Posts Tagged ‘school culture’

 “Change begins with a culture where everyone is elevated to the status of learner”

 Sarah Brown Wessling

frustrated_teacherIn the last blog I shared about the research that David Gurr and Lawrie Davidson from Melbourne University have been doing around successful leadership in Australian Schools. Since I wrote that piece I have been discussing their research (and my interpretation of it) with a number of schools and their staff. The discussions have been fascinating to say the least!

Over the next few blogs I am going to dig a little deeper into what each level of leadership needs and wants to empower them to be effective in delivering student outcomes. My assertion is that schools that are successful over a long period of time have certain structures that not only provide what each level of leadership needs and wants but builds a particular empowering culture.  In this newsletter I am focusing on Teachers. Please feel free to challenge or add to my thinking!


Level 1 Impact

Classroom teachers have a direct impact on student learning. They are directly interacting with students each day and create the experience of learning and the school for each and every student. As Hattie pointed out in his 2003 paper Teachers make a difference – what is the research evidence?

 “It is what teachers know, do, and care about which is very powerful in this learning equation.”

“Teachers can and usually do have positive effects, but they must have exceptional effects. We need to direct attention at higher quality teaching, and higher expectations that students can meet appropriate challenges”

Hattie and Jaeger reviewed all the literature and identified five major dimensions of excellent teachers.

“Expert teachers

  • can identify essential representations of their subject,
  • can guide learning through classroom interactions,
  • can monitor learning and provide feedback,
  • can attend to affective attributes, and
  • can influence student outcomes”

We know that pre-service teaching does not create expert teachers – they are often just beginning their teaching journey. Where teachers develop their expertise is through practice and professional learning in their school environment. So what structures and processes would teachers require within a school to support them to progressively develop their capacity to become “expert teachers”? The following are some of my thoughts:

  • A spiral curriculum that outlines the progressive development of concepts, skills, understandings, and affective attributes across subjects through the years of schooling at the school. The aim is to provide a clear progression for teachers so they not only know the expected levels but also the connection across and within subjects. It also allows for a coherent and consistent approach to scaffolding and gradual release of responsibility over the year and through the years.
  • A clear instructional model so teachers know what to focus upon and what works best in curriculum planning, pedagogy and whole school affective and general capability development. Given the amount of evidence based research now available schools can articulate a model which captures what works best. This would include clear planning templates and planning and reflection processes.
  • Time for teaching teams to plan curriculum using a backward planning model (e.g. UbD). Petra Leitz in her 2009 ACER report pointed out that there is more variance in performance within Australian schools than between schools. My assertion is that a big part of this is because teachers do not have a shared common understanding of the “essential representations of their subject”. Time to plan and collaborate together on developing the written, enacted and assessed curriculum is critical to creating an aligned team and each and every teacher being clear about the learning goals and success criteria. In countries where there is significant teacher planning and discussion time (e.g. Finland) there is minimal variance within schools.
  • A well thought out framework for teachers to collaborate Team meetings often can devolve into administrivia rather than focussing on the core aspects of influencing student outcomes. Having clear structures for meetings and how teachers can work together to influence all the students is an important facet. This goes beyond cooperation and into teachers being data informed and working together to address each and every student.
  • Well thought out and progressive development processes for teacher capacity building (e.g. structured self-reflection, Individual Learning Plans, instructional and cognitive coaching, professional learning – individual and whole school). I find that most professional development within schools is piecemeal. Once a school has articulated a spiral curriculum and a clear instructional model then the school strategic plan should lay out how, over the coming years, the teachers will be building their expertise from their current level of expertise. This plan answers the question “How are we developing expert teachers that reflect the vision, values and foci we want for the school?”
  • An induction program for teachers new to the school so that over time the teachers are mentored / instructionally coached into thinking from and operating from the articulated school approach. A lot of focus has been recently been put on pre-service teacher training. Whilst I dislike the “Teach for Australia” approach in principal I believe one of the things they got right was the strong coaching structure embedded into their processes. A structured instructional coaching approach that progressively develops teachers new to the school will ensure that expert teachers and leaders are being grown
  • A school culture that values learning from mistakes and encourages teachers to experiment and evaluate their initiatives. We all learn by trial and error and this is critical for teachers to adapt to the varied needs and level of competence, knowledge, skills and dispositions in their classes. Unless everyone is working within a developmental mindset and are, at heart considered learners, then progress will be slow.


I would love to hear your thoughts about what I can add or change to the above at the level of teachers. Next time we will look at what is needed and wanted at the level of middle leadership.

Transformational and Instructional Leadership

“Leadership only arises when people are given the opportunity to lead”

This was the main insight I took away from a recent professional seminar I was involved in at the University of Melbourne. It was an important insight for me because it connected some thoughts and ideas that I had been mulling recently about some of the schools we had been working with. I left the seminar wondering how much opportunity for leadership teachers and people in positions of leadership actually had within the day to day running of a school.

