Here it is – the very first episode of the HeadThoughts podcast!
In this episode:
* Who the heck posts this stuff?
* What can I expect to hear in future episodes?
* Why does school leadership matter?
A few days ago South Africa laid to rest a giant of the struggle against apartheid. Ahmed Kathrada (21 Aug 1929 – 28 Mar 2017) embodied the spirit of activism and determination which brought an unjust political system to its knees. While his funeral was distinctly political, it was also a moment to reflect on our conscience, not only as a nation, but also on a personal level.
The purpose of this blog is not political so I do not want to venture there. Instead, I want to focus on the courage and determination of a man who was willing to be imprisoned for a cause he believed in, to the very core of his soul. When I consider the life of Uncle Kathy, as he was affectionately known, I am challenged to reflect on both my own courage and commitment as a leader in my school. I am forced to wonder in what areas of my life I need to increase my quotient of these key character traits. Would I be willing to give up freedoms I currently take for granted in order to stand firm for a cause I believe in deeply? In what areas of my life is it easier to “go with the flow” rather than swim upstream in the face of popular opinion in order to make decisions which, will wildly unpopular, will grow our school and benefit our children? How determined am I to commit to a course of action or cause even when it causes me great discomfort?
The life and death of Ahmed Kathrada forces me to consider my role as educator and parent. Like water, human beings tend to choose the path of least resistance and, as parents and educators, we are tempted to make this choice for our children too.
Allowing children to work together in cooperative learning activities, asking them to commit to schedules for their extra-curricular activities, giving them opportunity to debate hard issues in class and providing a safe space for them to be themselves, holding children accountable for their personal organization, all contribute to developing young people who are learning the value of commitment and courage.
Our country needs more people whose courage and commitment to do what is right and to stand up for their values and beliefs, places them in a position of moral leadership. I hope that in some small way, our school will play its part in developing a generation who will be held in the same esteem as those who in previous years have held aloft the torch of courage, commitment, determination and moral leadership which others have followed.
I recently came across this statement in the book ‘Leadership for Learning‘ by Carl Glickman. I love the sentiment and challenge expressed:
If, as a teacher,
- I present the same lessons in the same manner that I have used in the past;
- I seek no feedback from my students;
- I do not analyse and evaluate their work in a manner that changes my own emphasis, repertoire and timing;
- I do not visit and observe other adults as they teach;
- I do not share the work of my students with colleauges for feedback, suggestions and critiques;
- I do not visit other schools or attend particular workshops or seminars or read professional literature on aspects of my teaching;
- I do not welcome visitors with experience and expertise to observe and provide feedback to me on my classroom practice;
- I have no yearly individualised professional development plan focused on classroom changes to improve student learning; and finally,
- I have no systemic evaluation of my teaching tied to individual, grade/department, and schoolwide goals;
I have absolutely no way to become better as a teacher.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if we truly to create learning environments which teach children to love learning, to engage creatively with the world around them and to develop the skills needed for them to be successful adults in our ever-changing world, every teacher in every school will need to create a culture of continual learning and a commitment to a growth mindset. There is simply no more place in our schools for teachers who believe that they can no longer adapt their practice through professional learning and feedback.
Glickman also states,
“Successful schools stand in great contrast to mediocre and low performing schools where faculty work apart from each other, and without common purpose, and with self-centered beliefs that they are doing the best they can.” – Glickman, Carl D. Leadership For Learning. 1st ed. Alexandria: Assn Supervn & Curr Dev, 2002. Print.
This is such a powerful challenge and one which those of us working in schools need to take seriously if we are to provide places of dynamic and relevant teaching and learning.
I have the privilege of attending and speaking at the 2016 iteration of the uLead Summit, a gathering hosted by the Alberta Teachers Association. This summit is considered one of the top education leadership conferences in the world and I am grateful and humbled by the opportunity to be part of it.
For the past day and a half I have explored the town of Banff and the surrounding countryside. It is stunningly beautiful and I particularly enjoyed my excursion to Lake Louise and the drive along the Bow River Parkway which winds its way through the peaceful and beautiful scenery of the Canadian Rockies. Lake Louise was still frozen over so I didn’t get to experience the stunning colours of this glacial lake in their full glory. However, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit there and will forever hold the memory of that visit in my memory.
