All posts by Bambi Betts

Bambi Betts is the director of the Principals’ Training Center for International School Leadership (PTC), the Teacher Training Center for International Educators (TTC) and founder of the two additional training centers for international educators, including counselors and school business leaders. She has also recently completed ten years as the CEO for the Academy for International School Heads (AISH). Bambi has been a director, principal and teacher in international schools for over 30 years. She has been a consultant in over 150 international schools, conducting professional development sessions on a wide range of topics related to the effective international school, including assessment, curriculum leadership, teacher leader strategies, instructional strategies, faculty evaluation, and governance. She has written many articles on practical ways to improve international schools and authors a regular column on the PTC pages of The International Educator (TIE), as well as a blog.

Just choose one…

So we have been surveying teachers and principals across international schools to get a monthly read on how they are managing learning as the pandemic progresses.  Essentially, there are still all three arrangements, of which all our readers are no doubt acutely aware of and about which there are ENDLESS blogs and articles:   all virtual, all face to face and a hybrid of varying models.

While there are no actual full-scale data yet on whether kids overall are learning more, less, or the same amount or the same things, or whether curriculum has been modified and if so, using what criteria, one lesson does seem to be emerging fairly strongly.

If you can- if your country will allow it – choose one or the other- all virtual or all-in person- and go at it with all you’ve got. It’s the flipping back and forth from one model to the other that seems to be the biggest cause of teachers feeling like they are doing less than their best and becoming increasingly stressed about it.

And it make sense.  If we have to put our energy into TWO systems (or three), all of which have unfamiliar facets, it is clearly dissipated at best and for many, is negatively impacting teaching, and learning. Teachers report spending so much time and energy managing the time, space and learning tools that the fundamentals of quality teaching seem a lifetime away. We don’t do any of it well, ending most days exhausted from just managing the systems, which may or may not have included any quality learning or teaching.

It’s not that every teacher can’t (and many have) become an expert virtual teacher, for example- but that has not been the goal.  Rather the goal, many report, has been to just get through the best we can, with our sites on ‘getting back to normal’.   As long as we are approaching it as a temporary stopgap, the strategies and support our leadership lend to the process may be no more than that as well- stop gap measures, with little strategic direction or leadership.

How much more productive it could be to take just ONE and do it well; pour all the resources, all the PD , all the positive energy into just one.  What might it look like if, even though a school COULD get back to in- person learning on and off during this school year, they just decide not to.  Once that strategic decision is made, we set our sites to organizing the curriculum with new lenses – like what is actually BETTER learned online, what was ALWAYS fluff and we can now eliminate, or how can we leverage technology tools as actual instructional strategies rather than poor-cousin replacements for in-person learning.

No naiveté about what I’m suggesting -of course there are all those parent pressures, reputation, long term repercussions. Yet all those considered, the kids that are in our schools RIGHT NOW signed up for the very best of our teaching and leadership. It’s our obligation as school leaders to be absolutely clear about what IS in our control and what are options are.

For certain, many will be thinking that choosing just one way is not an option.  And true, for many it may not be, but school leaders might try it on, if only to do some of that ‘blue-sky’ thinking that liberates perception and so often leads to the unexpected solutions. 

So, school leaders, gather your team and throw around this question: What would it look like were we planning proactively for a full school year, fully virtual?  It’s worth 15 minutes on behalf of quality learning.

Professional Development – Perk or Priority?

The leadership team is meeting to review professional development plans for the teaching staff. Glancing over the dozens of applications, ‘Who gets to go to the conference this year?’ quips the primary principal. Cringe….

Who ‘gets’ to go? Right there in that session, is where that leadership team sets up the ‘culture’ for PD across the school. In the international school how easily PD can become a ’fringe benefit’, a ‘reward’, an entitlement – essentially a potentially expensive PERK. And when we design a PD program with PERK as the central idea, it’s pretty clear where that will NOT lead – to the real goal of PD, -improved learning through improved teaching.

