Beyond Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Talk

Leadership, Professional Learning, Schools

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!

The Role of the Educational Leader?

Leadership, Professional Learning

Recently I finished re-reading one of my favourite reference books by Fullan and Hargreaves, “Professional Capital – Transforming Teaching in Every School”. It has, as its central message, putting teachers and teaching at the forefront of school improvement. Through the path of breaking down the barriers of classroom isolation and engaging in a collaborative culture of learning, raising teacher status will improve student achievement.

Professional Capital CoverWithout doubt we need to set the bar higher in our schools and I believe this starts with the teacher. Even a poor teacher will inevitably produce some improvement in students’ learning over a year. What role does the educational leader of your school play? Are they visible? Do they complain of bureaucratic endeavours hiding behind their desk (is the door open?) or are they in the trenches along side their colleagues. There are many views on the role of the educational leader in the contemporary learning environment but the high performing schools have the teacher at the heart of providing an effective learning platform.

Fullan and Hargreaves discusses the need for colleagues to work more collegially and to bring leaders to account for their actions. They  urged teachers to become a true pro. Not just a good teacher. This is where you need a strong educational leader to nurture the talents and guide the professional learning.

Educational leaders need to be focusing on the things that our best teachers do which make a difference to student learning. Its simply not best practice in expecting teachers to improve by handing resources to them. Professional learning is an active intention not a passive one and needs active engagement by all members of the school. Improvement, and more importantly, sustained improvement comes from teachers thinking differently about teaching and learning. It is having professional conversations about their practice, learning from each other and then  implementing the teaching strategies that work.

Re-reading “Professional Capital” reinforces my view that the unfortunate reality is that many schools still promote leaders based solely on performance in roles vastly different from the one they’re being promoted into. Unfortunately,  with less aspiring leaders about, too often managers are thrown into executive leadership duties without the skills and guidance required to excel.

Selecting New Staff? Look for Leaders.

Leadership, Recruitment, Staffing

The international school sector is an exciting playground for not only honing leadership skills but acquiring new ones. It is at this time of year when the focus begins to look at recruitment; both retaining and employing new staff. Classroom teachers, middle management leaders and even principals are at the mercy of interview panels.

But what do you look for when appointing? For me, regardless of the position we need to fill, I look for leadership qualities. Someone who will make a difference. I’m not looking for puppets who do move when strings are pulled. I need decision makers, innovators, creative thinkers and risk takers. I want someone who wants to make a difference and have the evidence to show they can.

I was once called a “Maverick” by an employer and I took that as a compliment even though I knew it was meant as a slur on my leadership. The connotation was that my visioning, decision making or leadership was being a principal that was independent, unorthodox or not in keeping with what other principals were doing. Therefore I was out of line. The message given clear; I was suppose to follow, not lead.

I was heartened when I stumbled across the thoughts of Kim Williams, the Australian Media Executive and Composer, in his autobiography. His views on leadership and the role of leaders moving their organisations struck a chord with me .

 Kim Campbell - Leadership

What resonates is his interpretation of and the confusion surrounding “busy” people. Too often leaders are busy doing “things” (managing) rather than building the path towards improvement (leadership). This is particularly important at the classroom level. You don’t want doers following, you want leaders acting, diagnosing, planning and intervening in the teaching/learning.

If you want improvement to be a key outcome then the need to appoint a leader rather than a manager, at any level of the organisation, is pivotal to your school’s success.

Vision: What does Your Leader Stand For?

Leadership, Professional Learning, Schools, Vision

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” ― Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

As a principal in a school it is important that my school community is clear on what I stand for. This is not just about brainstorming a list of strategies and putting it into a plan. Its about exploring ideas and developing a clear vision.

The ability to visualize and articulate a possible future state for a school has always been a vital component of successful leadership. Once developed, the vision should provide the cornerstone for everything that you do in the school.

A vision is about creating a short statement that will guide you over the next 3 to 5 years.  It should be specific enough to say something about what you will do and equally what you will not do. It should be capable of driving the school to achieve its  goals, and be somewhat motivational so that you have a constant reminder of what you are trying to achieve when the going gets tough.

