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School Leadership Lessons

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the Victorian school principal patrolling the school grounds, cane in hand and academic gown flowing behind him, is an outdated one and yet there are some school heads who act as if they are the 21st century embodiment of that stereotype.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.
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Learning Is Social

Learning is social

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Get Outside!

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!

In the meantime, get outside with your kids!

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Ideas That Move

Spending time listening to those whose ideas change lives is never going to be a waste of time so I was bristling with eager anticipation at the TEDxCapeTown logostart of TEDxCapeTown last weekend. Having spent many hours being challenged, inspired, entertained and challenged by the many TED videos available online, I was anxious to experience something of the TED experience in-person. I was not disappointed.

Despite an opening by the organisers in which they apologised for what could go wrong before it had (note to conference MCs – never apologise for what has yet to happen; it doesn’t inspire confidence!), the day was extremely well-organised. I tend to be ultra-critical of the small details and there are some aspects of the day which irritated but on the whole, this was an excellent event. There was a tangible sense of excitement and energy in the air as some of Cape Town’s brightest young (and not so young!) minds gathered to share “ideas worth sharing”.

Videos of the talks will be available on the 5th on May so I am not going to expound on each speaker’s input. Rather I would like to share of my learning from a macro-perspective.

I have had almost a week to reflect on the TEDxCapeTown experience and to process the input from the day. There are three major themes which come through for me :

1) People with passion find opportunity to make a difference in their community.

2) People who believe they can, usually do!

3) Hope is alive when ideas are made real.

These three learnings challenged me to think about what I could do differently in both my professional and personal capacities to improve myself and the impact I am making in my sphere of influence.

As leader of a school, I need to apply these learnings to the leadership of my school. How then am I to do this? Here are my thoughts on the application of each “idea challenge” to our school context :

1) People with passion find opportunity to make a difference in their community

Passion is a powerful driving force. It keeps us focused on the task at hand and allows us to persevere through times of struggle. It is also the force which drives us to find solutions for seemingly impossible problems.

Many schools today face serious challenges which threaten their effectiveness and, in some cases, their very existence. These problems range from financial instability, unionised teachers who feel obliged to strike to make a political point, a lack of basic resources to the very real  socio-economic problems of pupils who arrive at school under-nourished or frightened by the violence in their home and community.

Passionate school leaders and teachers will not sit back and accept these realities. They will constantly strive to find solutions so that their pupils may have the best possible opportunities at school. They will work with the community to look for ways in which the people of the community can be engaged in improving the status quo. They will seek ideas to bring a new reality to their school and pupils.

The local school is an integral part of its community and a place where the future leaders and difference-makers of the world spend the vast majority of their hours each day. We owe it to our community and our country to be passionate in our leadership of our schools and to give our energies to finding solutions to those problems which threaten the effectiveness of our teaching and the process of learning.

2) People who believe they can, usually do!

The game-changers of society are those who are not distracted by the nay-sayers or those who choose to see the mountain ahead of them instead of the path leading to its summit.

It is true to say that anyone in a leadership position will be open to criticism by others. In a school context it is the school principal who is the embodiment of the school for parents, community member and education officials. It is he/she who has to spearhead the changes needed to move the school into new, exciting and relevant realities. Changes in curriculum, teaching practice, school policy or indeed any other changes will not always be accepted with open arms by those in the school. Armed with the confidence that his/her plans for change are well-researched and in the best interests of the school, the principal needs to have the courage of his/her convictions to press on. There is a fine line between self-confidence and arrogance and the two are sometimes confused by those who choose to criticise instead of engaging in a positive way.

Many schools have for far too long been too comfortable with the status quo, scared of upsetting education boards, parent interest groups and various other factions. The truth is that if our schools are to be true to their mission of providing children with effective education which prepares them for relevancy in the world, they will need leaders who are prepared to swim upstream at times. They will need leaders who have such a strong belief in their mission that they will do whatever it takes to make their schools models of effective, relevant and dynamic education.

3) Hope is alive when ideas are made real

I remember reading a newspaper article some years ago about a rural high school principal in the poverty-stricken Eastern Cape Province of South Africa who walked several kilometers to school each day and transformed his school from one where hardly any pupils passed their school-leaving exams to one where they managed to achieve a 100% pass rate several years in a row. He inspired his teachers to go the extra mile with their pupils by planting an idea in the school that every pupil had the potential to succeed. His teachers brought in desks and chairs from their homes, photocopied (at their own expense) local newspaper articles for language lessons, came in on weekends and in school holidays and began each day on time. The idea that every child could succeed inspired both teachers and pupils and brought hope to a school where there was none before.

