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. 

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.

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.

Preparing to Implement Change in School

Leadership, Professional Learning, School Culture, Teacher

Effective schools are ever changing as school leaders grind towards improving their schools. Recently I was asked how I have been successful in driving change in the schools I have led. While there is no “one size fits all” approach I believe there are a few key ingredients the school leader must have in order to successfully navigate the educational change process and make a positive difference to their school.

  1. Building Alignment: The saying, “have all your ducks in a row” is the first step for the school leader wishing to engage in a change management strategy. You need to be well organised and well prepared to implement your school improvement initiative. Having alignment across the school is important. Teacher understanding (and agreement) for the change will lead to commitment to the process. Ensuring you have the resources at hand, agreed indicators for success outlined and an achievable timeframe in place will aid your efforts in bringing success to your project. Having the right mindset/attitude across the school is your goal as you bring the school together. Ultimately, your organisational alignment is the glue for achieving better performance.
  2. Think before you Speak: Part of the preparation for change is taking time to think about how to implement your initiative. Gathering your data, interpreting the evidence, and making an informed decision about future steps is an initial step in determining where you are in the context of learning. As the school leader you need to sort out the inefficiencies and decide on how you want to proceed forward before embarking on sharing with the masses. 
  3. Preempting the Barriers: If you know your staff well then you probably know who the resisters to your new school improvement initiative will be. Preempt the initial rejection by focusing on what questions the resisters will raise. This way you can have your answers ready. Looking at it from someone else’s point of view will help clarify how you will respond. Watch out for the ‘late career’ teachers who have been there for a while and seen initiatives/programs come and go. How are you going to address their resistant attitudes?
  4. Manage Yourself: Continually managing change in a school setting can be a difficult task and has repercussions for the school leader. We have all seen and heard stories of how leaders have suffered from stress and burnout. Looking after your physical self to help look after your emotional self is crucial to sustaining a successful leadership role. Understanding how you respond to the negative stuff in school will help you prepare for the rigours of engaging in educational change.
  5. Building Culture:  Probably the most important preparation piece for any leader is the need to build your school’s culture. In order for your new change initiative to work you need to have the culture to support it. Your success is going to be held back by the staff implementing the plan if the school culture does not support it. As Peter Drucker so famously stated…”Culture eats strategy for breakfast“.

In summary,  in order to prepare for change, the effective school leader begins by aligning the school culture, the staff and the action plan. This will ensure success in implementing the change initiative within your school.

Teacher Retainment

Instruction, Leadership, Professional Learning

Schools in the Northern Hemisphere have recently begun a new academic year. Schools are welcoming students and families; administration teams are well prepared; curriculum programs are ready; resources are in order and social media is awash with exciting “snaps” of students’ first days.

Underlying the excitement of the start of the new year is the growing desperation as schools rally around to fulfil teaching vacancies.

With the increased scrutiny on school performance, teacher accountability is under the microscope. With teachers leaving the profession at alarming rates, measures to build teacher efficacy are needed.

While there are many reasons why teachers leave the profession, a better question could be “what keeps teachers in schools?” – research tells us there are two key factors:

  1. The quality of their colleagues, and
  2. The quality of the leadership within the school.

Leadership theories abound however, ultimately, I believe that being a leader is a social activity, guiding a team of people to achieve their best and in doing so deliver the vision of the school.

Linda Darling-Hammond published a book in 2003 titled ‘Keeping Good Teachers’. The key ingredients of the book suggests that reducing teacher attrition has to do a lot with how school principals lead their schools and how they deal with teachers based on their personal characteristics.

Leadership is all about building relationships. What’s your plan today?



Learning From a Walking Guide

Leadership, Personal Growth, Professional Learning

The summer holidays have been a time to relax and rejuvenate. One of the things my wife and I like to do is to travel to new places. Besides taking a break from our daily routines we get the opportunity to see and learn new things. 

I wasn’t much of a historian when I was younger however, when we visit a new country and settle in, we like to do walking tours, particularly when staying in the old part of a city. Walking tours give opportunity to learn the history, to understand how ‘things’ have come about. From architecture to cuisine influences to the infusion of cultural practices, the tour guides offer connected stories as we meander through the streets. 

It is curious to see the walking tour guides in action. The stitching of history and stories leading to current practice resonates with my view of leading schools. School leaders need to be able to tell the schools story, particularly when walking parents around the school or inducting new staff into the school family.

