It all comes back to the leadership!

It doesn’t matter if we are discussing politics, religion, business, or education, it is leadership that makes the difference. And being a leader with a title and having an effective leadership are not necessarily one and the same thing.

So what? You may think, “Teachers can just get on with their job of teaching and not worry about what the leaders say or do.” Unfortunately, this is not the case. Leaders set the tone and the culture of their school. The tone they set permeates through and affects, and in some schools infects, everyone. I have taught in and visited many schools where teachers are doing their utmost to get on with their job. But many of these teachers are also worn out from their overloaded, fractured timetables, from implementation fatigue as each new product, program, and/or guru is foisted upon them from above and beyond. Teachers are wilting under the load and are expected to do, and to be, more and more. I am aware of many fine teachers who feel under attack from parents, the media, governments and worst of all, their school leadership.

There is a big emphasis on the wellbeing of students at the moment in schools. The need to understand and affirm the children in our care.  And yet, there does not appear to be the same importance placed on the wellbeing of staff. I am greatly concerned for our teachers here in Australia. They feel such a sense of responsibility for their students but many believe and feel they are not valued, affirmed, or appreciated by their leadership. Yes, there are leaders doing the correct thing by their staff but they are a rare breed, in my experience and according to anecdotal evidence I have collected.

So what can leaders do that can and does make positive difference to student outcomes in schools?

Well, just as John Hattie has researched what makes a difference to the learning of students, others such as: Viviane Robinson, Margie Hohepa and Claire Lloyd have researched the impact leaders have on the student outcomes.

The information below is taken from a summary of the the Best Evidence Synthesis conducted by these three New Zealanders and it is interesting to note what is important and what is not so important.
“In total the researchers identified eight dimensions of leadership practices and activities linked to student outcomes. For five of the dimensions the researchers were able to use statistical data to establish an effect size in terms of impact on student learning. Effect sizes (ES) are measured on a scale of 0 – 1. As a general guide, anything below 0.2 shows a weak or no effect, and anything greater than 0.6 reveals a significant impact. The dimensions for which an effect size could be established in this synthesis are:
Promoting and participating in teacher learning and development (ES 0.84)
Planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching and the curriculum (ES 0.42)
Establishing goals and expectations (ES 0.35)
Strategic resourcing (ES 0.34)
Ensuring an orderly and supportive environment (ES 0.27)
The three dimensions not assigned an effect size are derived from descriptions of leadership activity in studies of professional learning interventions which had a positive impact on student outcomes. These were:
Creating educationally powerful connections
Engaging in constructive problem talk
Selecting, developing, and using smart tools” 
I highly recommend this summary to you. You can find it at:  http://bit.ly/1pHbtBL
What I find interesting is that the one dimension that many leaders focus on: Ensuring an orderly and supportive environment, has a little to no effect and is actually almost a negative effect on student outcomes. It certainly has a negative effect on teachers in environments where this is the main concern of leadership.
If leaders truly want to improve student outcomes then a focus on:
Creating educationally powerful connections
Engaging in constructive problem talk
Selecting, developing, and using smart tools and
Promoting and participating in teacher learning and development (ES 0.84).
would appear to be the things that matter.
Let’s aim for these things and let’s create schools where learning for and listening to all is the focus of the decision making.
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Reformed vs Transformed.

“If the task of educators is to develop in children the learning dispositions and capacities to think critically, flexibly and creatively, then educators too must possess and model these capacities.” Prof. Alan Reid (2004)

Whenever this quote is shared, there is always talk and heads nodding in agreement with the quote, yet what is observed in reality are classrooms that still hand the same worksheet or activity to the whole class for subjects where it is apparent that one size does not fit all. We know this to be true and yet we continue to do it and/or see it.

Where did our, and I’m speaking to teachers when I write ‘our’, creativity go? When did our job become finding a book, or online worksheet and/or activity, aligned to a curriculum standard that was for our convenience and not designed for the range of learners in our classes? When did cover the curriculum become the profession as opposed to teaching our learners that learning to learn is the most important thing? When did the teacher’s job become the centre of professional development and not teacher learning that keeps that teacher growing and learning about children, their development and their learning?

Imagine the following scenario:

There is a time machine and members of certain professions are brought into our current time and place from 100 years ago. They look at the how their profession has changed. Some are shocked and barely recognise the profession. Think medicine, media, computerised technology and all are amazed at the changes that have taken place. All, that is, except one. Can you guess the one?

Yes, it is teaching. Oh, we may not be using chalkboards but an interactive touch screen is just an improved version of that chalkboard. But, let’s be honest, a worksheet where you fill in the blank and then colour is a worksheet that you fill in and colour whether you download from an online site or photocopy from a book.

As Sir Ken Robinson says in The Element, How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (2009)

“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardise education, but to personalise it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

Where are the classrooms that will inspire us? Where are the teachers who have transformed their practice to the extent that we would barely recognise that we were in a school? Where are these transformed schools? And, most importantly, where are these principals and heads of school that are supporting their staff to be creative and innovative?

If you are aware of schools that are truly innovative, I would love to know where these schools are!

Purpose, Possibility, and Power

So much is written and spoken of regarding leaders and leadership that one could become overwhelmed by that mountain of information. We already know so much yet we seem to have a problem translating this wealth and depth of information into a tangible transformation of our workplaces.

In the world of education, a world where I have spent most of my life, both when a child and as an adult, it appears that not everyone is either reading the research or, if they are reading then, not regarding?

