Four Key Facets of the School Leader

There are plenty of articles both in the scholarly literature and in the commentary magazines that state that effective leadership is the foundation for improving school performance. While there are key leadership styles (eg transformation, servant, autocratic, laissez-faire, bureaucratic,  collaborative, charismatic, situational, democratic) I like to focus on the behavioural aspect.

There are plenty of articles both in the scholarly literature and in the commentary magazines that state that effective leadership is the foundation for improving school performance. While there are key leadership styles (eg transformation, servant, autocratic, laissez-faire, bureaucratic,  collaborative, charismatic, situational, democratic) I like to focus on the behavioural aspect.

There is no doubt that the effective leader must contextualise their approach to the school. In one context the leader needs  a leadership style to  enable staff, yet in another setting they might need to be transformational and motivate people.

Regardless of your particular leadership style, for me there are four key aspects  that any leader must posses. These leadership traits are uniquely intertwined into the core essence of the effective leader. In short they are:

  1. The Art of Decision Making: It is a given that school leaders need to be able to make decisions. But to make an effective decision is not always as straight forward as it seems. The leader needs to have a clear process to gather relevant information and then, after careful analysis, decide on the best way forward.
  2. The Art of Being Results Focused: Some leaders coast into a position and then go about managing a steady ship. These leaders are often called the “care taker leader” or the “close to retirement leader”.  However, the effective leader continually focuses on achieving results. They target strategies to achieve their objectives and regularly monitor their effectiveness. Analyzing and reflecting on school data helps to keep an effective leader on task.
  3. The Art of Pursuing Alternative Viewpoints: Have you witnessed the leader who asks for your viewpoint repeatedly only to dismiss and take their own advice? This shallow form of collaboration limits the richness of the knowledge and expertise of others.
  4. The Art of Caring: The effective leader is genuinely interested in the lives of their staff. They know their staff and build a sense of trust through actively looking for ways to enhance their well being.

Notwithstanding the many roles and functions the school leader undertakes, if you excel in these four key facets you will enjoy a successful leadership career.

From the Industrial Age to the Conceptual Age

During this winter break I have revisited one of my favourite books “Drive” by Daniel Pink. Published in 2011, the book provides insight into how to create high performance and increase satisfaction (at work, at school and at home). He puts forward the case for the human element (motivation) and our need to “direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world”.

During this winter break I have revisited one of my favourite books “Drive” by Daniel Pink. Published in 2011, the book provides insight into how to create high performance and increase satisfaction (at work, at school and at home). He puts forward the case for the human element (motivation) and our need to “direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world”.

For me here are some key learnings gleamed from a quick revisit to his book:

  • We need to prepare our children for their future, not our past.
  • It is the skills that the various professions require that we should be instilling in our learning delivery in school
  • Right brain thinking is just as important as left brain thinking.
  • Three key forces (Asia, automation and abundance) shifting the abilities to deal with the global economy..
    1. Automation: Last century machines replaced our physical work, this century software is replacing our thinking work (left side of brain thinking – facts, financial analysis, )
    2. Abundance: Give something you didn’t know you were missing
  • Develop new metrics: Are the new right brain qualities measurable?
  • Need to move to install STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) into the pedagogy – thinking, artist skills, connect technical skills
  • The power of asking questions supersedes the vending machine delivery of  recalling right answers.
  • Arts education has gone from ornamental to fundamental –writing across the curriculum, music across the curriculum.
  • Literacy/numeracy are stepping stones for great teachers to help support higher level learning.

It would be useful for leaders to take stock of what is motivating staff and to weave some of the many strategies contained in Daniel Pink’s Book into the new year strategic plan. Happy reading!

(PS. To help you further understanding this era we are travelling through, read Mark Treadwell’s “Whatever! The Conceptual Era & the Evolution of School v2.0″. It will help you tremendously.)

