Saturday, 26 January 2013

What I'm learning on SLT secondment

I've been a Subject Leader since my second year in teaching. Virtually every time I've been appointed to lead a department, the appointment was to say the least fortuitous, if not utterly accidental. I have never felt the need for promotion, and have only ever gone for promotion consciously when I've got to a point of such frustration with the "I could do a better job than that" attitude that I've just gone for it. Never have I really believed I had much to offer at any level higher than middle management.

However, the school I work in at the moment have a habit of giving people opportunities to lead, and I've taken everything that's come my way in the last year. Again, none of this is out of any egotistical desire to be in charge, but much more out of curiosity, to see whether I actually have anything to contribute at SLT level: I'm not 100% convinced yet, but... Amongst the opportunities I've been given have been a place on the Aspiring Senior Leadership Development Programme, and a secondment for two terms onto our Leadership team. Over the next few months, I'm hoping to be able to blog about what I'm learning, and share it with anyone else who might, more fool them, be interested in what I have to say.

So let's start with this: Over the last few weeks it's been a privilege to observe first hand the remarkable group of people that is my SLT. I'm not saying this to suck up. None of them read this blog (I think). It would be embarrassing if they did. Not to mention a waste of their time. So this compliment is just between you and me, you understand?

I have always been impressed by the unity of the team since they came together three years ago. When I was seconded, one comment I received from a slightly cynical colleague in another school suggested that once I was on the team and could see what went on behind closed doors, "I'd soon see where the fault-lines were": But no...

Lesson One: Unity of purpose and vision
When you lead people, you have to have their confidence, and they have to believe you know where you're going, that you have a clear rationale for going in that direction, and that you know how to get there. Importantly, if you're in charge of a team leading another even larger team, then that SLT has to be behind your ideas, otherwise you get the sort of back-biting that undermines the team and the leadership completely. When the weavils start gnawing at the rudder, don't be surprised if your boat goes nowhere. Is a phrase you're not likely to hear again today...

So getting everyone on board is a very powerful tool in inspiring confidence.

Lesson Two: Keep it simple, stupid.
Uncontentious is a good way to get everyone behind your general principles. Teachers are all pretty well-intentioned people, or at least started out that way. They come to the profession with a desire to make a difference, and your leadership vision has to reconnect them to that original moral purpose they came with. They have to feel they are coming to work every day to do the thing they wanted right from the off: Change the lives of young people for the better. How you achieve that vision of success for young people can be debated ad infinitum within SLT, openly and honestly, but as long as you agree your general direction, then there is strength in your position as a group leading the school. The main thing is the main thing.

Lesson Three: Communicate the vision clearly and often
Alignment is a word much used on the ASLDP, and I must admit it is a word which is easily mistaken for coercion, which naturally gets people's backs up. But if you don't have a set of values and principles behind which people can align themselves, then why would they follow your direction? Learning to communicate your vision to the staff, and overcoming the suspicion people have of anyone who wants to go into a senior role, is a fundamental part of your job. Remember that most teachers came to teach young people, and therefore may well have a pretty legitimate suspicion of anyone who seems to want to "escape the chalkface". Your reason for being a member of SLT has to come through loud and clear in your words, but most importantly in your actions: It's about service. As a teacher, you can serve students. As a member of SLT you can serve students, and you can more importantly serve teachers in order to help them to do their job better. Repeat, in case you didn't get it first time: It's about service, and communicating your mission to serve others.

Lesson Four: Put in place the right systems
The word "system" conjures up a mechanistic view of management which most people hate, because they're people, and nobody likes to think of themselves in a box. But your systems are for two purposes: To make it easier for teachers and students to do their jobs, and to monitor and interrogate how that can be done even more effectively. Good systems of accountability should be light work, but provide excellent evidence upon which to act. If you are systematically asking the correct questions, the answers you come up with can automatically be looked at, and take into account individual variability such as student or teacher performance. But it's important that those questions be asked, that the story behind the figures be found, and that the knowledge that they bring is on the table for discussion.