We cheapen significantly the whole teaching profession with the ‘perk’ approach rather than as the essential PRIORITY it is for improving student learning. It’s not about who ‘gets to go’ to that conference in a sunny warm place in the dead of winter, or who ‘deserves’ it because of all their service, or whose ‘turn’ it is. It’s not about onsite days where the kids stay away, school provides lunch and gives teachers the latest ‘buzz word’ PD.

Professional development activities are the vital link between student learning and our growing understanding of what makes learning possible. Serious educational professionals pay attention to the latest understanding about how learning happens and seek out those specific opportunities which will help them translate that new understanding into classroom practice. And, yes, it can be both job-embedded or externally provided. They can both work, each generating unique benefits, when the premise is right. But when it isn’t – when the underlying premise is’ perk’ rather than priority, what we design and how we design it will fall short.

At this point in the school year, many international school leaders will be looking for those ‘external’ opportunities to boost learning for teachers during the long break between school years. . Here are some suggestions to ensure those experiences are beyond ‘perk’ thinking:

BEFORE approving attendance at an eternal PD session:
For each potential attendee:

  • What specific learning goals for students are we working to improve by sending this teacher to this PD session?
  • What do supervision and evaluation data for the teacher indicate regarding skills to be addressed?
  • What is the teacher’s own analysis of skills he/she needs to improve?
    About the session being considered:
  • Is the PD session directly aligned to the desired learning results our school is attempting to achieve?
  • Are the learning objectives primarily skills that a teacher would use in the classroom?
  • Is there evidence that participants will actually practice skills during the session?
  • Is the intended content commensurate with current research?
  • Are there any built-in follow-up strategies (e.g. a ‘next steps’ planning processes embedded in the session strategies?)
    AFTER the session:
  • How will we ensure that the teacher is actually applying what has been learned?
  • What measures will we use to determine if this PD made any difference?
  • And a big DON’T: DO NOT ask the teacher to ‘share what they learned’ BEFORE they have had the opportunity put it into practice in their own classroom.
    And a reminder that we at TIE and the PTC do offer some PD options for international teachers and leaders…

…all in the quest to move from PD as PERK to PD as PRIORITY.

The Importance of Being ‘Urgent’

As I travel to dozens of international schools each year, I am always struck by the earnestness of everyone – the teachers, the leaders, the kids, the parents. EVERYONE is positively earnest and passionate – wanting to do the right thing, willing to put in hours and hours of thought and planning and attention to whatever are perceived to be the current RIGHT goals. So A+ on the EARNEST scale.
But I am UNSTRUCK by the plodding pace, that nothing is terribly urgent, that the PROCESS seems always to be as important – sometimes MORE important – than the actual outcome on student learning.

This is in part driven by two pervasive leadership myths that seem to permeate our international schools – and can cause serious learning damage or at least missed opportunities on the part of the school, to influence student learning.
Myth one: In your first year in your headship or principalship, don’t DO anything – just try and understand the culture of the school, the way things operate, get to know people. Just ‘gather data’, build relationships and perhaps by the second year you can actually begin to do your job.
While leadership gurus may come back at me and argue that this approach does work – my practical experience in international schools is that it is a major contributor to our often being ‘behind the curve’ rather than leading the way. When the typical leader is in a school for 4-5 years, one year is a significant loss.

Myth two: Once you DO begin to act, don’t do too much too fast. After all people can only handle so much change….we would not want to overwhelm the paid professionals whose one and only job is to get the kids in their charge to learn. Well that’s just perfect. So we have 20% of kids in grade 6 who cannot write to standard (or worse yet we don’t even KNOW what they can do)…but that’s ok, we’ll go at the pace of the teachers or at least the leaders’ perception of that pace. We’ll just tell those kids parents that next year, grade six will be great – too bad your kid will be in grade 7. Great strategy.

