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 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
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.
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.