Sustaining Excellence Over Time…

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People at my last job gave me feedback that I was too enthusiastic about sport, maybe even too “American” in that respect. Looking back, I think it was because it provided the clarity and focus on a goal that I needed in challenging times.

International schools have a real problem. They have high expectations and in many cases such high turnover that it is virtually impossible to reach the lofty goals of the mission statement. I have worked in such environments, and I can guarantee you that the culture ate the strategy for breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. It can feel as though the place is literally re-inventing itself every time new people come in. Throw in the average three year tenure of Heads and you have a place that will struggle to achieve excellence, no matter how strong the curriculum or great the facilities.

The New England Patriots won this incredibly over-hyped game called the Super Bowl this past weekend in such an environment. It was their fourth such victory over the past 14 years which is some kind of a record. They did it in what the critics call “an extraordinary time” of free agency in which players are constantly moving from team to team instead of staying together as they did when previous records were set. It makes it very hard to win one big game under these circumstances, let alone four over fourteen years. So, how can international schools win the big game?

1) Have a clear vision of what you stand for and what is non-negotiable in an authentic sense of the word. This does not mean “create lifelong learners.” What it means, for example, is that we use student work to inform best practice and will create systems to promote that.

2) “Do your job.” This one is from the coach of the Patriots. It sounds child-like in its simplicity, but how many schools have people who don’t know their jobs? Or like to do other people’s jobs? Or don’t even have job descriptions that are updated for relevance? This is critical toward building excellence.

3) Interchangeable parts. One of the astounding things the Patriots do is that they have an expectation that people understand the system in which they work so that they can contribute in a variety of ways. Although “do your job” is #2, understanding the big picture and being able to step in is critical. This does not mean that a math teacher should be able to teach English. What it does mean is that employees have a clear understanding of the systems and overarching expectations of the school so that they are part of a larger ethos and can sustain that foundation over time, not just in their isolated silos. This is hard, but it’s critical.

Of course there is also the opposite problem where schools with not enough turnover get stuck and cannot seem to move forward. But for me, the high turnover issue is compelling because it causes schools to default to the issues directly in front of them (scheduling, I.B. training, constant hiring), rather than the critical work of improving teaching and learning. Maybe this is a bit of a broad brush, but it’s common enough. There’s no magic cure for all of these challenges but it raises the issue of leadership capacity in creating systems that are effective and can be sustained over time rather than taking the easy way out and leaving after three years. For example, how are teams organized around learning? What schedules are put in place for staff reflection and collaboration to learn excellence? Where are the feedback loops? How is appraisal designed and implemented? And most importantly, what structures are put into place to remove the distractions that get in the way of people doing their jobs. (Is anyone ever going to fix the attendance software?)

These are complex issues and it’s still very hard to maintain excellence over time in a high turnover environment. But bringing in the best people and putting them in a position to succeed, having people understand their jobs, and creating an environment in which people can contribute in a multitude of ways can sometimes win championships.

Not sure if it’s from the 80s, but we’ll play this one out with the theme song. the Patriots use when they take the field. (And has some nice symbolism for high turnover environments).

About Stephen Dexter, Jr.

Stephen is an international educator and administrator. A native of the United States, he lives with his wife Stephanie and children Zoe and Ian in the Singapore. With a career that spans over twenty years in public, private and international schools, he writes when he can and is on a quest to discover if "text walking" is changing the human brain.
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