Teachers Work in Very Complex Settings

Leadership, Teacher, Teaching

As principal, I have been spending a lot of time inside classrooms as I learn more about the teaching and learning within my new school. With a heavily instructional focus, our teachers and actively engaged in facilitating learning for each individual child. So much so that in a single day our primary classroom teachers may participate in more than 1 000 interpersonal exchanges with students. Not only do teachers have numerous interactions with students, they must also interpret complex classroom behaviour on the spot. It is not surprising that most teachers are tired at the end of the day.

Because teachers constantly respond to the immediate needs of the students while they teach, they have little time during teaching to consider future planning for their class. This classroom preparation is completed outside school time often unseen by the general parent population and reflects the complex events that occur within the classroom.

It is not always easy to understand the day to day life of a competent teacher, until “you walk in their shoes”. When teachers make decisions about the activity within their classrooms the following aspects of classroom settings must be taken into consideration.

  1. Many different tasks and events exist in the classroom. Records and schedules must be kept and work must be monitored, collected and evaluated. A single event can have multiple consequences.
  2. Many things happen at the same time in classrooms. During a discussion, a teacher not only listens and helps to improve students’ answers but also monitors students who do not respond for signs of comprehension and tries to keep the lesson moving at a good pace.
  3. The pace of classroom events is rapid. Research suggests that teachers evaluated pupil conduct in public on the average of 15.89 times per hour or 87 times per day or an estimated 16 000 times a year (read Sieber, R. T. (1979) ‘Classmates as workmates: Informal peer activity in the elementary school’ for more detail). Time is all too important and needs to be utilised carefully.
  4. While a teacher is thoroughly prepared for each day often many events that occur are unanticipated. These include interruptions, student behaviour, achievement levels and expectations. Furthermore, much of what happens to a student is seen by many other students as well and they make their own judgments. Student esteem is important and therefore decisions need to be consistent.
  5. Actions, programmes and expectations all play a part in developing background for decision making. Research suggests that history often influences that way classrooms run (We have all heard of the great class and of the difficult class). No single strategy, approach, or technique works with all students and teachers need to call upon their repertoire of teaching skills, knowledge and at times, intuition to help decide the best path forward for a child’s learning.

Schooling has become more complex in recent years with teachers dealing with many issues and circumstances that take them away from their main instructional tasks. To increase the positive aspects of schooling it is imperative that support for our teachers is publicly acclaimed. Remember, self esteem of teachers is an important part of the education process. Be proud of them!!

Building Relationships Through Effective Feedback

Instruction, Leadership, Teaching

Beginning a new school as the designated leader is the perfect time to establish positive relationships. Getting to know staff is an important area that can be enhanced by spending time inside classrooms. This provides support for the class teacher and a offers a common environment for discussions on improving student and teacher learning. It is through the giving of feedback that we can work with teachers on improving practice.

However, giving feedback can create tension between school leaders and teachers. This can fracture relationships rendering the act of giving feedback to being a mere accountability exercise.

When working with teachers, I like to see the process of giving feedback after an observation as being the difference between evaluating a teacher and developing a teacher. To develop a teacher effective feedback needs to be genuine. Here are a few thoughts on how to give effective feedback:

  1. When meeting with the teacher after an observation ask targeted questions on the area of focus. This keeps the conversation directly at the heart of the teaching process.
  2. Use evidence to help illuminate the area of improvement. By providing explicit examples from the lesson you are focusing on the art of teaching and helping the teacher connect to their lesson delivery.
  3. Give precise praise and not simply warm hearted compliments. Be very clear on what the teacher does well.
  4. Giving feedback is about supporting improvement. State concrete actions to work on.
  5. Finally, it is good practice to provide examples to solidify understanding. Allowing the teacher to also verbally “re-enact” a future lesson using the advice allows you the opportunity to see if the teacher understood your feedback.

However some leaders could get caught up in some common mistakes as they try and support their teachers. such mistakes can inhibit the fostering of good relationships:

  1. The provision of feedback judges the person and not the action. Getting personal in feedback is never a good idea.
  2. Do no provide feedback that is vague as it does not give good direction and guidance to the teacher.
  3. Too many poor leaders try and bury negative feedback in between positive comments, hoping not to upset the teacher.
  4. The observer’s feedback is too general and doesn’t give enough detail for the teacher to work with.
  5. On the other hand, the feedback given is too lengthy and confuses the teacher.