Here are five things I’ve learned from these tour guides this summer that resonate with school leadership:

  1. Know your history. Guides build their walking tour on the history of the place. At the start of the walk, usually after a brief “where are you from” session, the guide introduces what the tour will entail and begins with providing the participants with a brief history. This strategy outline the foundations, the vision and offers insight into how the country/city came to be. 
  2. Understand the external influences and their impact on the institution.  Throughout the tour, the guide explains why things are the way they are! How the architecture was influenced by conquerors; or the infiltration of culinary delights from neighbouring countries; or even improvements in city defence mechanisms .
  3. Forward planning. The guides are very intentional about their tour routes. They are well planned and each stop builds upon the previous and the ensuing story leads on to the next stop.
  4. Building Relationships: Tour guides rely on tips after the tour for their income. Although the tours last between 2-3 hours, the guides try to connect with each participant as they walk from stop to stop. Building a personal relationship was a key strategy to not only learn more about them but also to determine if they were enjoying the tour. The view is that happy tourists are more likely to tip at the end. If the participant was not happy they would try and change their presentation to help gain the admiration of the participant. 
  5. Reiterating learning throughout the tour. As the guide moved from place to place there was explanation (and connection) of where each place slotted into the big picture. They do this by using phrases like:
    1. Do you remember when we stopped at….
    2. When we were discussing the invasion of…..
    3. See how these roads connect the …….

A tour guide that exudes enthusiasm and is able to tell a great story, transports the participants and helps them visualise the actuality of the story.

I wonder how schools would evolve if principals were more like walking tour guides….

Effective Leaders Measure their Performance

Measuring Your Own Leadership Performance

Leadership, Personal Growth, Professional Learning

Recently I had a conversation about teacher performance and the role of leaders in supporting teacher growth. Everyone has an intuitive feel for how they are going but it is important to go deeper than just a feeling. Even school leaders need a process to evaluate their own current performance. You need to begin examining your impact.

How to do this? If you really want to improve as a leader, decision-maker, administrator, manager or simply a co-worker, then collecting some data on your performance in your role is essential. Unfortunately many school leaders see the annual performance review as an intrusion or a chore.

It need not be. A quick meander through some of these standard measurement techniques will offer some insight into the status of your performance. (However, the reflective leader looks further afield than the standard appraisal process). Here are four (quick) key measures to look for to help you begin your self reflection:

  1. Questionnaires & Self Assessments: There are the usual commercialised 360 questionnaires that can be sent to your staff to answer. These can provide neat graphics and tables outlining your strengths and weaknesses but rarely gives the necessary insight into next steps for improvement. Taking time to speak to staff and genuinely seeking advice on your impact can be more enlightening than an anonymous survey.
  2. Intuitive Reflection: Effective leaders know when “things” are working and are able to respond in a timely manner when they are not. “Gut feelings” are often based on reality and help the leader make the necessary adjustments to keep them on the right path to achieving their goals.
  3. Examine your community: If your performance is of a high standard then your organisation is humming along. If there is continually improvement in your bottom line (academically speaking) then you are making a difference. This means you are managing (leading) your middle leaders and teacher leaders. Your staff are engaged and focused on the school vision. There is good harmony and peace in your world!
  4. What’s Happening outside Your School?: Schools are about improvement and leadership is the vehicle for fostering the strategies and keeping alignment to school vision. Looking at what other schools are doing can offer insight into how you are performing as a leader in the school. Questions around innovation, attainment levels, programs and courses of study should be raised to see how your school compares. Effective leaders forward plan!

Ultimately the first real step in measuring your own performance is your internal desire to improve. Unless you want to improve you will keep doing what you are doing…. and in turn, will be an absent leader to your community…

Sharing Experiences and the Benefits of Attending Conferences

Leadership, Professional Learning

Over the next few months I am looking forward to presenting at a couple of important conferences. In particular the following two (If you are attending one of these please come and say hello):

The first conference is the International Conference on Teaching, Education & Learning in Prague in June. My address is focusing on “Developing a Process for Data Driven Change to Impact Student Achievement and Build Teacher Capacity“. Schools have been caught up in responding to the calls of external accountability. This has challenged school leaders to establish data gathering practices that ultimately lend themselves to creating school wide instructional systems to impact teaching and learning and offer a consistent instructional approach. This presentation outlines how our school established a data driven approach to improve teacher performance. This is being achieved by focusing on key elements from research literature as a catalyst for driving new innovation. In the presentation I share how a data driven focus (DDF) allows leaders to intentionally and systematically improve student learning. The presentation begins by unpacking the need to understand how leaders create the foundation to develop a DDF as a vehicle to facilitate information about student achievement within the school. The second part of the presentation presents the change process to implement DDF as guided by key elements. Being a data-focused school is a possibility for each and every school.

The second one is the 2019 IB Global Conference in Abu Dhabi in October. Here I am sharing insight into how our school is building staff aptitude and competence to positively impact student achievement levels. It is evident that we are teaching and learning in an age of scrutiny in school performances. With the growth in national and international attention to key benchmarking programs including PISA and TIMSS, the expectation (and dare I say competition) between governments, educational agencies and the wider public arena, to raise their performance scores, has had an inhibiting impact upon schools. A natural consequence of playing in this space is leading schools to becoming more focused on being evidenced based. This has seen an increasing focus on the collection of assessment data as well as other performance measures. The view is that such information  is analysed leading to more informed (instructional) data driven decision making processes. It is this scrutiny of data that has, as John Hattie has proclaimed, firmly placed teachers under the microscope. The focus on role of the teacher in leading school improvement has gained momentum. Teachers are themselves, being more reflective and collecting more data to help them make more informed decisions. The underlying premise is that at school, the teacher is the single most powerful influence on student achievement. However, the problem is nested in the lack of skills teachers have in this area of actively engaging in data use to drive instruction. Many teachers, particularly those that have completed their undergraduate studies a number of years ago, have not had much engagement or professional development in this arena. Which leads me to the crux of the presentation? How does an effective school use data driven decision making to enhance teacher performance; thus leading to improved student outcomes?