In my experience when teachers took on positions of leadership they were generally given time in lieu to be operating as leaders. However the complaint I have often heard when coaching individuals in these positions is that this time was often filled with administrative issues – not leadership. Even when people in positions of leadership had dedicated time to lead they weren’t necessarily automatically good at leading teams – they lacked a framework for leadership.


Effective School Culture

This has led me to think that the opportunity for the leadership that schools need and want will only arise within a well thought out strategic framework for leadership. Even more so, as I have read in Leithwood and Day’s research – at different stages of school cultural development differing leadership is need. Furthermore, if a school is interested – as I believe they should be – in developing an effective professional culture, then at different levels of leadership within the school there are different foci that are important.

This is a critical point that struck me when I spoke to David Gurr, a lecturer in school leadership from the University of Melbourne. David used the diagram below to point out the different needs and opportunities for leadership at various levels within a school.


Effective School Culture Leadership Model


The following descriptions I outline are completely my interpretations of the discussion I had with David – not David’s. You can read more about Lawrie Drysdale’s and David Gurr’s model of successful school leadership here.



Classroom teachers (Level 1) have a direct impact on student outcomes as they are directly interacting with students. At this level the work that mostly needs to be done with teachers is instructional. The support they need to develop their capacity revolves around developing effective curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Just giving them time to do this is insufficient unless the teachers are highly effective planners working within a clear instructional model and instructional plan. More often than not the teachers need to be working within a framework that leads them to grow and develop their instructional capacity. They definitely need time to discuss curriculum, pedagogy and assessment and come to shared common understandings as a teaching team but within an effective instructional framework. Classroom teachers often don’t have many opportunities in their busy schedules to develop leadership. I am not saying they cannot be leaders but that leadership cannot develop without there being opportunities for it.


Middle Leaders

Middle leaders lie between Level 1 and 2 because they are moving into leadership. The challenge in most schools is that when one is appointed into a position of middle leadership there is rarely an effective structure for developing the leadership capacity of these individuals. Middle leaders have a less direct impact on student outcomes but they do have the opportunity to create the professional environment of learning and development for the classroom teachers to be effective.  I have found that middle leaders are given time to “lead” but they often fall into the pitfall of becoming administrators and managers rather than leading the way. Thus they unconsciously become the barrier to change and growth within a school. Middle leaders transfer the school values and strategic vision into action at the level of the teachers. Thus having an effective leadership development program for middle leaders is crucial to developing a professional learning culture within the school.


Senior Leadership

Senior Leadership within the school lie mostly at Level 2 impact where they have an even less direct impact on student outcomes however they set the context and capacity of the school. It is their role to articulate the vision and direction of the school and facilitate the relationships and conversations such that a powerful learning and development culture arises. Without their visionary role and guidance the school can flounder. It is critical that these individuals think from the whole school perspective. One of the consistent pitfalls that I see often at this level is that they don’t plan strategically or effectively for the long term. At this level one cannot just focus on the day to day – which is vital to the short term success and running of the school – one needs to be planning for and playing the long term game of the school. The development that is needed here is building the capacity of the senior leaders to strategic plan and create what John Kotter calls the “guiding coalition” to have the strategic vision become alive within the school. Senior leaders need to develop their understanding of causing and managing change within a relational organisation.

Finally, great Principals not only have strengths at Level 2 but also Level 3. They set the context of the entire school and partner the senior leadership team to strategically plan and enact the school vision. Their job is NOT to micromanage the change but to empower leadership throughout the school. The principal is also the buffer between the external influences on the school and the school. They are the voice of the future to the community (internally and externally) whilst filtering the requests and demands of the educational system within which the school exists such that they minimize upheaval for the staff and students.

In the Part II I want to share a little about my journey of discovering the importance of effective school leadership and connect what we are seeing with the thinking above. In the meantime, some useful articles and research around this topic include:

What We Know about Successful School Leadership – Leithwood and Riehl (2003)

Are You Leading Change or Building a Platform for Change? – Bruce Dixon

Leading for Growth – Connected Principals

Bully-kidA study by Duke Medicine published recently by JAMA Psychiatry has pointed to the long term psychological effects of bullying. The lead author said that “This psychological damage doesn’t just go away because a person grew up and is no longer bullied. This is something that stays with them. If we can address this now, we can prevent a whole host of problems down the road.”

The study also suggested that bullying is also a problem for bullies as well as the victims. This reminded me of a recent article in Slate written by a woman who used to be a bully.

Now bullying comes up reasonably often in the media and quite often the finger is pointed at the individuals involved. Yes … they are responsible for their actions but they exist within the norms of the groups, family, schools and teams they are participating in. Human beings are social creatures. If bullying is occurring within a school then it is a school culture issue as much as an individual issue. Research shows that societies and cultures that are egalitarian and based on equality report less bullying. If the school culture is a powerful reinforcement of community then bullying is unlikely to occur.

What do you think?

Image: Shutterstock

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