Ultimately, feedback can be one of the most powerful influences on student learning. However it is critical that teachers know what the desired performance or behaviour is expected thus allowing transparency in the coaching and mentoring process. (and success in the relationship building!)

Preparing for the New Academic Year

Beginning School, Leadership

In a couple weeks I’ll be taking the leadership reigns of my seventh school as school principal and, like many leaders looking at taking on leading a new school in 2021, I am reflecting and pondering on my entry plan. 

There is much excitement and yet, at the same time some apprehension, as one prepares to meet and interact with a new school community. 

As a support here are five key processes I’ll be undertaking to help guide me as I prepare for the beginning of my new leadership tenure:⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

  1. Understand the mission in order to grow people toward the school’s vision: All schools have a purpose for being and, in order to lead successfully, you must understand what the school aspires to become.
  2. Develop strategies focused on achieving the vision: Strategies explain how the initiatives you put into place will reach their intended objectives. Once known, you then can create actionable plans to unite the community to achieve your intended outcomes. Your first 100 days of learning and listening will assist you in determining what strategies you will want to explore in fostering your plans to achieve the vision.
  3. Support and foster staff expertise to nurture the learning: Starting with knowing your staff you can help support their professional growth. This in turn gives you opportunity to tap into the expertise in your midst to help lead the school. 
  4. Study the evidence to understand the results: Given the key role of school leadership is centred on school improvement you need to know what is working well and what isn’t. Analysing the data gives insight into the current practices of the school and will help you understand why “things are the way they are”. This can help prioritise your thoughts 
  5. Eyes toward the future: “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” or so the saying goes. With points 1-4 in mind, the new leader should be looking towards building a brighter future. 

Ultimately, whether you are leading a new school or not, for me the fundamental pillar of school leadership is in the positive relationships we build. No matter how you approach your new school year, you will never have a second chance in creating a positive first impression. How you meet and greet people will go a long way to setting up a successful leadership tenure. Nothing substitutes for building and nurturing positive relationships.

A New Era of Learning (for Teachers Too..)

Instruction, Leadership, Professional Learning

A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would equip their students with the skills for the rest of their lives. However, today, teachers need to prepare students for more change than ever before, for jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not been invented and to solve social problems that we just can’t imagine. The time of the industrial age of mass education, which was essential for rapidly industrializing nations, has now gone. 

Today, schools need to be (and they certainly are, given the onset of the COVID-19 era) more future focused, drawing alignment from societal trends to guide global education reform. Many commentators are spruiking the view that there is a collation of necessary skills that our students will need for the future of their careers. However meeting this challenge will rely upon bold leadership from teachers, administrators, principals, parents, school boards, business/civic leaders, and even the students themselves. How they will do this will be through strategies such as employing systems thinking, education for sustainability, learner‐centered pedagogy, and building schools as learning communities. 

While the pressure on schools to improve student learning and classroom teaching has always been there, the rise of the COVID-19 era of schooling has accentuated the refocus on the role of the teacher and the skills needed to teach in a technology rich environment. The Information Age of technology moved us into an era of instant information necessitating changes in pedagogy to facilitate learning in this 21st century. The old saying, “we need to educate our students for their future, not our past” is more relevant now than ever before. Future employment opportunities necessitate graduates to have strong interpersonal communication skills, be able to collaborate and problem solve. They will require critical thinking skills, be able to show initiative and have strong self-management skills. 

And amidst this COVID-19 pandemic and as we work towards a post COVID-19 environment, this is the real challenge for education systems. With this in mind, teachers are working overtime to help students to: 

  1. Work in teams and collaborate;
  2. Think critically and engage in complex problems; 
  3. Develop presentation skills and build oral communication; 
  4. Write effectively to communicate and articulate ideas; 
  5. Use technology to learn; 
  6. Be global-minded and take on community service; and
  7. Be knowledgeable

Although these strategies have been key in restructuring teaching and learning, necessitated by the sudden shift to a remote learning environment, we need to be careful as schools slowly return to the face to face classroom. Teachers will need to continue to look at building these strategies into their curriculum projects, activities and assignments. They are designed to elicit the key skills future employers require including collaboration, critical thinking, written communication, oral communication, work ethic, and other critical skills while simultaneously meeting the required content standards.

