Great Teachers are Made, Not Born

It’s very popular in schools today to talk about ‘lifelong learning’ and its desirability in our pupils. We are meant to take approaches in teaching and learning that help students to develop the skills, the desire and the willingness to take responsibility for their own learning. We want them to see learning as a “pull” process, not a “push” process. We don’t want children to passively wait for us to put knowledge in to them – to do school TO them. Instead, we want their curiosity, their willingness to take knowledge from wherever they think is appropriate, based upon the skill of discernment towards sources.

Who need to be the ‘lead lifelong learners’? The teachers. As education leaders we need to be very clear – this is unlikely to just simply happen by chance, certainly on the levels and frequency we need to influence children directly or indirectly. So, ways to get teachers on a long term journey of learning and to get it outwardly visible to children should be critical parts of our focus. Commitment to invest time in learning is almost always an additional commitment over and above the standard work that a teacher does (teaching time load etc.), not something you’re going to pay people extra for and not something you can really chastise a teacher for not doing. So, it’s critical that these teachers be;
a) engaged with their work,
b) motivated and positive in their outlook,
c) believing that investing effort in their own learning will be acknowledged and recognised by the school/ organisation,
d) seeing commitment to learning as one of the factors applied when considering who gets promoted/ leadership opportunities, and
e) inspired by a positive mission and vision for what the school seeks to achieve that makes them feel confident that commitment to more learning is a reasonable expectation.

The Economist published an interesting article last year entitled – How to Make a Good Teacher: What Matters in Schools is Teachers. Fortunately, Teaching Can be Taught
(Click on the link above to read the article)

It concerned me that the article failed to give due importance to these leadership related factors or the link between teachers learning and striving to improve and the need for children to develop as lifelong learners.

Other concerns were that the article so easily accepts a starting assumption that ‘grades and scores’ achieved by children are the measure of effective teaching. In such circumstances, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that many teachers become motivated to teach to the tests. If others are going to judge them on the basis of children’s test results, then they will do what it takes to have the children produce the highest possible test results.

There was one issue that the article gets right. This is an acknowledgement that within any school, overall good or poor, there will be pockets of excellence and pockets of mediocrity. Thus, for a parent or a pupil there is a degree of chance in whether they are the recipients of great teaching or not depending on which teacher teaches them, however good the school overall. I continue to feel that other industries and especially service industries would not consider this to be an acceptable compromise – that the experience of different customers can be so very different in standards depending on the individual they interact with. I believe that education has to continue to shift to acceptance that schools and leadership have the right to determine standard expectations – to define what are the ‘givens’ and to expect that teachers will commit to strive to achieve that level of standardisation as a minimum.

Next, the commitment to support the teacher’s learning and skills development to achieve those standard minimums should belong to both the school and the teacher. I get concerned at the frequency in schools and teacher culture where there is a perception that the only party paying (financially or in time) for teachers’ attendance at training or learning events, or conferences, should always be at the cost of the school.

The article touches upon the issue that is often discussed – how are the ‘best’ candidates attracted in to the profession of teaching? This is ironic as it really goes against the title and key directions of the article. If we believe that teaching can be learned and teachers are developed rather than born, then where the candidates come from should be less of an issue. This reminds me of a personal experience. When I was at Shri Ram, we took the management contract to manage a school in the Maldives under a public-private partnership with the Maldives government, known as Ghyasuddin International School. When i went to visit, i met many teachers already working in the school whose own education may have not gone much beyond higher secondary. They were very nervous and apprehensive that the new management would simply replace them with imported teachers from India. I set out to strongly get across to them that if they were willing to put in the effort, commitment and flexibility to learn what we wanted them to learn to teach to the standards that we were looking for, they had no reason to fear.

I recently met the Principal of that school and was very happy to learn that so many of those teachers are still in the school, having been transformed in their teaching and standards through a shared and common commitment to invest time and effort in learning.

My final thought on the article – I agree wholeheartedly with the writer’s belief that openness to feedback is a key part of what enables a teacher to grow, to learn and raise their game continuously. Of course, it goes without saying that you can never be too good – every teacher must believe that there is always something in their skills toolkit that they can make better.

From Performance Management to Effective Feedback

Some time ago I wrote about the vulnerabilities and fragility of performance management systems in most organisations and how, especially in schools, both leaders and those lead tend to dread the performance management process and see it as demotivating.

So, I was interested to see this video from Bluepoint leadership Development that approached the process of sharing feedback from a coaching perspective and emphasises modelling by the leader to seek and elicit/ invite feedback from others so as to develop a culture within which people get comfortable with feedback.

There needs to be acknowledgement that feedback isn't easy to give or receive, is inevitably emotional and linked to feelings of self and identity. therefore, it takes concerted practice, but as leaders we have to be willing to put in the hard work on this. Further, we have to acknowledge that it's one of those areas of professional skills where you can 'never be too good.'

