Looking back on our valuable experience as teachers and school leaders, we all know that, whether we have one or two degrees, our training as teachers only really started on our first day as full-time classroom practitioners. It’s in that cauldron – that forty-plus slice of life – at either a tiny tot or teenage stage, that our skills were honed.
The big question is what we, as school leaders, can do to make all our classrooms high quality teaching and learning spaces. I discussed this in depth with the ten principals I visit every fortnight. That word ‘visit’ belies an intensive session sharing our news, offloading, pin-pointing issues, finding ways forward, building professional capital in the team and setting meaningful targets. We always part company satisfied that we have zoned in on a fundamental element of school functionality. If I’ve done most of the talking, we’ve got nowhere.
The induction of the novice teacher was central in every discussion. We all know the value of mentors, but we need mentors, not necessarily departmental heads, who are experts in their subjects, in the practice of teaching and in classroom management. Mentoring happens in minutes spent daily and weekly in that first year. It’s not terribly time-consuming; it’s caring collaboration, identifying what worked and what didn’t, talking through the day and trying different approaches. Obviously, being open to learning and to being mentored is an indispensable requisite for the teaching profession.
We looked at what we tell our teachers about classroom management. Like ‘get there first, get them in, get on with it’. Like the three most important rules of classroom management. Be prepared. Be more prepared. Be even better prepared.
Like clearly indicating the learning at hand, the process to be followed, the expectations for today. Like having the best possible seating plan, even in the most overcrowded classroom. Like setting ability or progress groups; like careful separation of key disrupters in higher grades; like the avoidance of escalating disagreements with individuals in front of the whole class. Like getting to know the learners as individuals and building the quality relationships which underpin successful teaching.
I loved the simple example one principal offered. ‘When you ask a question and the learner gets it wrong’, she said, ‘go back and ask the same learner an easier question just to re-include and promote full participation’.
The point is that, just like the operating theatre or the car dealer workshop, the classroom has a clear protocol of standing operating procedures, and, without them, the impact on health, safety or learning is life changing. Classroom management is, clearly, that important.
One principal hit the heart of the matter. With honesty and humility, he said, ‘If I slack, I find my school slacks’. The point is we can’t expect teachers to manage their own classrooms, if the school and its extended leadership doesn’t demand and deliver the institutional rigour, routine and rituals conducive to a climate or a culture of excellence.
Let’s zone in on those four words. Institutional implies the total commitment to the functionality of the school day by the principal, deputy, the management team as a collective unit and the teachers’ attitude and focus both within and beyond their classrooms.
Rigour is, as you know by now, my favourite word in education. It’s that basic accountability to doing things properly, accurately, thoroughly and with firm and exacting standards – in this context, as a teaching team. One principal put it best. ‘It’s all about bringing our A-game to school every day’, he said.
Routine is the predictability, the structure and the stability which optimises instructional time and school functionality. But routines require principals and deputies to be out there at all the critical times. Sounds impossible. It’s not. It’s the only way.
Rituals are little things which build that culture of excellence like an assembly every term to honour the top thirty in a grade or the ten most improved this quarter; the way a school community unites in celebration, in promoting ethical behaviour, respect, heritage, wellness, fun and fundraising. There are classroom rituals, too, which high quality teachers use to include, to engage, to connect and to add colour and character to the classroom.
Teaching is a tough profession these days, but teachers must be tough, too. There are school-based support teams, grade heads and deputies in the background, but teachers must, most of the time, learn to solve their own daily classroom issues themselves. Being immediately punitive solves little. Teachers, with a growth mindset, rather find solutions which are caring, creative, inclusive and lasting.
Principals, tighten that institutional rigour, routine and ritual. You owe it to your teachers.
Til next time.
Coach/Mentor: The Principals Academy Trust
Keeping in Touch in Tough Times #15 of 2023, 18 September 2023
We have just celebrated Literacy Week in our schools. So many of you went out of your way to make it a special time for your learners and to encourage them to make books their friends.
The concerning thing is, that in some classrooms it took a specific week dedicated to literacy for it to become a focal point. It’s sad that this is the case. Literacy is the front and centre of all learning and without it we cannot move forward.
Being literate is one aspect of literacy but more important is being functionally literate. By this I mean being able to use language to read and write with meaning and understanding. So many of our learners, young and older, can rote read but this is of no value to them if they aren’t able to make meaning of what they’re reading. Functional literacy will enable them to become independent adults.
We have a whole cohort of learners who were severely compromised by the covid pandemic but it’s time we put that to rest now and look ahead. We need to find creative ways in which to encourage our learners to see the importance of being literate. We all know that children learn by watching others. As I’ve mentioned before, they spend more time with us in the classroom than they do at home so it stands to reason that we should be setting a good example for them to follow. Show the children how much you love reading and writing and it’s sure to make an impression.
There are numerous obstacles that stand in the way of functional literacy in our country, but we cannot afford to allow those to put us off. As educators in the Foundation Phase, we are trained to guide children to literacy – their parents or guardians aren’t so we shouldn’t be relying on them to do so. Providing an opportunity for reading, writing and language development is right there in our classrooms every day. It takes a conscious effort, but the opportunity is there, and we often miss it.
