Creating headspace for professional growth and development in schools

Every school I have ever worked in or visited is keen to improve. When school leaders often talk about improvement, they more often than not consider what is needed to help teachers grow and develop. This may be in through the provision of resources to complement the teaching and learning that we wish to see in our schools, or the investing in the professional learning that will equip teachers with new skills or consolidate existing skills that enables teachers to hone their craft.

When it come to teaching and learning, teachers generally do the best they know how to do. This is why school leaders, both formal and informal, seek to provide learning and development opportunities that will enable teachers to grow and flourish in working with students.

Providing opportunities for teacher growth and development, however, is not merely enough. It is vital that before providing opportunities for learning, school leaders need to ensure that teachers have the ‘headspace’ to take on this learning. Going back to the work of Vygotsky and the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’, if leaders push people too far, too soon, because they are not ready, then things can get dangerous. Push back against professional development initiatives may begin to occur, behaviour towards the learning may take a turn for the worse and leaders may end up with a developing school culture of complaint and cynicism.

How often do we see schools start a year with professional development after a long summer break? You may have noticed, though, that the enthusiasm for learning begins to wain in days two and three, as the reality of planning for lessons begins to set in and all teachers really want to do is get into their classrooms ready to start the year. The response we see here is related to ‘headspace’. How much new learning can we take on at any one time in order for it to be effective and change practice in the way it is intended?

This where school leaders have to be switched-on to detect how teachers are going, when they need a break and when there is opportunity for new learning.

I have heard, over the years, many a school leader say, “There is never an ideal time for professional development.” Well that could certainly be true, if we continue to use a one size fits all approach to professional learning, as school leaders will not please everyone in this way. If a more personalised approach is adopted, then there may be a chance of greater success.

School leaders need to understand with each individual teacher that there are good times to push forward but at other times, leaving someone where they currently are is all they have the ‘headspace’ for at that moment in time.

In schools, one mistake can have huge consequences even when it is a tiny fraction of what we do

In our schools we have huge responsibility beyond just focusing on teaching and learning. The level of compliance that schools now have to adhere to, some things for good reason, has placed significant strain on the human resources of a school, namely teachers and school leaders. While governing bodies surrounding education and child welfare have passed on top-down initiatives to schools, little thought has been given to the implementation of what is being required.

The result of this lack of consideration from governing bodies is increased expectations, which places greater responsibility on teachers and school leaders, leading to an overall rise in stress levels. In fact, a number of teachers and school leaders now feel that their roles and responsibilities are no longer what they signed up for.

Nonetheless, so many who care deeply about the profession remain. Education is a calling, a commitment to being able to have a positive impact in society through making a difference to the lives of children we lead, coach and mentor. Most of us, subsequently, work tirelessly in contributing to our respective schools and supporting the students in our care.

With increasing expectations and responsibilities, the chance for teachers and school leaders to make mistakes multiplies. When teachers and school leaders are stretched, they are prone to errors. They are unable to give everything 100% of our attention. The problem with this is that certain mistakes that teachers and school leaders may make can have huge consequences, even if it is a fraction of what they do.

For example, it is possible that a fantastic teacher, who is highly respected, is two minutes late to playground duty, and in that time an accident happens. Depending on the severity of the accident, the context of the school, the expectation of its parent and governing bodies, the consequences can be devastating. As educators, we can find such an outcome difficult to take and process, as we may have given so much to our schools and within a split-second our credibility, even our job, can be swept away.

As school leaders, we need to be mindful of this when we are giving feedback to colleagues. Many teachers and school leaders are inclined to dwell on the negatives associated with any feedback and overlook the positives. As educators, we are intensely proud of the commitment and effort we give to our schools. A comment given to a student or colleague in frustration, overlooking a supervisory duty, or missing a deadline may be enough to have a significant negative impact that attention must be given to the problem, so much so, that everything positive that may have preceded the event is erased away in that moment and, perhaps, for some time after.

Unfortunately, not much is going to change the situation here for the time being but we do need to be mindful that the while we may get it right 99% of the time, that 1% error can be damaging indeed and, sometimes, with lasting consequences.



Cover the bases – the need to understand all aspects of our schools

To have a successful school, it requires leaders who are abreast of how everything in a school works.

Schools are highly complex places where poor decision-making in one area of the school can have significant impact on another. Schools are complex in that external forces that either mandate or create pressure for change on certain aspects of a school need to be clearly understood so that the school decision-makers are able to be fully informed before proceeding. Complex school environments demonstrate that the personnel in a school are more than just interchangeable parts; each person brings a unique skill set and quality to the roles they perform. When highly valued team members decide to move on, it can create huge instability.

For these, reasons it is vital that school leaders spend significant time learning about the schools they lead, engaging with colleagues that they may not immediately see as valuable and making a commitment to understanding those aspects of a school that they may find less interesting.

This does not mean that school leaders must be present on every committee, lead every meeting, or be part of every decision. Leaders need to be able to exercise good judgement to know when they are going to be needed and when they can step back and trust their team to get on with it. Leaders do however, need to familiarize themselves with the unfamiliar, so that they can be involved in crucial discussions when change is needed. Perhaps, even more importantly, we can become more empathetic leaders when we understand what every one of our colleagues does in contributing to the whole.

By seeking to cover all our bases, teachers and support staff will trust that the leader truly knows what goes on, the challenges faced and that they can guide the school both through crises and forwards in its improvement.