There's always scope for us to raise the bar on our skills. For example, one aspect that I've had to work on over the years (and can still improve further) is the temptation, especially when time might be limited, to offer advice or even to take over the responsibility for finding the solution to an issue or problem on behalf of the employee. To be honest on this, of course, quite often the other person is only too happy if we will do the speaking (relieving them of the need to make a full and complete commitment). And, this is really what happens - if the ideas don't come from them about how to address the issue, then often they don't fully engage and can excuse themselves the accountability when they don't act. To address this, one of the things I know i need to do is be much more comfortable with silence!

Too often, I've been told by people in leadership roles in education that they're uncomfortable having challenging conversations that involve the sharing of frank, direct feedback. What results is too many situations where individuals aren't producing the desired performance or addressing a performance weakness, but when they are finally told the situation has become extreme. further, having not been given the feedback earlier they feel cheated, betrayed and hurt - especially as when the feedback finally comes and the dam breaks, it comes very strong and very challenging.

If we are to have great learning organisations in which people learn, develop and fulfil their potential we have to get far better at this business of feedback. To do this, we have to see the truth as something that we all owe to each other if we are genuinely serious about seeing people flourish and having our organisations grow and be the best they can be. Educators who can be open, frank and honest in their feedback to each other can model the skills necessary for the children and this can only serve them well for the future.

Feedback in the Professional Learning Environment

The best schools are communities of learners, with the school Head fulfilling the role of ‘Head Learner’. The learning done by educators needs to be on a number of levels and benefits from being visible and transparent (students who see their teacher as a learner develop healthier, more positive attitudes to their own learning).

Whilst some of the learning comes from books, academic resources, training courses, conferences etc. there’s also a vital component that comes from growing self-awareness combined with tapping in to the knowledge and insights of colleagues. This requires a healthy climate for giving and receiving feedback and ‘open’ classrooms.

Traditionally, there was too often a culture of closed classrooms based on the idea that the classroom was the domain of the teacher, private and that school, leaders and peers had no right to intrude or interfere. However, one inevitable consequence of such attitudes was a lack of congruence or consistency of teaching in the school as a whole – each teacher ploughing their own furrow in their own chosen direction. It also meant that teachers weren’t learning from teachers – and that was a shame.

I have seen some awful situations where classroom observation was only carried out by members of the leadership team – and that too by accessing CCTV cameras in the classroom (so the teacher didn’t even know when they were being observed). This has nothing to do with growth, learning or leadership and everything to do with management, control and deep mistrust.

As trust builds between teachers and they get more used to being exposed to the observation of their peers in the classroom, the next significant step if the process is to offer real value is that the observer and the observed have to be both willing and able to engage in an effective process of feedback. Just sitting through 40 minutes of somebody’s class to tell them after, “Everything was nice,” is to do the courageous teacher who wants to learn a great disservice. However, equally, the delivery of feedback in ineffective ways can also leave teachers feeling hurt and disinclined to engage fully in such a process in future.

Therefore, i thought this little short video of ideas from 12 Manage offers a good starting list of perils to avoid in the giving of feedback;

12 Manage – 10 Common Mistakes in Giving Feedback:

The potential benefits are considerable. It's an area where we can all learn and grow, to reach mastery levels. In this way, trust in the process grows, teachers become more ready to open up and engage in two way processes. They also grow in confidence when it comes to revealing that they are learners and can benefit from the process. Win-win all around.

Supporting Performance With Feedback

leadership in schools has many aspects, but undoubtedly one of the most important roles is helping each and every teacher and other employee to;

a) Work in accordance with the mission, vision and values of the school, and
b) Exhibit being a ‘lifelong learner’ by seeking to continuously enhance their abilities in their role, and
c) grow

For these to happen one of the most important areas of insight is with regard to giving feedback. Over the years I have heard so many leaders in educational fields who have been frustrated and challenged by the issues related to giving feedback. All too often they have struggled with perceptions that teachers only want ‘nice feedback’ (praise, congratulations and positive strokes). Some have conjectured whether cultural factors were involved, some whether it was a gender issue and some whether it was specific to the profession and the people who are attracted to it.

So, i was therefore very interested to come across this webinar by the highly regarded Zenger Folkman Group in which the presenters share the findings of research they carried out on the subject of feedback. Whilst much of the focus is on differences between age-groups, they also have some interesting things to say regarding gender.

Zenger Folkman Webinar – Feedback

How Shanghai Schools Got to Number One

Here’s an interesting article from Thomas Friedman in today’s New York Times recounting his experiences from visiting a high performing Shanghai School;

New York Times Article

Oh, how this article will disappoint many. How some educators around the world will beat their chests about how PISA isn’t the only measure of greatness in schools or an education system. Oh, how many will hate the fact that the conclusions are that they don’t suffer from the complacency and the ‘plague of mediocrity’ that blights so many education systems. Instead, there’s no ‘magic sauce’. Instead they take some fundamental things that we all know make a difference and they work harder at them, more determinedly and with a mindset that says – you can’t get too good at these things and there’s always scope for improvement.

Wow, hard work and a never ending pursuit of excellence in fundamental areas might come back in to fashion!!