When data signals change is needed

A school has had a number of principals, and some years ago was deemed at risk. At that time the school had been in the public spotlight over poor ERO reports and conflict over governance and management issues. Since then the school has moved on to a much happier time. It has enjoyed roll growth, has built a good reputation and is well regarded in the community. A new and experienced principal takes up a position at a school. She finds that, despite appearances, all is not well with the literacy programme.

The honeymoon period

For the first term I could do no wrong – everyone thought I was great: the community, board, staff and the students. I always think the first term at a new school is a time of observing and starting to understand the school culture. That is exactly what I did. This is why they thought I was great. I didn’t try to change anything! During this time I considered how best to set the direction of the school and marry the competing demands: Ministry priorities, community aspirations, staff perceptions and ... a real biggie … the place of literacy learning in a school with focus on curriculum integration. I knew that I needed to start collecting data.

When I became the new principal at this school I was aware that, despite outward appearances, it did not appear to be a moving school. I had taken the position because I wanted the challenge of bringing about change there, of getting it moving. I think I imagined that I could repeat the mechanics of change I had worked at previous schools. I should have realised that change looks and feels different in each situation, and that therefore what worked in one place might not necessarily work in another.

In terms of my leadership during this time I worked with the staff on relationships, positive change and the model we would use for change. I perceive myself as consultative and during this period of time I generally was. The only thing that I did without consultation was to change the seating arrangement of the staffroom! In a sense our culture then was characterised by the eating and drinking habits of the staff – students were sort of a by-product that enabled everyone to have a good time. Still despite my frustrations with our current position I was perceived very positively.

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Confronting the reality

As my view of the school started to form I realised that there were some pressing issues. Alarm bells started to ring when I couldn’t locate any 6 Year Net Observation Surveys results. Classroom management, teaching practice, student management, assessment and monitoring and overall literacy standards were low. Was this because of the focus on curriculum integration? Whilst I professionally believe in curriculum integration I was not sure that we had the right foundations to support it.

At the end of term 2 I began to gather school-wide review data on literacy. The data gathered was extremely helpful in terms of understanding what was happening, and where we had to get to, but I knew it would be very challenging for the staff to digest. Presenting challenging review data is always a time when I have to dig deep. Being presented with data on their teaching and learning, albeit non-evaluatively, is always difficult for a staff to handle the first time. Sometimes I think teachers take criticism better from ERO than from a member within the team.

I determined that the literacy review would not avoid confronting the “non-discussables” like “teachers do not plan for reading at this school”. I knew there would be an issue in terms of climate management once the review was presented to staff.

What was evident from the literacy review was that our students were underachieving in all areas of literacy. There was limited or no planning, no literacy procedures, limited dated resources, poor classroom practice, limited teaching of reading, and appraisal and assessment procedures were non existent. Quite a cheery little package to deliver!

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Just to complicate matters ...

Timing around change management is critical. My thinking about the right time to present the review to staff was thrown with the news that the ERO was planning to review the school close to the start of term 4.

I determined that the best time to present the review to the staff and the Board was before this visit. My reasoning was that we would be in a better position to manage the ERO visit if we could demonstrate that we were moving to address literacy issues based on school review data collection and analysis. I presented the data to staff in the last two weeks of term 3.

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Presenting challenging data to staff

The staff meeting to present the literacy review was very silent. The silence was punctuated by sighs. Teachers looked across the room at each other. Many faces were red with anger and indignation. I tried to pull things together with a discussion about how this review was just a process of looking at how things were across the school in a professional manner. But I knew I had broken the unspoken cultural taboo of criticising the school’s culture. A cruising staff in a cruising school does not take kindly to critical review feedback.

I hadn’t rocked the boat – I‘d sunk it.

However, I had only said what some knew to be true and what others were relieved to have finally out in the open.

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Reflective questions 1

 • What is the problem or issue here? Is there more than one?
 • What would you do at this point if you were in this principal's position?
 • What are the principal's options for dealing with this dilemma?

The fall out

At the end of the meeting Nancy, an experienced teacher, walked into my office and said, “I have never been so humiliated in all my life – you have trampled over my professionalism.” I told her that professionalism was also about professional honesty. I apologised for her hurt feelings but did not apologise or back down from the review.

I wasn’t feeling that perky when I drove home that night. I sensed that the staff would be planning an exit party for me.

On the other hand the board was completely open to the review findings. They’d had a sense that things could be better. They saw the findings as opening an opportunity for improvement. They were absolutely determined that the staff should be given all the support they needed to make changes in response to the review. So, I knew I had the support of the board and senior management team but the new dilemma was how to pull the staff with us.