Although the research indicates that attending “one off” conferences does not have significant impact upon sustainable learning I’d like to offer the following benefits:

  • Opportunity to meet like minded educationalists: When you attend a conference you often build meaningful (and at times long lasting) relationships. Everyone attending has something shared experiences. After all, schools have many things in common with each other.
  • Stay Up To Date with Latest Thinkers: Listening to speakers share their knowledge and experience helps to keep you abreast of key educational trends and directions. Taking notes will help to revisit the multitude of content offered and will allow you to reflect more critically after the conference is over. Besides, sometimes its great to meet the authors of the material you are reading..
  • Making Connections: Getting inspiration from people that will help you in your own workplace is one of the positive benefits of attending conferences. Listening and learning about what others are doing and then considering how their learnings can assist you in the work you do is invaluable. Maybe you can grab their business cards and send them a note afterwards, just in case you didn’t get an opportunity to ask a question.
  • Share Ideas and Solutions: Making meaning out of material shared at conferences is one of the key points of attending. While at the conference, with the advent of social media, tweeting, live blogging, posting to Instagram and any other social networks that you associate with, is useful in sharing your new knowledge and experiences. After the conference you could share your learning by creating videos of the presentations you thought were particularly valuable, provide a quick overview of some key points at your next staff meeting, share information about any interesting contacts you met. Education is a collaborative enterprise and you can contribute to the learning of others via some of these easy activities.

Attending conferences, whether for professional or personal development, should be a worthwhile experience. Don’t forget to experience the extra curricular activities that often go hand in hand with conferences. Your time shouldn’t be all work and no play!

7 Ways to Support Your Professional (Educational) Reading

Leadership, Professional Development, Professional Learning

Every effective teacher wants to be a better practitioner tomorrow than they are today. They are always looking to improve. While attending conferences and workshops, undertaking courses or joining a professional association are helpful activities to develop your prowess as a teacher,  the reading of academic journals and educational texts/books is a good way to meet your own learning needs.

Here are 7 tips to help you read more:

  1. Set Targets: Aim to read a set number of books and articles in a chosen time period. By setting achievable goals you will build a positive reading habit. Set achievable goals to fit in with your own personal and professional life. 
  2. Set a time to read regularly: Whether you schedule to read before breakfast, while on commute to work or after the staff meeting, the important point is to develop a positive reading habit. Even if it is only for 15 minutes, setting time aside to read will keep you on track to reach your reading goal.
  3. Make a List: During your day to day teaching and learning cycle you will come across a field of ideas that you would like to know more about. Maybe it’s dealing with the SEN student or how to rearrange your teaching centres or how to ask questions more effectively. Write them down and make a list. This will direct your choice when visiting the bookshop or browsing the online store. It will also add more value to your teaching and learning as you become more reflective on your teaching practice.
  4. Read With a Purpose (and then take action): Whether you read to answer burning questions or just to learn new ideas and techniques, always take notes. Turn these notes into actionable items that you can use in your classroom.
  5. Set Up A School Book Club: Having colleagues read the same material and then discussing content material over a coffee helps to keep you on track (ie forces you to read!!). This collaborative professional learning activity will help everyone.
  6. Write About It: Share your reading through contributing to the publication field or even sharing with your colleagues. The more you read, the more you will be able to share with others. Writing helps to consolidate your thoughts and gives more clarity to your own reading.
  7. Keep a Book With You: There will be opportunity to read wherever you go (waiting for the Doctor; commuting on the train). While carrying a hard copy is useful, having your phone/tablet with the Kindle app is useful too. (Listening to a book/podcast is good too)

Professional Development is a Key Indicator of School Success

Leadership, Professional Development, Professional Learning

The role of the teacher is key to student success and that is why leaders spend plenty of time developing and engaging in professional development.  Teacher PD is pivotal to school success.  What does professional learning look like in your school.  This 90 second clip gives insight to what teachers can expect at mine.

Michael Fullan in his unpublished paper, Learning is the Work,  states that learning on the job, day after day, is the work teachers need to be committed to. With the mover towards collaborative learning and the fact fact that teachers learn best from their colleagues, the provision of a job embedded professional development program to foster teacher development is a must.

School principals take on the school leadership with a commitment to helping the school improve. A key mechanism for this is teacher professional development. How a leader approaches PD for teachers should be a consideration for teachers when looking for new positions!