It appears to be a topic so many principals, deputy principals, heads of teaching and learning, heads, directors, and/or coordinators of this and that, attend many a conference about, yet we still find many schools not flourishing. What is going on? If intelligent, learned people and they are those things, are listening to speakers, nodding their heads in agreement with the information presented, buying books and signing up for newsletters, then why aren’t our schools becoming the transformed, innovative environments that we all want them to be?

Of course there are those schools, you know, the showcase schools, schools that are leading the way, the schools that other schools want to be like. These examples are great but why are those schools the minority and not the majority? What do they know, and what are they doing, that the rest do not do and are not doing?

Now before we all rush out to sign up for the next conference, buy that book, or plan a visit to one of those schools that might help explain how they did it, we need to pause, take a breath, and ask ourselves some important questions. These questions are not difficult but they will take some time to consider thoughtfully and honestly.

Why do you do what you do?

Why did you decide on a leadership position rather than a class teacher?

Why is improving your school important to you?

Why, if you set the tone and the agenda, are you not one of those showcase schools?

Why?

Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why, has the subtitle, How Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. That sounds like something school leaders would want, doesn’t it? Just imagine all your people inspired to take action. What would that look like for you at your school? What would the culture, environment, working relationships look, sound, and feel like, if this was the case? I can already hear you DeBono’s Black Hat people saying, “That is too unrealistic or idealistic.” Or saying, “Schools are not as simple as that.” You do know that DeBono suggests you wear all the hats, not all at the same time of course. So, please take off the black one and try another colour for a change. Much different perspective to have the yellow or red hat on for a moment. And no sneaking that black one underneath…

So using the good old Y-chart, what does that look, sound and feel like?

Please write down what comes to mind.

Take it slowly.

Now let that sit with you as you take an honest look at your reality as opposed to your ideal.

What does it look, sound, and feel like for your staff, your parent/caregiver community, and the broader community of which your school is a connected part?

Most importantly of all, what does that look, sound and feel like for your students? And it doesn’t matter whether your learning environment is a birth to pre-school setting, a primary school, middle school, or high school, or a birth to Year 13 multi-campus facility. It also doesn’t matter if it is single sex or co-ed. What matters most is that it all exists for the children/students.

If your thinking, and therefore the culture and the environment that you influence, does not automatically put them at the very centre of what you are on about then knowing what everyone else is doing will not improve your school. Oh, you can improve it short term by driving your staff with fear and negativity to get test scores up, for example. But teachers know that that has little to do with real learning, real teaching, or a positive, innovative culture. Children end up hating those environments and can’t wait to get out. Many a teacher feels the same.

Don’t forget, the questions are not what or how questions. The questions are why questions. Why questions take you to a deeper place. It was Freidich Nietzsche, who is quoted as saying, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Many teachers know what they do and how they do it. The how and the what can change and teachers continue to teach. This can include the how and what of new technologies, techniques and strategies, neuroscience research, understanding of learning difficulties, child development theory and much, much more. It is not these new tools or information that make the difference. A good teacher is a good teacher because they know why they do it. They have a firm understanding of why they do what they do. The great ones know why they do what they do, the way that they do it, and they’ll change and adapt as new research becomes available! They keep learning.

A school leader generally knows what to do and some know how to do it. Most school leaders deal with the day to day issues effectively and manage the running of that school.

A good leader is a good leader because they also know why they do it. Great leaders know why they do what they do, the way that they do it.

Where are you in your thinking and self-reflecting?

Time…

There is a lot of research out there concerning the ways to lead a school and the best ways to teach in a school. My question is, why are many of our schools still being led in ways and taught in ways that are similar to when I went to school…and trust me, that was a while ago?

Something must be missing in the connections between research, including educational research and research into brain neurology, psychology and other related areas. And on-site research that occurs when teachers study the work and performance of the students they teach.  As a teacher I am concerned with a learner’s ability to transfer their learning from one area to another; for example, grammar rules and spelling rules transferred to a student’s writing. As a teacher I want my students to make those connections. As a member of the teaching profession, I want teachers to continue to learn and make connections between their current pedagogy and practice and the research that is available to inform them of innovations and ideas in education.

So what is needed for this to occur? In a classroom, students need time to reflect. This simply means time to think. Time to make connections, time for the ‘ah-hah’ moments, as they see or become aware of the purpose of what it is they are learning and the relevance to their life. Time.

So what do teachers need to also grow and develop? They need time to reflect, to think, make connections, time for the ‘ah-hah’ moments, as they also become aware of the purpose for new ways of teaching and learning and the relevance of the research to their life. Time.

Where are we going to find this time?

Time to think, grow and learn?

 

Purpose

The school year is winding down and yet, with the frantic end of year program in the Southern Hemisphere, you would not know this. Teachers are managing the academic program, assessing for the final reporting cycle, transitioning children into school or between sub-schools and classes, planning and rehearsing for the end of year celebrations, Christmas concerts, Speech Days, and probably throwing in some swimming lessons, sports days, and end of year staff functions. I’m tired just reading that list.

In all of this, we must not forget our purpose. This, I believe, is to make the learning environment the safest place for all our learners, both staff and students. Let’s remember not to get so busy in our thinking that we lose our sense of purpose and start to rush through each and every minute. Let us mindfully listen to the words we use at this busy time of year.

In the Power of Our Words, Paula Denton EdD. guides teachers to reflect on our most powerful teaching tool – their words and tone of voice. As the pace picks up let us keep our words and tone in a positive place so that the year ends well and everyone can enjoy the Silly Season.