’t need to be sitting down doing tests or sitting down at desks – they need to be playing, they need to be talking and interacting with people. At that stage and age, there’s an explosion in their neurons’ development in their brains. The more sensory experiences they have, the more diverse the connections in their brain will be as they’re developing. The more physical connections in their muscular systems and everything else will also develop because that’s all based on your neuronal systems. And so for the little kids, what we do is build safe places for them to play but places where they can actually explore and experience a whole range of sensory systems. For example, in schools for kids with disabilities like autism, now what we do is we build gardens. The gardens have lots of perfumed plants, lots of herbs and lots of hidden things for the kids to find and lots of places where they can go and play with wind chimes and make noises.

Then between the ages of about six and ten, which is when kids are normally at primary school, you need to put them in an environment where they start to develop a moral code. That’s when socialization becomes really important. We build classrooms and create places where they can have quiet time. Places where they can work with other people, usually in a one-on-one situation. Little kids find it easiest to deal with just one other person at a time. So we’ll build environments where they can sit with an adult, whether it’s a teacher or somebody else. Most of the classrooms that we look at building now have a seamless internal and external part to their classrooms.  In some cases you put furniture in there where the kids can reconfigure the furniture easily, so you know, they don’t hurt themselves and you can use screens for screening various areas off and that kind of adds to the variety within the classroom.  And then we’ll have big glass doors or sliding walls or whatever to bring the outdoors in and to allow the kids to go out into the outdoors as well.

Elena Ornig:

Sorry I stopped you, but I would like you to confirm – is this still a conceptualization?

Julie Boyd:

No, there are schools being built like that.

Elena Ornig:

Where?

Julie Boyd:

In South Australia and a few schools in Victoria.

Elena Ornig:

So, if a few of them have been built already, have you received feedback about these schools?

Julie Boyd:

Yes, it’s really funny, the kids are doing fine and the kids absolutely love them. Some of the teachers don’t know how to teach in them though, and that’s the problem. So they have to relearn how to interact with kids and each other, and the other thing that’s starting to happen is that there’s much more of a focus on electronic technology and computer-based technology in schools. When we’re designing those schools, the brief that we have for them is that they need to have a life of around thirty years and then at the end of thirty years. It may be that because they’re being built in an area that has a growing population at the moment, but in thirty years’ time there may not be any kids there anymore. So when I was designing or helping to design the schools, we used to have to think about what would be alternative uses for these same spaces.

Education, New Concepts

Elena Ornig:

Compared to your ideal environment for the future generation, what was your childhood environment?

Julie Boyd:

I actually had a really happy childhood. I grew up in a tiny little village in Victoria where if you got to fourteen and you weren’t either pregnant or married, you were considered to have something drastically wrong with you. I mean, I got on really well with the kids; I tended to get on better with the boys than the girls because I was a bit of a tomboy and the girls just didn’t make sense to me, they all just wanted boyfriends and I thought pffft, no. Boys are for playing with, you know, I don’t care about anything else, at this stage.

My village was incredibly diverse. It was a timber mill village and my dad worked at the mill as a mechanical engineer. He fixed stuff. There were men at the mill, who I think, would probably look terrible and scary to an outsider. They were those single men who lived in huts by themselves. I used to find them fascinating and not threatening in the slightest. They were delightful guys and I learned so much from them. There was a guy, the blacksmith, who used to build things. He discovered that I was really interested in fossils. He built me my own little fossil hammer, a specially built fossil hammer. I was rapt. There were the other old guys who used huge cross saws, with one man on each end of the saw. They didn’t use chainsaws back in those days to cut trees down. I used to go out into the bush with those old guys.  I would go out there in the log trucks with them, and my Dad. I was only three or four at the time and I’d sit up in the truck and we’d go for hours. They would show me how they selected the trees that they felled, and I found that a fascinating process. That kind of introduced me to the whole world of environmental responsibility and that was done by the tree-fellers. It wasn’t just done by people who feel strongly about the environment but don’t really understand the whole ecosystem. I learnt from those old men, who didn’t have any education themselves. I learned, from them, how to become a teacher because they had an innate ability to help you learn.

Environmental Responsibility

Elena Ornig:

If I understand you correctly – they didn’t teach you, they were just sharing their knowledge with you.

Julie Boyd:

Yeah, that’s right. They were guiding and they were coaching.

There were some very strange characters and we also had a multicultural village, as small as it was. The oldest resident of the place was a Chinese man, Johnny. He used to live up in the mountains a little bit because he thought that people would shun him but every time we went out in the log truck, we would stop there and my dad would take in his flour and sugar and his supplies. I’d go in and we’d sit down and have tea with Johnny and he’d teach me how to speak a couple of words in Chinese. He was another teacher. Then we had aboriginal people, we had Italians and Greeks – a quite multicultural area. They accepted each other and I mean, they used to give each other a hard time but that was mutual and the aboriginal guys would make jokes about the Australians, I mean about the white guys, but it was all very good natured.

