Overthrowing the stress of the tyranny of the urgent

Whether one works in a national school or an international school, it is very easy to find oneself in a vortex of being busy all the time. Meetings after meetings, issues after issues, crisis after crisis – all demanding one’s attention and all demanding that they be treated as “Priority 1”. One of my colleagues refers to this as “the tyranny of the urgent”. In leadership, it is even more likely to succumb to the tyranny of the urgent but it is very important (a) not to and (b) be aware when it is emerging in one’s work environment because this sort of tyranny is one whose arrival can be insidious.

So, how does one counter the emergence of the tyranny of the urgent? This might well appear to be an impossible act, particularly where schools are involved. The expectations placed on school leaders by staff, students and parents makes for fertile ground for such tyrannies. The rise of information communication technologies has also added a super-fertilizer to the soil. I would hazard that one of the chief culprits of upping stress levels in a school leader’s life is the increased level of accessibility that schooling today now demands.

Increased levels of expectation framed by an increase in accessibility (or perhaps expected accessibility) make for an interesting work environment but one where it is unrealistic to go “cold turkey” and completely disconnect from the world. That leaves school leaders in, potentially, a less-than-satisfactory situation as far as their work-life balance is concerned. If a school leader’s health and well-being is suffering, what might the impact on the school as a whole be? How can balance be addressed?

To combat the stress that the tyranny of the urgent can create, in this day and age, a frontal assault is probably not the best strategy. One might have to adopt more of a “fifth column” approach and attack the situation from within. In other words, rather than doing what is neither feasible or realistic in today’s world, being situational in dealing with the stresses and strains that ‘regular urgencies’ might be a better solution.

In reading around this subject, I came across the following list of suggested, yet practical, stress management strategies:

  1. Vary your route to and from work. It can help control anxiety and reduce the sense of getting back on the same rollercoaster. Small changes in routine can be enough to break the negative patterns of thinking that we can get ourselves into.

  2. To-do lists: Try dividing the page each day into “must”, “should” and “could”. You will never get it all done but you usually leave work with the satisfaction of knowing that everything in the “must” list has been completed.

  3. Keep a list of all the unplanned things that take up working time each day, e.g. meeting with parents, phone calls and answering emails. It is re-assuring to see at the end of the day what you have achieved, even if some of it was unscheduled.

  4. Be realistic about what you expect to achieve each day. There will always be unplanned interruptions. Try to factor this in.

  5. To help with focusing on the positive, keep a diary and write down three positive things, however small, that have happened each day. You go home thinking about the positives.

  6. In those difficult meetings with complaints from parents, try to de-personalise the issue. It is very rarely about you personally. Try to unpick what feelings and emotions might be underpinning a complaint before the meeting starts.

  7. Try to find a professional outlet for your expertise outside of your own school, e.g. volunteer to co-ordinate your cluster heads meetings. You see the wider educational landscape which helps to keep things in perspective.

  8. Find a trusted friend outside of your immediate professional circle and talk to them, honestly. We all need someone outside of a situation to challenge our perceptions.

  9. Try to maintain an outside interest or hobby. We need mental distraction from thinking about work in order to relax.

  10. Sleep is key. There are many free apps for phones and tablets with ocean wave sounds. They trick your breathing pattern into a relaxed rhythm allowing you to sleep.

From my own context, working in a cross-cultural context, in an international school adds a little twist to the nature of stress as a school leader and the need to take care of oneself. There are always multiple cultural layers to what one observes, which in turn complicates both interpretation and subsequent action. Each of these strategies is just as important and applicable.

This post has been about the need to be aware of how stress can creep up on school leaders and what might be an approach to deal with that problem. By way of a coda to this post, it is important to address the impact that the tyranny of the urgent can have on a school’s staff and students. This could be the subject of a post all its own but as this is a coda on the topic, let us accept the main point here to be this: school leaders are role-models.

As role-models, a school leader’s and experience with the tyranny of the urgent is something that is a shared experience with other members of the school community (whether the school leader wants it to be or not). To that end, it is even more important that an awareness of the stress and strains that come with being in education, and that they must be kept under control, is not just held by a school leader but demonstrated at all times. After all, what sort of message is sent to the broader school community if the school’s leader does not exhibit wisdom in this matter?

