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Rising to the challenge

Management expert Tom Peters asserts that “leaders need to be the Rock of Gibraltar on rollerblades”.

That’s how I feel — but I haven’t found the brake on the rollerblades yet! The past seven years have been a time of extraordinary commitment, complexity, opportunity and risk at Henshilwood. Managing the school as “cutting-edge” gets more challenging by the day.

In answering the call to lead the school in 2004, it became clear that I was expected to engage people in creating a legacy of excellence. In an era of accountability, the school’s success would be measured increasingly by the academic performance of its learners. Staff professional learning had to become a primary focus of the school-improvement agenda — in every aspect of the school. In addition, I quickly realised that my head would be on the chopping block as parents, governors, learners, staff and the education department expected that a school-improvement agenda would permeate every aspect of the school and bring about an improvement in results.

Despite a 100% pass rate in the years preceding my appointment, the depth of passes was poor — with only 35% of learners qualifying for university entrance in 2003, the year prior to my arrival. The work of ensuring high-quality teaching and learning became my leadership challenge.

Strategic planning was activated. Professional development activities that emphasised improved classroom practices became commonplace. A vision was formulated — one that took cognisance of the mandate to improve. Policies were ripped up, rewritten and refined and the course set for us to embark on a mission to create the results we all desired and the learners deserved. Staff embraced their own professional learning in a fashion never before seen.

For me, the key to Henshilwood as a successful school was for every stakeholder to “make meaning” together. I wanted to rally staff and learners to embrace a culture of teaching and learning that was of the highest possible quality. I had to be coherent in my message. I had to sell the idea. I had to tell a story that allowed everyone to engage learning at the chalkface and make it worthwhile to put so much hard work into fostering high-quality practices.

Without engaging the people who come here every day, the story would not be credible. Some weren’t prepared to be agents of change and left.

We started looking at what kind of teacher we wanted to become. We started to engage on the matter of what we wanted our learners to achieve and who we wanted them to be. We coined a phrase: “When my commitment meets the learner’s potential, anything is possible.”

It caught on quickly. We had a common purpose and intention: to provide systematic, structured learning opportunities in all spheres of school life. We started engaging one another. We realised that we had to work collaboratively in ongoing processes of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the learners we served. If learning was to improve then our practices as teachers had to improve.

Building on the synergies of individuals with a common interest as we worked towards sharing understandings, skills and knowledge for shared purposes was our accrued profit. Our work as collaborative practitioners forced us to realise that there was no separation between time for learning and time for formation for our learners. We wanted to promote core values at Henshilwood:

  • Our learners must have the opportunity to acquire and apply all forms of knowledge, skills and attitudes in preparation for life;
  • Our learners must promote high standards in all aspects of school life, whether individually or collectively;
  • Our learners must develop a sense of independence, self-worth, self-confidence and self-discipline if they are to succeed beyond school and contribute towards society; and
  • Our learners must be aware of the needs of the less fortunate and have a humane outlook on life as part of their social and personal development. For this to happen, I realised that the interpersonal and structural conditions that affect the teachers’ work also affect the learners’ performance. In turn, this has an effect on their professionalism.

We had to start engaging on how we would create a model of professional community and, through active discussions, meetings, “lekgotlas” (weekends away), came up with what we believed would propel Henshilwood forward on an upward curve to create a top-quality campus of learning:

  • Shared norms and values: Teachers started to affirm the common beliefs and values about teaching, learning, children, relationships and the school’s role in contributing towards society.
  • Collective focus on learners’ learning: Teachers’ professional actions became framed by a focus on how learners would benefit from their actions. Teachers were talking about how they taught and what worked best for them.
  • Collaboration: Teachers were sharing their expertise (not only as part of the IQMS). Collaboration promoted feelings of mutual support, buy-in to the school’s vision and collective responsibility for effective instruction — and improved results.
  • Deprivatised practice: Teachers visited each other and gleaned best practice from each other. The classroom is no longer “my space”. It belongs to everyone who wishes to see practice in action.
  • Reflective dialogue: Teachers developed self-awareness about their teaching. It allows teachers to understand their role in the “bigger picture” of learning.

Effective leadership is a critical element of effective schooling and school improvement. It is the principal’s role to tie everyone together in a sensible pattern of action to make improvement work. It is important that principals cultivate professional dialogue and place a high premium on their own professional learning as well. Principals cannot get buy-in to a vision if they are not prepared to walk the talk themselves.

Educationist Pam Christie discounts principals as “gurus who peddle a do-it-yourself wisdom”. Leadership must be distributed throughout the school if real learning is to take place. Although the principal is the driver of school improvement and professional learning communities, leadership is not a zero-sum commodity to be hoarded by a few.

I would like to believe that, by looking at Henshilwood in 2011, people will be struck by the extent to which so many people are empowered to take responsibility for so much that is important. It doesn’t imply that I have abdicated leadership — what is clear is that leadership has grown through sharing. I do believe myself to be one among equals.

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