It’s personal – the barriers to looking at evidence for school improvement

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Leading school improvement is very challenging, especially creating the right culture that will support that improvement. Lots of conversations have to be had about what problems need to be addressed and how we should tackle them. Quite often problems focus on education practices that we are not doing in our schools or practices that we are not doing particularly well.

When it comes down to presenting these problems, many leaders are mindful that they are treading on egg shells; they do not want to upset teaching teams and the individual teachers within them. Ultimately, when it comes to presenting a problem, in the back of the mind of many leaders is: “Will I offend anyone by saying this? What will the reaction be?”

This type of thinking is only natural, as leaders know that they need the support of teachers to improve schools. Subsequently, considerable thought goes into how leaders go about raising problems and concerns that will then be responded to by teachers, as part of a learning community, together. One of the ways leaders have considered doing this is to bring evidence to the table for discussion. This why a number of schools have gone down the professional learning communities road, to have evidence reviewed and acted upon by teaching teams.

If we bring evidence of a problem to the table then, surely, in the best interests of the students, educators will look at it with open minds, see the problem that needs to be fixed and go about fixing it? Not necessarily so.

Reading some of Michael Fullan’s thoughts on change theory in schools, I could not agree more for the need to de-privatise teaching, so that we can bring problems out into the open and look at the evidence together using an inquiry-based approach to school improvement. This, however, is no easy task. Fullan comments on the number of of professional learning communities that fall over in their quest for collaborative school improvement.

Teaching can be such a deeply personal profession, we can be so quick to put up the barriers to looking at evidence that we feel may be a criticism of us. Reading an article on why it is so difficult to convince people with facts, I got thinking about this again. When threatened with challenges to our identity, then we will react negatively towards it. In other words, when confronted with evidence that clearly suggests that teachers need to change their practice, the walls will go up because it cuts at the heart of what we do.

So how do leaders break down the walls? To me, the answer is careful planning, persistence and an ability to try to see things through the eyes of the teacher. The aim should be to try to get teachers to become more reflective educators but be sure to know what this means. Understand that to get the reflective educators  that can truly assist with school improvement will take time, as we are trying to break old habits, some lifelong, while also instilling new habits. After all, making change in schools is really about changing both the behaviour of education leaders and teachers.

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