Nurturing Educator Talent in Schools

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Some years ago I coined a phrase that went something like this – “We don’t have the right to ask great teachers to work alongside mediocre colleagues.”

There are times when we have to ask ourselves some deep and challenging questions about some of the incongruity in education and especially in the way schools are run – the gaps between what we say we want, and our actions. For example. most educators today say that they want their schools to be places of differentiated learning where each child gets to fulfill their potential guided by the most motivated, professional, skilled and talented educators. But then, we see rushed and uncoordinated recruitment processes and even new teachers rushed in as compromises because teacher work load (numbers of lessons to be taught) is treated as more important than finding the best teacher to enhance the team.

The result of such practices is that teachers (and even sometimes pupils) see a mismatch between what’s said and what’s done – in which case, they’ll ignore what’s said. Is it naive of me to believe that teachers who want to be part of a high performing team would rather cover for a vacancy in the team for some time, rather than see a compromise candidate hastily rushed in? I have to say, my experience suggests such views are very rare. Then, let’s not even get started on how new teachers are integrated in to teams, mentored, brought in to the fold to really understand the culture of the school they’ve joined and what it expects of them (sending the message that managing the processes is way more important than the culture).

I believe that when looking at issues of leadership in schools and how our schools run today, whilst there’s a fair amount of talk about school culture as it relates to the students, there’s not nearly enough talk about school culture when it comes to the employees. This is not fully compatible with the suggestion that we aspire to meritocratic, high-performing workplaces. Culture matters in organisations – it matters a lot. We need to be paying far more attention to how we lead and how we create cultures of high performance.

I believe there are interesting lessons that can be learned from elsewhere, although often in education suggestions like this can also be treated as a form of heresy. In my experience, schools have more than their fair share of ‘NIH’ – Not Invented Here. This is a syndrome that comes with phrases like, “well that might work there, but it wouldn’t work here.”

When we think of high performance meritocracies most people would figure that Silicon Valley technology companies fit the bill pretty well. For some years I’ve been intrigued to get my head around whether there are lessons we can learn from the culture of technology, high growth companies, even if they might still require some adaptation. In my research in this area, I was fascinated to come across the stories of a famous document that was produced by Patty McCord (who was, at the time, Chief talent Officer at Netflix). When the document was publicly shared it acquired ‘cult’ status. It’s easily possible to find and download copies online today (Just Google ‘Netflix Culture Deck’) It’s basically a 126-slide Powerpoint deck that sets out a manifesto for a high performance culture. However, it’s been described by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg as “may well be the most important document ever to come out of the valley.”

I’ve now read the slide deck 4-5 times and I find it stimulating my thoughts in different ways every time. The starting key principles are that common sense is a far better tool for leading organisations than rules and that the best performing organisations should look to employ ‘fully formed adults.’ There’s a high emphasis on valuing the organisation’s values and management’s responsibility to manage context, not control and to offer ‘top end remuneration.’

Here are two articles, well worth reading. The first is a Huffington Post article describing the key atrtibutes of the Netflix Culture. At the bottom of the page you’ll find the 126 slide deck:
Huffington Post – One Reason For Netflix’s Success – It Treats Employees Like Adults

The second article, from Harvard Business Review is authored by Patyy McCord herself and sets the Culture document in context and provides some interesting insights in to the thinking:
Harvard Business Review – How Netflix Reinvented HR

I loved the references to Enron’s espoused values (and we all know how important they were in practice). I have always believed that in our schools we have to be deadly serious about our values. They’re not just a few fancy words on a website or a poster – they have to encapsulate the culture and the DNA of the school. The idea is that in most circumstances, responsible, professional mature adults can figure out exactly how they should be responding to a set of circumstances by reference to the values and common sense. it doesn’t need sets of rule book and regulations, and it certainly doesn’t require the cynical game-playing of management making rules and staff working to interpret them to their personal advantage (and often the disadvantage of the culture).

The Netflix document doesn’t advocate a ruleless wild west. Rather, it places the emphasis on rules existing where they need to. Plainly, in schools, in all areas that relate to child safety, hygiene and those aspects that can’t be compromised there is a need for rules that are well understood and implemented by all.

There have been times when I’ve been saddened to see a form of collegiality in schools that amounts to complacency about mediocrity and careless or even shoddy, uncaring work. Teachers can, at times, have a propensity to believe that the only way to be is to act on the basis that we’ll all say nice things all the time, look the other way regarding others’ shortcomings (and they will do the same for us) and the most important thing is that everyone should ‘get on.’ In the meantime, quality of teaching and learning are compromised and everyone knows it. I once saw a situation in a school where supervisors conducted performance appraisals of newly joined teachers. The new teachers had been given ratings of 4 or 5 out of 5 across the board. However, when confronted face to face the supervisors admitted that some of these teachers were a long way short of acceptable in standards of performance. In one case, they even wanted the teacher to be asked to resign, but had not been willing to give real, actual honest feedback about shortcomings. There are few things in the workplace that generate more cynicism than performance appraisals, and with good reason.

If, as educators, we are going to choose to bring in and adapt practices from the world of commerce and business, with the intention of raising the standards and quality of our schools, then we need to be ready to look to sources that are innovative, bold and daring (and effective), rather than replicating the humdrum and those things which have already so often proved themselves to do more harm than good to organisational culture.

So, if we were to open our minds to the kinds of ideas contained n the Netflix Culture document, what kind of schools might we have? I hazard that for one, leaders would get to spend far more time focused on the development of children and less on tinkering with the rule books!

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