In recent years it seems every country has revised their curriculum articulating the knowledge and skills that students need for the new global workforce. Unfortunately, with the close scrutiny that accompanies changes to current practice, the debate on quality and success inevitably follows. This debate leads to more confusion and disrupts the momentum. Educational agencies need to remove the barriers and impediments that school leaders argue inhibit creativity, innovation and even the autonomy to lead schools. (You don’t lose weight by constantly weighing yourself!)

There is no “silver bullet” or simple fix as all educational entities have their own nuances. However, suffice it to say, that every subject specialist believes their discipline is the most important and as a result, the curriculum expands but time to instruct doesn’t. We need to learn from the higher performing nations, like Singapore, and “teach less to learn more”. This is becoming increasingly the norm as schools revisit curriculum and what is essential to deliver during this COVID-19 remote learning period.

But it is not just the curriculum that needs addressing. As the experience of the transition to remote learning unfolds, we note that the role of the teacher is also changing as a major paradigm shift in learning moves from Teacher-Centred to Learner-Centred approaches. With teachers experiencing the delivery of learning both synchronously and asynchronously,  together with the availability of the growing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to K-12, teachers are not only supporting student engagement in their learning but introducing new pathways for students. These factors tend to suggest that the successful teachers are shifting from a traditional teaching methodology to one based on coaching, enabling and guiding student learning. 

Consequently, taking our experience of remote learning, the transition back to the classroom and a thrust into a new era of learning, calls for new teacher skills to embrace a new pedagogy for the classroom are getting louder. 

Is This the Age of Disruption?

Leadership

The end of the academic year has arrived. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has crystalized over the past few months and as schools close for the 2019/2020 school year, there is much to reflect upon.

Isn’t it amazing what can happen when we are “forced” into whole scale change! The shift from face to face teaching to distance learning wasn’t by choice; it was thrust upon everyone. Many teachers had to adapt and learn new technological skills overnight. While some may have struggled initially, we learned, adapted, problem solved, and embarked on a new pedagogical path.

Hopefully, over the past few months teachers moved from an emergency response teaching approach to a more dynamic and engaging learning experience for the students. While there may be some variance on the success of distance learning, it has brought education (or more precisely, teaching) into the world’s spotlight.

While time will tell if students have gained any real benefit from the experience, early signs of teacher learning can be seen in their adoption of a wide variety of technological platforms, apps and programs as they grappled with meeting their students learning needs in a different workspace.

Given the thrust into distance learning and the uptake of many (and varied) digital applications, there has been a loud chorus of enthusiasts calling for changes to the pre-COVID-19 pandemic education delivery. In January 2020, before the pandemic, the World Economic Forum released “Schools of the Future: Defining New Models of Education for the Fourth Industrial Revolution“. This report calls for implementing a global framework for shifting learning content and experiences towards the needs of the future. Now that would disrupt the one size fits all high stakes testing!!

Re-Entry to School Buildings Post COVID-19

Curriculum, Instruction, Leadership, School Culture, Teacher

It has been bandied across the social media platforms that education and how we deliver learning will need to change to address the “new normal”. Given the paradigm shift schools have faced in recent time, we cannot simply return to the pre COVID-19 approach to teaching and learning. Our experience has shaped us and informed us on how to best connect with students and engage them in their learning.

Research tells us that prior to the pandemic a third of teachers were actively thinking of leaving the profession within the next five years. Given the pandemic impact in the international school setting this statistic might rise with teachers wanting to return home to a more familiar and stable environment. Speak to recruiters (and other school leaders) and you will find that schools potentially anticipating a teacher (and school leader) recruitment crisis.

But there has been some silver linings during this pandemic. Across the globe, countries have cancelled their national standardised/high stakes testing regimes and looking at other means of providing assessment for their students. However, it is not only the 2019-20 cohort who will be affected by this crisis. The future and implications of such decision making is yet to be realised (if not improved!).

When we do go back to school everything will be different – and it must be different. From what we teach our students, to how we teach our students through to how we keep our students safe. We probably need to go back and ask ourselves the fundamental question of this age: what is the purpose of education?

No doubt the educational authorities, the experts in our field, have started formulating the answer. While we wait for their direction we too must be ready to enter a new reality of doing schooling given our professional judgment in light of the COVID-19 era.

So what might a re-entry into school buildings look like for educators and their school communities? Here are three categories that educators will be pondering:

1. Health & Hygiene Measures:

Given the precautionary social distancing, hand washing/sanitising campaign and temperature monitoring that has been instituted to help prevent the spread of the virus, there will be an expectation that similar measure be put into place when we return to school. There will be temperature screening on entering the school building and randomly throughout the school day. Teachers will be asked to stringently monitor (& limit) student access to washrooms and classrooms will most likely revert to rows of desks (with social distancing in mind) facing the front of the classroom. Changes to break times, restricted playground options and a rethink of how to use the cafeteria will be worked out.

