MAINSTREAM schools are now more accountable than ever before. Parents are viewed as customers, students as stakeholders, and teachers face more demands on their time and patience. In the intense effort to address learning losses after the pandemic, teaching and learning have been accelerated and schools are continually looking for new ways to improve teaching methods.
In this scramble for growth, school leadership plays a critical role. While teachers focus on the students, school leaders must set the direction, keep teachers motivated and monitor progress. Two pressing factors are realigning roles and responsibilities and building relationships among colleagues. Mostly, teachers who struggle to cope are either placed at the wrong level of teaching or are given subjects they aren’t passionate about. Not all schools place teachers at the right level or the subject they are qualified for. This has a detrimental effect on students’ motivation and learning.
Some of these teachers fall into a trap, complaining about their work environment. One can recognise them a mile away — from body language to their verbal interaction with students, something seems amiss. Teachers cannot hide in a little cubby hole, unlike other disgruntled employees at professional workspaces. Their attitude and behaviour directly impacts student learning and performance. In fact, many students mirror their teachers, especially in the early years. Successful school leaders keep an eagle eye out for employees who exhibit patterns of behaviour that might be damaging for the culture and ethos of the school.
The key to influencing teachers’ work in the classroom is to help them focus on the real needs of students — from skills to personal capabilities, content and knowledge, motivation and achievement. If school leaders could help teachers prioritise these according to set benchmarks or policies, they would not get sidetracked into focusing on activities that have little impact on students’ needs. Sharing responsibilities, establishing clear frameworks of accountability and collaboration among colleagues are other avenues of focus for school leaders.
A vision and direction must come from the top.
What is often described as the ‘vibe’ of a school stems from the sense of community established through student and teacher ties. In the absence of such ties, the divide between students and teachers is almost palpable in daily interaction, in student misdemeanours or behavioural infractions. One of the biggest challenges that untrained teachers face is managing student behaviour, coupled with the pressure of completing the course within a fixed time frame. Many students slip through the cracks and their academic performance takes a nosedive when teachers find themselves unable to navigate the challenges.
In a country where guidelines from inspection bodies aren’t available, and where teachers can be hired without teaching qualifications, the role of school leaders is critical in establishing clear curriculum goals, planning and evaluation. This involves juggling a bunch of slippery tools, with curriculum demands conflicting with societal norms, parental pressure and teacher expertise. Most schools function with a single tier of leadership that is seen to make all the decisions that have a far-reaching impact.
However, as the complexity of educational demands increases, school leadership could aim to be more transformational, with vision and direction coming from the top, involving several tiers of management in decision-making, implementation and accountability. For example, improving conditions for teaching and learning, resource allocation and enhancing teacher quality should be the role of the middle management, section heads or academic coordinators. Capacity-building and consistent improvement comes from within the system, not necessarily from the top. Schools have traditionally relied on the top management to make all the decisions, and that is mostly where progress halts.
‘Distributed leadership,’ as it is sometimes called, reduces the workload for the school head, speeds up decision-making, allows more teachers to take on greater responsibility and paves the way for trust and collaboration as more teachers get involved in improving teaching and learning. Being open to teachers’ input also removes some of the power barriers that exist in our schools, and helps teachers develop a stronger connection and greater trust in their leaders. Through the connection, teachers start working closely with the management and this often results in strength-building that benefits all students.
Simon Sinek’s observation is quite apt in this context: “We become leaders the day we decide to help people grow,” Growth has many parameters, and the best thing about it is that it can be seen, and its impact is evident.
The writer is senior manager, professional development, at Oxford University Press Pakistan and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, UK.
Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2022