The value of an external set of eyes.

The road map to success must be clear, you cannot plot a course to your destination if you don’t know where you already are.

Admittedly, there is a small percentage of people in our schools who are not there for the right reasons; for the kids, but they are few. This minority have lost sight of the very reason they chose to enter teaching in the first place, even if it was the holidays, because the demands of modern and effective teaching are such that you rarely switch off. In fact, as I sit here typing this piece, I see two teachers crossing the school courtyard carrying boxes, chatting enthusiastically about their holidays but also about the coming year, and there are still two weeks of the Christmas holidays to go! My own wife, a primary school music/drama teacher is sitting in her office busily planning for the first week of term so ‘she can get the kids excited about the year ahead’. These teachers are the majority, and increasingly they are not silent, and nor should they be. Teachers have much to contribute to a thriving school community, well beyond the significant contribution they make in the classroom. In this paradigm, teachers really do make the greatest difference.

So, how do we harness the experience and innovation that is found in so many of our classrooms? How do we encourage it to spill over into the hallways and neighbouring classrooms, and on a larger scale, so that it influences, and even directs school planning and improvement cycles? When schools manage to do this well, they harness voices from across their community, particularly teacher and student voice, and position themselves to move from good to great.

When striving for whole school success and the collaboration that drives it, I think of it as seeing the forest and the trees; the ability to capture a deep and objective insight into your teaching and learning culture. However, this can be an extremely difficult process when you are ‘on the inside’. When you are a part of the very fabric of a school, so entwined in every aspect of it, it is sometimes difficult to take that big step back and ask the tough questions, sometimes even of ourselves, all the while remaining impartial as you listen to the voices of all stakeholders.

There are processes in place within many schools that seek to gather and engage the voice and contribution of teachers, and to a lesser extent, students and parents. Annual school review is a perfect example. Usually in the form of a pupil free day, staff have the opportunity to collectively analyse the impact they have had on student learning across the school year. This provides a forum for collaboration, analysis and opinion sharing about what has been, and what lays ahead in the pursuit of improved student learning outcomes. However, the likelihood of these reviews impacting positively on future teaching and learning varies greatly. I have heard teachers say that they are process for the sake of process, rather than a meaningful exchange and genuine inquiry into what teachers think, believe and do. This is a significant challenge for leaders; ensuring that dialogue leads to informed and measurable action. If we are to unlock teacher and student voice about the effectiveness of the education they deliver, or receive, then the level of trust, and collective voice within any process of review, becomes all important. Review “provides an important opportunity for learning as a school and, ideally, involves teaching staff and other members of the school community. The lessons learnt here assist in guiding the school’s future improvement efforts.” (Schools as learning organisations, ACER, 2016)

How do we review our impact effectively?

How do we look at all the parts that make the whole, so that it makes a difference to how teachers’ teach, how leaders’ lead and most importantly, how successfully learners’ learn? This is where an external lens can play a significant role.

At a systems level, most educational jurisdictions have introduced an external school review process. This usually takes place every three to four years and leaves in its wake a series of recommendations which schools are expected to implement as part of their improvement cycle. Having experienced this style of system review myself there were genuine outcomes that informed school improvement. However, reviews of this type are just the beginning of achieving sustained and improved student learning outcomes, not the end. It’s what comes next that makes all the greatest difference; where the rubber hits the road, where intent and plans turn to action.

It is clear that the outcomes of an independent review conducted by an experienced, and skilled facilitator, can provide significant insights into a school’s culture that may otherwise not be available. Understanding this, at Progress Educational Consulting, after engaging thoroughly with the research in this area, we have developed a review and recommendation model that sees us working beside schools deep into the improvement cycle. There are several features of our model that see it stand apart from others:

  • Guidance and facilitation are available throughout the school’s development journey that follows the review as you move into the phase of developing and delivering recommendations, unlike systems led reviews
  • We are not aligned to any systems agendas or influenced by systems politics that invariably exist; our process is embedded in research and objectivity
  • The process is founded on opportunities for growth rather than accountability
  • It focuses solely on your teaching and learning culture and the necessary teaching and leading innovations that will lead to sustained and improved student learning outcomes
  • The school is viewed through an external evidence-based lens where we represent the research, seeking first to understand before reflecting, summarising and sharing the understanding that comes to light as a result of the comprehensive review process
  • The Innovation recommendations are provided by an external and objective voice. This acknowledges the challenges associated with being a prophet in your own land, providing leaders with a collaboratively developed, yet externally identified, way forward which can be used to leverage change
  • The means by which review recommendations will be measured is determined so that teacher engagement and efficacy, and learning impact can be identified
  • Where necessary, the tough questions will be respectfully asked that are sometimes intentionally avoided as leaders attempt to maintain ongoing and productive working relationships with staff

Michael Fullan captured school success well; “Educational change depends on what teachers do and think. It’s as simple and complex as that.” (The new meaning of educational change). Fundamental to whole school success is that all voices are heard, particularly teachers and learners. The first step of this success is knowing who you are, and once you know this, you can then begin the journey to who you want to be. None of this is possible without a deep and genuine understanding of the impact your school is having on student learning outcomes; understanding that honestly reflects where you currently are as a learning organisation. To this end, sometimes it takes an external guide to see the forest and the trees.

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