On International Mother Language Day

Today is International Mother Language Day. Established by UNESCO in 1999, and formally recognised by the UN General Assembly in 2008, International Mother Tongue Language Day functions to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. For UNESCO, such awareness positively contributes to global citizenship, enabling our learners to play an active role in both local and global arenas to address global challenges and, ultimately, contribute proactively in creating a more just, peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure and sustainable world.

If nothing less, today should be a reminder about the importance of mother tongue or mother languages. It might be a trite thing to say but for our learners, regardless as to whether they are in an international school or a national school, language is important. It is the means by which our learners express themselves. A learner in Grade 1 has the same experience with language as a learner in Grade 10; language structures their thoughts and identities.

Facilitating a learning environment that supports, or incorporates, a learner’s mother tongue is complicated. It can be ‘messy’ but there are benefits:

  • There is an emphasis on the quality of teaching and learning with a focus on understanding and creativity. The teacher has to ensure that what is going on in the classroom will promote understanding (of whatever content or concepts are being taught).
  • There is a reinforcement of the cognitive aspect of learning because facilitating a learning environment that supports a learner’s mother tongue ensures the direct application of learning outcomes to the learner’s life through the mother tongue. There is an authentic understanding that takes place about whatever it is that is being taught.
  • An enhanced dialogue and interaction between learner and teacher is allowed to take place. Promoting a “mother tongue friendly” environment from the very first day of classes allows genuine communication from the beginning. The learner sees the teacher as taking an interest in their cultural heritage and the teacher has a better capacity for reaching the student.
  • It facilitates participation and action in society and gives access to new knowledge and cultural expressions, thus ensuring a harmonious interaction between the global and the local.

Image result for mandela language quote

Mandela’s quote on language and the difference between understanding and meaning is an appropriate endpoint to this (very) brief exposition on mother tongue and International Mother Language Day. Celebrating the diversity in language heritages in one’s classroom or school may contribute to creating an environment whereby learning takes place, opportunities for communication and interaction exist, and global-mindedness is fostered. These are good things. I want to posit that ensuring that the diversity in languages in one’s classroom or school is meshed into pedagogical practice might well take things further. Rather than just going through the motions of learning and interacting in different contexts, hearing what one is to learn in one’s own language (even if it is just key concepts) could encourage a sense of ownership of the learning process. As we seek greater degrees of global citizenship and international-mindedness, having individual learners take on the ownership of the processes that seeks to promote these concepts cannot be a bad thing.

 

If you are interested, you can find out more about this year’s International Mother Tongue Language Day here.

 

Is your school perfectly prepared for a world that no longer exists?

At a recent teachers’ conference, I attended a session on the future of teaching and learning. It was a roundtable discussion session and started with a number of different questions for people to consider. The summation of those questions, which focused on assessment, on teacher qualification, on the relevance of schooling in this day and age, is the question that leads off this particular post. Be it a national school or an international school, the question is pertinent: as a school, are we perfectly prepared for a world that no longer exists?

While a roundtable discussion can be a useful exercise, I did walk out of that particular session thinking how one might actually start a process of investigating this core question of being prepared for a world that no longer exists. Certainly, coming up with an answer is  a self-reflective exercise. And starting the process is as daunting as it is uncertain. I would hazard to say that it is also exciting.

Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel’s 2009 text 21st century skills: Learning for life in our times has been useful in my own thinking through issues associated with the question about the place of schooling in the world today. As I work on strategic planning papers and presentations, Trilling and Fadel feature in my thoughts and reflections. Indeed, Trilling and Fadel (2009: xxiii) start with a series of questions, describing the questions as ones that are often aired in conversations about the future of teaching and learning:

  • How has the world changed, and what does this mean for education
  • What does everyone need to learn now to be successful?
  • How should we learn all this?
  • How is 21st century learning different from learning in the 20th century and what does it really look like?
  • How will 21st century learning evolve through the century?
  • How will a 21st century learning approach help solve our global problems?