There is much more I could write about the town of Banff and the exquisite surrounds but I’ll leave further exploration up to the readers of this blog and encourage you to either visit in person or virtually online. What I need to write about are my expectations for the conference and what I hope to gain from this experience.
Over 1100 delegates begin their summit experience today and I will join them in eager anticipation of a time of learning, networking and sharing of ideas. I hope to make some new connections, be challenged in my thinking and learn from research and best practice how to make an impact in my school and in the schools I work with.
2016 sees the 31st holding of the modern Olympic Games. From 5-21 August Rio de Janeiro will host 10 500 athletes participating in 28 sporting codes. Olympic politics and economics aside, the Olympic Games gives the world an opportunity to pause for a moment and appreciate the talent, tenacity and determination of world-class athletes. It is truly a sporting spectacle and I cannot wait for the opening ceremony on 5 August!
One of the flagship events of the Olympic Games is the marathon. It is truly an event of endurance and determination. As the athletes set off on their 42km journey they are fresh and ready to face the road which lies ahead. They are full of hope, some with the dream of earning a medal, some with the promise of finishing the race as an Olympic marathon competitor and the honour which accompanies this accomplishment. As the race continues and the road stretches on for the athletes, some of those who set off with the determination of champions are faced with the reality of the standard of the competition, the performance pressure of the Games, the realisation of their own limitations in the heat of Olympic competition and the moment of decision-making when finishing the race no longer seems possible.
In 1968 John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania faced the agonising decision of whether to withdraw from the Olympic marathon in Mexico City. In jostling for position he had fallen hard, injuring his shoulder and partly dislocating his knee. Despite the protestations of the attending medical staff, Akhwari picked himself up and insisted on completing the race. Back at the Olympic Stadium, the medal ceremony had concluded when the crowd became aware of police sirens and a group of police motorcycles surrounding an athlete approaching the stadium. In a mix of walking, limping and attempts at running, John Stephen Akhwari entered the stadium over an hour after the winner had crossed the finish line in front of the few thousand people who had remained behind (see this on YouTube). In what has been described as the greatest last place finish ever, Akhwari demonstrated that it is not the start which determines our place in history, it is the way in which we complete the race set before us. When interviewed after his incredible feat of endurance, he said,
“My country did not send me over 11,000 kilometers to start a race. They sent me over 11,000 kilometers to finish one.”
When our parents choose to send their little ones to join our school at three years of age, they are beginning a journey which will last another 15 years until the day comes when their young man or woman will complete their final day of Grade 12. It is a journey filled with challenges and obstacles and yet it is also a journey filled with exciting opportunities to discover, to learn, to create memories, to develop life-long skills and make friends which will last decades. We are privileged in the primary school to lead our young charges on this journey for 9 years. The pre-primary and primary school road is, in my opinion, absolutely vital to how the remaining 6 years in Junior and Senior High develop. It is in these 9 years that critical skills are developed, curiosity is encouraged and talents are unearthed and allowed the space to grow. The growth of key character traits and attitudes of grit, resolve and problem-solving is encouraged and our teachers provide ample opportunity for personal growth.
Teaching our children to get up when they fall, to live out the truth that it is how we respond to failure and difficulty which determines our success and to develop resilience and grit, is the responsibility of both parent and school. As the guardians of our pupils during their critical pre-primary and primary years, we are committed to ensuring that our pupils finish their scholastic race well-equipped for the life they will lead both in the High School and indeed after Grade 12.
I am a huge fan of Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible – a show in which hotel “fixer” Anthony Melchiorri visits ailing hotels and works with the owners and staff to turn the business into profitability and success. Every time I watch the show I wonder whether some of the schools I have visited over the past number of years (and, yes, the school I lead too) would benefit from some of the common sense advice and honest appraisal given by Melchiorri.
