Building School Culture: 4 Pillars to Success!

Leadership, School Culture

December last year I received an award from the International Schools Awards organisation. The award was for Best Innovation in Education. This innovation was squarely set on the shoulders of the Teacher as Researcher program and the building a culture of staff learning. This particular program has been instituted at my current school for the past three years. 

This is not just about the building of teacher capacity, but rather on how teachers not only improve their teaching practice but also how they collaborate with their colleagues in sharing their expertise.

Education is a social profession and when people get together, the opportunity to grow and learn is accentuated. 

The process of building school culture is organic and relies heavily on school leaders connecting four key pillars into their leadership priorities. I believe that many of the day to day tasks school  leaders undertake to improve their school can be categorised into four key pillars. 

These four pillars:

  • Commitment  & Loyalty
  • Transparency  & Efficiency
  • Trust
  • Team Work

A deeper explanation of improving schools through the focusing on school culture can be found in the following article:

Four Pillars to Building a Positive School Culture

As we embark on a new school year, building a positive school culture should be at the forefront for all school leaders and teachers too!).

Learning for the Future – Building the Right Learning Environments


In recent years it seems every country has revised their curriculum articulating the knowledge and skills that students need for the new global workforce. With the close scrutiny that accompanies changes to current practice, the debate on quality and success follows. The consequence of such scrutiny has seen international comparative studies of student achievement, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA], been used as the performance reference. This focus is such that “a global competition in educational achievement in core subject matter areas like reading, arithmetic/mathematics and science” has emerged.

There has been much written on what students need to know and be able to do in the twenty-first century. The establishment of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) has guided the conversation to ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in a world where change is constant and learning never stops. Their learning framework is explicit in the fact that twenty-first century learning is to be built on a foundation of basic knowledge taught through the core subjects focusing on a significant set of twenty-first century skills. With the rise of globalization and the increased role of technology in both our personal and work life, students
have access to information at a faster rate than ever before.

A few years ago, as part of an educational refurbishment to attempt to meet the learning needs of the “millennials” as a means to develop the necessary capabilities and aptitudes to embrace the future,  a personalised learning environment was created. This short video highlights our vision at the time. Time, and the explosion of personalised learning environments would indicate we were at the forefront of learning innovation.

Engineering the Future School


The responsibility for improving learning opportunities lies in the hands of all educators, teachers and school leaders together. With input from the plethora of opportunities from social networking the information shared delves deep into the world of online learning as a key vehicle for engaging students in their learning.

The integration of information communications technology into the learning environment was seen as the most significant element in raising student engagement with their learning. With a myriad of digitally based applications incorporating social networking, online projects, linking with other schools and even connecting with experts in other online environments students have the opportunity to be active learners.

Implications for school leaders centres on the redesigning of the 20th century classroom environment to accommodate this rapidly developing 21st century learning environment. Discussion on how students learn, the ways teachers work with students and the relationships with the physical environment is urgently needed.

Developing curricular directions for learning will be one of the major stumbling blocks for educators as they wrestle between system/government accountability and the skills needed to be citizens in 21st century. The narrowing (or providing a prescriptive curriculum) of student learning though naive accountability measures will inhibit learning rather than enhance it.

The growing online learning organisations such as Coursea and MOOCs are leading the discussion through the development of online interactive learning programs and how schools can be supported in re-aligning learning experiences.

Such discussions will no doubt lead to some common assumptions. One major assumption is that all children can learn. The second is that the learning is not always at the same time; the same way or even at the same place. How we address these assumptions is the question.

Our Greatest Gift as Teachers

Instruction, Leadership, Teaching

Students of the 21st century are constantly defined as being techno savvy and engaged in the digital world. Perhaps as Vicktor Frankl, a renowned psychiatrist explains in a 1972 presentation, our greatest gift as a teacher is to not only recognise the student’s search for meaning but help them become who they want to be.

This focus on learning is further explored in Sir Ken Robinson’s presentation at the 2010 TED conference. In the presentation Sir Ken discusses the need to transform learning to meet the needs of the digital learners. (His wristwatch reference is a clear example of what schools need to address when planning elearning experiences).

The greatest gift a teacher can give students is the provision of a personalised learning environment. Knowing that all children learn differently, at different times and in different circumstances. it is important that our schools create the conditions that engages all students in their learning.

…..and this is not an easy task!

The Evolving Classroom

Instruction, Leadership, Schools, Teacher

Through Our Students’ Eyes

If we as teachers begin to view the world from behind our learners’ eyes we will be able to build future learning environments. Looking at how our students interact outside the classroom provides an opportunity for us to learn about how we can improve the in  class environments. The environments outside the classroom are student centred. Their ‘play’ environment allows quick flexibility for collaboration, working in small groups.

When Students Learn

The conception that learning takes place only at school, behind four walls and between school hours is misguided. Students use social areas (libraries, cafes, parks, sports fields, loungerooms, etc) to gather and collaborate. What is it that engages students in their learning environment? The comfortable furniture in the social areas lures students to informal meetings to share and discuss and the opportunity to work socially to converse on issues. It is not simply an adult domain to meet at a coffee shop to share personal experiences and insight into their views on ‘things’.  Environments like these are places of action, full of energy and enthusiasm.

There is a terrific 5 minute video clip by David Thornburg offers further insight into the evolving classroom that highlights the changing classroom.

We know that basic technology allows students to create and build content for learning. Given the open, comfortable and flexible learning environment it is then the role of the class teacher to facilitating learning, stimulating conversations and addressing specific learning needs.

Innovation and Creativity

Leadership, Professional Learning, Staffing, Teacher

In recent times the push towards innovation and creativity as a vehicle to both lift educational standards as well as meet the future skills required of the knowledge economy workforce, is an admirable stance. It appears that the Sir Ken Robinson crusade is finally gaining traction with education agencies beginning to require schools to provide evidence of innovation being enacted (for example, see the new UAE unified School Inspection process).

A google search on innovative schools will see a plethora of entries that denotes innovation as a measure of a school being different to other schools. The Steve Wheeler blog post on 4 Things Innovative Schools Have In Common should be catalyst for for all leadership teams in raising the conversation of how we meet the needs of our future learners (and ultimately workers). His analysis of the common ingredients are:

  1. students are seen as unique individuals rather than groups
  2. schools are connected with the outside world
  3. curriculum is delivered in a manner that encourages critical and creative thinking
  4. design of the learning spaces is creative

To contribute to this discussion I’d add that innovation is played out by the creativity and expertise of the classroom teacher. Two vital ingredients necessary are having a bold vision and strong leadership within the school. It is through these two elements that the fruition of the innovation can become reality.

Four Key Facets of the School Leader

Leadership, Schools

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

Instruction, Leadership, Professional Learning

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.)

Creating the Outstanding School: Everyone’s Dream

Leadership, Professional Learning, Schools

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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End of Year Reflection


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?