And by the way, what qualifies as ‘change’ that we must carefully plan for is just about anything that is even minimally different than the way we did it last year. So remarkable that we sit around in curriculum sessions discussing how important it is to teach kids that they will need to be adaptable and flexible if they are going to make it as productive adults, yet we have to make a two year plan to get to the notion of something as obvious as differentiated homework into routine practice. I’m guessing there is maybe a double standard somewhere in there?

‘Urgent’ is not the opposite of earnest- but they do seem to be in a less than productive competition. I vote for at least TRYING urgent wherever learning might be the loser.

‘When will we ever learn’

Just back from an another international education conference – where international school heads came together to once again attempt to unpack the sticky issue of teacher evaluation.

And I just don’t get it. Did I miss something? How is it possible that we STILL debate whether or not student learning results should be included as pivotal data in determining the effectiveness of a teacher? How is it possible that a ‘profession’ would even remotely consider the idea that its bottom line (learning) would not factor in when examining the most essential ingredient (teachers) for its success?

We either accept the research of our own profession or we don’t – I see no middle ground. Every single study conducted that I have managed to get my hands on says the same thing: in the school context the quality of the teaching is the single biggest determinant for learning. Yet until today we have teachers and principals who are outraged that we would even THINK of looking at learning results when it comes to evaluating (or even just supervising) our skillful, PAID professionals. This is a profession, not a job. Professions have standards for their practitioners and those practitioners are held accountable to them – and the standards get raised as the profession’s own research brings new understandings to light.

Our standards in the education profession have been raised. All those research studies strongly indicate that teaching is the most critical factor in LEARNING. They have measured the effect of teaching on LEARNING not on how teachers behave professionally, or who they ‘collaborate’ with or how they plan units. We know unequivocally that what teachers do matters… and ‘mattering’ can only be revealed through examining the learning that each teacher’s kids achieve.

The major argument against using learning results as even a small part of a teacher’s evaluation data is well known. There are too many factors that affect learning that the teacher has no control over. It would just not be ‘fair’ to draw any conclusions about a teacher’s effectiveness and therefore professional next steps based on what the kids have learned. Better to just look at all the ‘inputs’ from the teacher and assume if he is doing all those things, then regardless of learning results, we will stamp him ‘effective’.

What kind of reasoning is that? We can’t have it both ways. The research is conclusive the teacher IS the most significant factor in learning. So it is completely fair and logical to use learning results as the primary indicator of teacher effectiveness– and shall I go out on a limb and say that it may actually border on UNETHICAL not to do so?
If, as many educators would like to claim, the learning results are too ‘contaminated’ by other inputs, rendering the teacher a small part of the learning of any given kid (not!), then why set up a system where teachers are the centerpiece of the school? Let’s disregard the research, dismantle that practice and turn our full attention to those ‘contaminating’ inputs that are causing learning results to be such unreliable indicators of teacher effectiveness. Shall I rant on?

Of course it is important to collect evidence of WHAT the teacher is doing – because those are the things that can be modified IF the learning results are not what they should be. And of course the tools used to collect evidence of learning need to be valid and reliable (and who makes those – yes, teachers). But relying solely on examining instructional and professional behaviors which SHOULD lead to learning WITHOUT looking at the learning results in tandem is somewhere on the continuum of completely stupid to downright damaging. No wonder teacher growth , appraisal, evaluation , supervision schemes – the whole lot – whatever you call them – have never worked and still don’t’. We are looking in the wrong places, driven by faulty assumptions. In the words of the late Pete Seeger, ‘When will we ever learn’?

On Average

It’s Saturday and night and I am writing letters…the same kind of letters that so many heads and principals in international schools are writing… letters of recommendation for just about anyone we have ever worked with who wants a new job. And of course this is a valuable ‘report card’ for the schools seeking to fill vacancies. It’s a reasonable practice, if all involved remain thoughtful and ethical.

But what is NOT reasonable is the double standard that we are asked to apply to teachers versus students in this teacher form of a ‘summative’ report card.