Beyond Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Talk

A recent professional conversation with a small group of staff members on what makes an outstanding school led to the realisation that next year will see the 10th anniversary of the Ken Robinson’s TED talk on changing educational paradigms. Given the focus on a technological revolution coupled with Mark Treadwell’s explanation of the paradigm shift in education we are experiencing right now in his text Whatever!: School Version 2.0 and other leading educationalists purporting the need to transform education systems the question seems to be lost in translation…. Has learning been transformed?

A recent professional conversation with a small group of staff members on what makes an outstanding school led to the realisation that next year will see the 10th anniversary of the Ken Robinson’s TED talk on changing educational paradigms. Given the focus on a technological revolution coupled with Mark Treadwell’s explanation of the paradigm shift in education we are experiencing right now in his text Whatever!: School Version 2.0 and other leading educationalists purporting the need to transform education systems the question seems to be lost in translation…. Has learning been transformed?

With the prolific attention to school improvement through standardised testing measures and the subsequent outcry of its impact on learning, it might be an opportune time to see if learning has been transformed outside a few pockets here and there. The growing “personalising learning” commentary might have traction in professional development sessions but is it being embedded in the mainstream educational systems? Maybe a revisit to the infamous TED talk might garner a re-invigoration of schooling. Are we still in a factory model? Is it still a one size fits all approach?

Maybe its a matter of talking the talk but not walking the walk!

From Good to Outstanding

While every school is concerned with school improvement initiatives as a means to improve student learning, research would suggest that the vast majority of these fail. The problem lies in the emphasis on what teachers believe ought to work rather than investigating and using evidence of what does work. It is not simply the programs that schools offer.

While every school is concerned with school improvement initiatives as a means to improve student learning, research would suggest that the vast majority of these fail. The problem lies in the emphasis on what teachers believe ought to work rather than investigating and using evidence of what does work. It is not simply the programs that schools offer.

Typically, round table conversations follow a similar pattern. That is; a problem is identified, a brainstorm of possible solutions is held, a discernment process to choose one from the list to implement and the task is done! (How many times have you walked into schools to see a reliance on text books to ensure content is covered or see a number of commercially based programs peddled by a publisher as the panacea to the problem (eg spelling; writing; reading, etc)

Now when you look across the globe for exemplars of what outstanding schools do to raise student achievement you see some common threads. For me, I see the following:

  1. Know what outstanding looks like: If the school leader or the classroom teacher is not able to define what outstanding is, it is unlikely they will be outstanding. Most likely they will keep doing what they are doing and hoping that somehow they will get a better result.
  2. Teachers working in teams: Collaboration uses the wisdom of all to get a more informed result. Working in teams invites others to help you improve your practice and offers a focus on raising standards.
  3. Responding to student and school data:  One of the difficulties for the classroom teacher is the sustained response to individualised student data. The need to differentiate to meet student s’ learning needs relies on an effective evidence based approach to teaching and learning.
  4. Focusing on effective teaching: Teachers need to be responsive in their teaching and know their craft.
  5. More than classroom teaching: Outstanding schools attract and retain self driven/motivated teachers yearning to value add to their classroom teaching. They often (willingly) take on extra curricula activities to help meet the needs of their students. They see a need and not only offer a solution but implement it themselves.

However the most important consideration is that creating outstanding takes time. There is no silver bullet; it is through a positive collegiate culture that the essence of being outstanding is sewn.

I recently read a book called “The Leadership Triangle: From Compliance to Innovation” by Paul Kimmelman. In triangulating the three key concepts; Compliance, Leadership and Innovation he offers a framework for leading school improvement initiatives in a compliant driven world. It’s a useful tool a for leadership teams in schools to open up the dialogue and to make substantial improvements.

Creating the Outstanding School: Everyone’s Dream

As a principal focused on improving student learning I was heartened by the recent presentations at the Dubai International Education Conference recently held at Al Ghurair University, Dubai. With the key message that the teacher is the centre of improving student attainment, the various keynote and concurrent presentations offered insight into the effective impact of the role of the “Teacher as researcher.”