They then pose a four question exercise which I have replicated here:

Question #1: What will the world be like twenty or so years from now when your child has left school and is out in the world?

Question #2: What skills will your child need to be successful in this world you have imagined twenty years from now?

Question #3: Now think about your own life and the times when you were really learning, so much and so deeply, that you would call these the “peak learning experiences” of your life. What were the conditions that made your high-performance learning experiences so powerful?

Before going on to Question #4, look over your answers to the first three questions and think about how most students currently spend their time each day in school. Then consider the final question:

Question #4: What would learning be like if it were designed around your answers to the first three questions?

The four question exercise, as it is called, is a great way of facilitating a discussion on the state of things in one’s school. It doesn’t purport to provide a strategic plan or some form of roadmap that provides the user with continuous school improvement. It does help leadership teams or teaching teams or those in between to see differences. It walks people through a discussion that will have its end point in: how different a place is the school you work in compared to that which you have just imagined? In light of the answers to the above questions, to what degree is your school perfectly prepared for a world that no longer exists?

Differentiating professional learning

Last week I attended a teaching conference. It was the first one I had attended for some time and it was outstanding. The reason for this is that the options available were not only plentiful and practical but they were also being run by teachers for teachers. It was also a conference that met three criteria for successful professional development, about which I have discussed on this blog in an earlier post. In a recent article on Edutopia, the question was raised: why don’t we differentiate professional development for teachers? After all, we emphasise the need to differentiate what goes on in the classroom. The article, which points out four different strategies to help professional learning be differentiated, caused me to reflect on what happens at my own school and the extent to which we differentiate what happens in our professional learning programs.

Firstly, investing in the professional capital of my teachers is a very important. Ensuring that teachers have opportunities for developing their craft contributes to staff longevity on account of staff feeling valued. It also means that teacher capacity is built up so that changes that one might wish to introduce or implement can take place more easily. That is not to say that change is something that will always be accepted or always be perceived as positive. However, if one has invested in the professional capital of teachers and sought to create an environment where teachers expect and are expected to develop their professional learning, change can be considered more amicably. Of course, investing in the professional capital of teachers is something that ultimately benefits student learning, and that is something on which, in all of the discourse about the development of teachers, one must remained focused.

So, how do we differentiate in the professional learning that takes place at my school? How might we do a better job of doing that, thereby giving ownership of learning to the teachers themselves? I came across a quote the other day about leadership not being about being in charge but looking after those in your charge.

Perspective.

Such a comment emphasises the role that leaders have in making sure that teachers learn and develop. It is, I would hazard, one of the central roles we fulfill. A third question we might therefore pose is: how might leaders facilitate meaningful professional learning?

At my own school, professional development is worked into the weekly schedule. Every Wednesday is a “late start” for students; an early start for academic faculty. We meet for 1 1/2 hours to engage in professional development sessions. Sometimes these sessions take the form of a formal lecture, other times they take the form of a workshop or an interactive presentation, and, more recently, they have taken on the form of departmental forums where a broad topic or theme related to the whole school is discussed in a departmental context. These particular discussions have been aimed at incorporating subject peculiarities associated with the topic or theme.

As one who is responsible for the professional development or learning of the academic faculty and staff, in addition to the strategic planning, thinking and development of the school’s academic programs, I regularly find myself in an interesting position. On the one hand, I want to grant professional development and learning time as much as I can to those under my wing. On the other hand, I need to incorporate the thoughts, reflections and discussions of academic faculty and staff regarding strategic planning and development. Professional learning often develops into a combination of the two. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. After all, I am keen to encourage a culture where there are ongoing conversations and discussions about teacher best-practice, and that such conversations are not going on in isolation but involve all of a school’s constituents.

That is where we are at, at the moment, as a school. Professional learning and development has become a forum where academic faculty and staff can discuss matters pertaining to the school as a whole. It is also a forum where, simultaneously, practical discussions take place about how those matters relate to their own department and subject areas. Recent curriculum work on establishing standards is a good illustration. Key learning areas of the school are examining different standards, determining which best-suit the vision and mission of the school, as well as what they seek to develop within the students that study their subjects.