Despite the now long standing practice of working from standards- based curriculum, that final ‘report card’ for kids is all too often an ‘average’ – be it numerical or narrative- of the learning over a whole reporting period…and sometimes over an entire year. I think we all know what averaging is; it combines evidence from the beginning of a period of learning with where they eventually arrived and everywhere along the way. It is one of those practices which NEVER should have been established, NEVER made sense and yet still today grips whole schools – even ‘enlightened’ international schools!

We in the learning business know better than anyone that learning is a process – a process of connecting the unfamiliar to the familiar, determining contexts in which those connections matter, practicing within those contexts, ‘failing’ many times, and making the new learning a routine part of our repertoire. It is a process which unfolds at a personal pace, odd and unpredictable intervals, sometimes as an ‘ah-ha’, sometimes bit by bit. -NONE of these match the ingredients needed to make averaging useful.

Averaging is not just an outdated process; it is actually inaccurate and even unethical, particularly now that learning standards are the norm. Surely we have the obligation to assist the learner in knowing to what extent a standard has been achieved, deemphasizing for the most part how long or how many times it took achieve it.

Serial ‘averagers’, (particularly those in secondary school) have a difficult time letting go. Somehow it is not ‘fair’ to those who learn early and well to allow one who learns more slowly – who EVENTUALLY learns and learns well- to end up with the same ‘grade’. Averaging values the ‘early’, more than the ‘well’. It seems more about ‘equity’ and comparing kids to others than about progress in learning. Essentially, averaging holds kids hostage to early learning attempts and teaches them that failure to learn RIGHT AWAY is a serious offense that they will pay for over and over.

I find the ritual of writing recommendation letters the quintessential opportunity to help teachers better understand why this practice of averaging MUST be fully eliminated. Pretty simple really. To those still wedded to the averaging process for kids, I reply: Yes, I will write you a letter. And it will describe the ‘average’ of the teacher you were in the first year together with all the other years -NOT the brilliant teacher you actually were when we finished our work together. Still want the letter?

Resisting our way to irrelevance?

Just about every day now I read a blog or a get an email or are a posting on face book or twitter that reminds us that ‘ schools are preparing kids for the 20th century living’’; or ‘did you know that your grandmother would be very much at home in the classrooms of today?’  etc.

Virtually EVERYONE agrees that much of what we practice as ‘schooling’ today is, at the very least, outdated and,   at its extreme, could have dire long term consequences for society.  Both those who hire new graduates, as well professors of first year university students consistently complain about poor communication skills (speaking AND writing) , poor work ethic (sense of entitlement) , and little to no critical and creative  thinking. And innovation…well, seems that only lives in mission statements.

Despite our lofty rhetoric and those mission statements, we are still doing pretty much what we have always done and – surprise- we are still getting what we have gotten for the past many decades.  And I could not agree more…in fact I have been a co-conspirator in the spreading of those messages…for most of my 30+ years in education.

So why are we STILL hearing it, now 13 years into the century?   Just about every other industry or collective human endeavor has responded fairly rigorously to the changing landscape of human activity and civilization -and many industries have actually CREATED the 21st century skills.  So what’s up with education?  The ONE industry that, in theory, all the others depend on?

Why are we in school apparently so resistant? Why do we continue to engage in practices that we actually know don’t’ work and teach a curriculum that we –and all of society – know is outdated and ill-equipping our kids?

A few of my ‘whys’:

1.      The parent trap.  Everyone is an expert in education because they had one once… unlike technology, or medicine, or telecommunications, parents have been to school.  They have been primary ‘users’ of the place called school and the thinking goes… ‘I turned out pretty much ok, didn’t I’ (they think) – so just keep doing what you did when I was in school.’   Familiarity as a design principle for schooling actually breeds complacency.

