The challenge of working in a “good” school.

Lots of schools are looking to improve and challenging themselves to innovate. But what drives innovation more than a need to improve, some sort of imperative or potential crisis that needs to be averted – think Templestowe College in Melbourne (see Principal Peter Hutton’s TedX Talk).

But what if your school isn’t in crisis? What if your results are consistently strong and in fact on the improve? What if different data suggests students and staff are genuinely happy? It’d be easy to rest on your laurels, but of course we don’t want to do this. We see things that we would like to develop and improve. Yet, where schools in crisis have an imperative to change/innovate, “good schools” face another hurdle – the difficulty of convincing staff, students and parents that the improvements are necessary and worth the effort. Legislated changes (i.e new curriculums or system level edicts) provide an opportunity, but they rarely engage staff enthusiastically to radically overhaul how they operate. It requires something else.

We’ve been thinking about a formal independent learning program during the past twelve months. We’re pretty excited. But, excitement will only get you so far, and in a school that’s performing well, this excitement can be quickly replaced with the “that’s unnecessary” retort, or the “yes, but…” brick wall.

Last week I led a group of staff and students through a process to help us explore what this program might look like in our context. Having student involvement was pivotal as this is all about the students. Our day began with us asking one question – Why do this? We started with our gut instinct…”not extending our top achievers enough”, “losing kids in the middle years”, “not engaging our learners” etc. But, we moved very quickly to the available evidence. Where do we see these concerns playing out in our school data and what are our students saying?  When we started looking, it was there, we found it: The Why. It didn’t take much, but without it we had nothing.

So many new programs and proposals are presented to school leaders that are designed to do a range of things; engage students, solve their literacy woes or increase their Year 12 results. The pitch often starts at the WHAT, HOW, WHERE and WHEN we could implement these programs and more often than not the WHY is conspicuously overlooked.

My Principal reminds us over and over again to ask this question of why because without it nothing else makes sense, and because with it, we can justify our decisions and actions.

In a school that is travelling well, the answer to the question ‘Why’? provides the impetus for improvement and a force for development.

Shaun Mason, 2016.

Real student voice?

Last week I was challenged by my colleagues and my students.

I led a planning day with our Learning & Teaching leaders from across the school (Years 7-12) where we were exploring the possibility of formalising an independent learning program. We were challenged by the story of Monument Mountain Regional High School (see clip here) and more locally, the story of Templestowe College (see Principal Peter Hutton’s TedX Talk) . Both these places take student voice and make it something more than that seemingly token notion. We wanted to do that too. So, for this planning day, I invited our new College Captains to contribute to the conversation and in fact, lead it at times. They were brilliant. They spoke eloquently and articulately about a range of challenges the proposed program might present. They asked questions we would never have thought to, they provided answers we could have sought for weeks and they challenged us to be better leaders at our school.

The intention of the day was to clarify our plan and prepare a proposal for the school’s leadership about how this program would work in our context and why it was needed. But, by the end of the day we had shifted our intention. If this program was all about student voice, then despite the eloquence and ideas of our College Captains, they were only 2 out of 1100. We needed more student involvement. They needed a greater say. It had to be shaped by them.

So, the next step will be to present this program to the student leadership team (students from Year 7 – 12) and seek their adjustments/input and alterations. This will all happen before the school leadership team see the proposed program. That way we guarantee our students will genuinely contribute to the program and we also increase the programs’ chance of success because they have co-created it.

How have you offered students more than their voice?