There was no nastiness at all that I experienced and the other thing was that at the school, there were some kids who had disabilities in terms of their mental health. That was probably the most difficult thing I had to deal with as I was growing up. One of the girls was a little bit older than me. One day when she got very upset, somebody had been teasing her and she got some knitting needles and she stuck knitting needles into my head. She was very upset and she was just taking it out on me. She rammed these knitting needles right into my brain and that was kind of interesting. I grew up with all of those sorts of people but I do remember thinking at the time – this is not her fault.

The other people who influenced me greatly were my teachers, because they came in from outside, in that big wide world that I didn’t know. I used to milk them for all the information I could get. I knew there was a world out there that I wanted to go and explore but I had no clue how to go about doing that, so that’s where it started. Then I went to boarding school. It was four hours’ drive away from my home and I only got to go home twice a year. That was quite difficult but I had to do that because that was the only way I could continue my education.

Elena Ornig:

And you love to be educated. You pursued education and you always were curious about everything, right?

Julie Boyd:

Yes and I absolutely adored my science teacher, he was the one that really influenced me most, when I was in Year 8. He actually had me at the stage where I wanted to become an astronaut and go and do physics. That did not become a physical reality but I’ll never forget him as a teacher.  He had a massive influence on my life. He was so fascinated by science himself that he would do everything that he could. That included taking us trekking up mountains at midnight to sit there and look at the sky and learn about the stars. He just went above and beyond. A very quiet and unassuming looking man, and not very social in the community but I absolutely adored him. He was the only person that I was sad about leaving, but he actually left the town at the same time as I did so it wouldn’t have done me any good to stay there anyway, even if I could. Then I went away and lived at a Catholic boarding school, a girls’ boarding school and I spent my whole time trying to figure out how to upset people when I was there.

Elena Ornig:

Why?

Julie Boyd:

I just thought it was wrong on so many levels, I mean, I was only about twelve at the time. The boarding school was a novitiate, where the young nuns would come in to learn how to become nuns. I used to look at these young girls who were only seventeen and I thought, they’d never been anywhere, they’d never done anything, and they’re going to go into this closed order, which means that they’re not going to know how to interact with the world, ever. That’s wrong.

I think that being at boarding school was the other area where I felt a great deal of responsibility for kids younger than myself. We had kids from five years old, that was so wrong too, and I used to think that was so cruel that their parents would send them away. So we would have to care for the younger ones. I’d stand up for them against the nuns and I’d be the one that would get into trouble for being too cheeky and assertive. But then, I ended up going down to the boys’ school. I was the first girl in Australia to actually go to a boys’ school.

That was very fascinating for me; it helped me to understand what I could do outside systems to influence systems. That was my first understanding of how systems work, and that in order to change a system, you need to have people inside, working for change. You also need to have people outside the system, so you need to have both internal and external people, both working together to make a system change.

Elena Ornig:

I hope you will write a book about your experiences in different schools.

Julie Boyd:

I do need to write that book. That would be a very, very funny book to write.

Elena Ornig:

What is your understanding of wellbeing and why do you promote it so much?

Julie Boyd:

Wellbeing is a multifaceted thing, I mean my physical wellbeing has always been a huge challenge for me, but, if I feel mentally well, intellectually well and I feel socially well, I don’t really care about my physical condition. When I first started talking about resiliency, I used to talk about how you physically and mentally respond in a particular situation, it’s how you physiologically respond, how you socially respond and it’s how you spiritually respond. There’s a whole range of responses that we have, that most people feel are out of their control. I kind of have a belief that a lot of what we do is within our control, but not everything. And that’s why I believe in using both traditional Western medicine and Eastern medicines for that wellness.

Well-being

For me wellbeing is what’s best for the person, it’s what helps them function at the very best. For a person who’s a quadriplegic, wellbeing means one thing and it has a completely different meaning to an athlete. I have a body that lets me down on a very regular basis so my version of wellbeing is very different to somebody who can walk normally and function normally. I sat down once and wrote a manual on wellbeing.

Elena Ornig:

A manual..?

Julie Boyd:

Yeah, I actually broke wellbeing down into two major elements – personal and professional wellbeing. Then I broke down to the various elements of what personal wellbeing involves and what professional wellbeing involves. I found that process really quite fascinating myself, to go through and I mean, again, you know, it’s another one of these books that I haven’t pushed very hard, but a lot of people have found it very useful. They say oh, gee, I’m doing pretty well in terms of my personal wellness but that’s been at the expense of my social life and that’s been at the expense of, you know, I really haven’t thought about my spirituality for a while and then there’s financial wellbeing. So a little bit like intelligences, I think that there are a lot of different elements of wellbeing. If people focus on these different elements, they can actually figure out what is wrong. I think if people have an understanding that wellbeing has various components and if you simply look at the list of different components, you can kind of think, okay, so the area I’m not doing too well in at the moment is my financial wellbeing, maybe I need to focus on that and find people that can help me and do all that sort of stuff, or maybe my spiritual wellbeing is not so hot at the moment, so what do I need to do to improve that?