Lesson Five: Create an effective team
A group is not a team. School "teams" are often inherited, and made up not of people who have ability and aptitude to lead the school or carry out specific tasks, but more often of people who have been teaching longer or have specific experience in schools. However, if this is the culture which exists in education today, we have to work with that, rather than bemoaning the fact that we can't just fire someone and hire the right specialist, as they might in industry. It's important to develop our leaders into a team, as they will model everything the school aspires to be: SLT should work towards becoming...

  • A team with shared purpose
  • A team which builds up complementary skill-sets and capacity (the right "chemistry", if you will)
  • A team which reviews the school's activities and processes (as well as its own) constantly for refinement
  • A team which learns from its mistakes and moves forward
  • A team which develops its emotional intelligence in order to make dealing with teachers and students more effective
  • A team which trusts its own members, the teachers it serves, and which is in turn trusted by staff and students to run the school in a direction which is mutually beneficial to all

Lesson Six: Everything is about development, not blame
Common purpose should always overcome individual egos. If it doesn't, the result when interrogating certain data or findings is that people get defensive and therefore will not give the whole truth if they can avoid it. An openly debating culture within SLT such as I have witnessed at my present school allows all the facts to be put on the table without embarrassment so that everyone can look at what can be getting better. Just because you've been put in charge of an area doesn't mean you're bound to have all the ideas, and sharing your results, your doubts, your qualms etc allows others to contribute, allows you to get multiple perspectives, and ultimately allows you to come up with better collaborative solutions. But if your team doesn't have that open culture and common sense of purpose, you have to build it first.

Lesson Seven:
This one's for the SLT rookies out there. When someone asks you if you would like to take the minutes, the answer is no. Or a more polite version thereof. And if at the end they congratulate you and say that you have got "your turn" out of the way, what they mean is that the busiest agenda of the term is now over. Mwa-haha-haha-haha...

Next they'll be saying it's my turn to pay for the SLT team-building curry outing...

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Taxonomy of an iPad lesson

I haven't blogged about our iPad journey for a while, so I thought I'd update how it's going, and impart a few of the lessons I've learnt the hard way! Forgive the length of the post, but I thought it was time to get into the nitty-gritty of the learning which occurs when iPads are used so you can follow my thinking, and improve on what I'm doing (and hopefully suggest those improvements to me in a comment at the bottom? Who knows?). And I'll chuck in some cartoons to alleviate the boredom too, how about that?

The first thing to comment on is a class procedure which has changed: The first thing my students do when they come into the class is to wash their hands with the anti-bacterial gel soap, a dispenser of which is on the wall at the entrance to the class. Bizarre, eh? One of the things which has always troubled me in schools is that, in a computer-heavy subject area like mine, cleaners NEVER touch the computers, keyboards or mice. And with the iPads' arriving, they certainly wouldn't touch those! (There is always the excuse that they're "not allowed to", but I can't honestly see it being likely that the person in charge of cleaning services is telling their staff any such thing). And kids, let's face it, are snotty and prone to poor hand hygiene. Some of you may be laughing at how remarkably understated I'm being on this matter... Anyway, I reckon that if you combine their hygiene habits (or lack of them) with the sharing of computers and iPads between 5 different classes every day, chances are you'd be able to account for a good 30% of the bacterial transmission within schools! And seeing as Dave Brailsford reckoned there were marginal gains to be had in keeping his cyclists healthy by using simple hygiene methods such as that outlined above, well, I decided to go for it. And I know this is anecdotal, but frankly the levels of attendance in my classes this year have been especially good amongst the classes using the iPads. Go figure. So, change number one: Hand gel at the start of every class.