Difficult conversations when to hold them and when to fold them?

As a school leader, solving problems, moving initiatives forward and supporting colleagues requires difficult conversations from time to time. Reflecting further, depending on how much is going on in our respective school environments, it can appear at times the a number of difficult conversations are necessary in a short period of time.

Without a doubt, difficult conversations can serve as important, crucial, conversations that if addressed well enable schools to move forward with purpose and momentum.

That said, difficult conversations are emotionally draining and challenge many of us to overcome our fears as to what may happen when we engage in such challenging, possibly confrontational, dialogue.

Owing to this, as leaders, we need to pick our battles, pace ourselves and not feel as though we have to address everything all at once. This can sometimes be at odds with what we are aspiring to achieve for our schools, as by not tackling every difficult conversation, we may allow certain behaviours, issues, situations to be maintained until such time that we have the capacity to address them.

Our school cultures may, to a large extent, be defined by what we, as leaders, are prepared to accept and tolerate. If school leaders, however, choose to tackle all their cultural issues head-on, all at once, then it could come at huge cost. School leaders are also charged with ensuring that they can endure the turbulence that often comes with tackling challenging circumstances. A bit of self-preservation from time to time, saying that something can wait and picking the right time to engage in a difficult conversation can go a long way to ensuring a sustained and more purposeful leadership effort.

With difficult conversations, we have to know when it is worth holding them, what will be the benefit and what is the cost, for what and for who, if we decide to postpone a few conversations to a later date. One thing is for sure, we cannot run away. If this were the case, we probably want to evaluate why we are in a leadership position in the first place.


Students staring at blank walls? 5 classroom displays for Secondary Schools

One of the key differences that exist between learning environments in primary school classrooms and those in many secondary schools is the use of the classroom display space. Too often secondary school classrooms can be uninspiring places to walk into, so spare a thought for the students who have to put up with it. To those educators, who have made a significant effort to provide a classroom environment that makes a student want to walk in the room, thank you!

Classroom displays do not always have to be about displaying the work of our students. In fact, some of the best classroom displays that I have seen are purely functional and there to support explicit instruction, which enhances learning. Classroom displays can be reference points for what we want students to look for and incorporate into their learning. Here are 5 ways to do just that:

Academic vocabulary displays

Every teacher is a language teacher, yet some are lot better at it than others. Classroom displays with key topic vocabulary, question command terms and sentence starters / writing builders can make for fantastic displays. They can be an essential point of reference for both the teacher and the student in both discussion, reading and writing engagements. For second or additional language learners such displays are a must in a classroom, though we should not neglect opportunities to support language development of native speakers.

Quotes for inspiration or reflection

Having quotes of famous posted around a room can be referred to in challenging times, in moments of celebrating success / accomplishment, or even linked to a learning task. Over the years, I have seen some excellent classroom displays that support a book that is being read, with key quotes for students to reflect, discuss and incorporate into their work.

Academic honesty displays

With a cut and paste environment, teacher support for and encouragement of academic honesty is vital. Displays should aim to promote academic honesty rather than be punitive in nature. Speak to your school librarian for ideas and, perhaps, even adopt a whole school approach to this important aspect of student learning.

Assessment displays

Classroom displays that support assessment tasks, whether it be an assessment rubric, step-by-step guides and annotated exemplars of work. These can be fantastic ‘go to’ resources for the teacher to emphasize and make clear expectations for the student.

Values and character development displays

School mission, vision and values displays, particularly the latter. To build culture in a school and for everyone to live the values, then they must be present, explicitly modeled, taught and reflected upon through learning. Images to support values can make fantastic displays.

In summing up, classroom displays, if planned well, can be amazing tools for teachable moments, as well as providing interest to students, fellow educators and prospective parents and students, who may be thinking about join your school community.

Most of all, if you see it and reminded of it, then you will most likely remember to apply it. That can only strengthen learning.

Quick tip: Use checklists to empower students and give them feedback

When it comes to discussing formative assessment, despite understanding its need and purpose, teachers are often challenged by there not being enough time to use formative assessment to give students meaningful feedback.

Checklists are an excellent tool to use with students of all ages to give effective feedback in the classroom. Checklists can be used effectively in different subject / content areas and with students of various ages.

Self and peer assessment are excellent ways for students to get quick and meaningful feedback on their work. I have heard some teachers say, on numerous, occasions, “I cannot use self or peer assessment in my class because students do not know what to look for.”

My response to that is, start with simple checklists. If a teacher wants students to to develop formatting skills that will help with their assignments, then use a simple checklist that enable a student to ensure they have, for example, size 12 font, a specific font type and there is a line between each paragraph. Simple and students can self-check or peer check.

Similarly, this can be done with students developing PowerPoint slides, drafting oral presentations, developing paragraphs, and so on. Checklists are great way for students to develop skills and take some of the workload in giving feedback off the teacher.

Checklists, I believe, can help students establish routines based upon the expectations that we set for them, so that they develop effective learning habits. Being able to identify things that are missing prior to an assignment being submitted will not only save the teacher time with their feedback but the student gets the opportunity to fix any mistakes prior to submission.

Let’s give our students some credit. In many instances, they know what to look for if the expectations are clear and they are able to engage with timely feedback that does not involve a teacher being under a pile of marking!


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