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.”
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.
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.
Without 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.
“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?
I have been in Dubai for 8 weeks now and have been bowled over by many things; the climate, the unprecedented growth (people, buildings and business) and the enthusiasm people have for learning.
Meeting my new leadership team, getting to know them (and them to know me), setting up the parameters for how we are going to work together and learning about their personal vision and dreams for the school was uplifting. As a new leader, in a new country, in a new system garnering the support of your leadership team was an important foundational step. They need to know what your thoughts are so they can reflect on how to connect their vision with yours.
For me it is important to start with a focus on the ‘bigger picture’ so that there is a clear understanding of where the school is headed, whether the right culture, competences and resources are in place to support that journey and if the learning framework is right to achieve the defined goals of the school. In essence, it’s about ensuring that the school is focused on the longer term and not just the here and now, important as that may be.
For a young school where the focus is shifting from ‘setting up’ school practices to building the next phase in the journey, keeping an eye on the big picture is one of the main roles of the designated leader.