Focusing on ‘the right work’, setting goals and the issue of time

The Right Work

One of the best things about being an educator is that there is a large degree of independence. When teaching, it is just you and the students shut off from distractions for that precious amount of time that we have with them. Similarly, when we are not teaching a fair chunk of our time is ours to choose what we do. Of course, there are the regular collaborative meetings, after school clubs and activities but it is clear that educators have a fair bit of choice when you hear non-contact time being referred to as “my fee period” or “my prep time.”

As a leader in schools, a huge amount of trust is given to teachers that this valuable non-contact time is used effectively. We also do not know the work that teachers do outside of the school day or in their holidays. What is for sure is that some do more than others. In fact, some teachers go beyond what is expected or required and on the other extreme some teachers are minimalists. This disparity can cause problems in schools between teachers and between teachers and school leaders. Even those teachers who are putting in very long hours, we want to know that they are effective in what they are doing to help improve student outcomes and meeting the school’s goals.

So, let’s cut to the heart of the problem. The issue is the perception of autonomy that we can have as teachers; we make most of our own decisions. We decide what resources to make, the amount of feedback we give, the turnaround time of marked papers or the time we spend helping students outside class. The hard task, as a leader, is to ensure that what is being done is effective and is being carried out efficiently. Teacher goal setting is vital to school improvement and should be a delicate balance or leaders setting prescribed goals for teachers and teachers setting their own. Goals should be monitored, feedback given and new goals set each year. Of course, we need to celebrate the successes too.

The culture that has to change is that whenever there are cries of “there is not enough time”, we all need to first reflect upon how we are using that time. Consider this. If all teachers in a school were given one class less to teach, would every one of them make the most of this time to improve what is being done in the school? The answer is, probably not. ‘Free periods’ are not free to do what one wants, they are paid time for which the teacher is responsible, as professional, to improving what we do for students. Our challenge, as leaders, is to be both mindful of the demands we place on our teachers but also support them in using their time to focus on the work that really matters.

Making change starts with “Why?”

All leaders are trying to create change to improve their schools, but so often the fundamental point of the change is missing, which leads to so many change efforts falling by the wayside. Every change that is made, even the smallest ones, should be accompanied by an explanation of why the change is taking place. This makes a great deal of sense if the change is urgent and you are trying to call the troops to action.

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Simon Sinek presents a great talk calling for more focus on the why, as opposed to the how and the what. When making change, perhaps we need to remind ourselves to be 5 year old children again inquiring why the world is the way they see it. All too often the ‘Why?’ is not explained, as it considered that people understand the reasoning and can work it out for themselves. This does not tend to be the case and whether the reasoning is emotional or logical it is crucial to explain our actions. Also, by presenting why the change is being made or why something needs to be done in a particular way, it allows us to consider the questions that may come from those affected and acknowledge these questions in accounting for the proposed action(s).

In fact preparing for all the different questions that may arise from your staff as to why a change is taking place will help you demonstrate an understanding and consideration of the different viewpoints that may be present in your school and show that you know your staff.

Next time you start a change movement, picture that little 5 year old child asking: “Why?”

 

The Bank Balance and Staff Morale

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With schools being busy and it feeling like the only constant is change, educational leaders, are always finding that they are making many requests of teachers and support staff. While many of the changes in schools are externally driven there are also many internally directed changes that add to everyone’s workload.

Leaders need to be concerned when requests become a bit too much for teachers and support staff and people feel a sense of being overwhelmed. It is in this situation that school leaders need to think carefully about their relationships with their colleagues and what they are expecting of them. I find thinking about this in the way that we manage our finances and keeping an eye on our bank balance.

Certainly, many requests of teachers and support staff are related to doing their job well and improving the school, however, it is essential to be mindful of the amount of time that is available to complete these tasks. Accountability without support will lead to a low or declining staff morale in schools, which needs to be avoided. School leaders need to build credit with their teams by improving staff morale through ensuring that the work environment is as stress-free as possible making it possible for everyone to do the best job possible with a positive attitude to doing so. Too many ‘hard asks’ of staff can wipe away any credit that leaders may have built up and leave them significantly in debt, writing cheques that they cannot cash.

Every now and then check your relationship bank balance when you next ask for something from a colleague or your whole staff, are you in credit or deficit?

