17 November 2020

The Monday Briefing: We can work it out

The Monday Briefing: We can work it out

I’m currently reading a thought provoking book about educational leadership by David Didau called ‘Intelligent Accountability: Creating the Conditions for Teachers to Thrive’. As soon as I started reading it, many of the introductory arguments struck a chord: that perfection in teaching is an impossibility; that we need to work towards making better decisions to mitigate poor performance rather than striving for a one size fits all approach; and that teachers and students work most effectively in an environment of mutual trust.

In the four schools in which I’ve worked, none are ‘the same’. Though the basic fundamentals of my lessons have remained broadly similar for the last five years - the core resources and presentations I’ve used to deploy information and techniques have been embellished rather than completely transformed - none of my lessons have been ‘the same’ either, often going off on tangents of discussion or coming to different conclusions about the material being discussed. I am fortunate enough to teach History, a subject which encourages reasoning and justification for ideas, but this is true, I am sure, of all subjects. I am convinced that no two days within the classroom, even if the teacher purposely tries to achieve it, can ever be ‘the same’. Largely, this is because of the unknown factor - the students themselves. They are a variable which, in terms of reactions to teaching, we can not - and nor should we try to - control. Their variety is exactly what makes teaching a profession which I still remain completely devoted to.

The book also discusses the critical importance of providing an environment for teachers to do what they do best - to teach. I would agree that this should be the key role of a leader within a school. It is a job which often gets lost in the fog of the day to day running of such an institution. With a multitude of compliance regulations, health and safety requirements and financial considerations to factor in for Principals, it can be difficult to remember why we are doing what we do, and why we all joined the profession in the first place: to make a positive contribution to the lives of our students; for them to learn from our teaching. That all sounds extremely idealistic, but fundamentally it remains true.

I like to think that the College is an attempt to enable teaching and learning in its purest form. We understand that students and staff are individuals, but we also believe, very strongly, that a shared common goal is strongly in place - to attain the highest possible standards in everything we do. This may sound very difficult to quantify, but it all comes down to one word in my mind: systems. Only by having robust systems in place can we allow teachers to teach and students to learn, safe in the knowledge that they know, without a doubt, what is expected of them. There will be many paths for them to get there, but, in the end, there are ‘absolute definites’ in terms of what makes a good student or, for that matter, a good teacher.

In our weekly staff CPD session on Friday, we had an extremely productive review of how we communicate our expectations of their levels of effort to the student body. Only by involving all members of staff, and by allowing a full consultation of their views, were we able to come to a conclusion about this. Consulting staff is a vital part of creating a unified purpose, and before I took the helm in the summer, I asked all staff, teaching and office, their views on how best to move the College forward. I was able to, as Didau’s book suggests, build my knowledge as far as was possible before making an informed decision, rather than making mistakes I could have, perhaps quickly, come to regret. 

Following a visit from the Governance team at Bellevue Education, who provided encouraging, positive feedback on the achievements made so far this term, it also gave an opportunity to seek the next steps for improvement. I’m extremely grateful to our Education Directors for the role they provide in completing these visits, particularly in the climate we are faced with. They allow us to focus on problem areas, and offer suggestions on what can be done to confront them. A key developmental priority of the College this year is to develop ownership, amongst staff and students as part of Bellevue’s CODE guidelines - to create an environment in which each individual feels, safe, secure and welcomed, to instil a culture in which each individual recognises the contribution they make and their responsibility in promoting learning, to distribute opportunities for others, including staff and pupils, to step forward and be seen to take responsibility, to involve others within the development of plans, seeking their opinions.

With this in mind, we did not find it difficult to come to an agreed set of guiding principles for students to be the best they can be at the College, and I hope this empowers them to have a fixed goal which they can aspire to, seeking out an ‘effort grade 1’ and looking at each facet of their performance as a potential area for improvement. I have enjoyed immensely sending messages of congratulation to parents and students when they have attained this goal in all subjects - and I know that parents and students have enjoyed receiving them. Understanding and celebrating excellence is a vital part of how we work at the College.

The next stage of our process will be a little more complex. As part of a staff-student charter, I would like the students to reciprocate our guidelines on excellence by refining the teaching standards and making clear where their priorities lie in terms of our duties to them. There are, of course, the core teaching standards put in place by the Department for Education, but the students at the College should be given the opportunity to express their views as to which of these are truly defining of excellence when it comes to a teacher at the College. I look forward to hearing their views, as I look forward to taking every opportunity to emboldening student voice. This, along with a more coherent approach to staff CPD and the use of technology across the College, forms the basis for how we will move forward this academic year.

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