As a principal focused on improving student learning I was heartened by the recent presentations at the Dubai International Education Conference recently held at Al Ghurair University, Dubai. With the key message that the teacher is the centre of improving student attainment, the various keynote and concurrent presentations offered insight into the effective impact of the role of the “Teacher as researcher.”

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The teacher as researcher can be distinguished from their colleagues as they attempt to better understand their TEACHing practice and how it impacts upon their students. In researching the relationship between teaching and learning the teacher researcher actively contributes to the conversation of what makes a difference to student learning. This is an evidenced based process and involves reflective inquiry, working in collaboration with other teachers, their students, parents and the community.

Interpreting real time data, analysing the data and them making informed decisions based upon this information is pivotal to improving the school outcomes. The challenge is ensuring that all schools improve. However, as shared by Professor David Lynch (Southern Cross University):

“It is interesting to note that the latest figures released by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (Dubai’s education authority) show that the number of private schools in Dubai will reach 250 by the year 2020 or 16 per year. There are currently 169 private schools in Dubai as of last year, but this number will increase by almost 50% in the next six years to accommodate the projected 50% increase in student population from the current 243,000 level to 366,000 by 2020 or by 24,000 per year. One of the big challenges for the UAE is to prepare or engage enough teachers to meet this demand profile.”

With the rapid increase in the number of schools in Dubai to meet the increasing demand and the KHDA prescribed inspection process identifying what makes an “outstanding school” on what constitutes an outstanding school will continue to create much debate. To help foster the dialogue perhaps our latest publication “Creating the Outstanding School” will help.

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Using Professional Readings to Support Teacher Learning

Schools today are charged with addressing ever-increasing demands: reducing the achievement gap, adopting evidence-based practices, meeting improvement in attainment levels, managing the requirements of special-needs students, and (most importantly) being up to date with changes in pedagogical approaches. Teachers must keep in front of the important developments that are occurring in education. This is where professional development is needed.

Schools today are charged with addressing ever-increasing demands: reducing the achievement gap, adopting evidence-based practices, meeting improvement in attainment levels, managing the requirements of special-needs students, and (most importantly) being up to date with changes in pedagogical approaches. Teachers must keep in front of the important developments that are occurring in education. This is where professional development is needed.

One key PD activity is the professional reading circle. Teachers and school leaders should read professionally on a regular basis to stay current within the various fields of teaching and learning. From professional blogs to google scholar to podcasts to journals and books, there are plenty of sites to build a selection of professional articles for this purpose.

In addition to professional reading undertaken individually, it is imperative that teachers and schools leaders discuss with each other the ideas and strategies gained as a result of reading the articles. Collaboration is essential to moving schools forward.

Here are six thoughts to help you use the readings on this website effectively. However, make sure teachers see the relevancy of what they are reading and how it applies to their personal context.

1. Determine interest: As a leader in the school/department you need to gauge the interest of your team and try and choose readings to match both the needs of the school and the needs of the teachers. Giving teachers the freedom to choose their professional readings, or at least letting them pick from a few pre-selected topics, gives them more ownership on this PD activity. (PD should be driven by student behavior and student performance.)
2. Keep the your team small: While you need the team to come together to discuss the readings, you need to have a small group to allow they have time to share thoughts and ideas.
3. Meet as often as possible: While monthly gatherings seem reasonable, given a busy school environment it may not be possible. If you have a large department, be sure to be organized so that people can easily break into groups and have ample time for discussion during the larger meeting.
4. Have teachers report on what they’ve learned: By doing so, others will benefit as well. You need to encourage each teacher to give feedback and to continue learning.
5. Provide Nibblies at Meetings: Providing snacks during a professional development session also puts teachers at ease because the food is an unexpected or appreciated perk, and this can make teachers comfortable enough to ask questions they might not have asked in a stiff setting.
6. Development Action Plans: As a leader you need to help teachers connect the essence of the reading to their role in the classroom. You need to identify what success will look like when implementing the targeted actions and what (after reading the article) teachers must expect to see reflected in student performance.