Without a vision, a school is like a ship without a rudder and is in danger of drifting aimlessly. Many schools lack a clear vision and so they tend to jump from task to task without a clear understanding of what bonds the individual tasks together and/or the value created by the individual tasks. Schools are notorious for jumping on the next “bandwagon” as they chase the panacea for improved student outcomes.

When I begin leading a new school I am always reminded of the quote form  Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” where there is a conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

Remember, vision and strategy are both important tools for the school principal. But there is a priority to them. Vision always comes first. Always. If you have a clear vision, you will eventually attract the right strategy. If you don’t have a clear vision, no strategy will save you. This is the challenge for the school leader! What do you stand for?

Transition Week

Leadership

A positive part of being appointed as principal of a new school is not only the opportunity to build upon your current experience but also to learn new skills.

How you approach your new role will have lasting effects on your leadership influence. Reading the school culture incorrectly could put you on the back foot and inhibit the quality of your decision making.

For me, a necessary beginning point is to visit the new school. There is nothing more important than meeting the people you are going to work with, taking the opportunity to immerse yourself into the culture of the school and getting an intuitive feel for how things operate. Visiting the school allows you to begin to ‘get a handle’ on school logistics.

My recent “Transition Week” at dar al Marefa offered the unique opportunity to begin my leadership journey at the school on the right foot. While everyone will have a few tips for the new principal, after having had a few principal appointments over the years, I find the following four insights useful in shaping how you should approach your new appointment:

1. Understanding History. Beginning with previous school improvement plans a new principal can digest the thinking that has shaped the school to be what it is today. To make effective decisions, the new leader needs to know why things are the way they are. Take time to understand the traditions, celebrations and why things run the way they do.

2. Get to know your staff and school community. In the early stages, (commonly know as the honeymoon period), it is imperative to develop positive relationships with each member of the community. Don’t forget spending time in classrooms and the playground to get to know the students.

3. Get Learning. Discovering what you don’t know is a key task in the early days. Locating the paperwork should be an initial goal. Reading the paperwork is the next! Items from parent handbooks to teacher appraisal processes to curriculum expectations help to establish an understanding of the school and most importantly, the culture.

4. Gather relevant information to design a short term action plan. While the school may have an action plan, as a new leader you bring a new ‘vision’ to the school and, after listening and learning, you will begin to craft your own views on what ‘needs to be done’. Developing your own action plan will help to connect the dots and and allow you to focus on short achievable goals.

Everyone approaches their new appointment differently. Whatever action you take it is most important that the new leader enjoys coming to work each day. My transition week at dar al Marefa Private School was exciting  and immensely interesting. Many people to meet, many things to take in! From any aspect my new appointment is going to be challenging and loaded with learning opportunity. I have no doubt I will enjoy coming to work each day.

Researching the International School Sector

Leadership

The biggest stumbling block (for a very green international  job seeker) was trying to determine where to start. Searching online can be a most time consuming activity and depending where you’d like to further your leadership and experience (from Asia to the Middle East to the Americas) there are many different paths you can travel to get there. Like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland says, “If you don’t know where you want to go, it doesn’t matter which path you take”, and if you are not careful, after many hours of internet surfing, you could find yourself in the same place where you started.

It is important you think about what you want to get out of teaching/leading and what kind of school will best suit your needs. Each school has its own ethos, culture and learning atmosphere which is shaped by the school leadership team and the vision of its community.

Once a type of school is decided upon the next step is to seek actual positions. In short, for me, I distilled my online searching to the following sites. Some require lengthy applications, others a simple CV. Some required an application fee while others were free. (For the record, in my experience, the free ones were most helpful).

However, it was International Teachers Plus that were most beneficial in supporting my application and securing my appointment in Dubai.

Then, when you have noticed a school with a vacancy it might be useful to research and find out about its student body, staff members, school reputation, how the community is involved, the educational goals and and vision of the school, an overview of recent and planned initiatives and the type of extracurricular activities they provide.

Finding a school to best fit your needs should be the priority. Happy hunting!