What do highly effective school leaders do differently from the rest of us?
International research on school management and administration confirms that the success of a school is contingent on the nature of the routine behaviour of the people who lead it. Before we look at what these 'routine behaviours' or the desired habits of a school leader are, we need to reconsider what we mean by the success of a school.
In India, the official definition of school success as stated in our educational policies and how we view it at the grassroots differ. A cursory look at the Indian schooling landscape reveals two glaring abnormalities in how we generally perceive school success on the ground.
Quality of physical infrastructure is suggestive of school success
In India, we often misconstrue the infrastructural flamboyance of a school as evidence of its success. We think that the larger and better equipped the school building, the better a school is. However, years of international research on schooling tells us that the spread of the school campus, the size of the school buildings and the availability of facilities in the school do not necessarily mean the success of a school. Across the world, experts accept schools as successful when they make a significantly positive impact on student academic achievement.
Student academic achievement is all about 'board examination results'
Every year, as many of our schools gear up for 'new admissions,' we see their billboards, with the photographs of 'top scorers,' positioned at commercially strategic locations in their immediate community. The school picks the 'top scorers' based on their performance in the 'board examination,' which usually comprises a set of subject-wise non-standardized tests. However, the world over, student academic achievement is perceived differently from how we commonly understand it in India. Internationally, educators and educational researchers define student academic achievement three-dimensionally, to include cognitive development, emotional development, and physical development. In other words, experts in education agree that we must measure student academic achievement based on the progress a student makes cognitively, emotionally, and physically while in school.
Now that we are on the same page about what school success is, here is the million dollar question: How do school leaders who deeply and positively influence the three dimensions of student academic achievement and ensure school success routinely behave as they lead their school? What can you do as a school leader to make sure that all your students academically succeed and holistically achieve?
The Paradigm Shift
Closer to four decades ago, there was a paradigm shift in how the international schooling research community defined the role of a school leader. Research on school leadership shifted to exploring the role of a school principal through the lens of an instructional leader and not merely a school administrator. As a result, there began a consistent push to move the scope of school leadership beyond the boundaries of day-to-day administration, to include improving teaching and assessment in the job profile of school principals. While schools in other countries marched ahead under capable instructional leaders, India was left behind, many of our school heads unable to view their role above and beyond routine school administration.
With the National Education Policy 2020 setting a revolutionary schooling context for India, our school boards are now trying to install instructional leadership in their affiliated schools. In 2019, for example, the Central Board of Secondary Education issued a circular informing affiliated schools of their decision to consider all school principals as pedagogical leaders. What should a pedagogic leader do differently than a school administrator to ensure school success, if school success is all about student academic achievement? Research tells us that the panacea lies in practising the following six habits of successful school leaders, keeping in mind that you are a pedagogical or instructional leader and not a glorified school administrator.
Successful school leaders bring about clarity among the staff about the vision and learning goals of the school.
Does your staff know what your vision is? Do they know what the learning goals for the year are? Do they know how to help the school achieve its vision? Do they know what to do about learning goals? Can everyone in your school talk about your school's vision and its learning goals the same way as you do? If you answered these questions in the negative, it is time you sat down with your faculty to clarify a few things about your vision and learning goals.
It is important for everyone in your school to know what your vision is and what your learning goals for the year are. It is equally important that your staff knows what the vision means and the values based on which it is designed. It is mandatory that all your teachers know how your vision drives the learning goals for the year. The secret to your success as a school leader is in your ability to help your staff learn how to put the school’s vision and yearly learning goals into action.
Successful school leaders focus on improving the overall emotional climate in the school and in classrooms.
The emotional climate in a school and in its classrooms has two aspects to it - the social aspect and the personal aspect. The social aspect of the emotional climate in your school is taken care of when everyone in your school is culturally sensitive and socially supportive. The personal aspect of the emotional climate requires that you focus on the emotional well-being of the individuals in the school. Collaborate with your teachers to make sense of the emotional climate in your school. Do an assessment of the social and personal safety your school provides to both teachers and students and act on the insights you gain from this exercise.