As we begin a new academic year, school leaders need to help keep professional learning focused on improving practice.

Student (and Teacher) Summer Brain Drain

The summer break (although almost over) is often referred to by educators as the “Brain Drain” holiday. Commonly referred to as the “Summer Brain Drain,” learning loss happens to nearly all students during the months of June, July and August. Researchers are now in agreement with what parents have already known (see ‘Summer Brain Drain’ Robs Some Students of Skills Gained During School Year). In fact there is a school of thought that suggests that “Most students — regardless of family income or background — lose 2 to 2 1/2 months of the math computational skills that they learned during the school year.” Over the life of a school student it is possible to lose up to two years of learning!

The summer break (although almost over) is often referred to by educators as the “Brain Drain” holiday. Commonly referred to as the “Summer Brain Drain,” learning loss happens to nearly all students during the months of June, July and August. Researchers are now in agreement with what parents have already known (see ‘Summer Brain Drain’ Robs Some Students of Skills Gained During School Year). In fact there is a school of thought that suggests that “Most students — regardless of family income or background — lose 2 to 2 1/2 months of the math computational skills that they learned during the school year.” Over the life of a school student it is possible to lose up to two years of learning!

Furthermore,  there is some scholarship that suggests teachers too face a similar regression in learning. When everyone returns from the long break, while the main talk in the staff room might be about time spent with family and friends, I would hope there will be time for some professional learning as well. (In the article Sizzling Summer Tips for Super Teachers there are a number of great ideas to help teachers prepare for the new academic year).

However, the beginning of a new academic school year signals the start of new beginnings with teachers working overtime to minimize the impact of the summer break on learning. Watching teachers breathe new life into their classrooms and seeing students enthusiastically engaged is a sight to behold.

Enjoy the year!

End of Year Reflection

As such, the end of the academic year is an exciting time for a school community. While everyone is looking forward to the summer break, the effective principal will use the time to focus on school improvement planning for the following year. At some point the principal will take stock of the year and spend some serious time reflecting on the events of the school year. Reflection is a critical practice of the effective leader.

It is hard to believe that I have completed my first academic year at Dar Al Marefa. It feels like yesterday that I arrived in the Dubai to take on a new leadership position in a new country. The personal learning has been immense and very rewarding both personally and professionally.

As such, the end of the academic year is an exciting time for a school community. While everyone is looking forward to the summer break, the effective principal will use the time to focus on school improvement planning for the following year. At some point the principal will take stock of the year and spend some serious time reflecting on the events of the school year. Reflection is a critical practice of the effective leader.

Most reflections begin with a meditative approach, looking back and remembering the events month by month. This offers the principal with the timeline of the school. Completing the first year of a new school this process helps to focus on what’s important, what’s valued by the staff and school community. While each event has it’s mini evaluation after the fact during the year, recalling the various activities allows the principal to pinpoint what our school stands for. Looking at the events of the year questions like the following can be asked:

  • Do the events of our school reflect our vision & mission?
  • Are the events simply annual activities that we do……..(because that’s what we do?) Do the same people do the same things year in and year out?
  • What innovations have we introduced to the school?

For me, there are a few key questions that arise to guide my reflections as a principal leading the school. As leader this year have I:

  • Shared a clear understanding of what I stand for in teaching and learning?
  • made explicit the school action plan and its implementation?
  • Supported staff in their efforts to improve their instructional practice?
  • Increased the focus on student achievement? Has the student engagement increased?
  • Instilled confidence and fostered individual teacher aspirations
  • Value added to staff development? Did I delegate and empower or did I listen but made my own decisions?
  • Acknowledged the achievements of staff?
  • Celebrated success?

