Students not units

This post has been a while coming, but the events over the past few weeks have brought it to life in my mind.

Firstly, our Principal Darta Hovey has been challenging our new and future leaders to develop a personal mantra that will guide their thoughts, actions and motivate them to complete a project and assist them to stay the course. Quietly, I’ve been challenged by this. I’ve been wondering about my own mantra and whether or not I even could put into words why I do my job? What gets me out of bed in the morning and gets me to work? It’s a tricky thing to get down into a tweet-sized sentence.

Secondly, one of the leaders in my school organised the developmental item for our Learning and Teaching team meeting. We were paired up and had to watch a different clip, but all were about the craft of difficult conversations. I was asked to watch a TedX talk by Susan Scott. The title of this talk was The Case for Radical Transparency.  One of the things she mentioned I’d heard before, but it finally made sense to me this week, was “the quality of the conversations within an organisation will determine the quality of the organisation”. Who is invited into the conversations? Where are these conversations happening? And, what are the conversations about? These are all good questions with which to ‘audit’ a school.

Thirdly, we’re in the midst of a Learning and Teaching review at my school. This is where we self-assess our school on a number of things: accountability, high expectations, purposeful learning, purposeful teaching and leading learning. We determine whether we are developing, achieved or exemplary in each of these categories and then provide a range of evidence to support our decision and set some future goals. We then have an external panel come into school for a day to review our decisions and evidence. Effectively, to validate our decisions, to challenge us and to guide us to see areas for growth that we may have missed. This process, whilst arduous and at times feeling like an additional ‘thing to do’, has actually achieved its purpose and highlighted things we’re doing well and things we need to work on.

And finally, yesterday I attended the funeral of a student from my previous school who tragically passed away. It was the first funeral I had attended for someone so young. And while it was a poignant celebration of his life and the love others felt for him, what struck me most was the young age of the students in the massive crowd and the ripple effects his death will have on the community for years to come.

Now, how do these four things all tie together? Well, I’ve been playing with a mantra in my head for a few weeks and now I’m ready to share it – “students not units”. We need to be talking about students not units. Our focus should be on who we teach not what we teach. Our conversations, those things that determine the quality of our school, should be about the kids in our class and how they’re travelling, both socially and academically. ALL conversations should be grounded in this very simple truth – students not units.

Our meetings should be strategically focused on students – how do we challenge X? What supports have we put in place for Y? What has been working in your class for Q? These are the conversations teachers want to have, but never seem to have time for them. These are the conversations that call on the wisdom and experience of the people in the school, the conversations that remind staff they’re not alone and that this concern is not something that only happens in their class.

For too long I’ve attended meetings, planning days, passed and started conversations in the corridors where the talk has been about what we’re teaching, not who we’re teaching. We can get so caught up in the assessment, the lesson plan, the activities, the fun stuff we want to do, that we can be blinded to who is sitting in front of us. What do they bring, what baggage are they carrying? What do they know? What do they need to know?

And please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that a pithy mantra of three simple words will quickly change the culture of a school or shift conversations spontaneously, but the above events have spun my axis around to remind me why I do my job – students not units.


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  1. Peter Williams · July 26, 2018

    I like it Shaun.
    I think a mantra like that was always going to work for me.


  2. CCW Teacher · July 27, 2018

    Hmmm, have I been focusing on students in my current battles? Not quite sure, but something I will be reflecting on in the coming term as I catch the next ‘horizon’.


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