When I decided on teaching as my career of choice, I was under no illusion that this was an easy career path. I grew up around schools as my mother was a successful teacher who received several accolades over the course of her career. The hours of dedicated preparation, the weekend and after-hours events, the challenge of helping pupils reach their unrealised potential, the late afternoons of school-imposed professional development and the effort required to build positive relationships with parents, were ingrained in me as a child and teenager. I grew to love the idea of one day teaching in my own classroom and perhaps even one day leading my own school.
Many years later I now find myself as principal of a well-resourced independent school and am now in a position where I am able to set expectations of delivery from my team of teachers and ancillary staff. Over the past few months I have been challenged to examine those expectations in light of various discussions had in either one-on-one meetings or comments made in staff meetings.
Upon reflection I have had to examine my own thinking on staff commitment, the professional life of teachers and my own assumptions about the profession and individual staff members. It seems the busyness of life has taken its toll on teachers who regularly remark on how little time they have. I want to have a team of well-balanced professionals who are able to teach with enthusiasm and energy each day and who are also able to enjoy life with family and friends outside of school. How then to make this happen?
The reality is that teaching is not an easy profession. The physical and emotional demands are very real and it can become easy to become bogged down in the day-to-day pressures of the job. Perhaps the challenge then is to help teachers learn to work smarter not harder (a cliché perhaps but real nonetheless). We also need to re-examine the curriculum and stop chasing marks (grades) but rather aim at authentic assessment which reflects true learning. The CAPS documents make this increasingly difficult but I still believe it can be done despite them. Add to this the extra-mural commitments of teachers and the expectation that they take ownership of professional growth, as well as other school commitments such as attendance at sport festivals and professional development seminars and one begins to understand concerns about time and achieving life-balance. Many teachers are also under pressure from parental expectations and this needs to be managed carefully as well.
That all said, I believe that our school provides a caring and supportive environment for our teachers. One of our strengths is the sense of community which prevails in our staffroom.There are always going to be times in the year which are more stressful than others. That is the nature of any profession. I would far rather be in a school which sets the bar high for its academic professionals than be in one in which anything goes. In order for us to remain a leading school we have to realise that change, hard work and high expectations are par for the course. Achieving mediocrity takes work but who wants to be mediocre? Achieving excellence is a much harder task and demands more of everyone in the team. My job is to ensure that every member of our team is supported, encouraged and given the tools and skills they require to remain excellent at what they do. It is also to be the sounding board for when the pressure is on!
As a school principal, I believe in what I do. I still hang on to the idea that teaching is the noblest of professions and that teachers have arguably one of the most important jobs in the world. I am passionate about leading our school towards more effective 21st century education and about developing a team of teachers who are leading educators. The example set to me by my mother and other outstanding teachers and school principals with whom I’ve come into contact, continues to burn deep inside me. I know that lots of hard work lies ahead and that I need to manage the workload of my team well so that we can build our preferred future together.
I recently shared a presentation with the Head of Curriculum and Assessment in our school. The purpose of the presentation was to inform our parents about the changing nature of education and the way in which we have structured our assessments.
Without the commentary for each slide, this may not make much sense but here it is anyway!
Video source : http://www.mentorcloud.com/resources/weekly-insights-19/
Although this video is aimed at business leaders, I believe there are take-away pointers for school leadership as well. What follows is my attempt at summarising some of the key points from the various speakers and a few thoughts on their application in a school context.
There is a need for leaders to develop the skill of managing across boundaries (real or imagined)
Schools are full of boundaries. Some are real while others are imagined. There are boundaries between grades and departments, among the pupils (across and within grades), professional boundaries (often linked to a lack of skills in certain areas), boundaries of knowledge, boundaries of leadership capability, boundaries of time, boundaries of classroom doors and walls separating physical space and boundaries set up by those who seek to maintain their sense of power by position alone. Effective school leaders are those who can identify the boundaries in their school which are causing conflict and inefficiency and deal with them decisively and fairly.
Tomorrow’s leader needs to be excellent at engaging with people and be willing to give things away (knowledge, skills, time)
At the core of school leadership is relationship. A school leader who is unwilling to engage with his/her school’s constituents (pupils, parents, staff, community) is bound to fail. It is imperative that a school leader be willing to make time to speak to parents, visit classrooms, engage with pupils and be a person to whom teachers can come and chat about curriculum, class management, challenging students and more.
Leaders need to accept that they will be much less in control and that they are no longer the only ones who set the agenda of their organisation
The picture of the Victorian school principal patrolling the school grounds, cane in hand and academic gown flowing behind him, is an outdated one and yet there are some school heads who act as if they are the 21st century embodiment of that stereotype. This approach to school leadership is doomed to failure as these principals have failed to understand that in an ever-changing world, access to knowledge, ideas, innovations and collaborative endeavours is now the norm and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. The school principal is not the tyrant ruling his school with an iron fist but rather the catalyst for discussion and the enabler of teachers, parents and community to develop new initiatives in the school.
Leadership is about connection – allowing distributed leadership across the organisation and across sectors, divisions and industries. It is also about being a leader who builds bridges across assumed boundaries and who is willing to be open to alternative viewpoints.
Our world is no longer insular. Technology has enabled us to make connections with people all over the world. These connections expose us to varied views on educational theories and management ideas. They force us to consider a different viewpoint and provide a platform for the sharing of best practice. Our connectedness helps us become better at what we do.
It would be wise for school leaders to seek ideas about management, leadership, organisational theory and strategic planning from outside the education arena. There is much that can be learnt from the business and entrepreneurial worlds. School principals need to seek these connections to increase their own efficacy and capacity for high-level leadership. Likewise I believe that business can learn from education. Its a partnership which needs to be forged so that there is mutual benefit.
