Category: Leadership

Why teachers are Salmon swimming upstream

Recently, Kelli and I were talking about why teaching can be so exhausting. She used the analogy of Salmon swimming upstream to illustrate how we are so often doing what we do in the face of so many other contradictory and conflicting forces.

These forces may sometimes be policies and expectations put in place by governments and education departments based on decisions which are often made by people with little or no educational background apart from the fact that they went to school. In many cases, these policies and expectations are in complete conflict with what educators know to be true about children and learning. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.

In other cases (or if you’re unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be policies and expectations that are put in place by school boards or leadership teams. Many school boards are composed of people who have little or no educational background apart from the fact they went to school. And many leadership teams consist of educators so long out of the classroom and so distanced from the realities of day-to-day teaching that they are referring to how things were, or should have been, 20 or 30 years ago. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.

In other cases (or if you’re really unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be the patterns of behaviour and trends that exist around you all in everyday life outside school. Students may be consistently exposed to things that go against everything you hope to be instilling in them while they are with you, such as vast differences between rich and poor, an abusive class system, the systematic destruction of the environment, institutionalised racism, corrupt officials and police, blatant consumerism and greed and disregard for human life. And so some teachers try to get their students involved in doing something about these problems, and this is great. But, all too often the overwhelming feeling that they’re only scratching the surface burns people out or the transient nature of many international schools means projects are not sustained. And so, teachers and students do what they do inside a sort of bubble of safety, security and sanitisation while still trying to open their students’ eyes to reality.

In other cases (or if you’re really, really unlucky) the forces may be the parents and what they believe about parenting. Teachers may be consistently trying to reverse the damaging effects of different parenting styles, such as children who have “learned helplessness”, children who are overprotected, children who are under too much pressure to be academically successful, children who are over-scheduled, children who are unable to relax without a screen in front of them, children who are not getting enough sleep, children who eat a damaging diet, children who are being medicated and children who are being brought up with worrying political and ethical beliefs. And so, teachers do what they do in the hope that their 8 hours or so each day with these children can, in some way counteract what is happening at home and give them a refuge, increase their confidence and self-esteem, reveal different perspectives to them and, perhaps most importantly, help them learn how to figure things out for themselves.

In other cases (or if you’re really, really, really unlucky) the forces may be the what the parents believe is, or should be, a good education. Many parents’ only point of reference about education is their own experience. Some of the more enlightened parents look back at aspects of their education and hope, more than anything else, that their children don’t have to “go through that”. Many, though, hark back to their education with rose-tinted glasses and put pressure on modern teachers to replicate those practices despite the fact that pedagogical research, as well as the world itself, has moved on since then. And so, teachers are charged with the responsibility of not only educating children but also educating parents about how they are educating their children!

The Salmon swimming upstream is a great analogy for what it’s like to be a teacher. At least, a teacher who is determined to stay up-to-date with pedagogical research and contemporary practice, who is determined to teach the child and not just the content, who is determined to be part of creating generations of young people who can give themselves and the next generation a better existence and who is determined to make the most of the privilege that it is to have such a direct impact on the lives of so many people. If not, I guess they’re just swimming along with the current… which is, of course, much easier, much less energy-sapping and involves a lot less thought!

True Colours

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The ebbs and flows of exciting new job prospects and recruitment is slowing down to rest dormant for another cycle in international schools. More on this later in the post. Let’s pause for a moment and wind back to August before going any further.

You’re in August, just returned after a relaxing break, time to ponder and consider if you are staying on or moving on, as your contract is a perishable item, just like long-life milk in aisle 4. Before you know it, you find yourself in October (some schools drop the ‘letter of intent’ much earlier than this). You have to resign before squaring away that next job.

What to do? Am I fulfilled? Have I outgrown this place? Am I happy? Do I offer something unique? The questions, the introspection, the game of  romanticizing and flirting with the dozens of possibilities of potential schools begins to become real. Then the practicalities and gravity of moving sets in…. shipping, housing, Visas, notarization, friends, the comfortable life you’ve created, police checks….. here we go again.

So you’re now leaving and have a good 6 months left at the school which saw something special in you when they first took you on. They hired you on all the skills, knowledge and passion for learning that you were bringing with you. Life was good. The cycle turns and rolls effortlessly.

And this is where ‘the game’ becomes interesting….

Who are you once you have a foot out the door? You’ve signed and secured a new contract somewhere else. Good for you!

How are you going to spend your remaining 6 months? What is your legacy? How do you want to be remembered? I believe that the true colors of who one really is, shine through in the last 6 months of their contract. This is when you see someone in their full light. Their morals, their values, their ethics, their desire, their essence, their personality, their qualities, their core…..

