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.

Understanding intercultural education

This is the second in a series of posts about international education. To recap, international education might be something that is not aligned with the national curriculum within which the international school exists. It could also be considered something that is offered as “the other”. That is, it is something that exists because what it has to offer students will not be or may not be found in the national curriculum of the country in which the international school is found. The last post on this subject area presented several quotes that sought to define international education. In this particular post, the focus is shifting to what is meant by intercultural education.

The intercultural education network defines intercultural education as that which:

…promotes the understanding of different people and cultures. It includes teachings that accept and respect the normality of diversity in all areas of life. It makes every effort to sensitize the learner to the notion that we have naturally developed in different ways. It seeks to explore, examine and challenge all forms of “isms” and xenophobia, while promoting equal opportunity for all. Intercultural education works to transform not only the individual but the institution as a metaphor and mechanism for the transformation of society.

H. Chad Lane, in 2012, defined it as:

the acquisition of knowledge and skills that support the ability of learners to both understand culture and interact with people from cultures different from their own.

The UNESCO Guidelines on Intercultural Education states:

In a world experiencing rapid change, and where cultural, political, economic and social upheaval challenges traditional ways of life, education has a major role to play in promoting social cohesion and peaceful coexistence. Through programmes that encourage dialogue between students of different cultures, beliefs and religions, education can make an important and meaningful contribution to sustainable and tolerant societies.

Intercultural Education is a response to the challenge to provide quality education for all. It is framed within a Human Rights perspective as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948):

“Education shall be directed to the full development of human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial and religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace”.

More recently, UNESCO has published its Global Citizenship Education paradigm and in the process it set intercultural education within the context of global citizenship. Global Citizenship Education: Preparing learners for the challenges of the 21st century (p.14) defines Global Citizenship Education to have differences in interpretation but…

…a common understanding that global citizenship does not imply a legal status. It refers more to a sense of belonging to a broader community and common humanity, promoting a ‘global gaze’ that links the local to the global and the national to the international. It is also a way of understanding, acting and relating oneself to others and the environment in space and in time, based on universal values, through respect for diversity and pluralism. In this context, each individual’s life has implications in day-to-day decisions that connect the global with the local, and vice versa.

I do not believe that intercultural education or intercultural learning is a straightforward thing to define. From the couple of definitions presented here, and I realise there are others to look at, intercultural learning rests on the notion of promoting respect for others and their culture. Its aim is to equip and encourage students to engage in dialogue with each other. This is so that there is a mutual cultural understanding that is conducive to tolerance and sustainability within societies across the world.

In some sense, this appears to be synonymous with the idea of global citizenship. Perhaps to put it another way, intercultural education or intercultural learning is the outworking of or the teaching that underpins global citizenship. In having intercultural learning in our schools we are authentically raising up global citizens.

Why should school leaders continue teaching?

This is potentially a controversial question for some. It shouldn’t be, but, unfortunately, I suspect, it is. It is also a question that has been the basis of some interesting conversations recently with some colleagues.

So, the short answer to ‘why should school leaders continue teaching?’ is: because school leaders should be seen as learners. Lead learners, in fact.

Let me explain this a little more.

In The Principal, Michael Fullan recasts the role of the principal as a lead learner. He seeks to “reposition the role of the principal as overall instructional leader so that it maximizes the learning of the all the teachers and in turn of all the students” (Michael Fullan (2014) The Principal: Three keys to maximising impact, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, p.7). The book is a compelling argument about the need to redeploy the principal within the school so there is a genuine benefit for all various and related parties: students, faculty and staff, parents, the wider community. Fullan argues that there are three areas within which principals, as they become lead learners, will make an impact: leading learning, becoming a system player and becoming a change agent.

The focus of this particular post is the practical implications associated with becoming “lead learners”. In being a lead learner, Fullan proposes that “the principal’s role is to lead the school’s teachers in a process of learning to improve their teaching, while learning alongside them about what works and what doesn’t” (Fullan 2014: 55). For me, this suggests that one of the things that a principal who is a lead learner should do is to teach. To put it another way, for a school leader to continue teaching, to remain in the classroom, is the best way in which that school leader can come alongside school teachers in the process of learning and help improve the teaching that takes place. The action of coming alongside other teachers and being a direct part of the learning environment is, for me, a practical outworking of Fullan’s words.