During the final days of term 3 everything seemed fine on the surface, although I could feel the tension. Three staff complained to the deputy principal about the “insulting” review. The same group, led by Nancy, went to NZEI to see if principals were entitled to review their school.

So, what to do? There were so many issues crowding in.

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Preparing for the ERO visit

How should I handle the ERO visit? Should I give them the literacy review data or should I protect everyone by trying to hide it, and then if they identified the problem say, “Well actually funny you mention it but we’ve identified this problem as well and this is what we propose to do.” The stakes were high. A poor ERO report would once again cause the community to lose confidence and faith in their local school.

If I’m really honest there was also hint of professional ego thrown into this mix too. I knew I had an extremely rigorous ERO team reviewing the school. I had no doubt that they would immediately identify the problem of literacy underachievement. I anticipated that they would then, and rightly so, expect to see evidence of leadership to address these issues. I couldn’t professionally justify not disclosing the data. That course of action would mean ERO would have limited or no confidence in my ability to resolve the issue. I wondered what would happen if the school received a discretionary review? Would the parents walk as they had done years earlier? Our school roll would go down.

On the other hand, if the board and I negotiated with ERO we might be able to find a win-win way forward without coming under public scrutiny again, this time for literacy underachievement.

If we could work it this way I could protect the staff, gain commitment to change and protect the school community’s trust in the school. Such an approach would also protect the board. But how to proceed?

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Reflective questions 2

The principal is confronted by a number of complex and competing issues as she endeavours to make changes that address under-performance. A key factor is that staff have not "listened" to what the data is saying about literacy in the school. How would you have tackled presenting the data to staff? What leadership qualities and practices come into play in a challenging situation like this?

Practitioner comments on dilemma

Principal one

  1. Involving the staff at the earliest possible stages could have given them more ownership over the process and made them less defensive. Teacher change best happens when the teachers discuss the findings themselves, come to their own conclusions and develop a plan for improvement. Examination of own data is a powerful way for this to happen. This culture of sharing does not come overnight but the need to build up systems of peer coaching and support and for it to be emphasised that it’s not about blame it’s about being the best we can be and having the strongest positive influence on student learning and achievement.
  2. One of the ways forward may have been to work with team leaders in sharing the results rather than do it as a whole school. A smaller group is sometimes less threatening. The principal could have worked with leaders to analyse the data and then asked them to do the same thing in their teams, that is, rather than giving teachers the result, get them to go through the analysis themselves and come to the same conclusions. Tightly structured questions or discussion points would lead to consistency and provide a way forward that was staff generated and possibly more powerful than having change done to you. Ownership is key if you want the change to occur.
  3. Another starting point may have been to start by completing a PMI on the school with the staff, students and parents and using this to identify areas of concern and using tests results and observations to triangulate ideas. The literacy team could then have followed up by investigating further.
  4. Sometimes there will be high turnover if staff don’t like what you are doing. When this happens you do have to "hunker down" and weather the storm. At the same time always seek advice to ensure you are following correct procedure, so that when personnel issues arise you know you have done all you could have and that you have documented this well. Always notify your school insurers at the earliest stages of any problems otherwise you may leave yourself exposed.

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Principal two

  1. The principal has to know the staff individually and how they react to change. This makes an important difference in how to approach change and implement professional development. To do this, you have to know what is happening for learning and teaching across the school and within class rooms. How well do you know your individual teachers in view of the questions above?
  2. It is important to progress that you be open to scrutiny. It is through how well the culture of the school and community reacts to the outcomes and process of this scrutiny that we have to assess. It is our reaction as principal that will decide how the school reacts. If we portray these findings clearly as a part of a learning curve with clear strategies for growth and a willingness as a team to be effective then we can make these moments work for us in times of change.
  3. Having open data within teams or across the school is a culture that has to be introduced. The principal’s role here is to think about how to focus team meetings so that the outcomes lead to open reflection. Reading is the focus here and so you would set targets for teacher development and analysis of student learning. The idea is for teachers and teams to come to their own conclusions about the efectiveness of literacy learning and teaching.
  4. Reviewing the school curriculum delivery plan looking specifically at where reading teaching fits in the timetable and expectations of planning is a simple way to develop immediate teacher awareness and review of their teaching practice. Following schoolwide focus in these areas the school then targets the effectiveness of the planning through observation and collation of student data.
  5. When specific teaching is being scrutinised such as the teaching of reading the principal must have communicated a clear plan and ensure it is implemented by staff and advisers who have knowledge and credibility in the subject. All staff have to be fully conversant with the idea that this reading focus is about improving learning outcomes for students and to achieve this on going pedagogy review. This thinking has to be part of school culture if this is to be effective. As the principal where is your staff in their willingness to be part of ongoing development in reading? This should underpin your methodology for undertaking this development and review.
  6. The team leaders and other senior staff must have clear understandings of where the school is at in the area of reading and their role in developing effective learning and teaching. It is very much reliant on them. It is their core responsibility. This has to communicated by the principal from the initial stages of appointment. The senior staff and their understanding of change is a key to successful learning and teaching for this school. Consequently the training has to be on team work and how this affects school culture and change. We move forward together!
  7. By feeding back to the board, in an open manner, on the process of change taking place with reading will enhance their understanding and appreciation of the principal’s role. The board has then a clear picture of the process and where the resourcing needs they will be required to support.
  8. Open communication is a key.