Communication remains key but leaders need to become adept at the effective use of many different media to engage with others
Technology and the rise of social media has presented school leaders with an unprecedented opportunity for more effective communication. A ‘spray and pray’ approach to communication is however not effective and school leaders need to learn how best to use the various media now available. They need to understand their target markets and know which tools are best suited to those markets.
Leaders need to be in the present to allow them to recognise talents and solutions in their organisation.
School principals needs to be practitioners of “Leadership By Walking Around”. They need to be visible to their staff and students and should always be on the lookout for those who need a helping hand or those who can be praised. The solutions to problems faced inside a school can often be found simply by recognising that within their staff (admin and estate staff included) there may well be innovative solutions and expertise waiting for the opportunity to be released. Empowering the staff of a school to be part of the solution-finding process is a powerful practice and creates community and ownership amongst all those who work together at the school.
Ultimately, leaders must be clear about their purpose
There are few things that make me feel more despondent about a school than a principal who is simply going through the motions. Perhaps it is a little naive and idealistic given the demands of the job, but I still believe that leading a school is a calling. Those who have given up on this ideal, who have been burnt out and who no longer feel the passion of their work, need to think very seriously about why they continue in the job.
Purpose gives passion. Passion creates energy. Energy creates action. Action in a school creates exciting, dynamic learning experiences set into motion by inspired and motivated teachers. It starts at the top.
I feel desperately sorry for those principals who are burdened by bureaucracy, held to ransom by politicised teacher unions, constantly hassled by department officials, made to feel incompetent by unsympathetic governing bodies and pushed to the limit by the day-to-day life and death struggles of the impoverished communities in which they find themselves. How easy it would be for them to throw in the towel! I salute those who continue to lead their schools with passion despite these conditions. They are our education heroes. May we never lose sight of their dedication and may they continue to inspire us to lead with passion.
Conferences can be very expensive and time-consuming. How wonderful then that teachers can now take part in a free global conference focused on bringing some of the best minds and practioners in education from all over the world together for five days of training, discussion and input.
I believe that the Industrial Age system of education that has spread around the world in the past 150 years will change dramatically in the coming decades.
The assembly-line progression of grades (first, second, third, etc.) coordinated by a fixed curriculum and headed by teachers in charge of students’ learning has grown increasingly out of touch with the realities of today: the global interconnectedness of economics, politics, and culture; the Internet, which puts more and more information at students’ fingertips; and businesses that need people who can think for themselves and collaborate effectively in teams to solve complex problems.
While mainstream school systems are obsessed with standardized test scores and intense individual competition, education innovators are focused on higher-order skills like systems thinking and creativity in conjunction with basic skills in mathematics and language; personal maturation together with technical knowledge; and learning how to learn together in service of addressing problems that are real in students’ lives.
This image was posted on the Facebook page of a friend of mine. It struck a chord with me as both parent and headmaster. I am unashamedly a “gadget guy” and love the fact that my own children are very comfortable using the technology in our home. However, I also ensure that they have plenty of time to participate in sport, play games outside and enjoy the beauty of our surroundings.
It disturbs me that I have heard of schools in other countries who have removed playground equipment because they fear being sued by parents whose children have injured themselves on it! Good grief – let’s remove pencils from the classroom in case a child is pricked by a sharp lead point! Providing spaces and equipment for physical play is a responsibility for any school which takes the emotional and physical well-being of its pupils seriously. The benefits of exercise to learning and the development of cognitive function are also well-documented and so it is fitting that schools embrace initiatives such as the Discovery Vitality Schools program.
I encourage parents to restrict screen time and play with their children outside whenever possible. I urge school leaders to consider adding physical activities to their school day rather than remove them as inconveniences in the timetable. As for all the added value of sport in a young person’s life and the importance of this activity in school, that’s a topic for another blog post all of its own!
I was catching up on my now rather long Google Reader “unread” items when I came across an article on the excellent Online Mom blog. The article commented on the arrest of three men in the US accused of raping children they met through an online social network. It is a scary reminder that despite the safety measures put into place by the network concerned (Skout) or any other social network, online predators seem to be able to skirt around these. (Skout suspended their teen community network – see ongoing response here)
When presenting at schools on the issue of keeping our children safe online, I am often asked whether parents should insist on checking their children’s phones and other devices. Some parents seem to feel that this is an invasion of privacy. I completely disagree. Your child’s safety is paramount and trumps any feeling by your child that you are not trusting them. The following paragraph appeared in the article to which I alluded earlier and is an excellent representation on my feelings on this matter :
Kids still make mistakes and it’s important that there’s a parental safety net for when they do. So pick up your daughter’s cell phone once in a while and check a few of her texts; make sure you know what social networks your child is using; pull up the browser history on the family computer and see what everyone’s been up to. It’s not spying, it’s parenting, and in this fast-paced digital world our kids need it more than ever.
Let me hasten to add though, that I do believe it would be best to chat with your child about their phone before simply picking it up and going through it. Open and honest communication is the best way to handle your child’s use of technology. Ensuring that your child feels comfortable speaking to you about his/her online activities and that you make conversation about social networks and online behaviour open in your home, is an excellent way to assist your child in keeping safe online.
When I decided on teaching as my career of choice, I was under no illusion that this was an easy career path. I grew up around schools as my mother was a successful teacher who received several accolades over the course of her career. The hours of dedicated preparation, the weekend and after-hours events, the challenge of helping pupils reach their