Here are three questions that help to clarify my thinking:

  • Would student learning benefit from the principal being in the classroom as a teacher?
  • Would teaching alongside the very teachers that the school leader seeks to assist be one of the ways in which that school leader can learn about what works and what does not?
  • If a school leader is looking to make changes that will have a positive effect on the school they lead, would it not make sense to be in a position to experience what those changes will entail?
  • Assuming ‘street credibility’ positively contributes to the changes an individual school leader makes, would being in the classroom assist with obtaining and maintaining that ‘street credibility’?

To remain in the classroom, even if it is to teach a bottom-streamed Year 9 class (in my case, that would be History), shows a willingness to ‘walk one’s own talk’. School leaders talk about a great amount of change and development and what constitutes ‘best practice’. Sometimes, it doesn’t go beyond that; teachers don’t see the school leader living through what he or she has suggested is the best thing to do. So, in remaining in the classroom, teachers would see a colleague struggling with similar issues or concerns, as opposed to a detached administrator whose experiences in the classroom as a teacher are but only a distant memory. Teachers would see a colleague working to enhance his or her teaching to the best it possibly can be, as opposed to an administrator that appears to leave others to demonstrate professional accomplishment in the classroom. Powerfully, colleagues would see a colleague who, despite being an administrator, shouldering the various responsibilities of school leadership, has not lost a love of learning and a love of the classroom. They see a leader who loves to learn.

Perhaps the most important reason for principals to remain in the classroom is that students get to see the principal in action, as a learner. Students see the principal struggling productively with the same material with which they struggle. Students see a model for learning; an experienced (and we can assume an expert, perhaps) spending time in the classroom to make sure that the students get the most out of a subject. Students see the principal work within the same structures they have to in relation to assessments and tests. Thus, the experience of learning becomes shared, contributing to a coherent approach to learning within the whole school as well as an environment in which deep learning can take place.

What does a good mentor “do”?

With the start of the new school year approaching, and the fact that new faculty and staff are beginning to arrive and start to settle in, my mind drifted to the subject of faculty and staff pastoral care. Specifically, I am thinking about mentoring.

Our school has a mentoring program for new faculty and staff. It is predominantly something oriented to the High School but the Middle School has a version of it. In meeting with the mentoring co-ordinator the other day, I said that I was keen that the program not be too formal or too structured. I would hate for it to be a paperwork generating exercise. After all, it is supposed to be something that supports new faculty and staff as they make a transition to a new work (and indeed living) environment.

In light of this, then, I think there are three main things that a good mentor does.

  1. Care – a good mentor looks after the mentee. The mentor cares for his or her mentee, making sure that the mentee is doing well with his or her allocated classes, meeting expectations, integrating well into the school community, addressing concerns that the mentee might have or that the school might have of the mentee.
  2. Challenge – a good mentor challenges the mentee. Being a pastoral carer in the workplace is one way of looking at the mentor-mentee relationship and there is certainly nothing wrong with viewing the relationship that way. The mentor, however, should be prepared to challenge or stretch their protege. If they don’t, there is little purpose in having a mentor. The mentor draws on his or her own experience for the benefit of the mentee.
  3. Credible – a good mentor is credible. That is, he or she has street credibility in the eyes of other members of staff, and the wider school community. It is no good having a mentor who is considered to have no credibility or lacks the ability to speak his or her mind (or feels that they can’t because they don’t have a grass roots basis on which to speak openly). It is important in a mentoring situation for the mentor to feel that he or she can be honest and open in expressing their opinion. If the overarching goal of having a mentoring program is authentic one-on-one professional learning, then being credible is an important aspect of that program’s success.

While there are other things that could be added to this list, I think this is a good start at understanding what a good mentor will do. Certainly, the mentor and the mentee need to organise expectations – every relationship is different and has a different set of expectations. For example, how often will they meet together, what will they talk about, what might each person in the relationship be looking to get out of the relationship.

Fundamentally, however, I think the very first thing, the most significant thing, that a good mentor will do is to approach the mentee with a servant-oriented heart. Yes, a good mentor will care, challenge and be credible but, overarching all of this, a good mentor will start with the question: how can I best serve you?

