The Trials of School Reform

I am currently working on my MEd in Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Toronto. The current course I am taking is Teachers and Educational Change. We had to pick a leadership experience and answer questions regarding what happened and what did you learn.

I thought I’d be a risk-taker and share, here it is:

Innovators and leaders in the area of school reform have been arguing that schools, as we see them today, are not preparing our students for the dynamic, ever-changing world that we live in today. The way we have done school in the past can no longer reliably prepare our students; thus, we are faced with the uphill task of reimagining schools to meet the needs of our learners. The institution of school was developed in the industrial era; the intent was to produce blue-collar workers and to create a docile population who would do as they were told in order to mass produce what was needed on a societal level (Wagner & Dintersmith, 2015). An education system that was based on command and control and the standardization of teaching methods (Wrigley, 2011).  Fast forward to 2019: many schools around the world still have yet to change. With the rise of technology, artificial intelligence, and diverse vocational opportunities, we must ask ourselves if we are meeting the needs of our children and preparing them for the demands of what the years beyond school will ask of them.

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In 2016, I was given the opportunity to be the Primary Years Programme (PYP) Coordinator which entailed overseeing curriculum design and implementation of Kindergarten through Grade 5. This was my first formal leadership position in a school. Having only taught for two and a half years prior, I had a lot to learn and needed to learn fast. As a young female in leadership with little experience, I felt that the integrity of the programme was riding on my shoulders as we had an evaluation visit approaching the following year. I came in with a clear and strong vision; what we were doing needed to change and we had to start reimaging school as we knew it.

How it began:

I began to provoke teachers through TedTalks, articles, quotes, books and memes. I encouraged the use of Twitter to collaborate with teachers and schools on a global level and as a platform to share their new learning and journey in transforming education.

Here are some of my favorite thought-provoking memes, videos + Ted Talks:

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How change came alive…

After provoking, questioning and reimaging, it was time to make real change.

  • LEADERSHIP STRUCTURE: I removed the departmentalized approach to the primary school; this meant no longer having a lead science, math, and language teacher and rather using a more integrated approach to teaching and learning. Transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary learning is fundamental to the International Baccalaureate (IB) PYP framework, so to allow for learning across the disciplines to become more fluid and integrative, we restructured the teacher leadership model to grade level clusters: Kindergarten, Grades 1-3 + Grades 4-5
  • TEACHING + LEARNING: I made the push for inquiry-based teaching and learning. I stopped the purchasing of workbooks and invested money in professional development and training for teachers. Teachers were encouraged to stop using worksheets and instead to focus on learning experiences that were meaningful, relevant and engaging.
  • REPORTING + ASSESSMENT: My final and most profound change, and the one that was received with most resistance, was the removal of numerical achievement levels. The school had been using a numerical 1-7 scale, and we changed it to a four-level letter achievement continuum (Not Yet Meeting, Approaching Expectations, Meeting Expectations, Exceeding Expectations). At this point in the journey, we were making impactful change. As educators, we know what we send home is what we value. If we value feedback, growth and true learning, our report cards needed to reflect that. We wanted to make the process more transparent to our learning community and allow for student voice in the process.

Learning take-aways:

  1. Change is uncomfortable and I wanted to change fast. I tried to change too much, too soon and did not stop to see if the community was ready.
  2. Building trust and relationships with my colleagues from the onset was important to my success as a leader and to the integrity of the program. Getting to know your staff, asking about their family – seeing them as human beings first can go a long way. Teachers do not have superhuman powers.
  3. Mutual Respect. At the end of the day, not all teachers agreed with my views or decisions but there was underlying and mutual respect as professionals.
  4. Being a young female in a leadership position, there was a perception that my age denigrated my capabilities as a leader. Some viewed age as the primary marker of a successful leader and carried this negative bias towards me in my role.
  5. Having a collective vision of the programme is important. The IB does outline standards and practices that schools must adhere too. However, within that, there is flexibility as no two schools are the same. I wish that at the beginning of this journey, I looked more into our school, our community, our needs
  6. Lack of Mentoring as a new leader. When new teachers enter the profession, there are new teacher induction mentoring programs. What happens to the leaders? At some point, everyone was new to leadership, right?
  7. Purpose – The Why? I remember watching Simon Sinek’s – “The Golden Circle” early on in my leadership journey. This helped me question what we were doing and also remove the excuse “this is how we’ve always done it.” I think every decision that is made should have a purpose. What I wish I had done is ask: What is the purpose of education at this current school? Look at the purpose through the lens of the teachers, students, parents, and administration.
  8. Community Support + Buy-in. In order to make change that is sustainable, you cannot be alone on an island or the lone fish swimming upstream. You need support from teachers, administrators, parents, and students – complete buy-in. This was my biggest challenge. Although I had tremendous support from most teachers, the school administration and parents did not always welcome the changes being made. These changes created turmoil in the community and with the lack of support, it went back to “how it’s always been done.” I believe this part was lack of readiness for change and my learning takeaway from this – The learning community was not ready – YET.

Now what…

This learning experience over the past two years helped me grow as both an educator and a leader. It was the coming together of staff, a collective “we” and risk-taking, piloting and try new pedagogies. Through thoughtful reflection, professional development sessions and authentic collaborative opportunities teachers felt a sense of purpose within the school, they felt creative freedom and agency for themselves as teachers.  Currently, I am back in the classroom taking risks and trying to reimagine school within my four walls. Although I do not have a formal leadership role, I am still an agent of change within my four walls and taking many aspects of that which I learned in my role as PYP Coordinator and putting it into practice. I hope to be back in a formal leadership role in schools and just as I am reimaging the classroom, I hope to reimagine school leadership and help others see how incredible school can be when leaders embody a growth-minded approach.

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Reference List

Pont, B.; Nusche, D.; Moorman, H. (2008). Improving School Leadership: Volume 1:  Policy and Practice; OECD: Paris, France

Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. (2015). Most likely to succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era.

Wrigley, T. (2011). Paradigms of school change. Management in Education, 25(2), 62-66. doi:10.1177/0892020611398929