Head to Head

A Review of 5 Questions for School Leaders

Last November, I had the pleasure of speaking at the 2017 AHDS Conference in Glasgow.  We discussed ten important questions that educators need to ask themselves as they teach and lead students in our schools.  We discussed the faces that make up this generation and how we can work with them as teachers, leaders, colleagues, and parents.  In order to prepare students for the dynamic, exciting world they are entering, it is important that we understand and honour this generation of learners.  Now that I have moved to London to join the faculty at the University College London Institute of Education, I thought it may be interesting to review five of these questions to see what kind of progress you have made one year later.

Are you acknowledging reality?
The number of unique mobile users (individuals owning a mobile device) is up again this year and now 75% of the UK population owns a mobile phone (We Are Social, 2018).  This includes newborns, grandparents, and most of our students.  We use mobile phones for social activities, directions, work, entertainment, shopping, and countless other activities.  But we often find schools are the one place we do not allow people to use mobile devices.  If our students are to learn how to use these devices appropriately, responsibly, and productively, it is important that we teach them how to do so.  We can walk into any workplace in the UK and find mobile devices being used for work.  Does your school reflect this?  What strategies have your teachers started using since November 2017 to promote this?  We had a great workshop following my keynote at AHDS with specific, practical strategies about classroom management, content delivery, and assessment using mobile devices.  Does your school look more or less like a productive workplace than it did a year ago?

What are you learning that is new?
One of the things we constantly talk about in education is modelling behaviour for our students.  We often ask our students to go into the unknown… learn new things… make themselves vulnerable in front of their peers.  How are you stretching yourself?  What are you modelling for your staff?  Are you learning to dance?  Taking up a musical instrument?  Enjoying a new sport?  Using a new educational app? What are you reading that is for growth, not just fun (although I do love a good mystery novel too!)?  Have you taken up anything new in the last year that reminds you how hard it is to learn and helps you connect better with your students? As one of my mentors always said, “You have to be what you want to see.”   

What are three evidence-based practices that your school/classroom is based on?
Now more than ever, this is an important question for school leaders.  If a new parent came into your office and asked you what research your school bases its teaching on, how would you answer?  Perhaps it includes the importance of movement, or formative feedback, or the ability for staff to make their own curricular decisions.  What is your school known for pedagogically?  What additional things would you like it to be known for?  What steps are needed to get you there? As school leaders it is important that we keep up with evidence-based practices so that we can share them with teachers.  What is different now than it was a year ago in your school?  If you already have evidence-based practices being used in your school, can your staff communicate those?  We have to create our own story based on our personal beliefs and practices or someone else will do it for us.

Are you making decisions based on the 5%?
Last year we discussed our 5% rule.  If you take any group of people (e.g. students, workers, family members), 5% of them are going to be crazy… and by that I just mean they are going to go against the grain in every way.  In the classroom, this manifests itself in maladaptive behaviour.  With teachers, it can pop up by not following procedures, negativity with new requests, tardiness or absenteeism from meetings, etc.  The problem that we have in schools is that we often base our school rules on that 5%.  We take away really great learning opportunities from 95% of our kids because we are so concerned about the 5%.  This is especially true with mobile devices.  We make all kids put away their devices because a few are going to use them inappropriately.  We would not suspend all students because two of them got into a fight.  In a similar vein, perhaps we should consider only taking phones away from those who break the rules.  Otherwise, we may be depriving our students of great learning opportunities that will excite them and better prepare them for the society they are about to enter.  Does your school create policy based on 5% or based on what is best for student preparation overall?

Who sits at your table?
Finally, one of the things that is incredibly important is the concept of your table.  If you had a major decision to make in your life who would you invite to sit at your table?  Similarly, when you are faced with a dilemma at work or you need to make a tough decision about a staff member, who do you go to?  We talked about the five people who should sit at your table:  someone older and wiser, someone you are mentoring, someone who cares deeply about your personal life, someone from a different racial or ethnic background, and someone who is your hero (even though you may not actually know them).  Have you put together your table?  Sometimes we feel we have to do it all on our own, but people want to help us and need to be invited to our table. Not only are these individuals important for our mental health but they also can take a critical role in our job performance.     
As you reflect on these questions, it is important to consider what you have or have not been able to accomplish this year and why.  Although I am able to review only five of the ten questions we discussed last year, there are actually several others that I like to ask school leaders and teachers as well. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to get to all of them now, but it’s important to emphasize that when we work on one at a time, we can make important progress.  Some will be easy (creating your table, learning something new) and some are more difficult to implement (policy and rule changes, deciding which evidence-based practices your schools wants to be known for) but it is important that we make the commitment to move forward. A little at a time, a little each day can contribute to impressive change over time. I wish you well and hope that in 2019, you will be able to look back at all the significant progress you have made.  I wish you all the very best!

Zachary Walker, PhD.
University College London Institute of Education