2.      Chicken- hearted.   Accountability is only for the ‘real’ world.  Despite all the rhetoric, even in private, international schools, we do not hold ourselves accountable for the actual bottom line of our work…learning.  It is stunning that the schooling industry STILL manages to sell the notion that teachers should in no way be evaluated on how their students learn, or whether they learn.  How can any reputable, worthy effort NOT be measured by the one thing it is designed to produce?  The data on the effect of teachers on learning are strong and clear.  We seem afraid, very afraid, to hold our own feet to the fire… and we get away with it.

3.      No proof. And no way to get it.  This one is a killer.  We don’t want to make a guinea pig out of any kid – it’s SO much better to continue using methodologies that we KNOW don’t work!  Far be it from any school to ‘experiment’.  We need proof…lots of proof…that something works before we consider it.  So who starts? Where are the R and D departments in schools?  And by the way, we could list right here ten things we already know about learning that we do not see routinely in schools…because of the ‘selective ’proof approach so many of us take.

4.      Universities…the albatross? Probably a good 80% of what we do in K12 schools is rationalized with…’but that’s’ what universities expect and far be it from us to, again, jeopardize any kid’s chances’. Course-based rather than competency-based curriculum; 180 days of seat time; grading schemes, essay writing, exams…what’s a school to do? That’s what they want so we must comply. Could it be that just maybe it’s not all their fault? That our education industry has failed to fully engage in the right, ongoing conversation between k12 and higher education.

And finally…

5.      Wimpy leaders. Yes, it true.  While we have many well-intentioned, organized, learning-centered school leaders, far too many – I go out on a limb and say most- won’t/don’t get out of the proverbial box.  In our international schools, we are typically INDEPENDENT of restrictive bureaucracy and run our schools in organizational environments where we able to turn on dime – but we don’t…at least not often enough.  Could it be leadership capitulates all too often to the parent trap or chicken-heartedness, plays the ‘proof’ card or hides behind the university albatross?

Worth wondering as we approach ever closer to the cliff of irrelevance.

No Penalty

Every year at about this time I spend days and days preparing a week long course for international principals on assessment leadership, scouring the latest research, reading, reviewing all my notes and experiences from recent visits to dozens of international schools.  Gives me plenty of opportunity to get riled up about it once again.

Here’s the problem.  Whose decision was it to make learning punitive and use assessment as the weapon?

Human beings are born to learn- that’s the design.  From the moment a child is born, its all about learning.  There’s no written curriculum, rather a whole bunch of benchmarks so the people who are shepherding that learning have sense of when strategies or environment might need to change.  And when a child is struggling to reach one of those benchmarks – like walking by a certain age, what do we?  We certainly don’t give him one chance, mark him down if he’s ‘late’, spend most of our energy figuring out what’s fair compared to other kids and how we will ‘report’ it to whoever might need to know. We don’t load him up with threats and potential consequences, say to him   ‘This is your last chance. Tomorrow we are moving on to talking and if you don’t show us you can walk I’m afraid you will not be allowed to go to that class.’

The purpose of assessment is so well established now – anyone in any facet of the education business cannot have missed this conversation that has been going on for decades; the Black and William ‘Inside the Black Box’  seminal research gave it the impetus to leap forward…and that was in 1998!

We know that assessment is essentially a feedback loop.  We work on helping kids to learn something, give them specific, corrective feedback along the way, WITH NO PENALTY, ever.  There is simply no place for penalty in this learning process in schools.  We are not talking here about no consequences for behaviors that are harmful to others, or simply ethically wrong.  We are talking about schools, places of ‘learning’ for people who have not yet learned.  That’s why they come to school – not to prove that they have learned but to actually learn.

There are so many practices in our schools- especially secondary, but primary as well- that are driven by the notion that penalty and learning can and should cohabitate.  Any educator reading this fill the list – from restricting access to courses of study to falsely assuming no learning has occurred because the particular  work the teacher wanted produced  was not and so on  Attaching penalty to the natural human condition of learning, as my 10 year old grandson would say is just ‘wrong’.

Letting go of that premise will free us to truly explore that nature of assessment and hopefully design many more helpful and compatible strategies.