When I was teaching secondary school English, I once overheard two students discussing their teacher allocations at the start of the year. From the other side of the hedge, I heard one boy say to the other, “Who have you got for English?” His friend replied, “I’ve got Crawford”. In response the inquisitor let out a sigh and gave some hushed advice, “Don’t make any sudden moves in her class mate!”
Every student and every parent knows that one of the most crucial factors in student academic success outside of your own hard work and mental capacity is class allocation. Which teacher’s class will a student be allocated to this year…as important as winning the academic lottery and at present in our schools just as chancy!
We have known with confidence for more than a decade now that teacher quality has a big impact on learning outcomes. Simultaneously, through the comprehensive analytical work of researchers such as John Hattie and others, we have built an understanding that the biggest variation in student outcomes happens within schools rather than between schools. You get a good teacher- you win the learning lottery! This evidence confirms what many have suspected all along- its not so much about the school itself, but rather the teacher you have within a school that makes for quality learning outcomes. Student outcomes can therefore be positively impacted if schools can achieve better quality teaching across the whole school by reducing within-school teacher quality variability.
This knowledge presents a proposition to school leaders:
Build a collaborative, feedback-oriented, accountable school culture and student success will come!
Leaders are essential in issues of organisational culture as they ‘set the climate’ day to day and they have the opportunity to deliberately shape ‘how we do things around here’. So what are the leadership behaviours required to build a school culture of collaboration, feedback and accountability?
This article seeks to explore the key leadership behaviours required to achieve greater consistency of teacher quality. Let’s examine each of these cultural elements and the associated leadership behaviours in turn.
When teachers join together frequently to examine and discuss their impact within their classrooms and to share ideas that facilitate student success, they are lifting teaching quality across the school. What can leaders do to encourage collaboration?
School leaders cannot expect staff to collaborate when they themselves do not. It’s important to remember that if there is discord between espoused organisational values and leadership practice, practice wins out - culture is defined by the way we do things around here not by what we say we do.
Modelling collaborative behaviours is essential. Here is a simple test- do you run staff meetings that seek to tell or seek to understand? Discussion-based, staff input-seeking meetings are a good signpost of collaboration. When leaders have decisions to make and goals to achieve they should seek to involve the input of others when appropriate. There are times when leaders should make decisions alone, but not always. Indeed where buy in from staff is required, involvement, collaboration and debate should accompany.
Leaders can also signal that collaboration is important and valued by creating as many collaborative spaces as possible throughout the school and encouraging staff to use them. These spaces will be utilised if formal and informal coaching conversations are routine and if staff are encouraged to seek expertise and advice from each other on a daily basis.
Asking for help or making mistakes should be seen as markers of ‘growth mindset’ rather than incompetence or opportunities for blame. The leader’s attitudes and behaviours help to position this for all staff.
There are a number of specific skills that leaders should cultivate in themselves and others in order to have a collaborative culture flourish in their schools. Appreciation of diversity, ability to engage in purposeful conversations and being able to productively resolve conflicts are some of these. Deliberate focus on these skills in our recruitment and development practices both help.
Similarly, we know that leaders who are both relationship and task focused lead teams that are both more productive and innovative. So we should be selecting and developing these skills.
Achieving a collaborative culture shouldn’t be a tough ask, after all, teachers often do collaborate. Let’s face it the majority in the profession are warm, sociable types who like to talk with their colleagues! Visit any staffroom and you will see evidence of this. In order for leaders to inspire the sort of collaboration that will improve teacher quality and in turn student outcomes, they need to inspire collaboration with purposeful focus on outcomes - this is where collaboration links to the other important cultural settings.
Feedback is information about our work that helps us to guide, direct and correct our efforts. Just as most of us find it hard to hit a target blindfolded, we can’t achieve our best performance in the absence of feedback.
To build a feedback culture within a school it needs to be both normalised and formalised. What can school leaders do to grow a feedback culture?
A great place to start in building feedback as a fundamental part of your school culture would be to engage the staff in a conversation about the formal and informal mechanisms for feedback. This is what Shakespeare would call ‘a play within a play’. You’re seeking to build a feedback culture by first seeking feedback.
Some good questions to ask are:
Surely the most powerful feedback channel in your school is the daily feedback between students and teachers and between students and students? When feedback is given to teachers from the students it is most often punished or ignored. The more impassioned the feedback, the more likelihood of this response. For example, when a student says, “I hate your subject!” they are providing feedback and it could be a gift to teaching quality if a teacher was brave enough to explore it with the student and try to respond.
In so many classrooms quiet, or the absence of feedback, is assumed to be evidence of success. It could equally be evidence of mass induced catatonia or passive disinterest! At least the student who provides negative feedback cares enough to share.
How often do you and your leaders seek and receive feedback from the staff, the students, the parents and the community? Leaders must think of creative ways to invite this feedback, thank people for their feedback and, most importantly, respond to feedback. If leaders cannot demonstrate their personal commitment to growth, how can they expect their staff to do this?
Once again, leaders need to role model the capture and use of feedback to others. They need to demonstrate that they are seeking it out from multiple channels and acting on it.
To be held accountable for something means that you first have to specify clear goals and then review your progress towards achieving them. There are some specific things that leaders in schools can do to achieve greater accountability.
Many schools have recently implemented formal performance feedback systems, which is a step in the right direction in terms of accountability. We would argue however that for these systems to truly make a difference they must be focused on setting goals that are self-imposed, meaningful and individualised. Each staff member should be consistently invited to hold themselves accountable to achieving better student outcomes and that means measuring impact.
Leaders should routinely engage their staff in dialogue about what success would look like for each of them and be focused on meaningful ways of measuring that success.
What would progress look like for student X? That’s how teachers would ideally hold themselves accountable to every student in their care. To achieve this teachers would need to know each student and be able to specify their learning needs and their strengths.
As Hattie argues, we should be examining student impacts and holding ourselves accountable against those rather than being held accountable to our peers. It doesn’t really matter if my colleague thinks I’m a great teacher, what matters is what my students think and what evidence exists of their individual progress.
Of course for consistent teacher quality, we need these practices to be mirrored in the classroom. Teaching is an act of leadership, when more people in our schools understand this, there will be more potent and consistent opportunities for student success across each of our schools.
When leaders in schools and leaders in classrooms are all striving for collaboration, feedback and accountability, within-school variation will be significantly reduced and positive student outcomes the norm, rather than a matter of chance - the great teacher allocation lottery!
I never did work out exactly what that “No sudden moves” comment was meant to convey, but be it positive or negative feedback, I was listening for it and reflect on it even now some 20 years later.