For me, staffing a school is one of the toughest tasks facing a principal today. There are certain positions that are getting more and more difficult to fill. The attrition rates particularly of young teachers is of concern given the difficulty the profession has of attracting the best and brightest to the profession. The best and the brightest are not been drawn to our profession. Teachers are not even encouraging their children to be teachers.
There is no denying that the quality of school leaders and the culture of learning communities contribute. We know that schools are only as good as 1) their leaders and 2) the systems that support them
In New Zealand we are building the capacity of our leaders in order to develop our aspiring leaders. Through ministry initiatives such as NAPP and First Time Principals there is wonderful mentoring. It is about creating the right conditions and the right support systems. Systems such as Ministry, NZQA, PPTA and in my case the Catholic Office.
Students must be at the centre though. If we can create the right conditions for learning to happen for students, we should be able to create the right conditions for teachers to remain engaged and inspired in their work. Teachers deserve greater control over their professional working lives and this should look and feel like the working lives of other professions.
If education like a faith journey is a search for meaning, then should our goal as teachers be to ask good questions even when there are no clear answers?
We are ako. We are lifelong learners. It does not matter if even as teacher we do not have the answers.
For decades, our education systems have been built around the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student. The prescribed curriculum provided one path through the maze and gave students few opportunities to learn through experimentation – to connect their own dots.
I found this quote from New York Times, which I have been doing a great deal of reflecting on this week. My love for this paper was generated during my time studying in Syracuse.
We live in the much vaunted Age of Information. Courtesy of the Internet, we seem to have immediate access to anything that anyone could ever want to know. We are certainly the most informed generation in history, at least quantitatively. There are trillions upon trillions of bytes out there in the ether — so much to gather and to think about.
And that’s just the point. In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.
Our system has become a little lost. We have become focused on results rather than process. We have become absorbed on content to knowledge, teaching to curriculum delivery and we have allowed the answer to shape the question.
We need to go back and ask how we are asking these questions.
At present I am preparing our annual excellence assembly which recognises outstanding achievement by our students in the 2014 academic year.
It is a moving experience as I reflect on these students and consider their journey and achievements. It is a celebration of students, staff and whenau. For their stories are ones of personal courage, relentless commitment to demonstrate their talents and a refusal to take the easy option at any stage. These students have achieved, taken up the challenge and taking the path less travelled.
These students’ acknowledge the support and love of family, friends and staff. What always strikes me the most is the deep appreciation for their teachers. These students’ always tell me how staff made a difference. They each believe that teachers made the difference and admit they couldn’t have done what they did without their good teachers who challenged them, stretched them, supported them and were always there when they needed them. On most occasions they tell staff this and these are moments I enjoy.
I have written much about improving student achievement and providing a relevant and engaging learning experience for every student. Excellence Assembly reinforces the significance of good teachers in the learning process. Teachers we are lucky to have you because you make a difference.
I have written and spoken over the past twelve months about the challenges we face. As we begin a new school year those challenges have not diminished, in fact they have increased. And they will continue to do so unless the education community faces up to some truths.
Schools have long enjoyed a competitive position that they can no longer demand or expect to maintain. In a rapidly developing assortment for learning in a connected world, schools are now just one of many modes for learning. Our students love diversity. They love choice. This is reflected no better than in NCEA in New Zealand with the standards and subject they opt in and out of.
How are today’s schools going to position themselves to become the architect of new ways of learning and teaching? What has to change, what has to be done differently? Indeed what is the work of a teacher in today’s world?
I don’t know the answers to these but I do know the answers lie in every school’s capacity to continuously reinvent themselves through innovation and research. Schools have to strive for excellence even if it means being different and embrace change, not avoid it.
We can be very confident that we know what doesn’t work, and we have ample data on why this is so. Those one-off standalone initiatives focusing on teacher control, external monitoring, new curriculum, programmatic solutions suck the oxygen out of schools and stifle the drive and passion teachers have for improving every student’s learning.
Relevance has to be the rule not the exception.
My second love is rugby (after Benita and Charlotte of course). The game is a science. The All Blacks coach was quoted recently saying that the team needed to improve ‘just about everything’ and that their ‘skills and game structure’ was virtually non-existent. What I saw were individuals taking responsibility for their own improvement. Sure they had input from the coach and others but they did the work themselves. In a week they were able to reflect on their performance, take on the feedback and implement a new strategy. Isn’t this what good learning and teaching is about?
Listening to Hansen reminded me of Michael Fullan -“The glue that binds the effective drivers together is the underlying attitude, philosophy and theory of action.”
Our All Blacks are a great example of a learning community in action. We owe it to our students to be playing and have standard like the ABs.
In “Visible Learning”, John Hattie says that the inability of parents to ‘speak the language of learning’ can be a major barrier to student achievement.
If we are adopting new ways of learning and teaching, then perhaps we need new ways of engaging parents. If we were to develop some universal protocols then my top five would be :
- engagement with parents from the beginning. I found sending a letter or a phone call can make a huge difference.
- regular community forums and walk-throughs (parents need to see learning in action) – what about the use of blogs as a way of educating and engaging parents in the conversation. Our own Open Day this year was an example of this success.
- involve students in giving feedback to their parents on their learning. Student voice is always a valuable tool.
- demonstrating the difference new approaches to learning are making
- finding ways of celebrating good learning and teaching
- ensuring an outlet for parent feedback
Learning in today’s world is a journey, not a destination. As we build on what we know works and respond to teacher ingenuity and innovations from their own learning we need to ensure that the whole school community is on the same journey.
Know Thy Impact Teaching, Learning and Leading
If everyone agrees that good teaching makes the biggest difference to student learning why aren’t we looking to the profession to help drive the changes needed to ensure continuous school improvement?
We spend so much time and energy in the education sector adopting, adapting and applying – or arguing against and avoiding – yet another shortsighted, secondhand or unproven reform or initiative. According to our new curriculum and the registered teaching criteria we should be lifelong learners. When will we ever learn?
We have to be honest if we are to substantially change our existing practices. We know they are not delivering the best for every student, so we need to stop tinkering at the edges and start transforming schooling. Old mantras need to be tested; everything must be scrutinised. At school our SLT are looking at culture and change. Next week I will reflect on this further.
And the only way to do the work is for teachers to do the work. And if they don’ t know how – to learn the work. The simple fact is we need to get the distractors out of the way so good teachers and school leaders can get on with the job.
It would be nice if we all got paid what we thought we were worth. Additional pay might get a teacher up in the morning but it certainly won’t be the reason why they persist with a student who just doesn’t seem to be making progress. All the good teachers I know do the job because they love the job. During this hard winter term it is important to reflect on this.