Are you someone who begins to:

  • arrive late to work?
  • use all your sick days?
  • say less? do less?
  • leave at 4 on the dot?
  • withdraws?
  • gossip and be more negative
  • and on and on…..

Or are you someone who:

  • gives their best and remains consistent?
  • contributes at meetings?
  • turns up to organized events and supports them?
  • is positive and works hard?
  • still cares about learning and growing?
  • has the desire to ‘finish’ well, right up to the middle of June?
  • and on and on…..

I believe that school leadership and administration needs to connect with the schools that teachers are going to and share some ‘home truths’ with how things have turned sour (or not) in the remaining 6 weeks of the year. More like a follow-up conversation, a hand over. Sharing an appraisal or goals. We do that with our students, why not educators….. Maybe this would work…. maybe not. There has to be a way to circle things back.

Sure, leaders can have conversations with those who flag and meander. I think there is a missing link from the beginning of August. The ‘sun setting stage’ of one’s time in a school says a lot about someone. The approach we need to take should go beyond the signing of a new contract and hoping they stay true and consistent to what they have shown and been like.

Let’s finish well, let’s finish how we started!

Why do we have to manage grown adults ‘out of’ and ‘in to’ schools?

Educational Malpractice

If the 20th century was about rows, the 21st century should be about circles.

There is an ever-increasing voice for real change to challenge education. The above video touched on a plethora of points, which we actually all know about – or at the very least – should know about.

What is it going to take to do something tangible about turning education on its head completely, as a whole, and not its individual parts?

There are some great teachers out there who really do care and are trying to challenge ideals, approaches and attitudes. It isn’t enough. The amount of tweets I read, and the workshops and the conference people attend for the most part have the same recurring theme:

Challenge, Inspire, Re-imagine, Redefine, Innovate, 21st Century Education and on and on.

We get it…. education needs to change. The world is always changing and education hasn’t really changed that much in a very, very long time. Yes, there is technology and we have fancy spaces, yet I don’t feel that things have changed a great deal.

Where to from here?

I actually don’t think we know how to change, and that change is so slow some of us are beginning to feel like nothing is ever going to change. While this may be coming off in a cynical and defeatist way, I am feeling like this more and more.

The above video could lead us down many different paths…. Let’s take one of those that recently happened.

The other day, as a Primary staff we were talking about abolishing report cards.  We use Seesaw (Student Driven Digital Portfolio) as a way to capture and record evidence of learning and thinking. We have 4 Open Houses a year at the end of a unit of inquiry for parents to see what students are up to. We have 1 three-way conference, 1 Student-led Conference and 1 formal teacher-parent meeting a year. Plus, on top of that we report 6 times a year and parents can arrange a meeting at any point throughout the year to discuss their child’s progress. That is a lot of contact and opportunities to partner and connect with parents, teachers and students. So let’s get rid of written reports.

Cons

  • They take weeks to gather evidence, write, proofread and organize etc.;
  • They take away from more important things such as planning, being prepared for lessons and teaching and learning;
  • Reporting time causes a decay in one’s well-being, anxiety and stress;
  • Often students miss out because teachers have an already difficult time keeping their heads above water.
  • Some parents don’t read them fully or at all;
  • And the kicker that stands true for most…. teachers just trawl through previous year’s comments, use them, modify them and often say, well those two students are the same anyway. Admit it. Again, the quality of the report doesn’t say that much.

Pros

  • It is a formalized way to assess a student’s progress.

I often hear that we write reports because so that when they ‘leave’ our school the next school needs a record for admissions and to help place them. Really… that’s not good enough.

Admissions already (and this is increasing) send their own school’s profile to a student’s current teacher to get a picture of a student’s abilities, talents, personality and academic prowess or learning challenges. Let’s just use that… in the place of reports. That would mean teachers can do that requirement really well and depending on the school would be about 3-5 of those per class, per year. That’s manageable. Let’s put the focus on quality of teaching and learning…. not, “I am so busy!” We could say that every day – we’re teachers. But it’s best to be ‘busy’ on the things that matter. Reporting time is stressful for everyone. Where are the brave educators gone?

This is the difference between radical and progressive thinking and ideas to make the bold changes needed and a school actually standing up in the name of ‘making circles and not rows.’ Be that first school to say “we believe that what we do is more than enough to communicate to parents who their child is as a person and a learner and we do not value formal report cards”.

More schools will follow that bold school which takes a stand – they will.

Who’s first? (Give me two years to change hearts and minds)

Leadership vs. Management

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School leadership positions require a lot of energy. In a way, people in school leadership positions are expected to operate a lot like a battery, to have an energy source of their own, to have a source of answers, to have a source of ideas, to have a source of solutions and to provide all of those things for everyone else around them at will.

Like all batteries, however, the energy eventually runs out.

