BEING COMFORTABLE WITH LEADING UNCERTAINTY  

Sue Aspinall, Executive Leadership Team | Head of Junior School, The British School in The Netherlands

Leading organisational change from within 

Please first download this accompanying PDF

As a growing multi-campus international school, the British School in the Netherlands (BSN) prides itself on being a dynamic centre of excellence for both students and staff. In this article, I will be sharing the ways we are intentionally building alignment around our whole school improvement priorities across the five campuses whilst also enabling staff teams to follow their own lines of enquiries, so that new ideas for improving teaching practice emerge. I will be suggesting that the carefully balanced leadership of both of these intentional and emergent approaches is necessary to enable the BSN to sustain success over the long term. 

The intentionally constructed strategy  

It is important in any school to have clear priorities for improvement which are informed by a range of evidence, including students’ progress and attainment data. Across the three BSN Junior Schools, these priorities are agreed and clearly articulated annually along with the intended impact by the end of the academic year 

The intentionally constructed strategy for implementing the change to teaching practice is cyclical and ongoing. In each academic year there is a key priority eg.to raise student progress and attainment in logic and reasoning through a mastery approach to mathematical learning 

 

The key priority for improvement is the focus of the weekly one hour staff professional development sessions and all other on-campus professional learning opportunities. Hence time is spent intentionally, providing teaching staff with the pedagogical knowledge and teaching skills required to make the changes. These opportunities are mapped out across the academic year, which provides opportunities for teachers to trial and evaluate the impact of the changes they are making to their practice over time. Where necessary, lead teachers are available to plan, model and team teach in order to support the acquisition of new areas of learning. In this way, there is a collective endeavour to make a difference. Every staff member is involved in professional learning and the impact is evaluated on an ongoing basis. The foci is re-calibrated and the implementation strategy re-designed as progress is responded to throughout the year.  

We have found that this approach makes a significant impact to the quality of teaching practice, and ultimately, the equity in the quality of learning for all BSN Junior School students. There is clarity to everyone’s role and professional dialogue can be focussed around a common topic. With the three BSN Junior Schools working together for the same outcome, the opportunities for sharing learning and extending professional dialogues are tripled. 

Evidencing impact of teaching on student outcomes 

This academic year, the maths leads across the Junior Schools have been leading the strategy. The overall intended impact at the end of this academic year is to enable: 

All students to be able to explain their mathematical understanding using the correct consistent mathematical language in full sentences. 

 

Progress being made towards this is evaluated in many ways; such as through progress and attainment feedback sessions from year group leaders, book looks and student conferencing.  

 

Half termly evaluations of student progress data and teacher assessment indicate that most student are on track to meet their age related expectations. Importantly, there is consistent evidence that students are accessing manipulatives to explain their learning, demonstrating logical thinking and reasoning and building a fluency in their use of mathematical language. 

 

Emergence within the collaborative enquiry model 

The BSN values the importance of building professional collaboration and enabling teams to create their own improvement work within their specific field of expertise. A model that enables new avenues of professional enquiry to take place is being trialled at one of the Junior Schools by each year group team, each subject specific team and the inclusion teams. Based on examples cited by Weston, D and Clay, B. (2018), this model enables the teaching staff to identify a very specific question regarding their teaching practice and its impact on student outcomes. The staff agree upon the most useful evidence that will be collected and build a programme for this to be collated.  

 

The resulting collaborative discussion, built around the evidence collected, provides the opportunity to unpick very specific ‘tweaks’ that can be made to teaching practice and classroom management to make a difference to student outcomes. These ‘tweaks’ are built into the practice of teams incrementally throughout the year as the model is repeated. This cyclical process is slowly building team ownership and localised attention to school improvement. 

Evidencing impact of teaching on student outcomes 

During the collaborative discussion, emerging themes and questions are unpicked and future actions are agreed.  

Feedback from staff has been positive. They have welcomed the team ownership of the process, the range of evidence that is used to inform the collaborative discussion, and the immersive presence of the Senior Leader, who leads the enquiry alongside the year leader. 

“This approach is far better than a one-off lesson observation. Each class teacher in the year group is focussing on the same enquiry and we are continually talking about our findings. There is much more professional discussion with a purpose”  

“I like having Lucy and Miffy involved throughout the duration of the week rather than a one-off lesson observation. I think they get a better understanding of what learning is like for our students in the Year Group and their feedback is very objective and wide ranging.” 

