“We have had to have courage – courage to reflect on best practice teaching, courage to embody strong leadership and courage to remain committed to the enduring principles of a Jesuit education.”
Last year the Senior Campus underwent an extensive Position of Leadership review. Over a period of twelve months we looked at our existing structures and asked how we might do things better, for the sake of our students and as a means of improving student outcomes. One of the key shifts has been in the area of Teaching and Learning, with a more pronounced focus on the ways in which teachers can work collaboratively and collegially under the re-imagined leadership of Leaders of Learning Areas. Even the change in title is suggestive of our renewed focus, as we allocated these Leaders more time to work with their staff and to lead aspirationally. This is compared to our previous model, which was based on a largely managerial framework. As leaders in a school, tension always exists between the managerial and structural requirements of a role and the need to lead with passion, with vision and with heart.
We wanted the academic leaders of our school to be excellent practitioners and experts in their area, but we also expect them to be able to marry the pastoral needs of students with their academic formation and achievement. One such way this occurs in schools is from establishing Communities of Practice, where groups of teachers form non-faculty based groups and explore a question or a concept together, with the aim of improving their teaching practice and consequentially improving student outcomes. This is a very strong focus for our Professional Learning program in 2017 and as a consequence we are starting to look at ways in which our Heads of Learning Areas will be able to lead this in their own domains, but also as leaders of learning throughout the whole school. Chris Lowney says that ‘we are all leaders, leading all the time’ and this extends significantly into these roles. We will be opening the doors to classrooms, both literally and metaphorically, establishing ongoing conversations about contemporary learning in boys’ education and ways in which we can extend and enrich the learning experience for all students.
Whilst Communities of Practice (CoP) or Professional Learning Communities (PLC) have become widely recognised as being great vehicles for educational and systematic change, well known education researcher John Hattie stressed that we need to be careful that these networks do not become the latest ‘silver bullet’. Instead we need to utilise these new practices and create new forces that strengthen the leadership and collective efficacy of teachers to make a difference in the learning of all students.
Ideally we will see these outcomes:
- identifying and sharing specific instructional practices that impact learning;
- protocols for sharing data that demonstrate evidence of impact;
- consensus that teachers, school leaders and schools collaborate with others on what and how to teach;
- and seeking expertise wherever it can be found inside or outside the school.
Steve Munby and Michael Fullan’s paper ‘Inside out and Downside Up’ (2016) explores this in more depth and asks the most important question when facilitating change: how do we get from here to there? How do we move from a single focus on top-down accountability or on bottom-up incoherence and variability? We need to enable our teachers to ‘lead from the middle’, empowering them to become the experts in collaboration and collegial conversations and to work together for the collective improvement of the College. Our basic change principle is that all effective change processes shape and reshape ideas as they build capacity and shared ownership. We might call this joined-up, transparent effort to achieve system-wide impact, connected autonomy. Autonomy is a tricky concept in school and system improvement. When the term autonomy is used individuals and subgroups sometimes think this means total freedom. In ‘leadership from the middle’ they are responsible for and indeed required to connect with others in a joint, transparent effort to examine and improve practices that increase collective efficacy in schools within the Communities of Practice.
As a College and as a Campus we are deliberately changing the conversation around teaching and learning. As John Cantwell writes in Leadership in Action, we may need to ‘be prepared to break some things in order to build.’ We may break some existing practices and even some roles, but we are rebuilding teaching and learning for the greater good and for all students in our care. This ‘breaking’ of pre-existing structures of internal leadership will lead to a more transparent view of what leading learning looks like in our specific context.
Coupled with the above physical shift in structure and nature of roles, we are now able to move towards a concomitant opportunity to embed a truly meaningful system of formative review for our teachers. In essence, the internal leadership restructure has, at a symbolic and practical level, placed the teaching and learning of our students at the forefront of the conversation at the College. Whilst the teaching and learning program naturally is placed at the centre of the formation of our students, the restructure and refocus has crystallised this and more importantly will see a significant shift in how we approach and prioritise teaching and learning at the College. Rather than focusing on what we teach, the emphasis will now be firmly on how we teach and how we can always be doing it better. Appreciably, pedagogy will replace process.
Any significant institutional structural change requires courage, discernment and reflection. As educators committed to providing the best possible educational experience for our students, we have reflected on research that clearly supports the proposition that schools which prioritise teaching and learning and the educational leadership of their staff will improve student outcomes. We have practised discernment through an extensive consultation process, asking ourselves the difficult questions around what it is we value and “do we really do as we say?” In order to do this we have had to have courage – courage to reflect on best practice teaching, courage to embody strong leadership and courage to remain committed to the enduring principles of a Jesuit education, Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam, for the greater glory of God.
In this blog series entitled “Conversations in Context: Teaching and Learning in a Jesuit School” or in short “Teaching and Learning in Context” we present articles written by Melinda Roberts. These originally appeared in Xavier College’s fortnightly newsletter, written for the school community and published on the school website. We are happy to share these with the wider Jesuit education community. To read the previous blog click here.
Melinda Roberts is the Head of Teaching & Learning at Xavier College in Melbourne, an all-boys Jesuit high school in Australia. In the last twelve months, she has led a number of significant changes at a physical, philosophical and ultimately cultural level, with the aim of ensuring Xavier remains committed to its mission of excellence in education and the formation of reflective, compassionate and articulate men and women of Christian faith, hope and love who will provide outstanding service and leadership in our world, while still producing excellent academic results. Her articles in this blog series provide an insight into this challenge, one which is invariably shared by Jesuit schools across the globe.