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Leading for Sustainability

As I write this post I have been off work for a couple of days due to illness. This has got me pondering the issue of sustainability. I am entirely confident that whether I am there or not, very little will change in either school I lead. What is it that gives me confidence, when I meet so many other school leaders who fail to share my optimism?

Firstly, I have a great senior management team who I work closely with, and who, most importantly, have been centrally involved in the identification of how the schools can and will develop. They have helped shape our direction of travel and have challenged my thinking and ideas, and I theirs, as we have developed our collective understanding of what we can do to improve. This gives me great confidence that they understand deeply what we are trying to do, and how we are going to achieve our aims. So, even when I am not in school for any reason, and for any length of time, I have confidence that they have the same clarity as I about where we are in our development journey and our direction of travel. This means they are able to keep working to support colleagues on their own individual journeys.

Like me, my DHT does not have a classroom commitment so how do we ensure that what is going on in classrooms matches what we have been working on? This is an ongoing quandary for all school leaders. I know of lots of colleagues who struggle to be convinced that what they would like to think is happening in classrooms, is what is actually happening in classrooms, especially when they are not around. 'We can't be everywhere all the time' is a common lament. Again, this is not a concern I share. Why not? Well, for similar reasons that I have such confidence in my senior management team. All staff have been involved in identifying where we are in each school, and helped identify and shape how we and they could develop and improve.

Key to this is our recognition that, for us to be really confident that colleagues would embed changes into their practice, then it was crucial for them to identify themselves what they could do to improve.Their professional development is owned by them and not imposed upon them by management. In my experience, when teachers are told they have to do something which they do not agree with, or understand, they will display those behaviours or practices reluctantly when managers and others are around, but as soon as they are on their own they revert to what they know best and are comfortable with. As a result I have long held the view that the very best CPD activities are those that are identified by teachers themselves, not those imposed from outside. CPD should come from within the individual and their own recognition of what they could do to improve their understanding and their practice.

So how did we give colleagues ownership of their own professional development? Well, we asked them to look closely at their own practice in their classrooms, and in particular how this was impacting on learning for their pupils. This is very challenging and requires high levels of support as what colleagues began to discover was that practices they had long subscribed to were not impacting as positively on learning as they believed. However, we all recognised that we each needed to come to that level of realisation before we were at a point of considering how we could improve. To keep this approach manageable and proportionate we asked, and supported, colleagues to look at a small number of their pupils and in just one area of the curriculum. Such an approach is not possible if you're trying to look at all learners and everything you do. What we and they discovered was that keeping the focus small led to more insights into their practice and the learning taking place. What also happened was that such insights and adjustments to understanding and pedagogies had impact in other areas of the curriculum and their teaching.

What we have created through our approach is a culture and ethos amongst colleagues that promotes reflection and adjustment of their own practice. They have become adaptive experts and we have created adaptive expertise across both schools. What we now have are professionals with an active curiosity in how their practice impacts on learning and the desire to make small changes to deliver big improvements. This is entirely driven by their own understanding of where they are and their desire to embrace career-long professional learning. My role is to support them with this and to ensure their new insights, practice and the principles behind are shared with their colleagues. This way, not only do individual teachers learn and develop, they can help inform and share experiences and insights with their colleagues, to help their development.

By adopting the developmental practices we have, we have created self-regulatory dispositions and attitudes in all staff. They don't expect someone else to identify how to keep developing and improving their practice. If they feel, as a result of their enquiries, they need external input, they know how to go about getting this. They have the necessary strategies and experience to solve most of the issues they identify. Those they can't solve themselves, or collaboratively with their colleagues,  are where myself and the management team will support them with. This may involve us in accessing external expert support, but this is becoming a less frequent need.

A word of caution. Where we are has not been achieved overnight. I and the SMThave been working for some years to get where we are now. We needed to spend time building confidence, and almost giving teachers permission to question what they were doing, and why. They had to trust that we would support them and they would not be getting judged over what they discovered about their practice. We have all made mistakes and this is to be expected. We learned from these and moved on. As a result,  all of us have improved and developed our practice, some more than others but that too is to be expected. What I do know is that changes are embedded in practice of each teacher and have just become part of how they deliver well thought out and impactful learning experiences for their pupils.

In my view, this is the only way to produce sustainability in terms of teacher and school development. It's not about doing lots of 'things' but about each teacher looking closely at their own practice and identifying how they might improve. Not through major and complete change to what they may have done successfully for a number of years, but at small incremental and informed changes that can lead to deep impacts for learners. It has to be part of what they do as professionals throughout their careers,and my role is to help and support them for the betterment of them as individuals and the schools I lead.

When I get back to school, I suppose some things will have changed, because everyone will have moved on a little in their understanding and their practice. It's what we do.

Some suggested reading:
GTCS Professional Standards, Career Long Professional Learning, Management and Leadership 2013
A background paper to inform the development of a national framework for teachers and school leaders by Helen Timperley
The Teaching and Learning Project by GTCE

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