Change number two: Organisation. We were very fortunate last term that SLT agreed to increase the number of iPads in the department to a full class set, with a charge/sync case. This has made the organisation and distribution at the start of classes a whole lot easier. All iPads were previously numbered, and allocated to individual students in each class, but what was numbered was the screens, so we still had a faff and a half opening them all and giving them out. Now, the sync case has numbered slots. Students know which iPad is theirs immediately, and where to put it back to charge at the end. 30 second procedure, including getting the ipads on. So far we are less than a minute into the lesson and students are ready to start. As opposed to the old Windows machines on the network which necessitated at least 10 minutes of "Bell work" before they were up and running and logged on. (The inverted commas around "Bell work" are there so you will recognise what I'm talking about, because I've re-christened it "Waiting for my f***ing computer to load, connect to the network and log me into all the correct drives work"). So, iPads definitely winning in the organisational stakes.

Change number three: Flipped learning: I'd always been a fan of flipped learning, the idea of setting learning for homework, and its application as a class activity which could be easily differentiated on the basis of how well the homework had been understood. The iPads have made this incredibly easy. The learning is set, and as soon as the students come in, the Socrative room number is on the board. The students now know to simply go to the Socrative app, enter the room number, and their quiz for the day will come up. If you haven't seen Socrative before, it is a web-based app which can be used on any device which can connect to the internet. Frankly, it's one of the most useful AfL tools I've come across. Look, I've even done a video tutorial for you here, and to the right, so now you have no excuse.

A few seconds after they've finished, I get email results telling me who has done well and who needs a bit more help (and who didn't do the homework at all!), and I can set them differentiated tasks or personal interventions to help them progress from whatever stage they are at. For example, yesterday we were analysing the front pages of magazines to see if we could work out what persuasive devices were used on audiences, and thereby identifying target audience characteristics. The class responses on Socrative clearly indicated that the class feel into four groups: The first set of responses clearly hadn't done the homework, so their first task was to do it to catch up (they re-take the quiz to prove it). The second group had not grasped a lot of the technical terminology in the homework, but understood the basics, and therefore they were given a cue sheet with definitions via dropbox to look at, to refer to during the analysis task. The third group did fine with definitions of key terms, but had struggled with the more open questions I'd set to test their application of the terms in analysis: They were also given a cue sheet of definitions (in case that was a problem but they'd guessed the vocabulary correctly in the test), but these definitions were a little more complex and used more media terminology, and also asked some key questions related to text analysis. I put these students in a group together to see if they could answer the more complex questions, and would then intervene more personally to answer their questions if they weren't sure. The final group had clearly understood their homework. They were given a set of additional questions to extend their thinking about the magazine techniques and get them to relate these explicitly to the target audience, and the sorts of gratifications they might get out of the magazine.

Although each group has been set off on different tasks because of their different starting points, this makes it easier for me to give them more individual attention without stopping the whole class, but essentially they are still working towards the same analytical task, just at the pace which is appropriate to their level of understanding. For the task itself, every group was then sent four documents: The mark criteria we had annotated into student-friendly language the lesson before, one model answer we had ripped apart the lesson before with the "What Went Wells' and "Even Better Ifs" we had written next to it, and another model answer we had looked at which was a WAGOLL. The final attachement was an Explain Everything project pre-populated with the keywords they would need for analysis. When they got to the analysis task, students had to find a hi-res google image of a magazine cover of their choice, and import it into the Explain Everything Project. They then re-arranged the key words with arrows to point to the features they could see, explained the connotations of each techniques and its effect on the reader, and finally wrote a summary on a second slide explaining why these techniques might attract the audience the magazine was targeting (below).