2. Curriculum Re-Writes:

In a recent article John Hattie noted that “If we take out one term/semester of 10 weeks, [Australia and the US] still have more in-school time compared to Finland, Estonia, Korea and Sweden, which all outscore Australia and the USA on PISA,” Now if John Hattie is right, then it’s not time at school that’s the problem, it’s what we are teaching our students. We need a drastic rethink of our curriculum standards and dare I say, the mandated core subject allocation. Suffice to say that our current curriculum is voluminous and over crowded.

3: Pedagogical Shifts:

The fear is that a re-entry to the school buildings will see a return to the stand and deliver teaching methodology. It’s an easy solution to comply with the expected rules and regulations that may come down the educational authority line. The challenge for teachers is to use the learning experience of school closures and the various methods of facilitating learning for students at home and blend them into a new school experience. The flipped classroom, provision of instructional videos, project based learning derivations and even active learning strategies, will need to be the “new normal” when we return to school. However, for this new pedagogical stance to rise, changes to not only current standardised/high stakes testing but also inspection accountabilities need to be considered.

That said, the real question on everyone’s mind is, will we be re-entering school buildings too soon, or not soon enough?

Teacher Appreciation Week 2020

International Schooling, Leadership, Teacher, Teaching

During this COVID-19 crisis, many people have been displaced from their normal routines. There has been a tumultuous upheaval in our day to day lives as we have now come to deal with the sudden closure of our retail outlets, shopping malls, restaurants, and of our schools.

The impact is devastating, for many as jobs have been lost, salaries cut, and with the pressures of working from home, the balance of family and work life has become problematic. Well-being issues have been brought to the forefront of conversations.

For families, it’s difficult to have to monitor two, three or four children each day to ensure their learning continues and learning tasks completed. No doubt parents are very appreciative of the work teachers do (given that teachers manage classes of up to 30 students every lesson, every day, every week)

Everyone is acutely aware of the challenges teachers are under. The pressure on them has never been greater.

Let’s not dwell on the mandated high stakes testing, or the diversity of student needs within the classroom, or the ever increasing accountability measures placed upon them, but rather celebrate and affirm their unwavering efforts to do the best they can for each and every student. It’s not an easy task.

Many teachers have had to learn new digital tools overnight as they moved into uncharted territory to personalize and improve their instruction for distance learning. This has come without real guidance and was fraught with many challenges and barriers. Perseverance, creativity and long hours have helped ease the transition. New routines, communication practices and a huge shift in pedagogy (ie the method and practice of teaching) has seen learning continue.

Our teachers too are essential workers, keeping the future alive under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. They are also in isolation, but provide countless hours of support to our students, parents and each other.

If there was ever a time to show our appreciation of teachers it is now.

To my staff at Al Yasat Private School, Abu Dhabi, I thank you! our students are in great hands. We are lucky to have you.

#alyasatschool #teacherappreciation #uae #teachers

What Will the Post COVID-19 School Era Look Like?

Leadership, Professional Learning, Schools

The use of technology to help facilitate the learning process is not a new phenomenon. Advocates like Will Richardson, Marc Prensky, George Couros and Bruce Dixon have been spruiking the benefits for many years; and with varying degrees of success, the technology uptake in schools has grown.

However, with the forced lockdown of schools around the globe, the growth in the use of online web conferencing mediums (ie zoom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams and even Skype) has suddenly thrust reluctant teachers into a new world of instruction. Talk about “Disruptive Innovation”.

The key question, post COVID-19, is what will the (eventual) return to school look like for our students? Will schools revert back to what they were previously doing? What have we learnt during this (continual) period of distance learning that can add value to the campus based schooling experience?

I would suggest that the forward thinking schools will adjust their approach to “doing” school!

Observing a static student schedule will change. I suspect that the use of timetables to direct students to move from one subject to the next based upon specified lesson minutes will change. Distance learning has taught us about the importance of time management. Building more independent learners, allowing students appropriate time to complete tasks and even allowing student choice in what they want to learn will become the norm.