The thing is – you can’t take them all on at the same time, because it becomes too overwhelming. But if you want to have a personal wellbeing plan, then what you can do is look at all of these different elements and you can say, okay, that’s what I need to focus on at the moment, then this is what I need to do and kind of develop a plan yourself. Then, of course, there is professional wellbeing – and that’s a whole different ballgame.

Elena Ornig:

You have written so many books but how did your writing career get started?

Books and eBooks

Julie Boyd:

I’ve also written a lot of magazines and started magazines. Back in the nineties, I started doing Educational Leaders’ Book Overviews, which weren’t just for educators. They were for anybody in a leadership position who wanted to become an educational leader as opposed to a directive leader. But what I used to do was I read incredibly widely and I would summarise the books into three pages, because you usually find that most good books can be summarised into three pages and the rest of it is just all filler. That’s why I can’t write books, you know, because I just read and think ninety-five per cent of this is, you know, extraneous. A book for me either has to be incredibly entertaining or it has to be full of information that can be assimilated really easily and quickly.

Elena Ornig:

What is entertaining for you, in books?

Julie Boyd:

The characters, I just find people fascinating. I’ve always been a people-watcher and listener. I just used to like eavesdropping; I still do, eavesdropping on conversations. I’ve never been an incredibly social person, I don’t like parties and I’m not an extrovert at all. I’m very comfortable with being alone.

Elena Ornig:

Are you working on the new book right now?

Julie Boyd:

I’m writing three things at the moment that I’ve been trying to write for the last three years. The first book that I want to write is an educational book that I’ve been thinking about for ten years and I know I have to write it, so, I think I’m ready to start writing that now.

I know I want to write that one because it will be about the whole education system and what the purpose of education is in our society; and what’s wrong with the direction education is going in right now. The second book I am writing is a book that’s written in my dog’s voice – The Jorge Diaries. About all the adventures that we’ve had and how we came to be where we are. And he’s kind of in the final stages of his life now.

Elena Ornig:

How old is Jorge?

Julie Boyd: 

He’s fourteen now. So he’s just reflecting back on all of these things that have happened during his lifetime and there have been quite a number of adventures. I want to write that stuff as well. The third thing that I’m thinking of doing is just writing a book about growing up as an Australian child, including all of these anecdotes that I’m writing now, into something like that.

Elena Ornig:

Are you planning to dwell on what you’ve noticed has happened historically in Australia or just your own experience with people in your life?

Julie Boyd:

Yeah, as I said, I find people fascinating and I tend not to write for other people. I write to document my memories, basically and if other people are interested in reading it, that’s fine. If they’re not I don’t really care.

The very first book that I wrote, I wrote for my kids. I knew I could write educational stuff but that was my first attempt at trying to document stories. The feedback that I got from that was that there’s enough information for about a half dozen books, because of what I’d done. I mean the stuff that I was telling you about in terms of the boarding school, I included that in five hundred words, whereas there’s an entire book based in there if I chose to write that. I don’t want to write long books but I do want to do the stories justice. That’s kind of where my thinking is at the moment. It’s just taken me a long time to get my head around feeling that there’s a purpose.

Elena Ornig:

I believe that we must create purpose ourselves. My lifetime conclusion is that life is purposeless unless you make it purposeful.

Julie Boyd:

Exactly, but you don’t necessarily have to document it though. But then I was having a conversation with one of my longest-term friends a little while ago. He was lamenting the fact that he had never chronicled his life. He doesn’t have a lot of photographs of his life and he’s done some really incredibly interesting things, but he doesn’t have documentation. It’s all in his head and he’s starting to lose his memory now, so that’s all going to be lost. He said to me, you know, write down your adventures, you’ve had a few, so now I’m trying to work through which adventures I feel game enough to write down and which ones I’m not game enough to write down at this point in time.

Elena Ornig:

How long do we have to wait?

Julie Boyd:

The Jorge diaries book is well underway at the moment and I’m just thinking of titling this one Life’s a Beach because he’s spent his whole time living at the beach but we’ve also done a lot of travelling and there have been lots of adventures while we’ve been living there and kind of writing the stories of the people who live in this little village now. Because I went from living in one tiny little village to basically going – when I was working as an educational consultant and a managing director who was travelling all over the world at one stage – and now I’ve come back to a little tiny village. The dynamics are exactly the same as they were in the first village, which is, I find, quite fascinating. So I want to document the personalities that are in the little village now through my dog’s perspective and how he interacts with them.

Elena Ornig:

So it’s definitely leaving me with an opening for another interview a few months down the road?

Julie Boyd:

Yep.

Elena Ornig:

Thank you very much Julie. It was a real pleasure.

Julie Boyd:

Thank you, Elena.

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