About half-way through the lesson, I stopped the students who were on the analysis activity, and put them into random pairs using the app RandomMastr, an easy to use list randomiser which the students are used to: They can see the results on the board through the AppleTV, so they know I'm not fiddling the pairs. The students swap iPads, and then leave feedback for their partner: Two WWWs and two EBIs. They had the mark criteria to refer to, and were told that their EBIs must be improvements which would make the most impact on the other student's result. If they wish (and several of them often do), they were allowed to use the mark criteria to guess what grade the piece might currently be on. The students often take advantage of this as they know I won't issue grades until the piece is finished. Another great feature of Explain Everything which some of them use is the voice-over recording: Some aren't great at expressing their improvements in writing, and so for the feedback I allow them to record their points verbally for their partner to listen to later. Once feedback is given, the students returned the iPads to their owners, and got on with improving their own analyses. And apart from directing the traffic, it sometimes seems as if I don't do much "teaching" in the traditional, stand-at-the-front-and-educate-them fashion. I just intervene on an individual level, and students seem to think this is far more effective, personalised, and suited to their individual pace of learning.

At the end of the lesson, I take a quick pulse check using Socrative again. We sometimes spend a bit of time talking about individual weaknesses or areas for further research, and that will form the basis of the students' homework, but the Socrative pulse check allows me to work out what areas they should be focusing on, based on a single hinge question. Students also have the opportunity to ask me a question through Socrative, which I can answer if the hinge question hasn't quite made it clear to me what a particular student's area of difficulty is. The students are set up for homework, have set their own tasks, and hopefully know what they have to learn ready for next time. They will then export their project to Evernote or to email so they can see what they have completed so far, to remind them while doing their homework, and that's pretty much all there is to the lesson.

This is the sort of lesson which can be endlessly fiddled with, modified, and combined with other techniques. For instance, we have started using SOLO Taxonomy as part of the peer feedback mechanism with one class, who are getting into it slowly. Similarly there are different ways of giving formative feedback to each other, including some of @Headguruteacher's brilliant "Closing The Gap" strategies. The one thing I hope you'll notice is that I haven't really mentioned the iPad that much throughout the post, and that's as it should be as far as I'm concerned. The whole debate shouldn't be about the technology (which is why I won't be drawn on the iPad/Android/BYOD debate): The technology merely facilitates the learning, and for that, you use whatever works best. I have a couple of students who really struggle with Explain Everything, so they are allowed to do their analysis work on Evernote. I don't have a problem with that. It's just a tool after all...

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Leadership and wisdom: Why us and them?

I'm in serious mood today. None of the usual frivolities. OK, you might get a cartoon at the end, but until then, I'm talking business...

I don't know about you, but I often have decent ideas which I'm developing at some bizarrely insane time of the day, when suddenly I will read someone else's blog which just, mortifyingly, turns out to be the perfect expression of what I've been struggling to articulate for so long. Today was such a day, when I read Kev Bartle's blog on line management, and the need to build a relationship of trust between manager and line managee (he made that word up by the way, not me). This line caught my eye: "And I trust that they (the people he line manages) are in this job for all the right reasons, as I hope they trust that I am in the job of senior leadership for all the right reasons." An admirable attitude.

However, this line highlighted a problem I have perceived, which has puzzled me throughout my career as a teacher and middle leader: The divide between SLT and "staff". If we just flip his statement on its head a moment, we perhaps start to see what is at the root of many a disjointed relationship between SLT and staff. Everyone always assumes teachers are in the job for the right reasons, but very often line management relationships break down because those being managed don't quite trust that SLT are in their jobs for the right reasons. Sound harsh? Think about it: How often are people sniping behind the backs of SLT members in your school? Is it only when the senior leader in question is not up to the job? Or is there a natural tendency amongst teachers not to trust SLT?

This isn't a problem middle managers suffer from as much, I don't think. While staff within a department can resent being managed by particular subject leaders on a personal basis, in my experience this is rare, and often down to a clash of personalities or perhaps rival ambition. Essentially, becoming a subject leader is about having ideas of how to teach better within a subject, and wanting to create a system through which this can be organised more effectively day to day. The fact that Subject Leaders still teach a hefty timetable shows the people they are managing that they are still 100% committed to the day to day nitty-gritty of the chalkface. But move towards SLT and suddenly things might change. Teachers seem to have a natural suspicion of people who are promoted to leadership positions, and it might be because they can't fathom why anyone would want to leave the classroom, which was after all the reason they came into the profession. The only reasons people seem to come up with are reasons such as greed (more money) or wanting to get out of the classroom (less work). Neither is a particularly positive reason for wanting that promotion.