Successful school leaders ensure that teachers have a positive and healthy attitude towards every learner in the school.
Do you often get to hear the damning phrases 'slow learner' or 'dull student' in your staff room? If your answer to this question is yes, it is most likely that your teachers struggle to maintain high expectations for their students. Your staff's difficulty in maintaining high expectations about their students stems from the fact that there is no system in place in your school that allows them to notice the uniqueness of individual students. One practical way to teach your staff to demonstrate a positive and healthy attitude towards all learners is by initiating the process of maintaining a cumulative Individual Learner Profile in your school, capturing anecdotal evidence of student behaviour and student performance. This will help them notice their students, which will eventually lead them to develop a positive and healthy attitude towards them.
Successful school leaders make the task of constantly improving the classroom practice of the teachers their top most priority.
Most schools in India struggle to improve teacher quality. By now, you might have realised that engaging external consultants to train your staff to teach and assess better is not helping. What do successful school leaders do to encourage impactful classroom practice in their school, as the three-dimensional student academic achievement depends heavily on it? International research on school improvement confirms that teacher professional development needs to emerge from within the school. External teacher training consultants have an insignificant role to play here. Successful schools take the following three actions to build teacher professional development into the routine functioning of the school:
Redesign Staff Meeting Agenda: What do you usually discuss during staff meetings, both all-hands, and grade-level? Are your meetings always about giving instructions to teachers about the operational aspects of their job? Are your staff meetings about how to organise events, how to document and file the test results, how to collect school fees, or what to do for the morning assembly? Well, that needs to change if you ever want to become a successful school. You need to discuss lesson plans, student work, and teaching and assessment strategies during your staff meetings instead of school operations. You need to organise demo lessons during staff meetings. Your staff meetings must be about the how and why of teaching, learning and assessment more than anything else about schooling.
Initiate peer observation: Teachers learn best when they watch other teachers in action. We learn what to do or what not to do on the classroom floor when we watch our peers. Successful school leaders ensure that teachers observe each other in action and give and receive feedback from peers.
Initiate Lesson Studies: Divide teachers into small groups of five or six. Allow them to plan a lesson together and observe each other teaching that lesson. Let the teachers study how each of them delivered the same lesson and give and receive feedback.
Successful school leaders work towards streamlining curriculum and instruction.
In India, most teachers rely on one prescribed textbook or the other to plan lessons and teach. This habit makes lessons more content-driven than outcome-driven. Content-driven teaching murders learning, boredom creeping into the classroom one lesson at a time. The National Council of Education Research & Training (NCERT) has published documents that list student learning outcomes for the Elementary Stage and the Secondary Stage. Collaborate with your teachers to map those outcomes to the syllabus or the prescribed textbooks. Ask teachers to plan their lessons based on these mapped outcomes instead of their textbooks.
Successful school leaders keep track of students’ learning to ensure that every student has the opportunity to learn.
How do you currently keep track of what your students are learning? Does it give you a sense of what they are struggling to learn and what they are getting good at? The way we currently keep track of and analyze student learning in most schools in India is flawed and does not give us the information we need to help a student get better about learning. We usually keep track of the assessment of learning test-wise. If we are ever to notice what our students are struggling with we need to stop the test-wise assessment analysis system and start a learning-outcome-wise assessment analysis system.
About the Author
Sojo Varughese is an educator with more than a decade and a half of rich and varied on-field experience behind him in Teacher Training, Instructional Coaching, Academic Audit, Education Technology Integration, and School Improvement. Over these years, working with international, national & state board schools (government and private), he would have by now trained and coached 46000+ school leaders and teachers across India and the Middle East in contemporary classroom teaching, student assessment, and school management practices. Sojo Varughese is the co-founder of Innerkern and you can read more about his work here.