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.
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.
We all know the familiar stereotype of the stern school headmaster brandishing his cane while looking over the rim of his spectacles at his young charges. Academic gown flowing behind him, he demands respect for his position and rules his domain through fear. Teachers and pupils both fear and admire him while parents dare not question his motives nor decisions for fear that their children may bear the brunt of the headmaster’s wrath.
This model of school leadership is thankfully both outdated and stereotyped. The challenges of modern school leadership are vast and require a particular skillset. It was with interest then that I came across a TED talk delivered by Roselinde Torres.
She conducted a survey of 4000 companies to determine the effectiveness of their leadership development strategies. What she and her colleagues determined was that the vast majority of these companies were not effective in building leaders for current or future realities. The model of success which these companies prepared their staff for was simply no longer valid. She took a year off to travel and interview hundreds of corporate and non-profit leaders to determine what constituted effective 21st century leadership. The result of this work was the realisation that there are primarily three key questions those wishing to lead in today’s world need to ask:
1) Where are you looking to anticipate the next change?
2) What is the diversity measure of your network?
3) Are you courageous enough to abandon the past?
From the perspective of school leadership, I’d like then to pose the following questions:
1) As a school leader, where do you look to stay ahead of the curve? What books are you reading? What media are you consuming which will keep you aware of current and future educational trends? With whom are you spending your time to grow your understanding of the society into which you are sending your pupils? Are the professional growth opportunities given to your teachers still relevant for this fast-changing world?
2) Are you willing to develop relationships with people who are different to you? Can you build trust across personal and professional difference to achieve both personal and corporate goals? Are you willing to embrace different solutions from a wide variety of sources?
3) Are you willing to break the bonds of tradition so that your school can move forward to greater relevance? Do you have the emotional stamina to deal with both critical and sceptical parents, alumni and staff? Do you have the courage to dare to be different?
These are important questions to ask as we strive to lead our schools to greater relevance in the 21st century. I have been challenged by these questions and hope to grow into greater leadership competence as I lead my school into our shared future.
Roselinde Torres’ TED talk can be found here: What It Takes To Be A Great Leader
Effective leaders often need to break new ground, challenge assumptions and introduce new thoughts to well-established traditions. This is certainly true of school principals. They need to consider the existing demands of national curriculum statements and the expectations of the broader school community. They need to be aware of the realities of hard-working teaching staff who have become bruised and battered over the years by the changing goalposts of curricula dictated by state and provincial education departments. While considering all these realities, they are also tasked with bringing effective change to ensure relevant teaching practice and dynamic learning opportunities for all the pupils in the school.
The challenges listed in the previous paragraph coupled with the very real element of fear and reprisal can lead school principals to adopt a “we’ve always done it this way” approach. In no way do I advocate change for change’s sake but when change will improve the learning experience for pupils and will create a more dynamic learning environment, it is up to the school leader to pick up the reins and drive the change process.
It can become too easy to blame the Department of Education, the CAPS curriculum, the lack of resources, poor parental support and so on for perpetuating poor teaching practice. The losers in this scenario are both pupils and teachers. It is up to the school leader to put in the hard yards in learning about new ideas, preparing and implementing an effective change plan. This is a scary prospect for many principals who have never had any previous experience in leading change but perhaps becoming an educational dinosaur leading a school which continues to operate in a time warp is a lot more scary!
In my experience the most effective tool in bringing about effective change in a school is COMMUNICATION.
Without open communication the principal risks being a lone voice unsupported by the very people who are needed for effective implementation of the change. A mistake I have often made is that I have rushed this critical aspect and have then found it much more difficult down the line to bring staff and parents on board the change process. Changes to curriculum and any other aspect of teaching need to be communicated clearly and early on to the academic staff. They need to know the reasons for the proposed change and how the change will affect them. Will it require more time commitment for planning? Will teachers be required to redesign lesson plans or revisit their assessment procedures? What new administrative tasks will be required? Is there clarity on what benefits teachers will derive from the proposed change? Do the teachers understand how the proposed change will bring about more effective learning in their classroom?
Innovation and change are two distinct concepts and should not be confused. There are way too many principals who think that regular change makes them innovative school leaders. This is simply not true and too much change can create confusion, mistrust and anger. Innovation involves well thought through and considered risk taking which can lead to incredibly effective change.
Creative risk taking is essential to success in any goal where the stakes are high. Thoughtless risks are destructive, of course, but perhaps even more wasteful is thoughtless caution which prompts inaction and promotes failure to seize opportunity. – Gary Ryan Blair
Change will never come to those who choose to sit on their hands because they are paralysed by thoughts of failure or because they are afraid of the inevitable push-back from certain quarters. Effective leaders of change are those who can see the need for change and become involved in bringing the needed change to reality with the help of their team. I certainly do not want to be a school principal who is afraid of change. I want to be a principal who sets the course for change and brings his team with him in the implementation process. If at the end of 2014 I look back on the year and this is all I have achieved professionally then I’ll be a very happy man.
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.