How can this evolution be considered ‘differentiation’? In one sense, it can’t. The question, theme or problem (in our current situation: what standards are best?) has been mandated from the top down. It is the expectation of leadership that departments complete their investigations within the parameters laid down at the start of each session. However, in another sense, there is a great deal of differentiation taking place. The question acts as an anchor point, a central focus question if you like, which tethers conversations to a particular issue at the same time as allowing for the freedom to explore the set topic as freely and as deeply as individuals wish or feel.

The Edutopia article poses a very interesting question and one that, at the very least, should cause educational leaders who are responsible for teacher professional learning and development (and as leaders we all should be!) to pause and reflect on how their school professional learning and development takes place. The question about differentiation ensures that any professional learning and development that does take place is meaningful and challenging. It is relevant and applicable. Most of all, it means that it won’t be considered a waste of time, energy and money.

The three “C-s” of change

I have been silent in the blogosphere for the past month. This is not to say that I have decided to end writing on a regular basis. Rather, it is just symptomatic of the busy life one can lead when being in education. That having been said, there have been several things I have been pondering on recently which I thought I would share: coherence, capacity and confidence. These are what I have tagged as the three “C”-s of change.

Coherence refers to meaning, to making sense. If there is a change that one wants to bring about it is important that both those leading it and those impacted by it understand what is going on and why something is taking place. Coherence is something that relates to both individual and groups. It is something that entails a deep understanding of the purpose and the nature of the work being tasked.

Part of making a change coherent is ensuring that individuals, either by themselves or in a more collaborative context, have the capacity to contend with the developments being pursued. To build capacity, or to talk about capacity, is to make reference to the skills, competencies, and knowledge that individuals and groups need to be effective in navigating change, whatever that might be or look like. There are some interesting implications to this notion, particularly in relation to those individuals or groups who draw their identity from the status quo. Developing the capacity of such people so change can be understood, embraced and followed has the potential to be the most challenging of tasks a lead learner will have when bringing about change.

Despite the skills, competencies and knowledge that individuals might have, there has to be confidence in the people who will be responsible for the implementation of those changes. Not to have confidence in one’s key players will make change challenging to bring about and most likely impossible for one to sustain. Conversely, confidence in leadership also has to exist. Those that are impacted by the change must feel that the leader is acting in the best interests of student learning. There are many different ways, in the context of building confidence, that this can be demonstrated. Steven Covey’s The Speed of Trust details 13 different behaviours such as talking straight, demonstrating respect, creating transparency and clarifying expectations that can build the confidence or trust in leaders.

Without successfully netting these three “C”-s, any educational change is going to be difficult to implement, let alone sustain. Three questions emerge from each of these concepts:

  1. Do I use a framework through which my actions make sense to others?
  2. Do my actions build up the capacity of those I lead?
  3. Do I have the confidence of those, and in those, I lead?

A “yes” to each of these should contribute to a clear starting point for implementing change in an educational context and making it stick.

Hastening slowly. The key to being a good school leader.

I have had, over recent weeks, reason to think through what it means to be a good school leader. It does not matter whether one is in a national school or an international school, a Christian school or a secular one. It does not matter whether the school is co-educational or single-sex. It does not matter whether the school is selective or comprehensive. At the end of the day, reflecting on the question “what makes a good school leader?” has led me to a one word answer:

Patience.

This should not be confused with inaction. I don’t mean that a good leader is someone who does nothing (although sometimes, it is just as important to be inactive as it is to be active). It does not take a great deal of effort to google and collect pithy sayings on leadership such as:

“The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been”

“Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another”

“A leader leads by example not by force”

and

“First rule of leadership: everything is your fault”

Patience is the common denominator. If you are going to take people from where they are to where they have not been, you must exhibit patience in explaining to them what is going on, why a decision has been made in a particular manner and how that might impact them. If you are going to lead by influencing others, through natural charisma, that is going to take patience as people and situations respond. If you are going to lead by example and not by force, you are going to have allow for time for the example you provide be seen and internalised by those you lead. And if everything is your fault, patience will be more than a virtue as you seek to work alongside those around you in order to make better the situation in which you find yourself.

