As I am about to embark on my last semester full of opportunities and exciting challenges here at Academia Cotopaxi, and since I went through an intense and rich process to look for a new position, I am now taking a step back to reflect on what I have learned from the fantastic educators, faculty, staff and board members, students and parents from the different school communities who took the time to chat with me throughout my hiring journey.
Since my last job search I have developed my motto (Care, Connect, Commit) that encapsulates my philosophy quite well. This time around, I had a chance to go deeper into those three key terms and here are my thoughts at the end of this journey.
Care about student-learning
This is the bottom line, the beginning and the end. I, we want students to grow. Academically, of course, but many other skills are also important since, as I wrote once before, what we really want and need in this world is good people who can support others, act ethically, and balance their lives. And as educators, we need to encourage and model that growth to support students getting there.
Care about social emotional well-being
We all know that student learning can happen when students feel safe and supported. During my recruitment process, I particularly enjoyed talking to counsellors to discuss their pivotal role in schools. In a presentation I did for one school, I even read this extract from Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead that summarises quite well what I believe in:
Teachers are some of our most important leaders. We know that we can’t always ask our students to take off the armor at home, or even on their way to school, because their emotional and physical safety may require self-protection.
But what we can do, and what we are ethically called to do as teachers, is create a space in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and, for that day or hour, take off the crushing weight of their armor, hang it on a rack, and open their heart to truly being seen.
Teachers are the guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe and be curious and explore the world and be who they are without suffocation. Students deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability and their hearts can exhale.
And what I know from the research is that we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong—even one—where they can take off their armor. It can and often does change the trajectory of their life (Brown) .
Care about teacher support
For students to feel encouraged to grow, teachers need to feel supported too. And this support needs to be differentiated. From regular classroom visits to improvement plans, from one-on-one regular meetings to targeted conversations to help gather work for some graduate research. Depending on strengths and areas of need.
As I am doing my classroom visits following Kim Marshall’s approach, I like to provide actionable feedback. How wonderful it is when a teacher invites me back to their classroom to show me the implementation of an idea that emerged from our follow-up conversation after a classroom visit. And I have also learned that to be able to do this well, I need to block my schedule with those unannounced visits and follow-up conversations so that they are part of my daily practice.
I also really enjoy when I invite a teacher to share a cool idea or strategy in a meeting for others to learn from it. « Instead of showing up to let everyone know how great we are, show up to find out how great everyone else is » (Sinek).
Care about relationships
A previous colleague used to say that « students don’t care how much you know until they know that you care ». This has been accredited to many people including Theodore Roosevelt and to American author and leadership expert John C. Maxwell. I truly believe in this statement and I witness its accuracy everyday. Educators who do the best are the ones who establish meaningful connections with students. There is no real recipe but students quickly notice and appreciate this caring attitude from their teachers and administrators.
Connect to lead curriculum
I see curriculum as a big puzzle and through its intricacies it is essential to often come back to basic but strong questions:
- What do we teach?
- How do we teach it?
- How do we know that students learned it?
As we all review our curriculum on a regular basis in our schools, I really enjoy using the tool and protocol that we collaboratively created at Academia Cotopaxi to assess our assessment tasks. And now teachers use this tool and protocol in departments meetings. It is fun to take part and listen to those conversations and see how teachers are committed to constantly improve their assessment.
Connect to use data
When I was appointed IB Diploma Coordinator in Istanbul, about a decade ago, I was told that using data was becoming more and more important in education. This is obviously totally accurate as using data is crucial to set goals, plan, evaluate and review learning. And using data to advise students and parents is also powerful. For instance, a student with a 230 RIT score in the Math MAP test at the end of Grade 10 may very well struggle if they choose the IB MAA HL course. But I also believe that everyone can grow with the appropriate feedback and mindset and as educators we need to manoeuvre through this to maintain high and realistic expectations.
Connect to communicate
As we know that communication is often the root of many concerns, I strive to communicate with my teams as effectively as possible, with a weekly note for teachers, another one for students and another one for High School parents. Together with ad hoc, as needed emails and WhatsApp messages to parent reps. And I attempt to communicate with the external communities through some professional platforms and this blog. What did Barry Dequanne say at one of my Principal Training Center courses? Oh, that’s right: «communicate, communicate, communicate ».
Connect to collaborate
As Diane Sweeney and Ann T. Mausbach wrote in their book Leading Student-Centered Coaching some of the strongest athletes, politicians or leaders work with coaches. Everyone needs others to continue to get better, including educators. And when I talk about collaboration with my team, I love referring to this very clever Ted Talk by Matt Ridley, When ideas have sex. While collaboration may happen randomly, I feel it as a duty to create the time and space to allow colleagues to work with one other.
Committed to inclusivity
Since my first day as a student teacher in a state school in the United Kingdom, I have always worked with students with a variety of learning needs and I truly believe in the need to meet students where they are in order to support their growth. Furthermore, through my different interviews and conversations in my current school, I have found myself developing this idea that I really like since it not only reinforces inclusivity and but it also brings the idea of the school/parent partnership: there is a path for everyone and we will figure it out together. And using data to find this path is useful too (see above, Connect to use data)
Committed to community building
It is crucial to build a solid school community. One important element is to pause and celebrate students’ and teachers’ achievement in assemblies and staff meetings. And baking for the team from time to time to congratulate folks is never a bad idea.
Listening is also an essential part of community building and it is the first step towards understanding and, inshallah, resolving situations.
Committed to collaborative decision-making
In one site visits, I heard a candidate say that she believes that others often have better ideas than her. Not only does that shows humility, even vulnerability as Brene Brown puts it, but this also builds a community. Bringing others in the decision-making process, either formally through meetings or surveys, or less formally through conversations, will help bring more people onboard towards a possibly new idea generated by the team. And obviously, the decision will support student learning and the school’s mission, which are the final, key criteria.
Committed to quality hiring
This is also essential. In a highly competitive market, with more and more schools, I find myself hiring earlier and earlier. I use my connections with educators around the world, I spend time to listen, ask questions, seek to understand the candidate’s qualities and the possible fit and I check references. And when I hear from a reference check « if you don’t offer, I will do very soon », like I did recently, then this is a good sign to offer a position.
These are some conclusions I can draw from this hiring season. Verbalising and writing them down feels like an important step to get better. And, as I keep saying, I am learning everyday and those ideas will continue to mature with time.
For what’s worth…
I wish you all a fantastic new year.
Brown, Brené. Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts. Random House Large Print Publishing, 2019.
Ridley, Matt, director. TED. TED, www.ted.com/talks/matt_ridley_when_ideas_have_sex?language=en#t-506126.
Sinek, Simon. “Notes to Inspire.” Notes to Inspire, 16 Dec. 2019.
Sweeney, Diane, and Ann T. Mausbach. Leading Student-Centered Coaching. Corwin, a SAGE Company, 2018.