One of the biggest drains on this energy are the people who consistently need managing. By managing, I mean the people who need constant persuasion to:

(a) do their job

(b) do their job properly

(c) do their job well

This management of people is particularly debilitating as it tends to be never-ending.

During his keynote speech at the IB Annual Conference a few years ago, Richard Gerver stated that he always tries to hire people who don’t need to be managed. The fact that so much energy can be conserved as a result of not having to do the three things listed above means that it can be converted into the energy of inspiration, which I see as:

(1) inspiring people to push their own boundaries

(2) inspiring people to challenge norms

(3) inspiring people to reimagine what their jobs are in the first place

Now, in most schools – as far as I am aware – there are people who don’t need to be managed and there are people who do. The ratios obviously depend on all sorts of factors, recruitment – as Richard points out – probably being Number 1. Sadly, however, the energy output involved in managing the ones who need managing leaves little left for those who don’t. Yet they have a different, but entirely equal, need to be inspired. To ignore them may be more of an omission for the well-being of the school than to ignore those who need managing.

Unfortunately, people in school leadership positions suffer from an inability to define their roles with any certainty. They are referred to as “management”, “administration” or “leadership”. Implicit in the labels of “management” or “administration” is the perceived inevitability of having to get people to do their job. As long as people in those positions see themselves that way, that is what they will end up doing with most of their time and energy. It is also what everyone they are managing expects them to do too… leading to a disturbing culture of adult “learned helplessness”. Assuming that people in those positions were formerly teachers, one must also assume that the skills that led to them being promoted came from the management of students. Yet, we must surely be moving away from an educational culture based on the management of students. So, too, we should be moving away from a culture of having to manage teachers.

“Leadership” on the other hand, has entirely different connotations. Not always good ones, admittedly! But implicit in the idea of a leader is the ability to inspire. Again, assuming people in “leadership” positions were formerly teachers, we must also assume that the skills that led to them being promoted came from the inspiration of students.

I wonder how often this is truly the case?

And, when it is the case… how long can those people last until:

(a) they just become managers

(b) they give up

(c) they leave the profession

 

Header image from techpp.com

 

 

 

“Time and Space” – a recurring theme

Ever since Chad and I came up with the time space education concept, I am hearing people refer to the need for time and space more and more when talking about education, school and life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to claim responsibility for this trend! I’m just concerned that the issue of having less time and less space is becoming bigger, and so the need for people to refer to it is becoming more widespread. As it says in this clip from “The Gods Must be Crazy”… we don’t know when to stop!

Students like Nikita and Kaithe, IB students at Saigon South International School, are referring to the need for people like them to have time and space, to understand their need for time and space and to be able to harness the power of having time and space to improve their learning and the balance of their lives.

Teachers – everywhere – are concerned about how fragmented, scheduled and full their daily lives and their students’ daily lives are. Everyone seems to understand that real, deep learning only happens when people are given the time and the space to engage with what they are doing fully. Yet, take a good look at any school’s schedule and you will find a grid that is dedicated to keeping everyone busy, built on the overriding concern that anyone and everyone must have their days cut into small, manageable “segments of time” that can be managed, planned and accounted for. Furthermore, they are built on the premise that learning can not and will not happen unless these grids, and other grids that dictate what must be learned and who will deliver that learning, exist.

So caught up in these grids are teachers that – even when there is no expectation from anybody to treat time and learning this way – they continue to do so. The mindset of busyness is so palpable that we can’t help ourselves as we usher kids around, interrupt them, split them up, put them back together, tell them to hurry up, tell them to slow down… We believe we are preparing them for real life, for work. But, strangely, there are almost no workplaces – except perhaps for those we believe we are not preparing our students for – that treat time in this way, that abuse time so routinely!

I guess I’m writing this because I believe that schools won’t really change for the better until they explore how time is used. Sure, we can all do funky things with funky new technology in the segments of time that we have and there’s lots of amazing teachers out there doing amazing things with their students in those segments of time. But, until we really face up to it, we will continue to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • where has the time gone?
  • why aren’t students able to go into great depth with their learning?
  • why are so many students unsure what to do when they do have free time?
  • why do we always feel like we’re behind?
  • why are our students, and ourselves, so distracted?
  • why are schools such busy places?
  • why does it feel as though nothing was really achieved some days?
  • why do we often feel dissatisfied with our teaching?
  • why are we so exhausted?

I would like to see every school faculty be given the chance to inquire into how time is used in their school – a full, professional inquiry into “busyness” during which they can pull apart the traditional moulds they put time into and think again.

The question is… how do we find or create or find the time to do give this issue the attention it deserves?

School leaders do have favourites, for good reasons!

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There was a recurring theme in the recent feedback on school leadership by teachers in the school I work at – favouritism.

