When it comes to school improvement, remember where we came from

There’s so much that we can improve in our schools, the trouble is where do we start?

Prioritizing the work that needs to get done in our schools is a challenge in itself, there are competing agendas depending on whose view you take – school leaders, teachers, parents and students. Even teachers, frequently, cannot reach consensus on drawing up a list of priorities.

Working in an international school for some 7 years now, each year I am reminded of what the school ‘has’ and ‘has not’ got in place, as a new group of teachers commence while others move on.

What I have learned is that we do not need to fix everything at once and there does need to be a set of priorities that not everyone will agree with. Not being able to give everyone what they want comes with the territory of being a school leader. What we can do though is to communicate the school’s progress and remember where we have come from.

Leaders need to tell stories of the growth of our schools and we need to ground ourselves to the fact that, overall, if our school is a better than the year before, we are making progress. We do need to be mindful that unless a person has lived through the school’s progress themselves, it is difficult for those newer members of our school communities to comprehend the progress made and appreciate it. This is why the story matters, it is a chance for us to lift our heads, look to the past, present and future with a bigger picture in mind.

In determining the next steps for school improvement, we should feel comfortable in refraining from tinkering with everything – what we may have now maybe just fine for the time being. Too often we stretch ourselves too thinly when it comes to making improvements and unintentional consequences may occur under the strain.

For school leaders, during those times where we may beat ourselves up, feeling responsible for everything we are not doing, let us take time to look back on the journey we have taken our schools and find solace in the progress we have made thus far and are still making.

Circumvention without a conversation – what it means for school leaders

Going around someone in order to ensure that something gets done is not uncommon in most workplaces, including schools. Yet it can create significant issues for school culture and challenges for school leaders wherever they may be in the hierarchy of operations.

People circumvent when they feel the person in front of them is blocking their way forward, or stopping them from getting what they want. For example, the department head / chair is not going in the direction a particular teacher wishes to go, or they are requiring them to do something that they dislike or are unwilling to carry out. To avoid the situation, the teacher by-passes their line manager and goes straight to the next person up the chain, for example the assistant principal to discuss the problem.

The assistant principal now is placed in a difficult situation. If they side with the teacher, they will undermine the department head. Side with the department head, they may discourage the teacher and they may feel unsupported. Obviously, any action taken by the assistant principal will depend on why the teacher is circumventing in the first place.

Before taking any action to any request from the teacher, it is vital the assistant principal investigate and clarify the situation impartially. If the teacher feels that the assistant principal is siding with them, this may lead to further unwanted issues.

Too often when circumvention occurs, no conversation has occurred between teacher and department head (line manager). Such conversations are difficult. Conversations where we have our differences and disagreements are not easy, they are tense, sometimes confronting and most of all emotionally draining. Yet these conversations need to happen in our schools.

School leaders are responsible for cultivating an environment where we can engage in passionate but civil discourse without running to the next person if we do not get our own way.

In the case above, it could be after all, the teacher’s line manager that is the cause of the issue. The assistant principal may need to bring the two together to resolve their differences and invest in further coaching of the department head. School leaders need to be as supportive as possible to resolve such problems.

Allow for circumvention in our schools, then we begin to head down a slippery slope of a school culture that lacks basic trust. If we get to a point where trusting is lacking between colleagues and between teachers and leaders, we are in a very difficult situation indeed.

 

What is reasonable? When great teachers make other teachers look bad

In every school there are teachers who may be fabulous and make teachers who are good look quite ordinary in comparison.

In so many ways it is wonderful to have committed great teachers who may go beyond the norm in delivering their classes, communicating with parents and contributing to the school as a whole.

There is a downside too, in that parents will make this comparison and demand that other teachers commit to doing the same as that great teacher they and their child just love. This creates a significant dilemma for school leaders who need to support all teachers in order for a school to move forward. In many instances, teachers and school leaders quite rightly  feel that comparisons from parents are unfair and unjustified.

In worst case scenarios, I have seen great teachers in schools resented and even bullied because others just cannot keep up and are being constantly pushed to do more and more beyond what they feel is reasonable.

I have seen over the years, among others, comparisons made between teachers in:

  • the frequency and type of communication
  • the adoption of different teaching strategies and learning technologies
  • time given to students after school (by the way more time given does not always equate to better teaching)
  • commitment to extra-curricular activities

So, should we hold back that great teacher who is making the others look bad? Of course not.

The issue lies in how schools define their expectations of teachers and communicate this both to teachers, parents and students. If teachers are meeting the expectation of the school, then it should be relatively easy to respond to parents who are demanding that certain teachers give more because Mr or Mrs X did this or did that.

We have to be clear that when teachers do the extraordinary, then we should be thankful for it when it happens but recognize that each teacher is different in ability and level of commitment that they can give in any day. Take for example a teachers personal circumstances and their family life. What a teacher may have given to a school before they were married with children may have been significantly more depending on the person.

It becomes easier to for school leaders to support and defend teachers when unfair comparisons are made between them by parents if the expectations are understood by all. As long as our expectations are fair and reasonable to most, if not all, then we should be in a decent place to respond when the next teacher may not ‘be as good’ as the previous one.

We need to mindful that our willingness to serve our school community to the best of our ability can be as divisive as it can be productive. Refrain, however, from holding great teachers back.