“Hastening slowly” is a phrase or saying that I often fall back on as I go through the working week. Patience is at its core and as phrases go, it is not a bad one to help temper one’s leadership, whatever the situation is, whenever the situation is.

 

Three things that make a good teacher

What makes a good teacher? A reasonable question that regularly pops up in conversations about teaching and learning; discussions at my own work place have been no different. What is distilled from those conversations compressed to three points:

Self-sacrificing – Fundamental to being a good teacher, one must be prepared to put others first. This might mean extra time outside of the classroom speaking to students, marking work and making sure that the feedback is meaningful, participating in co-curricular activities or attending parent functions at night (when you would sooner be at home with your own family).Another way of thinking about the notion of self-sacrifice (at least in the context of being a teacher) is having a passion for working with children, of seeing them prepared for the wider world. In whatever instance, teaching is about service.

Scholarly – at the end of the day, teaching and learning is a scholarly vocation. Content matters. Academics matter. Yes. That flies in the face of what many think teaching and learning today is about. Teaching and learning is about empowering students, to be sure, but that should not be a euphemism for “the teacher can take a break in the classroom”, or “we don’t need to know content as much as we need to know skills”. (That sort of statement sets up academics and skills or competencies as mutually exclusive. I would argue that they are not). As teachers, we should value the academic nature of our work and the subject that we teach. We should be prepared to have high academic expectations for our students and challenge or help them achieve them.

Sound – a strength in teachers is that they are sound. Stable. Sensible. Mixed in with a sense of humour, of course. How else are you going to cope with a Friday afternoon class that implodes for no apparent reason other than the wind changed direction? In many instances, school is a ‘safe haven’ for students because they know there is stability and continuity at school. For others, it is the fact that students know their teachers are people they can turn to for extra advice that is important. I’m not saying that teachers have to be sombre and serious and uninteresting. Again, in a similar manner regarding “scholarly”, my thinking is that as teachers, whether we like it or not, are models to students. We are being watched all the time by those in our care. Being sound or stable or sensible is going to be something that is a given in a our job description.

I realise in putting this list together, there could be further “S”-es to add, other concepts and notions to throw into the mix. For now, this is enough. This list was introduced as a baseline, a starting point if you will, for those traits that are “absolute musts” for being a successful teacher. I am sure there are others that you might add or that might build out of these three but at the very least, “self-sacrificing”, “scholarly” and “sound” is a place to start.

Four dimensions to academic rigour

What is academic rigour? That particular question was the basis for a conversation over a coffee with a colleague earlier in the previous school year. Our discussion came about because assumptions were being made at work about the level of challenge within our academic programs. After far too much caffeine, I wrote out what I believe academic rigour to be. The result was a ‘conversation starter’ for my faculty on the topic of how academic rigour might be defined.

The ‘conversation starter’ defined academic rigour to be something that:

  1. Connects critical thinking with content. Academic rigour is a demanding yet accessible curriculum that engenders critical thinking alongside content knowledge. Critical thinking and content knowledge are not seen as two separate or discrete entities in the rigorous classroom. Rather, they are closely connected. In this sense, academic rigour pushes a student beyond that which he or she was at when they first entered the classroom. Academic rigour goes further than “easy”. Connecting critical thinking and content knowledge entails a process of working through that which one fears or struggles, learning how to modify what is being done until it can be done fully and with success.
  2. Enables reflection. Academic rigour entails time to reflect on what has been learnt. Cramming a lesson or homework task with more to do does not equate to a rigorous class or subject. Academic rigour engages a student in the challenge of learning to bring about understanding. Reflection is an essential part of the learning process. As soon as it is removed, not only does the learning process suffer but so too does any practical application of what is learnt. 
  3. Includes accountability to outside of the school for what is taught. In the same way as any business or organisation would look to have its accounts audited by someone independent of that business or organisation, so it must be for schools in relation to learning. For learning to be rigorous and challenging, it is important to avoid a scenario whereby only members of faculty develop subject content, criteria for success in a subject, and processes for ongoing curriculum assessment. Greeted with little or no external accountability, it would be unlikely that no other assessment would be arrived at other than “we are doing well”. Subject content may not evolve as needed, resulting in a curriculum that is dated or irrelevant. Criteria for success in a subject might become negotiable, leading to unintentional “dumbing down” of subjects or an unintentional slide away from a focus on learning. Processes for ongoing curriculum assessment potentially become subject to other changes in the educational environment, such as staffing.
  4. Means operating to consistent and visible standards that are known to all. Consistent, visible and accessible standards for both the teacher and learner should not be interpreted as those that are put forward by a syllabus. Rather, in this context, the notion of consistent, visible and accessible standards refers to what the school is asking of its learners and teachers. What type of learners do we seek to nurture? What type of teacher does the school need in order to foster such learners? If any school is to be successful in promoting academic rigour and increasing the academic challenge within its courses then a “same-language” approach to the language of learning, in addition to the shameless promotion of what is expected of both faculty and learners in any aspect of the school is a must. Implicit in this aspect of academic rigour is a demonstrative or practical approach to learning. That is, the teacher and the learner should be able to express the learning that is taking place in the classroom in such a way that all can see what is happening.