Finding the balance and leading the process  

In the best cases, teams have been able to integrate the collaborative enquiry approach and the strategic improvement priority. The respective teams have then dived deeper into their understanding of the impact of their practice eg. the impact of the bar modelling strategy on Y5 students’ ability to explain their mathematical reasoning clearly. Equally, the emerging learning from the collaborative enquiry has often been able to inform the impact of the whole school improvement work, and where appropriate, has enabled these ideas to be adopted by different year groups.  

The success of all of this work is dependent on its leadership, staff engagement and commitment. Leadership of the school improvement approaches requires an understanding of their intentionality, so that collaborative enquiries stay within their parameters and inform the improvement priorities of the whole school. A shared accountability for outcomes and a sustained commitment to find a balance between the approaches is becoming established 

Team empowerment and leadership capacity building 

The BSN provides opportunities for team leaders to enhance their leadership skills, knowledge and attributes by enrolling on programmes such as the international Professional Qualifications in Middle Leadership (iNPQML) and international Professional Qualifications in Senior Leadership (iNPQSL) delivered through the BSN International Leadership Academy (ILA). These programmes enable team leaders to learn about research and theoretical models that inform their leadership in practice. They also learn practical techniques to help them facilitate team meetings, design collective enquiries, critical analyse evidence and hold honest conversations. Their roles as leaders of intentional strategy and/or collaborative enquiries are all supported by the requirement to embed their learning from the face-to-face modules into their leadership projects. By integrating their requirements for the iNPQ assessment with their contribution to the school improvement priorities, the BSN is building informed collective leadership capacity within the organisation, and more broadly, within the international education community 

Next steps for the BSN 

Creating this balanced approach requires class teachers to be continually observing the impact of their teaching on student learning. It is an incremental approach to school improvement that is responsive and adaptive; it requires flexibility, open-mindedness and a commitment to continuous learning and development. This is the ultimate challenge for us as school leaders: are we comfortable with leading this level of uncertainty within our school improvement work? Are we flexible and adaptable enough to intentionally construct a strategy and then to re-calibrate and re-design it, as new learning emerges from the collaborative enquiries?  

I believe we need to be if we are going to build leadership capacity across our international schools, and equip staff with the pedagogical knowledge and teaching skills to meet the needs of our students. We need to be comfortable with the uncertainty of what will emerge when teams are empowered to take their own lines of enquiries to improve their teaching practice. As Woods and Roberts (2018) summarise, “leading this way is not only challenging but also a creative, inspiring and feasible way of advancing learning in its best and fullest way”.  

Bibliography 

Datnow, A., and Park, V. (2019) Professional Collaboration with Purpose. New York: Routledge 

Hargreaves, A., and O’Connor, M. (2018) Collaborative Professionalism. London: Sage  

Seel, R. (2006) Emergence in Organisations”, http://www.new-paradigm.co.uk/ 

Weston, D., and Clay, B. (2018) Unleashing Great Teaching. Oxon: Routledge 

Woods, P., and Roberts, A. (2018) Collaborative School Leadership. London: Sage  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Over the last twenty years, Sue Aspinall has been leading schools through significant change, intent on raising the quality of learning and teaching available to their students. Having been both a Head of an inner London state school and three British international schools based in different countries, Sue knows how it is to live a global life and transition between cultures and across countries. She has the ability to build diverse teams and motivate staff around
common goals. She empowers staff to lead from within and coaches them to reach their highest aspirations. An experienced facilitator, Sue provides an impactful learning experience for leaders who want to make a difference.

Intention to Impact Leadership

Kim Cullen, M.A., M.S., B.A. Upper School Director, The American School of Madrid.

A manifesto for new and aspiring leaders.

Benjamin Franklin is credited with the saying “Well done is better than well said”.  At the American School of Madrid, one of our school-wide goals this year has been to determine what concrete steps each of us can take to transform words into action.  There is a considerable difference between intention and impact. Most of the time, our intentions are honorable. We are a community of caring, generous people:  we mean well.  It takes more than meaning well, however, and we sometimes shield ourselves behind intention when things didn’t go completely as we had hoped. “I didn’t mean it that way” or “It was just a joke” is something I often hear students and teachers say. 

