10 Day Twitter Challenge

Twitter is my number one source of new information, challenging thinking, teaching and leadership resources as well as the medium through which I share my own online discoveries and thinking. I cannot imagine why any teacher would not use Twitter to connect with other professional educators for shared learning and resource sharing.

Some folk to whom I have spoken feel that Twitter is too complicated for them or that it is simply too much of a time-waster. These people have not spent enough time learning how Twitter works (very simple actually!) nor have they developed the discipline of 10 minutes a day browsing Twitter to discover what is actually available. There is rubbish on Twitter (as with any other online network) and there are those who use the medium to self-promote and certainly don’t add value through their inane commentary on the world. Those seeking to use Twitter as a professional tool need to be given the tools to do so and the support and encouragement to persevere.

This is why I really like the idea put forward by @SeanHCole who has issued a 10 Day Twitter Challenge for South African teachers. The graphic below explains how the challenge works. I will be putting this to my staff on Thursday morning and running this as an internal staff challenge. I encourage you to do the same. Let’s build the South African education community on Twitter so that we can all learn from each other. Those on Twitter already may wish to share this challenge. Follow the #10STCSA hashtag to find those teachers who have taken up the Twitter challenge.

Follow me on Twitter too – @artpreston

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”!


Stale Teachers Stink!

It seems to me that teachers can very quickly become set in their ways. It becomes easy to haul out files of work done in previous years and simply present it again to the current class. Large files are kept ready to be opened when a particular section of work is to be taught and pupils who catch on to the pattern can score high on assessments as they borrow a book from a pupil who had the same test the year before.

A stale teacher is an albatross around the neck of any school, class or pupil. They either need to be helped to improve or helped to leave.

We can choose to blame the education department, financial woes of the school, the changing nature of society, increased class size or poor school leadership but if we fail to address the issue of outdated, tired and repetitive teachers, we are not really tackling the problem.

Ongoing professional development opportunities, peer review mechanisms and a culture of professional accountability are important factors in keeping teachers fresh and “in the game”. I certainly do not want “stale” teachers in my school nor do I wish this for my own children.

Teachers need to be taken back to the day when they walked into their first classroom and reminded of what that felt like. I encourage my staff to remember the feelings of excitement, wonder and enthusiasm as they started their teaching careers and challenge them to remember why they entered the profession in the first place. Our nation faces serious challenges in the education sector. One area we should not have to worry about is teachers who have forgotten their calling to the classroom!


The Grading Conundrum

There is something deep within me that balks at the idea that we can rate children’s academic progress on the basis of either continuous assessment or formal examinations (although I believe the former to be more realistic than the latter). Over the past number of months I have noticed an increasing number of people in my Twitter network who are writing about the same dissatisfaction with this mode of assessing learning. There even appears to be a group of teachers who have signed on to a grading moratorium.

I am torn between wanting to see the children in our school develop competencies that cannot always be assessed in the traditional way and the need to provide quantitative results for parents who want measureable results. Therein lies the conundrum – the desire to provide a more realistic and relevant assessment system and also speak the assessment language known to parents so that they can be assured that their child is actually learning something!

When I began my teaching career I noticed that at parent-teacher meetings I would very seldom refer to the school report or grades. I would instead focus my comments to parents on their child’s attitude to learning, his/her social skills, the ability to focus on tasks during class and offer comment on how they could assist their child in improving the learning experience. I would also ensure that I listened carefully to their comments so that I would know how to reach that child better. This approach was also well-received by parents who understood that their child’s education was so much more that symbols on a page. I also learnt early in my career that I intuitively knew more about the child’s skills and competencies than a simple test could tell me. This intuition was my guide in the comments I wrote on reports and most times guided my assessment of children’s competencies. I still firmly believe that good teachers should more often than not follow their gut feel about a pupil more than they should rely on assessments.

A very intentional and strategic re-education needs to happen in our schools so that we can find a middle ground on this topic without alienating our parents, frightening our teachers and without compromising the complete education of our children. As Alvin Toffler said,

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

We cannot afford to have our classrooms filled by teachers unwilling to unlearn old paradigms and too scared of relearning how to assess pupils in world which is constantly reinventing itself.

As always I would love to read your comments on this topic – write away!

Who’s Paying?