The purpose of the paper was to start a conversation (or conversations) amongst faculty about what it meant for a school to be academically rigorous. To that end, these four points (which, I hasten to add are in no particular order) are simply a starting point to develop an understanding of what academic rigour is and what it might look like in the classroom. There might well be other considerations to add to this list in conversations about academic rigour but perhaps the initial steps following this definition are:

  1. Evaluate the four aspects of the definition presented here and determine what is the most through to the least important in order to take the definition further.
  2. Upon reflection, determine the extent to which one’s own classroom is authentically demonstrating these four aspects of academic rigour?

Over to you.

Being an effective Principal

There are a number of scholars who have influenced my perspective of teaching and learning. Michael Fullan is one such scholar. His recent The Principal: Three Keys to Maximising Impact has proven to be a challenging and useful text as I look at what the role of an educational leader should be. To use Fullan’s term to answer this question: lead learner.

Fullan unpacks what is meant by being a lead learner throughout the book and what he has to say goes beyond simply changing the title on one’s business card. Being a lead learner is a mind shift. The book starts with how the current role of the principal is out of step with where things should be. Indeed, the redefining of the role encapsulates Fullan’s vision for the future of education referred to as New Pedagogies for Deep Learning whereby teacher and student work together in a learning partnership. Fullan’s critique of the role of the principal starts with a simple statement:

Principals’ responsibilities have increased enormously over the past two decades. They are expected to run a smooth school; manage health, safety and the building; innovate without upsetting anyone; connect with students and teachers; be responsive to parents and the community; answer to their districts; and above all, deliver results. More and more, they are being led to be direct instructional leaders, and therein lies the rub. How is this for a shocker: the principal as direct instructional leader is not the solution! If principals are to maximize their impact on learning, we must reconceptualize their role so that it clearly, practically, and convincingly becomes a force for improving the whole school and the results it brings.

M Fullan (2014) The Principal: Three Keys for Maximizing Success, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, p.7

The notion of lead learner has been around for a while, something that Fullan acknowledges. Where The Principal comes into its own is to clarify the new role of the principal and explain how that role can model learning and shape the conditions for all to learn on a continuous basis. To use Fullan’s own words, the book “sorts out the details of what is problematic about the current role of the principal and how it can shift to that of an agent of contagion and fundamental change” (Fullan 2014: 8).

The three keys to making this shift happen are, according to Fullan:

  1. Being a learning leader;
  2. Being a system player; and
  3. Being an agent of change.

Fulfilling these three functions can be a stressful matter for some principals. Indeed, at the end of the book, Fullan poses the question: do you still want the job? A fair question to ask given what he has been discussing. To assist those, like me, who would want to see his principals operate according to Fullan’s model and approach, there is a study guide that accompanies the book. Each chapter concludes with questions upon which individuals can reflect as well as questions that are designed to be asked in a group context. This is a very useful feature and I look forward to seeing how it works out in practice, particularly as this text will be a key part of the professional learning I have planned for my school’s educational leaders.