The use of spaces will change. If we have learnt anything, the use of asynchronous learning platforms (eg Google Classroom) together with synchronous learning platforms (eg Google Meets) has provided efficient ways of reaching students. The traditional classroom space will need to be remodelled to allow the blending of online and face to face instruction.

How we assess students will change. The realisation that the recent evolution of the competitive standardised testing programs that have come to define success has arrived. Countries are abandoning these high stakes tests (eg NAPLAN – Australia, IGSEs – England, SATs – USA) and are putting the assessing of students back in the hands of the person best placed to make judgements on student learning… The Teacher.

School timing will change. The requirement to attend school will become more flexible. Given the “new” blended nature of learning, students will be able to be more discerning about their choice to attend school all day, every day. Lessons will be more tailored, learning more personalised. Teachers may provide an “office hours” approach, offer tutorial based instruction based on student need.

Curriculum will change. The shift to reducing content and creatively arranging lesson delivery to accommodate the shift to distance learning will see a rethink on what needs to be taught. Curriculum will morph into a more competency based approach. Much like the work of Mark Treadwell and Global Curriculum project.

Whatever the thinking is, when schools do reopen, it is an opportunity for us to provide a better education than the one we left.

Our School is in Great Shape

Leadership, Learning, Teacher

Schools around the world have shifted to providing learning for students remotely. For Al Yasat, this transition from a predominately classroom based, face to face instruction to a home distance learning format has occurred swiftly and almost seamlessly. Although it’s not without its challenges, on a whole, we are working through the implications of being thrust into a new mode of teaching.

Our teachers have upskilled their capabilities to provide meaningful instruction online, blending face to face (live) tutorials with video clips (both commercial and self made), and online resources. All for the sole purpose of providing continuous learning for their students.

A key supporting factor in the successful transition was the forward planning the school undertook when we developed our digitalisation action plan a few years ago. In particular, the roll out of the “Chromebook” program has placed our families in a good position during the complete move to distance learning. They already had devices and had experience with the Google Suite. Together with the implementation of the online textbooks, engagement in some key online software programs, our students have been able to continue their learning without interruption.

With the support of the senior leadership and middle leaders, teachers are helping teachers on how to translate classroom curricula into engaging distance learning lessons. The celebration of learning is shared via our social media platforms as well as internally through our our own communication portals.

What has helped with the transition is the fostering of good routines and offering flexibility in access to learning This has empowered students. Other key consequences of this sudden shift to distance learning has helped develop students’ time management strategies and bring parents a little closer to the education system.

Although only into four weeks of distance learning there is much to celebrate.

School Improvement in the UAE: A Practical Implementation of the School Effectiveness Literature

Leadership, Professional Development, Professional Learning

The title of this post may be a little long yet its impact is extraordinary.

We know that establishing the conditions for continuous school improvement depends on the school’s leadership. Schools, regardless of their philosophy, curriculum, or teaching ideologies, are all working to improve student learning. At the heart of school improvement is effective teaching, which is enhanced through the intervention of targeted and “intentional” strategic endeavours. This is where the work of the leaders comes to the fore.

Our school, Al Yasat Private School in Abu Dhabi, has implemented an approach to teaching improvement which comprises an orchestrated interplay between:

  1. a strategic teaching improvement intent (the goal);
  2. an approach to leadership and;
  3. the use of data to inform decision making.

This was undertaken through the adoption and establishment of the teacher as researcher premise (TAR).  In simple terms TAR is an approach to teacher professional learning that uses action-based research to enable the teacher to investigate and improve what they and their students do in classrooms and the greater school environment. This approach was recorded in two key publications: Teachers TEACHing Teachers and School Reform: Case Studies in Teaching Improvement.

The Learning Model used to guide the strategic intent of the teacher learning process was developed in 2016/2017 in a considered manner and implemented. During the early part of the 2019/2020 academic year we investigated the impacts of such an approach to teaching improvement through an evaluation project. The results have have been collated and, with contributions from Dr Denis Peters, Dr Asif Padela, Mr Thomas O’Meara, Mrs Reem Rekieh and Dr Paul Triegaardt, will be published in a book to be released late April/early May 2020.

The publisher has just released the book cover.

School leaders looking at re-organising their schools as a means to drive school improvement will read this book through the lens of not only their school’s journey but also their own leadership formation. This book highlights the impact leaders can have on leading school improvement and ultimately raise student outcomes. While it is not expected that schools will adopt the Al Yasat School Improvement Model, but rather, understand the processes and the thinking that leaders need to undertake in order to make meaningful educational gains.