Getting to a definition of international education

It has been the intent for some of the early posts for this blog to tackle a couple of different key terms associated with being an international school. International, intercultural and interlingual are the three that form an agenda for discussion. In this post, I want to start looking at “international” by presenting, briefly, some different perspectives on what international education entails.

Hayden 2006: 5 states:

Clearly then, there is no simple definition of international education to which all would subscribe. Perhaps it is most appropriate therefore to consider international education as an inclusive umbrella term which incorporates a number of other more specific interpretations, or as a Venn diagram in which different concepts overlap to varying degrees. A helpful summary in that sense is the following, taken from the editorial preface to the 1985 special issue on international education of the Harvard Educational Review: ‘International, global, cross-cultural and comparative education are different terms used to describe education which attempts – in greater or lesser degree – to come to grips with the increasing interdependence that we face and to consider its relationship to learning’.

Hayden 2006: 7 continues several pages later, summarising that:

…it is argued that international education as a concept is inclusive, with many interpretations within different contexts. Within schools, international education has a number of facets including, though not exclusively, the formal curriculum. International education may be experienced in national schools, where suitable opportunities are built in to facilitate this experience for students, and may also be experienced (though not necessarily) within international schools.

Murphy 1991: 1 is different from that of Hayden because of the emphasis on identifying international education as “the other” in so far as educational systems are concerned:

International schools serve the children of those international organisations and multinational companies whose parents are called upon to work in many different countries and to change their assignment at frequent intervals; the schools also educate the children of the diplomatic corps, and offer educational opportunities to children of host country nationals who want their children to learn English or who prefer the greater flexibility which an international school offers over the national system.

Murphy and Hayden’s points of view appear side by side in Hayden and Thompson 2008: 15-16, whereby:

The origins of international schools lie in the perceived need in some contexts for a form of schooling not available through national systems. Many such schools had their origins in the expatriate communities of, for instance, employees of multinational organizations whose wish to be accompanied by their children in their globally-mobile careers, and the perceived lack of suitability of local schools (often because of language or university preparation incompatibilities), led to the establishment of schools designed for the relatively transient student not catered for locally. At the same time as the number of schools has increased to cater for such pragmatic needs, concerns about the need to foster in young people “international-mindedness’, including a desire for world peace and the breaking down of barriers arising from prejudice and ignorance, has led to an ‘ideological’ impetus behind the development of some forms of international school. Growing concerns in the latter part of the twentieth century about the need for global environmental awareness and social responsibility have similarly influenced the development of the form of education offered in such schools.

Hill 2006: 8-9 offers a perspective that is has a slightly more socio-anthropological underpinning than those of Murphy, Hayden and Thompson:

International schools have a very culturally diverse student body, ideally with no one nationality significantly dominating the others. They are almost invariably private, independent institutions and they teach an international education programme. Many were created as a service to internationally mobile parents and the majority teach in English. This pure type is exemplified by the United World Colleges (UWC) (which were not, however, created as a service to mobile parents) and institutions such as the New International School of Thailand, the International School of Tanganyika (Tanzania), Bonn International School and Copenhagen International School that offer international education programmes throughout (IBO, 2005). Two of the earliest international schools, the International School of Geneva and the United Nations International School (UNIS) in New York, both emphasize international education programmes but alongside national programmes. While there are more than 100 nationalities in each, Swiss, US and UK citizens, in almost exactly equal numbers, represent just under half of the total 2005 student population of 3410 in the Geneva school (International School of Geneva, 2005: 42, 44) and US citizens represent half of the total student numbers of 1460 at UNIS (pers. comm. from director of admissions). This is not to imply that the dominant nationality groups detract from the international mindedness of the institutions, but to indicate that they comply less with the expectation of a fairly even spread of nationalities; moreover, people of the same nationality can have different cultural origins. Some schools using the label ‘international’ cater predominantly for students from a particular nation and receive some corresponding government subsidies; they may offer one or more national education programmes. A number of schools include the word ‘international’ in their title because it sounds prestigious, or because it legitimately reflects the international mindedness of the educational programme while the student body may be quite culturally homogeneous[5].

