Seventeen years after ceasing my career as an international school head, I am still unpacking the most important lessons I learned. I headed two schools, in very disparate circumstances, for 23 years and would like to share five enduring observations here.
1. First and foremost…
The most critical factor to the success of students in their learning is the quality and effectiveness of the teachers and administrators supporting them. Yet while most educators acknowledge this, agreement on the essential skills and characteristics of highly effective teachers is far from unanimous; the plethora of teacher evaluation programs and techniques attests to this confusion. But the most essential way to address this conundrum is to train administrators and teacher leaders to identify, assess, and develop the essential skills the best teachers should all have in their arsenal.
2. Second and foremost…
The above will not produce a highly talented and effective teaching staff unless administrators also have the courage to confront, honestly and directly, the shortcomings of mediocre and “just OK” teachers. This is the most difficult task, and the most telling factor in the strength and quality of school administrators. Mediocre teachers may be very nice, and very popular, staff members; when this is the case it is especially challenging.
Meanwhile, administrators are perennially concerned about staff morale and inherently committed to the best possible relations with their teaching staff. The pursuit of popularity and staff approval can greatly inhibit the effective human resource decisions of principals and school heads. This raises the essential question: is their primary commitment to maximizing the learning of their students, or to promoting the most auspicious relations with staff, and overall staff morale?” The former goal should clearly prevail, as difficult as that may be. But so often in many good schools, substantial time, resources, and training efforts are committed to bringing the skills of sub-par teachers up to an acceptable level, when replacement with superior teachers would clearly better promote the learning of their students.
While a difficult choice, doing the right thing in these circumstances can actually promote the pride and the morale of a school’s teachers. They need to understand and sign on to the maintenance of high standards, and to see a clear process of evaluation that is characterized by procedural integrity.
Effective school leaders can cultivate the belief and conviction that highly effective teachers positively affect every member of staff through a strong record of learning and student development; the recognition of parents and the community; and the morale of students who appreciate their effective teachers. It is also possible to get union representatives committed to the goal of retaining only highly effective teachers, and we did this at WBAIS in Israel.
3. Think “student activities”
A strong and comprehensive student activities program can reinforce learning by ensuring that students enjoy their favorite activities; this may include many sports, but goes far beyond them. Many international schools, being the de facto community center for expatriate families, set a standard that far exceeds what most nations’ public schools can provide.
Students need to have activities they believe are fun and responsive to their needs and interests. Some schools create programs in martial arts, quilting, cooking, painting, or any other pursuit in which at least 10 students have an interest. Most international schools are beehives of activity in the after school hours, and often into the evenings. As in every enterprise, the busiest and most engaged students are often the ones who perform best in the learning arena.
4. Professionally, you get what you develop for
Schools that strongly promote the professional development of their staff, together with career ladders that capitalize on special skills and leadership potential, are most likely to attract and to retain a dynamic and effective cadre of educators.
This is a proposition that the most prominent and effective international schools acknowledge and pursue, and the impact can be enormous. Random grants and mere budgeting for professional development will not have the desired impact.
In my experience, a key approach to developing a strong, committed, and effective cadre of teachers involves tapping their skills and interests in projects outside their classroom. Many dynamic teachers have leadership qualities and aspirations; by cultivating and supporting their interests, through administrative assignments, coaching other teachers, or developing programs they want to experiment with, a wise administrator can foster a dynamic working environment and the continued development of key staff members.
In my longest tenure as a head, at WBAIS in Israel, over half of the staff was engaged in administrative or educational projects such as Model UN, English language instruction for local residents, coordinating after-school programs, monitoring interns, chairing departments (with concrete learning objectives), coaching colleagues, public relations programs, alumni programs, etc. These services were either paid for by contract, or included as one fifth of their workload, thereby teaching one less class. This was one of the most successful endeavors our school enjoyed.
When we developed an annual school retreat and professional training program, for two or three days and in some unique location, a committee of five to seven teachers conceived, developed, and coordinated the entire program. They came to realize how challenging and complicated it is to mount an educational retreat. Most found it a highly rewarding experience, and developed some healthy respect for the challenges encountered by administrators.
5. It’s all about expectations
The most basic constant in my experience, in terms of promoting strong student performance, is setting and enforcing high standards of performance for students. Students should be challenged in their work, and all assessments should be based on clear standards and objectives. No student who is just coasting should be receiving high, or even acceptable, grades. Students and parents need to be informed of these expectations, and the reason for them. The higher they are set (within reason of course), the stronger student performance will be. It is that simple!
This can be challenging, especially for hard-working students who have managed straight As in their previous schools. I recall a heavily decorated army colonel angrily confronting our then principal at ECA Caracas (Bambi Betts) when his high-achieving daughter got two B grades on her report card. “What do you think your school is,” he roared, “some kind of educational Mecca?” Bambi Betts answered, “As a matter of fact, yes!”
I know that many other new approaches to promoting stronger schools and better student learning have since emerged. One new key is the development of comprehensive assessment strategies. Online learning also seems to me to offer a clear path to more and more effective student learning. And the identification and development of other types, and sources, of intelligence can be profound. I leave these new pursuits to the currently engaged teachers and administrators, who are in many international schools the real trendsetters for more effective learning by all.