The gist of it is that there are certain teachers who are considered, by a few, to be the “favourites” of the leadership team. This is quite an interesting point, really, because… to be perfectly honest… people in leadership positions do – inevitably – have favourites. Let me elaborate a bit on that.

There’s always some people who don’t need to be managed, they get on with their jobs and do so to a high quality and in a way that symbolises and encapsulates, to the best of their ability, the vision of the school and the type of pedagogy that school leaders hope to see. Some people might believe they fit into this category because they just “get on with their job”. However, they may not realise, understand or be willing to admit that their practice simply isn’t what school leaders are looking for.

There’s always some people whose practice inspires school leaders and stretches their vision of the school and of pedagogy. Let’s face it, the minute you step out of the classroom and become an “administrator” of some type you will inevitably be referring to pedagogy that you used to practice. School leaders need teachers around them who push their boundaries, reveal new possibilities and teach in ways that are better than they would be able to teach themselves!

There’s always some people who are just natural learners – they ask questions, they are interested in the world, they read books and blogs about education, they seek advice, they pop their heads into offices to run an idea by you, they wander the corridors of the school to chat to people and find inspiration or possibilities for collaboration, they try stuff out. School leaders adore people like this… sorry, there’s no point denying it.

There’s always some people who have classrooms and learning spaces that are welcoming. Their students can’t wait to get to school because their classroom feels like home, because it is stimulating and comfortable, because it belongs to them and because interesting things happen there. Guess what… it’s not only kids who feel that way. School leaders are drawn to those rooms by the buzz of learning and students who are happy, motivated and involved in doing interesting things. They are often invited to join in conversations or get involved in the learning somehow – either explicitly or just because they can’t help themselves. When you’re walking up a corridor, you’re naturally attracted to classrooms like that and, yes, you end up in them more frequently than others.

There’s always some people who know that improving things involves their active participation. People like this don’t complain about the way things are, they take steps to do something about it. In fact, they usually go further by seeking out things that need to be improved and naturally thinking about solutions. They don’t plop their gripes on the desks of school leaders and hand the problem over to them… but, if they do seek you out they do so with a clear indication that they wish to be part of the problem-solving process. It’s only natural that people in leadership positions will respond to people like that with more enthusiasm, more willingness to help and less dread when they see their heads pop in the door or see them coming up the corridor.

There’s always some people who are just good to be around – they know that people in leadership positions are trying their best, they understand all the hidden complexities involved in such positions, they communicate respectfully and without confrontation, they listen actively in meetings and professional development sessions, they are open-minded and willing to see things through different lenses, they are humorous and don’t take themselves too seriously, they abstain from gossip and negative judgment of people they work with, they attend social events and stick around for five minutes to chat after meetings.

The biggest problem with all of this is, unfortunately, that all of these qualities are usually rolled up into the same, small number of people… the ones who get labelled as “favourites”. So, my feedback to the feedback would be to try to aim to have more of the qualities outlined above. Not so you can be a favourite, but just because they’re pretty good qualities to have!

Growing out of defaulting to negative

Anyone who knows me would say I’m not exactly the most positive person in the world! But, I’ve been thinking about positivity and negativity a lot recently, and particularly this quote:

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It has become increasingly obvious that there is a negative default for many people who work in schools. And, that this negative default builds up to a disproportionate sense of entitlement and readiness just to be critical of everything.

So, for example, an improvement is made to an aspect of the school – say, the playground – and then, as soon as that improvement is complete people forget what it was like before and then complain about the improvement. They pick faults in it or moan about “not being consulted”. In short, they will find something to complain about. Indeed, it is impost impossible to interact with some people without some complaining happening!

Now, of course, this negative energy is really debilitating. But, more worryingly, it reveals a lack of memory… or a lack of willingness to remember. This immediately reduces our ability to have perspective. Perspective doesn’t just come from going somewhere else and seeing things differently because of a change of location, or meeting a different person and seeing things differently through them. Perspective also comes through time, and schools’ relationship with time is often so abusive that we may well have lost our ability to achieve this.

How often do we ignore all of our success and focus purely on our failures? How often do we ignore our “Done List” because we’re so obsessed with our “To Do List”? How often do we forget to congratulate ourselves for our achievements because we’re blinded by our goals? How often do we allow someone’s negativity to infect everybody else’s positivity? How often do we focus our emotional energy on responding to negativity and leave ourselves too depleted for the positive energy?

I’d like to see a movement towards living by the quote above and away from the gravitational pull of negativity and negative people. Schools should be positive places full of positive people – I don’t mean that in a trite, naive or ignorant way – but positive in a way that still has substance. You can sense  the overriding air of positivity very strongly when positive people dominate, and great things happen as a result. You can equally sense the air of negativity very strongly when negative people dominate, and the potential for great things to happen slips down the nearest drain.