One thing you'll pick up from the last paragraph is that I'm already using "they" to refer to staff, which posits a "we" of senior management (and I'm not even senior management yet!). I don't like that at all. However, it does seem to reflect the way staff think SLT view them, and it's a very real obstacle that must be faced, acknowledged and overcome by SLT if they are to be successful. I work with some superb colleagues in my faculty whose trust I have fought hard to gain over several years, and whose interests I have very often put way before my own, even when my own were important to me. But I am aware, and I don't think it's paranoid imagination, that having been seconded to SLT recently, there is now that degree of suspicion towards me and my motives. 

As SLT members it's vital to communicate our mission clearly to teachers, to make them see that our role is as much about people as teaching is. We may be part of a "system", we may have a grand title such as being in charge of "Teaching and Learning","Community" or however your school chooses the nomenclature of SLT, but those roles are still fundamentally about people. They should be about getting the best experiences for every single student, and should be equally about getting the best professional experiences for every single teacher and associate member of the support staff. They deserve to be happy and fulfilled in their lives and roles, as much as the students deserve the best educational experience possible. Our role in this context is about serving the needs of these two communities, and everything we do, say and set up should be transparently and obviously about facilitating that, and releasing people to fly. As @KevBartle said in his fab blog"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free". Although I think he may have nicked the expression from someone else: Attribution is one of Twitter's main problems!

How you convince the people you manage of this is a matter of personality, I think. There are no hard and fast rules. Our ASLDP course, for instance, discussed whether Heads should go to the staff party a while back, with clearly this question on their minds. Some said they should, and they should be seen to be able to "get down with the staff" as I believe they say on da streets, innit. They should even be willing to get drunk in front of their staff, some said: Shows they don't take themselves too seriously. It's a bonding experience. Others said quite vehemently that they should remove themselves and allow staff to get on with the fun without feeling they were being watched. I could see both sides (typical Gemini, apparently, whatever that means!). I don't see any good reason for Heads not to be involved in staff do's, but not because they feel they have to play a role. That is the most phoney thing we can do, because people see straight through it. You have to do what comes naturally to you, and lead in a way which aligns itself with your character. For me, that would include attending staff quizzes, nights out etc, but the line would be drawn at drinking (not something I wear well), singing and dancing in public, which have always embarrassed me, way before I was even a teacher. I'm not going to be able to change those things just because I suddenly have to lead people or want them to see me bonding with them. But ultimately I do need to convince them that I ought to be treated as a person, rather than a manager, and the best way to do that is to do likewise back.

Finally, I would like to draw your attention to another interesting argument I heard on TED a while back, and one which supports the assertion that we should foreground people over systems when leading schools: The idea is that whatever we do, we mustn't make systems or procedures the whole answer, because the unintended consequence is to take away our wisdom to decide human issues on a case by case basis, and the virtue and morality to treat people like humans. This might seem like a bit of a non sequitur in the context of what I've been talking about, but it says more or less what I've always thought about how we lead people: We deal with them as individuals, we highlight their strengths, we look to help them fly if they need help, and we get rid of any obstacles if they don't. And rather than trying to "catch them out" (credit to @SimonWarburton for this expression), we work on their weaknesses in the same context as they would, knowing that they will want to deal with those weaknesses as much for themselves as for anyone else. They don't need us on their backs in addition to dealing with them, they need us on their side. That level of trust and integrity is important to have between you and the people you work with. And it might just make them less inclined to think of you as "them": Credit to Pink Floyd for that line...