Starting the journey
When taking up responsibilities at a new school, school leaders need to get things moving quickly while also taking stock in a measured way. How do you strike the right balance? Andy Homden talked to Dr. Tassos Anastasiades, who has just taken up the Directorship of Ajman Academy.
Focus and support
Anastasiades knows what he wants to achieve in a school for which he has responsibility. He also knows that that he needs to win trust and build confidence because the kind of changes needed to move a school forward will not always be easy:
“Development plans should not be over-complicated” he argues “perhaps a single page of A4” And there will be a great deal for staff to think about:
“Ultimately, an outstanding school puts students in change of their own learning. Teachers will need to take risks as they take this on board. It’s my job not only to ask people to change, but to support them as they do so”.
Leaders of learning
He makes every effort to get to know his staff quickly, identifying the people who are prepared to take a few risks sooner rather than later. He then works with them so that they can become the school’s “learning leaders”, helping their colleagues to move forward.
Five key ideas
What are the “big ideas” he wants staff to use?
“The most important is the idea of progress. Once students start making progress, then attainment takes care of itself”. It seems so simple, but there are challenges.
“People tend to be concerned with where students ought to be rather than where they actually are. If starting points for lesson planning are unrealistic, students will not make progress. External pressures make this worse of course – if there is an inspector or a visitor in the class, teachers are loath to give the impression that students are performing one or two grades below expectations.”
But if that’s where students are, he argues, better to recognise it and get on with things accordingly: “Accept the realities of the situation and move on. If you don’t you will never be able to ask students to take responsibility for their own learning. You will pitch your teaching at an inappropriate level, progress becomes all but impossible and students lose heart because they cannot see the progress they want so much”.
What about high expectations?
Does this mean abandoning high academic expectations? Anastasiades is clear:
“Not at all – quite the opposite. But high expectations must be seen in a longer-term context. Ultimately students will exceed expectations – you just have to start at the right place.”
You can see why this is hard. Teachers take their responsibilities very seriously and if the kids are having trouble, we try to do everything we can to support them. “All too often” Anastasiades suggests, ”this involves the wrong sort of support. The awful thing is that people can burn themselves out by pitching a lesson inappropriately and then finding that they have to do everything for their students as a result”.
Having accepted the importance of progress, and the need for realistic starting points in order to make effective learning interventions, Anastasiades wants people to track student progress accurately.
“For this” he suggests, “regular, varied assessment is necessary. Different kinds of assessment will give you different data, and this is important. It’s a question of using the results to triangulate the student’s position in relation to where she or he started, so that the most effective intervention can be planned, and thus enabling further progress to be made. Once this process is embedded, the rate of progress is accelerated until, ultimately, expectations are exceeded.”
Turning teaching into learning
It is not always easy: “There are two problems Anastasiades suggests. First, staff need to reconceptualise the idea of how they must teach, and this is tough. Secondly, they must also accept that students in any given class can be at very different points in their learning and have to be supported differently– that’s just the way it is. These difficulties are offset, however, by ensuring assessment and data tracking systems are as simple as they can be. ”
Once everyone – and by this he means everyone, including students – understands the central importance of “progress” and when effective tracking is embedded, he argues that students can start to take responsibility for their own learning:
“They become aware of what they don’t know and will plan what they have to do to move forward”
They have to be allowed the space to do so and the role of the teacher begins to change.
“Once most of the students are aware of their own learning needs and are taking responsibility for them, a school can start to consider itself to be outstanding”
He ought to know. He’s been there before, and if we don’t want to take his word for it, objective – and even critical – observers have passed judgements that shows that in the real world this works.
“If staff are prepared to have faith, struggle a little with the conceptual adjustments needed and then put their trust in the students themselves I believe a school has every chance of becoming ‘outstanding’ – and the whole process must start as soon as possible”.
Dr. Tassos Anastasiades was speaking to ITM’s Andy Homden
Dr. Anastasiades is speaking at the Ed Ex Mena K-12 Leaders Forum in Dubai during EdEx Mena at the Conrad Hotel Dubai, November 21 – 24 2016