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Leadership adviser

  1. Source some professional reading on school improvement and whole staff professional development.
  2. Contact literacy adviser to talk over data and plan forward.
  3. Make contact with a couple of principals who have been in School Improvement Initiatives to see if they have experienced similar situations and how this was handled.
  4. Meet with board chair to discuss options for pending ERO report.
  5. Meet with staff individually to discuss results and obtain their feedback and comments. Reinforce that the principal’s role is not to target teachers, but to work out together, with staff, how to raise student achievement.
  6. Work towards addressing some possible competency issues. May need to check PM systems are in place and are robust.

Actual courses of action taken by this principal

The board chairperson and I chose to negotiate with ERO over the use of the literacy review. Paul and I met four times with the head reviewer and finally negotiated that the team would review the entire school and then call in all current school-wide review data. They would evaluate our review processes against their findings.

I thought this was a brilliant way of handling the situation. I believed I could protect the staff – and I was right but for the wrong reasons.

The ERO team smelt a problem after the first morning in the school and by the end of three days the head reviewer was itching to sight our review data. Our data confirmed everything that the team had identified. The fact that our review processes were rigorous enabled the ERO team to feel confident that the senior management team, with the full support of the board, could bring about the required changes.

At the feedback meeting the board was told that I would have to address three competency issues – Nancy was in that category. The school was close to being given a discretionary review. Interestingly the staff representative on the board, Nancy, elected not to come to the feedback.

After ERO put all the challenges on the table, the board chairperson and I argued for a different wording of the report. We believed a poor report that made these points would cause a mass exodus of students from the school.

The ERO team agreed to revisit the wording of the report so that it was less condemnatory. They did this because they had confidence in the senior management team and me to bring about the required change. I believed that by protecting staff with a re-worded report we would be better equipped to move forward and that change would be easier to drive.

Well, I was wrong on every count.

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Continued resistance

For the next two years I experienced some of the most difficult times of my career. Staff resistance continued unabated and openly. Identifying and picking open the scab of poor practice had left me exposed and isolated. Members of my senior management team, tight as we were, considered leaving. Nancy actively undermined me in the community and to other staff. She pulled together a team of key resisters and called in the support of ex-board members. There was an unsuccessful petition to return to the status quo.

The board and I received anonymous hate mail. Overall the board was fantastic but at times they wobbled. Looking back I can see that I actually got very little support from my board chairperson. He left the senior management team and me to deal with the conflict.

I can honestly say the senior management team and I were truly professional and never disclosed the extent of the problem, but even if we had spoken out the re-worded ERO report on the school said otherwise.

The re-wording of the report meant that the community did not understand the true urgency of the situation and did not support the changes. Some staff behaved unprofessionally and openly criticised the changes in the community. The competency issues that I knew would have to be addressed were difficult as parents were called in to support teachers.

The decision we made to protect the good reputation of the school was not a good one. The re-worded report and the fact that Nancy had not heard the “real oil” from the ERO feedback allowed some staff to somehow discount the ERO report. It allowed teachers to avoid committing to change and to undermine the senior team.

As I started competency procedures some staff elected to leave thus creating another poor image in the eyes of the community. I recall the horror of my first personal grievance and having to attend mediation.

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Writer's reflection

Challenging the status quo of a cruising school – would I do it differently again? When a school is cruising is there ever a right time to implement change? I think you have to accept that the journey will be tough – tougher than you ever imagined. I think that without great senior management with you the task of re-culturing a cruising school is nearly impossible.

I firmly believe that to bring about effective change you have to work with your staff and give everyone a chance to improve through professional learning. That was my belief then and it is still is now. But the unprofessional behaviour that I dealt with during that period of change challenged every belief about leadership that I had ever held.

A number of years on through courage, conviction, bloody mindedness and hard work we have survived. Student achievement, school tone, climate and teacher practices are strong and healthy. There has been an 80 per cent turn over of staff, which has allowed us to rebuild a new school culture.

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Tags: Assessment and data

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