 

In leadership, we must recognize that intention is a powerful motivator, and we need to help our community members think more specifically about impact.  This means we need to walk the walk and talk the talk.  We must ask ourselves What is the impact my words will have?  What is the impact I want to have? Related to this are questions like  What do I want to be known for, remembered for? What legacy do I want to leave?   As a school administrator, my daily challenge is to move from the what to the how.   It is in the how that I will define the impact I have on others.  

 

As I reflect on the leadership lessons I have learned over my twenty-three years in education, below are some of my personal highlights – a manifesto, if you will, on how to transform my own best intentions to real impact.  For new and aspiring leaders, developing one’s own manifesto for intention to impact leadership can be a powerful way to define the role one wants to play in the lives and growth of the communities one serves.  

Be committed to growth. 

Every experience in life is an opportunity to learn and grow.  One actually CAN teach old dogs new tricks.  Just because someone might refuse to change doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t.  Commit to learning new things, seeking out new challenges, and helping others do the same.  Learn to learn. 

Fear is healthy.   

Fear means we care, we want to do well.  But we fear fear, and we stay in our comfort zones, thus limiting our opportunities for growth.  Rather than perceiving fear as a force of evil, learn to embrace fear as a driving force for doing your best.  Don’t be afraid to say yes.  

Be authentic.  And be vulnerable. 

There is no magic leadership formula – be true to yourself.  Identify your strengths and don’t be afraid to leverage them.  Also, be honest about your shortcomings and commit to working on them.  Knowing yourself and allowing for both authenticity and vulnerability are fundamental so successful leadership.   

Be compassionate.  

Everyone has a story – a lifetime of experiences, beliefs, and history that defines who they are.    Don’t be quick to draw conclusions about others, and remember that understanding people’s context is critical in building strong, trusting relationships.  It is important to note that compassion is different from empathy.  Empathy is the intellectual awareness and appreciation of someone’s circumstances.  Compassion takes it a step further and involves a desire to make a difference.  In short, compassion is caring. 

Everything is a gift, even if you worked hard for it.  

If your baseline is that everything in life is a gift, even if you worked hard for it, you will be less inclined to hold onto that sense of entitlement that sometimes creeps in despite our best intentions.  Gratitude means you will be less likely to get upset when things don’t go the way you planned or expected.  Gratitude gives you the ability to give situations only the attention they deserve.  It also gives you the ability to move on when it’s time.   

Balance your approach. 

Know the difference between reacting and responding and which one is most appropriate under what circumstances.  Reaction is quick, usually involves emotion, is often uninformed and sometimes misguided.  Response takes time and requires thoughtfulness, getting to the bottom of something, considering all the options and all sides.  Find your balance between instinct, insight, and improvisation. 

Act in accordance with YOU. 

Live into your values with confidence and integrity.  Identify your beliefs and wear them on your sleeve.  Don’t sacrifice your values.  Boundaries are important; learn how to set them.  Know when to say no.  Integrity leads to reliability and trust. 

Lean on others.   

No one succeeds alone, no one knows everything, no one can do everything. Lean on others.  Seek out allies.   Find a thought partner.  Listen more than you speak.  Offer help along the way.  Be someone’s mentor.    

Celebrate others. 

Recognize the contributions of others as much as you can.  Everyone needs and deserves validation.  No one can work at their best when they feel unsupported, underutilized, unappreciated or underpaid.  Celebration is fundamental to emotional and professional well-being and, ultimately, growth.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kim is a thoughtful and committed educator with twenty three years of experience in international education. As a American citizen born in Brazil and raised in Texas and Spain, Kim is an adult TCK (*third culture kid) who understands the unique benefits and opportunities that come from having cross-cultural experiences during the developmental years. Kim cares deeply about young people and how they learn and she has devoted her entire professional career to fostering supportive, impactful and relevant learning for both students and educators. Having served school communities in a variety of capacities, Kim’s professional profile is comprehensive with experiences in visioning, strategic planning, relationships, team-building and compassionate leadership.

Along her journey in education — from behind the scenes in fundraising and community relations, through teaching and counseling, and almost a decade in leadership laying the groundwork for systemic change – Kim has to come to firmly believe that if educators are thoughtful, open-minded and willing, they have the ability to create powerful educational experiences that will transform the future for our children, our society, and our planet. Kim is the founder of i2i Education Consulting, helping forward-thinking education leaders create meaningful learning for students (www.i2iedconsulting.com). She also publishes insights and learnings on life on her personal blog, ebb and flow, www.kmcullen.com.