In writing for The International Educator, Nagrath 2011 presents 8 criteria for international education and schools:

  1. Transferability of students’ education across international schools
  2. A moving population (higher than in national public schools)
  3. Multinational and multilingual student body
  4. An international curriculum (i.e. IB – DP, MYP, PYP)
  5. International accreditation (e.g. CIS, IBO, North Eastern ASC, Western Ass. of Schools and colleges, etc.)
  6. A transient and multinational teacher population
  7. Non-selective student enrollment
  8. Usually English or bi-lingual as the language of instruction

Each of these definitions or standpoints offer something concrete as to what international education is about. To what degree is that actually possible to do? A question to tackle in the next post.


References

Hayden, M. (2006), Introduction to International Education: International Schools and their Communities (London, Thousand Oaks, New Dehli: SAGE Publications).

Hayden, M. and Thompson, J. (2008), International schools: growth and influence (Paris: UNESCO).

Hill, I. (2006), ‘Student types, school types and their combined influence on the development of intercultural understanding’, Journal of Research in International Education, 5 (1), 5-53.

Murphy, E. (ed.), (1991), ESL: A Handbook for Teachers and Administrators in International Schools (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters).

Nagrath, C. ‘What makes a school international?’, The International Educator <http://www.tieonline.com/view_article.cfm?ArticleID=87%3E, accessed 5.3.2015.

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.

 

Dangerous worldviews

“Die gefährlichste Weltanschauung ist die Weltanschauung derer, die die Welt nie angeschaut haben”.

I have set myself the task, over the upcoming weeks, of airing my take on internationalism and education. In my previous post, I said that there are three aspects to be considered: international, intercultural and interlingual. It was of interest to me, then, when this quote from Alexander von Humboldt (14 September 1769 – 6 May 1859) popped up in my Facebook feed. While it is not entirely clear as to whether he actually uttered or wrote these words, they express a sentiment that resonates with why internationalism and education should be paired together. In this sense, this post might be considered to be a preamble to the posts on international, intercultural and interlingual that will follow over the next couple of weeks. Or, at the very least, the start of a preamble to some sort of final paper on the subject.

Tangentially, von Humboldt was a Prussian, geographer, naturalist, explorer and influential proponent of Romantic philosophy and science. He was incredibly well-travelled, having been appointed to positions over the course of his career that would require his presence in different places across the globe, or driven to different places in the world on account of his research. If this utterance was really his (and I would like for the sake of argument and convenience to say that it was), then he certainly had the academic background, respect and credibility to make it.

While von Humboldt’s words give ‘internationalism’ a degree of historicity and veracity, despite the fact that it is unlikely he would have used the term ‘internationalism’ to describe the perspective he was conveying, I see in von Humboldt’s words something more. It is the fact that they can be seen as a call to action to teachers to bring the world into the classroom. By bringing the world into the classroom, teachers can help students create and maintain an identity that is informed by the world and not an identity that is in tension with it, an identity that embraces the world and does not live in fear of it. In light of events in recent days, weeks and months, the place of teachers in this world is never more important.

International, Intercultural, Interlingual – mapping out the Dreiländereck that is international education

I work in an educational world that is defined by the intersection of three different spaces: the international, the intercultural and the interlingual. It makes for an interesting environment. Living in an area of land that is often called the Dreiländereck (where Germany, Switzerland and France meet), the use of three terms to define this educational world seems entirely appropriate. In the same way that my school is made up of students of different countries, cultures and languages, so too is the geography of the Dreiländereck.

The application of the international, the intercultural and the interlingual into a teaching and learning environment can be challenging for those within it. The interactions between one’s sense of self and the national identities of those one teaches can prompt useful, in-depth discussions about teaching and learning. The same interactions can also contribute to points of friction or tension. Cultures collide in the staff room about what constitutes pedagogical ‘best practice’.

For me, this post is a starting point for a discussion about internationalism and education. Over the coming weeks I want to look at the ideas of international, intercultural and interlingual, all of which appear to be central to understanding what internationalism as it applies to education is about. So, with that in mind, and to bring this post to a close, here are some short, tentative definitions that might be used as a springboard for what is to come:

  • International – the basis for a comprehensive approach to education that intentionally prepares students to be active and engaged participants in an interconnected world.
  • Intercultural – an approach to education that seeks to develop student intercultural competence, which is the ability to act and relate appropriately and effectively in a variety of cultural contexts.
  • Interlingual – an inclusive teaching and learning approach that supports all languages and cultures present within the school by fostering an environment whereby all students are open and responsive to respecting and learning about other languages.