 

3 ways for keeping parents informed and involved in our schools

Ask teachers about how they feel about the parents in their school community and responses will probably be wide-ranging. We have heard of the ‘helicopter’ parents, the ‘tiger moms’ and those parents who make life for teachers, well, inconvenient. On the other hand, some teachers feel that a number of parents are not interested, have not got the time yet it is vital they play a greater part in their child’s education.

Regardless of what view different teachers hold, parents matter. Parents and teachers together have a huge influence on the life of a child and if they work well in tandem, the positive impact parents and teachers can have is significant. We, therefore, need to involve parents in our schools.

This means going beyond the parent-teacher conference, which if you asked many parents is hit and miss depending on what teacher you are talking to.

The first question we should be asking ourselves is what mechanisms do we have for parents to give us feedback to improve our schools? To do this well, we have to be prepared that not all feedback will be kind and some of it will pick out small things that perhaps, to us, are not that important or inconvenient to address right now. Genuine seeking of feedback from a parent body and then talking about and acting on some of it begins to build that trust that the education of children is a two-way relationship between school and home.

In requesting feedback from parents, we should be asking parents about the aspects of our school programs that they wish to know more about or have little understanding of. We need to look at our schools through the eyes of our parents. Schools are different now to what most parents experienced in their education and parents need to, and many want to, understand those differences. Schools, by listening to their parents, can begin to tailor their information more to what parents are going to engage with. I have often heard teachers complain that parents are not paying attention to the information that they are being sent. Well, perhaps that is because it is in a format that parents do not want to engage with, or it is information that is not that important from the perspective of the parent, but if you have never asked, you will never know.

Going beyond the general sharing of information is having parents experience what classes are like. I have seen some schools open up their classrooms for parents to observe lessons. Other schools have teachers put parents in a demonstration lesson, to see learning through the eyes of their children, to be able to experience the difference since they were at school and to be able to ask questions. These experiences are powerful for parents, they get to see, for example, how technology is used, how critical thinking is developed and why creativity is so important.

Involving parents in our schools not only helps with the school-home partnership but it goes further to build trust in that parents get to understand what goes on behind the exterior walls of the school building and, most important, builds a school community where parents are value as part learning process

Changing school culture – Push too far, then face the kick back

When new leaders are appointed to their various roles in schools, they are often eager to make change, to help the school improve and move forward.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to make change but how one goes about it is crucial to its success and the impact change will have on the school as a whole. A lot of what is written about change is quite mechanical, yet it is good to see more and more being written about how school culture informs change and vice-versa.

More often than not, when plans for a change are laid down, or when changes are requested or required, there needs to be a change in school habits, which means a change in school culture.

If we are looking to change established habits in a school that have gone unquestioned over a long period of time, we are dealing with entrenched behaviours and a significant amount of resistance may need to be overcome in order to form new ways of working. It is vital that school leaders do not underestimate this when planning for change.

If we change the expectations that have been previously set for teachers, then we are asking teachers to work differently. If we are introducing a new workflow, then we are asking staff to comply with a new way of working. If we decide that we want to tighten-up on something in our school that previously was allowed to be ‘loose’, then we are shifting the requirements.  At its core, improving things in our schools is about forming new habits and changing culture.

With this comes great risk; change things too quickly, the resistance will kick back. Over the years, I have seen leaders bring in numerous changes all at once, meaning that teachers were required to immediately reform to a large set of new behaviours. Subsequently, they pushed back and made life difficult for those leading the change. Similarly, I have seen where the change in behaviour has been demanded instantly, as opposed to working gradually towards the desired state of change. Push too far, either too much or too quickly, then faces the repercussions at your peril. In worst case scenarios, I have seen new Heads of School brought in to change the cultural status quo, only to be asked to leave 12 months later as the kick back was immense.

While changing a way of working may appear simple to us, to others it is a big deal and difficult. We must never underestimate the significance of the cultural element associated with change and, therefore, move gradually and carefully. Otherwise, prepare to face the consequences of the kick back.

Putting values first in education

One of my favourite quotes is: “If I take care of my character, my reputation will take care of itself.” from D.L.Moody.

Our character is very much defined by our values and, based on this, we have a responsibility to put values at the forefront of every child’s education.

The news that we are fed appears to be a constant stream of criticisms or praises regarding the character of various sportspeople, entertainers, business leaders and politicians from all over the globe, with criticism far out-stripping praise in terms of news content. To a certain degree, it seems as though we are becoming more content to live with the significant character flaws of key leaders in our respective societies, to the point where leadership in certain domains has become morally bankrupt. The impact that leaders have on us and, more importantly, our students is significant in shaping societal culture and that which permeates into our schools.

We have a moral obligation not to just guide students in learning about and developing values but to lead the way, showing our values through our behaviour. We have to challenge what is unacceptable and what is good, human decency. Only together can we make the world a better place.

Most schools have a set of values but I put forward the following question:

To what extent are your school’s values demonstrated everyday through the actions of school leaders, teachers, support staff, parents and students?

The key to providing a successful values-based education, is to make sure that the teaching and learning of the values is explicit.

Once of the reasons that the school in which I work in an International Baccalaureate World School, is that it places values based education at its heart through its learner profile. In implementing IB programmes, schools are required to ensure that the teaching of learner profile attributes are actively planned for, resulting in explicit teaching and learning.

It was great to venture into Kindergarten classes this week to see students learning about what it means to be caring, principled and open-minded and be able to articulate and demonstrate this so well given their age.

Surely, a greater focus on values has to be more important than the subject content that is so often prioritised in our classrooms? But we must not forget to model the way in our own behaviour first.

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