One of the constant struggles I experience in my leadership of our school is the constant stream of requests for school fee subsidy. More now than ever before families are experiencing financial pressure and are looking for ways to reduce monthly expenses.My colleagues in other schools report the same phenomenon.

Our school is an independent school and as such receives no subsidisation from national or provincial government. Our ability to pay our staff, provide resources for high quality education, pay for operational overheads and maintain our buildings is dependent on fundraising and school fees. Small schools such as ours need to ensure growing enrolment to ensure income is maintained to pay all the necessary monthly bills, including the salaries of staff who continue to give of their best despite their payment being lower than their counterparts in state schools.

Here then is the conundrum : If we close the door to fee subsidy requests we risk losing families who may be in a better position to pay in months to come – a case of having some money in rather than none at all. On the other hand, if we constantly meet subsidy requests based on proven need, we run the risk of compromising our cash flow which could have very serious consequences for operational requirements on an already tight budget.

I admit that I find this a particularly difficult part of my job. We have a subsidy application process and requests are dealt with within a subsidy policy framework. Despite this and the fact that our Board is very supportive of me in this process, I am the one who has to face these parents and their children. I remind myself that parents have a choice as to where to send their children and that this choice is not my responsbility. Sometime this is cold comfort!

I have come to realise that not every parent values education in the way I feel they should. For some the payment of school fees seems to be an optional extra, something they will pay should the disposable income allow it. Fortunately our payment policy soon puts an end to parents thinking they can leave school fee payments to chance. If parents have chosen to send their children to an independent school they must be willing and able to pay the required fees?

It is incredibly humbling to meet parents who are doing everything in their power to afford the required school fees and who are diligent about paying on time. It is also very frustrating, annoying and anger-inducing when parents who are obviously able to afford their children’s school fees choose to pay late or not at all and thereby compromise the financial stability of the school.

Another issue that raises its head is whether it is fair to offer subsidies at all! When fee reductions are given they effectively require the remaining full fee-paying parents to subsidise the reduced-fee pupils. This has an obvious implication when it comes to setting annual school fees as subsidised fees need to be taken into consideration. This can push up the school fees for everyone in the parent body. Is this fair?

Yet another issue is that of the suspension of children due to non-payment of school fees. My business intuition tells me that this is the right way to go while the educator in me pulls in the opposite direction believing that children should be in school and not have to sacrifice educational opportunities because of the irresponsibility of parents. This is a constant struggle in my heart and mind.

What happens in your school? Feel free to share your thoughts and best practice ideas in the comments.

Let Them Play!

My friend Tim Keller pointed me towards this video from a TED conference. It sums up what for me is the essence of education, particularly at primary school level. There is no doubt that children learn through play. They learn to respect others’ ideas, study processes when they make mistakes, engage with each other when a solution needs to be found.

It occurs to me that in our very ordered school lives, there is precious little time left to play. That old-fashioned idea seems to be left on the sidelines so that we can finish curricula, keep education authorities happy and feel good about “preparing the children for high school”. What are we doing? I refuse to believe that education is simply the transfer of knowledge from one to another. Our pupils need to be learning by doing. They need to be actively engaged in activities that force them out of their comfort zones so that they can learn to think creatively not only about the problems they face but about who they are as individuals. It is never too young to begin this process.

Parents, concerned with grades to “get into the best high schools”, are also to blame. Unneccesary and frankly, short-sighted, pressure to conform to an outdated philosophy of education is hurting our children and will hurt our nation in the years to come. Schools need to be engaged in education our children beyond the textbook and the classroom.

I am not saying for one moment that it is necessary to throw out formal examinations and set curricula. I am calling for an open-minded approach to education. An approach that believes that all children have an amazing ability to learn and grow when left to their own devices. An approach that seeks to guide learning rather than force it. An approach in which teachers are also learners. An approach where children can become “complete” and not just have the ability to obtain good grades. An approach which allows children to make mistakes without fear. An approach that gives pupils an opportunity to reflect on their actions and doesn’t need them to write a story about it!

Come on teachers! Come on principals! Come on parents! Come on education authorities! Isn’t it time for a new day in education? We can have all the techno-wizardry in the world in our schools but that does not make a school progressive. The very essence of our school is our philosophy of education and in the way it is brought to life by our teachers.

Watch this and be inspired :