The above example is but one of many in the education sector where an individual (not necessarily the principal) has shared an idea which has kept the hopes and dreams of a school and/or community alive. School leaders are in  unique position to influence adults (parents, teachers, community members, education department officials) and children with ideas that can really “change the world”. This places a huge responsibility on those of us privilege to lead schools. We get to influence the decision makers of today and tomorrow. In how many other professions is that true?

It is our duty to bring to fruition ideas in our school which can change the present and future of  our community. In the midst of political, social and economic turmoil, we need school leaders who keep the hope of a brighter future alive and who inspire others to bring creative, thought-provoking, challenging and game-changing ideas to reality.

I left TEDxCapeTown with the sense that I could do and be so much more. I  have been challenged to focus my energy on the idea that our school can become a beacon in the community – a place where young minds are given the space to create and a community of learning which celebrates different modalities of learning in a far greater way than we have done in the past. I am encouraged to develop our staff to think even more deeply about how we teach and how we can further develop the natural curiosity of the young minds we are privileged to work with. I am inspired to develop in our pupils, staff and parents a knowledge of the phenomenal talent present in our country and to celebrate with them the wonderful place we call home.

The next local TED event is in Stellenbosch – I intend to be there and would love to take some of our staff along for the experience! If you are going to be there, please send a tweet to @artpreston so that we can meet up and share our “ideas worth sharing”!

 

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I Believe In…

I believe education matters : I believe in education that is relevant to a rapidly evolving world. An education that prepares children for a world where they will change careers multiple times before retirement. An education that gives children the tools to cope with an ever-increasingly connected world. An education which recognises that learning takes place in an organic and connected way. An education which does not rely on a system of grades to indicate whether a pupil is learning or not. An education which teaches the value of emotional intelligence and the importance of respect for one another.

I believe teachers matter : I believe in teachers who foster a life-long love of learning. I believe in teachers who know that in a Google world they can no longer be seen as the source of all knowledge. I believe in teachers who are open to new ideas about the value of grading pupils and about seeing change in their classroom practice. I believe in teachers who are on a journey of self-discovery and personal learning and who are constantly learning how to be better at what they do. I believe in teachers who persevere through difficult circumstances because they believe that what they do really matters. I believe in teachers who choose to teach each day with the same enthusiasm they had on their very first day in the classroom.

I believe parents matter : I believe in parents who understand that the education of their children cannot only happen at school. I believe in parents who choose to work in partnership with their child’s teacher. I believe in parents who realise that teachers have personal responsibilities after 5pm and don’t call them at home or on their mobile phones at night. I believe in parents who support the discipline of the school and don’t undermine teachers by bringing down teachers around the dinner table. I believe in parents who see themselves as part of a team with the staff of the school. I believe in parents who believe in the inherent potential of their child. I believe in parents who choose to invest in their child’s education as a priority in their monthly budget. I believe in parents who are the singularly most important people in their child’s life – providing love, security, boundaries and support.

What do YOU believe in? Send a tweet to @artpreston with the hashtag #headthoughts – in a  few week’s time I’ll post the results.

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What We Truly Need

My wife came home recently clutching several catalogues from computer/gadget stores. As she passed them on to me to peruse she commented, “What in these do you need?”. Now I have to admit that a large part of me would love to spend several thousands on very intentionally adding to my gadget collection but my personal budget won’t stretch that far! I am also sure that any more gadgets in the house would leave me sleeping on the couch!

My response was simply this : “There’s lots I want, but nothing I need.” I didn’t think much of this until I began preparing myself for the start of the new school term. It occurred to me that the same sentiment applies to schools. I began to wonder what a list of needs and wants would look like for my school. I soon realised that those things that schools need are most often the intangibles, those things which are rooted in people and not bought with fundraising money and school fees.

Trust, empathy, creativity, entrepreneurship, parental engagement, camaraderie amongst staff, experiential learning opportunities, open-mindedness, clear vision, strong moral and ethical compass, an atmosphere of mutual respect and a well-defined accountability system are some of the needs of schools. In the race for larger buildings, more technology, fancier sport facilities and so on, many schools seem to have lost their focus on what is truly important.

Oh yes, there is lots I want for my school but the question is, “Do I need it?”.

I hope that I don’t fall into the trap of focusing too much on the wants of my school and thereby lose touch with the reality of those things we truly need.

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Here We Go!

After much consideration I have decided to begin this blog to chronicle the trials, joys and day-to-day experiences of leading a small school in the Western Cape, South Africa.

I have now served as headmaster of my school for 27 months and it has been quite a journey thus far! No single day is the same as I deal with all manner of leadership issues as well as teach Grade 7 and 8 classes.

This site will be the place where I reflect on the activities of the day and share some of my thoughts with regard to education and educational leadership. It will be the space in which I can vent, share, learn, grown and find meaning to the many thoughts and ideas floating around my mind!