Here are three takeaways from the show which I believe are applicable to education:
1) The little things matter:
No matter how big or small the hotel, Melchiorri always makes a point of looking for the small things which can make a difference to a guest. This principle needs to apply to schools as well. Way too many schools ignore simple things which can make a huge difference – the way the school receptionist/secretary greets visitors, the neatness of school bags outside/inside the classroom, clear signage, clean bathrooms with fresh flowers and so on. Most of these can be fixed with little or no expenditure.
2) Be willing to see your school through the eyes of others:
In each episode, Melchiorri makes a point of showing the hoteliers what the guest experience is like. Delays at check-in, poor service in the restaurant, confusing arrangements for key collection and so on all create a negative experience which translates into poor reviews for the hotel. I wonder how often those of us who are responsible for schools consider the experience of our pupils and parents. Complacency around this issue is a very real danger as we deal with the stark realities of teaching and leading every day. Attention to the experience of your school by others is an important part of building a quality school – we need to make sure we do it! We need to take an intentional look at our learning spaces to consider whether they are exciting and engaging places for our children. We should consider how we communicate to parents and whether our communication actually meets the expectations of our parents. What does our admission process feel like to a family desperate to enrol their child in our school? Do we have good relationships with those contractors we bring in to service our school?
3) Be open to correction:
Some of the most entertaining episodes of Hotel Impossible are those in which the owners are adamant that they know more than Melchiorri despite the fact that they are responsible for running an inefficient, failing business. On many occasions it turns out that the owners have never run a hotel before nor do they have any experience in working in a hotel! Yet, they seem determined not to take the advice of someone with over 20 years of hotel experience and a proven track record of turning hotel fortunes around. This type of arrogant attitude has no place in business and it certainly should not be welcomed in schools. School leaders must always realise that the school is greater than they are and that they do not have all the answers to every difficulty facing their school. Principals, governors and board members should be open to the advice of others, particularly those who can bring insight from fields outside education. Insights on leadership, financial sustainability, human resource management, property management and more can be gleaned from professionals outside education and school leaders would do well to pay attention to them. It goes without saying that school leadership should also be open to learning from others in education who can add value from their own experiences.
Yes, its reality television and yes, I’m quite sure there is plenty of behind-the-scenes manipulation. However, the show is entertaining and certainly gives those of us in school leadership much to consider as we lead an increasingly complex organisation in an increasingly complex world.
I came across the February edition of a publication entitled “Public Sector Manager” at Lanseria International Airport while waiting for a flight back to Cape Town. On the front cover was the portrait of Mrs Angie Motshekga, National Minister of Basic Education. Realising that there must be an education focus in this edition (and fascinated by the headline of ‘High Standards’), I took some time to browse the magazine.
One of the articles was entitled, “Gauteng Department of Education leads the pack”. The thrust of the article was that the GDE was the top performing education department in the 2014 Matric examinations. As I read through the very blatant self-congratulatory tone (after all, the magazine is published by the state’s Department of Communications), I was struck by the fact that nowhere was there mention of the high dropout rate on the way to Grade 12 in Gauteng (see this article for insights into the 2014 Matric pass rates).
I was also troubled by this sentence:
As the Minister makes the announcement Gauteng MEC of Education Panyaza Lesufi jumps up screaming and punches the air as if he has just won a million rand.
It seems that Matric pass rates have become competition fodder for politicians. This is simply unacceptable. If the provincial MECs were truly concerned about the state of many of our schools and the education system, they would realise that matric results do not give the full picture of the health of the education system. MEC Lesufi was surely pleased with the announcement as I am sure he and his team have worked at various strategies to improve the matric pass rate. His reaction is however out of proportion given the huge obstacles still faced by the schools, pupils and teachers in his province.
Focusing purely on results is counter-intuitive as it creates an environment in which teachers and school principals feel pressured to hold pupils back in the lower grades who may not perform as well in Grade 12. It focuses on outcomes rather than the process of learning and it fails to take into consideration other factors in the school improvement process.
It is my hope that our politicians, including our Minister of Basic Education, stop using Matric results (and our pupils) as a means to give each other a pat on the back and start focusing on the real issues at hand (such as the quality of the Matric pass and the lack of true skills-based curriculum in the FET phase).