Three simple tips to improve relationships in your school

One of my favourite educational articles is titled ‘Improving Relationships in the Schoolhouse’ by Roland Barth. I find I am constantly referring back to Barth’s words when coaching school leaders and trying to improve school culture. Barth categorizes staff relationships in schools broadly but quite neatly and points us in the direction of striving for a collaborative school culture. This, however, is easier said than done, as it means tackling those staff relationships that do not help the cause.

When I often think of the elements of toxic school cultures that Kent Peterson describes, I am led to think of those subversive relationships so concisely described by Barth. Of course, not everything about a school’s culture can be completely toxic, however, subversive actions and relationships can weigh you down and make progress difficult to achieve.

Try these three simple tips to improve relationships in your school:

  1. Everybody has good intentions: Too often when things go wrong in a school, we can think that this has happened deliberately. Rarely, is this the case, how many teachers can you think of really want to contribute to a toxic school culture? Not many, most teachers try to act with every good intention. This should always be the starting point for conversation, seek to understand why the relationship(s) are unhealthy, then begin the discussion.
  2. Create open face-to-face discussion: When teachers are struggling to collaborate, all too often the negativity is aired in discussions away from where they really need to happen, the staff room or faculty office. It is important to get the ‘non-discussables’ on the table in department meetings or between the teachers concerned. To do this well, the discussion must be facilitated carefully, so that each person gets to speak openly and honestly, about the issues and jointly make any resolutions or agreements moving forward.
  3. Encourage staff to talk to the ‘right’ person: Subversive behaviour often leads to teachers circumventing the person with whom they have a problem. As educational leaders it is important that we direct teachers back to talking directly to that person, otherwise the issue becomes your problem and teachers will not learn how to deal with it themselves. To do this well, as school leaders, we have to coach teachers through those difficult conversations, so that they can resolve any differences themselves.

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Challenge yourself to make a difference; do things differently

Having read an interesting article this week about not being a boring teacher, I think a huge amount can be gained by us examining the way we do things either as educational leaders and / or as teachers. What strikes me is that so often I hear teachers say that that students must challenge themselves or students should strive to be lifelong learners, yet all too often those same teachers do not demonstrate these important qualities to their students. One thing is for sure, we must not be complacent in what we do or accept double-standards; our students deserve much more than that.

 

Think about these questions:

When was the last time you taught a lesson differently?

When did you last try to use a different technology app with students?

When did you last change the way you presented something to your team?

When was the last time you did something silly in front of students?

When was the last time you took a risk that did not work out but you tried again later?

When was the last time you read an educational article and tried to apply some of the ideas in your own school?

 

If you are able to give recent examples in answering the above questions, then you are well on the road to showing your students that you are wishing to push the envelope in your classroom, you may even be inspiring your students and your colleagues to give new things a try rather than let things go stale. Even if you are a teacher who gets great results with your students, what more can the students get from you that will serve them well later in life?

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We must that accept that, as educators, we are also learners whose work is never finished. There is always improvement to be made and if we really want to do things in the same way time and time again, then what sort of a message are we sending. The only constant in education is change, so embrace that challenges that change brings. Be different from time to time.

Compelled to share

Welcome to the Ed Leader blog. It’s taken me a while, so there is a lot of catching up to do but it is worth sharing why I am compelled to get started with this.

I believe that education requires collaboration and the sharing of resources, information and ideas all assist in making our schools better. Furthermore, schools and teachers ask for students to be lifelong learners but too often us teachers and education leaders become complacent and do not live out the goals that we set for our students. While I agree that we focus on our students to make a better world we neglect to think about our own role as adults. We are the role models and the ones who will not only inspire our students, but we motivated and push each other into taken action that makes a difference – because we can.

Social networking has been on my mind for a while now and I can finally say that I am here sharing and collaborating beyond the face to face interactions in my school, in workshops and in conferences. Funnily enough, my final push into the blogging arena and greater uptake of Twitter usage came from a session at the recent ASCD 2014 Annual Conference in Los Angeles. There I attended a session with 5 educational leaders who had met through online collaboration and it was amazing to see what is possible to achieve through this medium. Certainly in my time following that event, my learning curve has been steep but I am becoming a better educator and leader from it. But there was one statement in this session that finally pushed me into action, which went something like this: We have a moral obligation, as educators, to share our practice and learn from each other for the benefit of our students.

As this blog will share thoughts, ideas and resources on all things education leadership, I see it as fitting to share my one liner about leadership in education.

We are first and foremost role-models for the teachers and students we lead. We cannot expect them to put into action the things we say, if we are not doing them ourselves first. To talk the talk we must walk the walk.

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