A Teacher’s Load

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 :