“I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” From Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll Graphic By John Tenniel — Through the Looking-Glass, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7592577

Reinventing Education: What Do Teachers Need From Leaders?

Educators often feel like Alice who, after stepping through the looking glass, found herself in a puzzling world where everything was reversed. Anyone who has taught for more than five years has seen reform initiatives capture the attention and resources of school leaders only to be swept aside for the next set of hopes and dreams. Rapidly changing focus coupled with the lack of systematic, ongoing support can confuse, even overwhelm, the most talented and dedicated teachers. The recent focus on personalization is an example of a swift and substantial change. For the past two decades, policy-makers and administrators have monitored teachers to make sure no class fell behind in the lock-step march through one-size fits all standards. Now educators are expected to challenge each child at their individual level of readiness. Teachers, who have been evaluated on, among other things, whether or not their students were “on task” during an administrator’s short classroom visit are now told to release control so students can drive their learning. How do educators successfully implement child-centered teaching and student-driven learning? How do they move from designing lessons for large groups to customizing instruction? If we are serious about transforming education teachers must have autonomy to innovate and a guiding vision that articulates a vision for teaching and learning. There must be a system that ensures every teacher’s work and insights inform a collective understanding of learning. Teachers need school leaders who prioritize people, learning and systems.

People

The most important role of a Head of School or Principal is nurturing relationships. Inspirational school leaders build mutual confidence by listening to all community members. They recognize and build on strengths and always seek to understand how they can help others attain their goals. Authentic school leaders connect the school’s vision to the passion for nurturing children that teachers and parents share. They know that people are motivated to do their best work when there are clear goals, and everyone is comfortable trying new things and reflecting collaboratively on what worked and what didn’t. An astute, people focused school leader:

  1. Builds and stewards a values-based culture of trust, respect, transparency, gratitude, collaboration, and innovation.
  2. Assembles and nurtures a leadership team comprised of individuals with diverse skills and perspectives who are respected by faculty and parents for their commitment to children.
  3. Celebrates successes, recognizing large and small accomplishments and tying recognition to goals and strategies.

Learning

For years the term “best practice” has been at the heart of faculty development. “Best practices” were (are) presumed to work in a variety of contexts, so coaches, mentors, and administrators focus on making existing knowledge accessible to new and struggling teachers. But every experienced educator expects to constantly be confronted with new and unexpected situations that require them to improvise and devise new approaches. In the process, they develop new knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work. School leaders must support dynamic learning, continuous analysis of how teaching practices impact student learning. A learning-focused leader:

  1. Clearly articulates how children learn and describes how the school supports and challenges all children.
  2. Prioritizes understanding and continuously improving the school’s impact on student learning.
  3. Guides the development of a vision for learning that emphasizes why it is important to achieve.
  4. Values social, emotional and academic growth, using multiple measures (artifacts of student work, observations of students’ learning, test scores and student voice about their learning) to evaluate the school’s impact on learning.
  5. Builds, monitors and continuously improves a professional learning program that challenges and encourages faculty to develop skills and identify growth opportunities. When professional learning is aligned with schoolwide goals, it will deepen the teacher’s understanding of his/her impact on student learning and expand the individual’s vision for the classroom and the wider school community.

Systems

Success can be the enemy of improvement. A school community’s commitment to change, even small, incremental adjustments, can be weakened by the automatic assumption that what has made it successful in the past is the same thing that will make it successful in the future. The Head of School or Principal must challenge long-standing orthodoxies, and explore new possibilities. This messy, often risky work, requires a systematic approach that ensures engagement and monitors the impact of changes in time for course correction. A systematic leader:

  1. Identifies and commits to schoolwide priorities.
  2. Defines clear goals and makes them visible to the entire school community.
  3. Develops, models, and monitors a system for innovation that gives teachers, individually and in teams, autonomy to identify objectives aligned with the school’s goals; pilot and evaluate practices using verifiable metrics of success, and make recommendations for schoolwide adoption. Reinventing Education: Lessons From A Start-Up describes OKRs, a proven system to guide innovation.
  4. Moves from annual performance evaluation to ongoing performance management where frequent check-ins between teachers and their direct supervisors are an opportunity for listening and two-way coaching that helps teachers reach their potential and supervisors do a better job. (forthcoming post will provide more details)

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!

In Through The Looking Glass Alice is perplexed when, although she is running as fast as she can, she doesn’t make progress. The Red Queen explains that progress requires running very fast and hard. Frankly, teachers are exhausted by endlessly running as fast as they can after new fads that don’t move students forward. Many are struggling to maintain equilibrium in an ever-changing landscape. They need school leaders who embrace change and ensure team members run smarter, not harder. Authentic, sustainable progress happens when leaders build and continuously improve what John Hattie calls the collective efficacy of the faculty. Through guiding collective dialogue and systematic innovation Principals or Heads of School lead the school community to understand which practices and experiences make the biggest, positive impact on student learning and engagement. Many teachers are natural innovators who adapt to the diverse needs of their students and continuously iterate on the learning experiences they design for their students. When school leaders have a clear vision, build on strengths, celebrate wins and use multiple metrics of success teachers will thrive and growth-oriented, student-centered practices will take hold and spread.

Educator, entrepreneur, boundary crosser, community builder, advocate for learners of all ages.