Functional literacy comes from being exposed to a wide range of reading material and a rich vocabulary. We have the tools to offer this to our learners by making every lesson, across the curriculum, into a literacy lesson. What better way to extend a learner’s vocabulary and understanding than by reading to them from a non-fiction book that ties up with the Life Skills curriculum? Maths lessons are an ideal opportunity to encourage and develop functional literacy. Choose your texts carefully – they must be age appropriate, interesting and leave the learner with a thirst for more.
Providing learners with an opportunity to share their development towards meaningful literacy is important and this can be done by allowing them to take books home to read to their family. Reading to their peers in the classroom also gives them an opportunity to show off their skill and will encourage others to do the same.
We need to be very sensitive to those learners who take longer to read and write. Create opportunities for these reluctant readers to showcase their development to you in private in a one-on–one, unjudgmental environment where they feel safe. Nothing will destroy a child’s self-image more than having to stumble through a piece of text in front of his/her peers. Be kind and encouraging and it will make the world of difference.
Take an interest in what your learners are reading and writing. Give them the opportunity to use different forms of writing to keep them interested. Encourage them to write, write, write. This will be a lot easier if they read, read, read!
Reading aloud for enjoyment is the foolproof way of enticing our learners into the world of literacy. Just five minutes a day will allow the learners to escape into a world of stories that will develop their imagination and vocabulary and set the stage for functional literacy to happen.
‘The world belongs to those who read’.
Let’s make it happen – we can do it.
Jenny (on behalf of)
The Teachers’ Support Team, Principals Academy Trust
#13 of 2023, 12 September 2023
Watch our video version of this letter on YouTube
Functional Literacy-It’s CRUCIAL
I had two or three topics in mind for today’s letter, but a message this week from one of my past learners galvanised my thinking and led me to share some ideas about passion as the indispensable ingredient for quality learning and teaching.
I’m interested in passion because, like you, I’ve felt its effect in some very special classrooms; I’ve seen it in many an underserved school principal’s office; and, like you, I’ve witnessed how it sets learners and their subsequent trajectories apart.
Just look back on your own schooling and reflect on how the quality and passion of a teacher who made something come alive either in a field of interest or within your own sense of self. Passionate teachers achieve this sort of response because of who they are, what they know and how they teach – a mixture of values, attitude and professionalism.
My past learner is Margo. She was in Matric in 1999. Ten years later, a qualified medical doctor, she suffered a near fatal accident when she mistimed her 263rd skydiving parachute jump, landed hard and broke multiple bones in her body, including her back in two places, her hip, her pelvis in seven places and a compound fracture of her thigh. She was in hospital for six months and learned to walk again thanks to 30 hours of surgery, well over 3kg of titanium plates and screws and a driving passion to lead a full life. She did, too. She married the man who sat at her bedside, became a highly respected psychiatrist and gave birth to a son. Two weeks ago, she had surgery again; this time to give her brother the kidney he needs to live a full life.
Passion, our CEO Keith Richardson would say, comes from the Latin word ‘to suffer. True passion demands sacrifice and a degree of suffering so that the end result is worth it.
The interesting thing is that passion is not just natural to some. It’s something you discover, something which you can learn from others and which you can replicate. It’s a love of teaching, a love of watching learners succeed and thrive.
My memory bank’s screensaver is filled with passionate teachers. I just love a teacher who cares about the learners, not just on occasion, but as every day’s default response. I love the way learners speak about passionate teachers and their influence on personal motivation and on subject and career choice. Learners remember the way a teacher made them feel – comfortable, supported or valued. Incidentally, how do we, as principals, make our teachers feel?
I love the way a passionate teacher enhances engagement with the learners. That infectious enthusiasm or focused discipline or intellectual connection is passion in action in the classroom. It’s that willingness to experiment with a different approach; one which is perhaps clearer, less boring, more active. Or one that you tackle as part of a teaching team.
I like to connect my passion to my purpose. Why do I teach? And why did I choose to be a principal? And why at this school? Do I realise how important a role I play in the school and in the lives of its learners? That passion, that dedication, that lifelong learning is what makes us role models. And good role models are in short supply in our time.
I’m humbled by the passion I encounter in underserved schools because I recognize both how complex the circumstances are and how critical and precious a commodity that passion is to those so reliant on the hope it brings.
The three stand out values I notice in the passionate principals I partner with are tenacity, resilience and perseverance. They may sound like one and the same. That’s because they are. That’s what passion is in a school and its classrooms. Especially in the most needy communities.
We all worry about a system which is failing the majority of our children. But how many of us regard ourselves as part of the problem?
Passionate teachers make their professional development their own business. They are competent and confident in the specifics of their subject and in the most effective teaching methods to take that majority to the proficiency essential for a decent education.
Passion is the driving force in a school that works. It is the driving force of a life that works. We don’t have to donate our organs to bring schools to life. We just have to add much needed value by giving of ourselves – personally and professionally. I just wanted to share that word – passion – with you today. Til next time.
Coach/Mentor: The Principals Academy Trust
Keeping in Touch in Tough Times No: 14/23
04 September 2023