Such questions are great discussion starters to have with your staff, leadership team, students and parents. By doing so the effective leader is able to rate the climate of the school. It can be quite sobering to find out what staff say about your leadership of the school. (What does it say about the leader who doesn’t ask the questions?….) This is an important consideration because the  Gallup’s 2013 Global Workforce Study found that only 13% of people in 142 countries reported they were engaged in their work, while nearly a quarter reported they were “actively disengaged.”

When leaders speak about their key achievements as leader of their school, the community is not wanting responses on your personal milestones (eg I completed my first marathon this year). Although important to the well being side of leadership they are looking for some depth from the professional sphere. Furthermore, they are not looking for generic type answers either.

Focusing on your action plan should give you plenty to talk about when someone asks you……have you made a difference this year?

Quality Learning Begins with Quality Recruitment

Earlier this week I was reading an article on teacher absenteeism and its extent and the impact on student achievement. We know that teacher quality is one on the largest factors is raising student achievement outside the influences of the home. While some schools have difficulty with teacher absenteeism Dar Al Marefa has a very low absentee rate.

Earlier this week I was reading an article on teacher absenteeism and its extent and the impact on student achievement. We know that teacher quality is one on the largest factors is raising student achievement outside the influences of the home. While some schools have difficulty with teacher absenteeism Dar Al Marefa has a very low absentee rate.

Interestingly at this time of the year, as we embark on recruitment for the new academic year ahead an erroneous perception is that here at Dar Al Marefa we are somehow “lucky” because we have and are able to attract “good” staff who are committed and dedicated to their profession.

We at Dar Al Marefa have a strong recruitment process and know that “You are who you recruit. That it is a reflection of yourself” and we begin with ensuring we have a clear position description (ie identifying what is the job we are recruiting for, identifying the difference in what teachers do in our school)

As our short listing avoids perceived bias and not making decisions solely based on information, (ie name, location, qualification) ensuring a question list is used for scoring applicants. Our interview techniques focus on ensuring a comfortable environment is used; that questions are open ended and linked linked to the job description. Each question should be able to be scored. In providing scenario questions we ensure the panel doesn’t do all the talking.

Consequently we are able to recruit good staff and they are committed and dedicated but it has very little to do with luck. They are good because we deliberately target and recruit the best staff available; we clearly communicate the standards and quality expected; we support and assist them to reach those standards through ongoing professional development and they are monitored through a well-established and rigorous appraisal system.

The teachers we place in front of each class are expected to rise to the challenge of becoming life-long learners, continually improving and developing their skills. They set “SMART” (Specific; Measurable; Attainable; Realistic and Timely) professional development goals for themselves. They do this because of expectations and an obligation they have to themselves, to the school and to their students. They take their place in and role model the work ethic that goes with a legitimate learning community and it is this attitude combined with sheer hard work that provides the foundation for the quality and standards of education enjoyed throughout the Dar Al Marefa Community.

Remember, you are who you recruit.

Raising Student Achievement: The work of the Internationally Minded Teacher

One of the unique benefits of working in an international school is the opportunity to engage with a mix of cultures. One of the challenges is the drawing together of a diverse staffing demographics. Raising student achievement is the goal of each individual teacher.

One of the unique benefits of working in an international school is the opportunity to engage with a mix of cultures. One of the challenges is the drawing together of a diverse staffing demographics. Raising student achievement is the goal of each individual teacher.

While there is diversity within the student population it is also true within the teaching population. Given the research ( declaring the constant turn over of staff within international organisations of between 20-25 percent each year, the need for continuous induction of staff reveals a number of challenges for the principal and leadership team of the school. How do you sustain learning and not “waste” time inducting and re-inducting staff?

As explained in an article titled “Raising Student Achievement: The work of the Internationally Minded Teacher” (which can be found online at the International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change) the challenge for leaders in the international sector is to continue to meet the learning needs of educators. A targeted professional learning program is required. More precisely, a collaborative professional learning program. One that is focused on improving teacher practice more than learning how to implement a “program” of instruction.

This is where the coaching and mentoring aspect of the leader’s role comes into play.