Who is going to create the change we need in education?
By Linda Stade
Education carries an enormous burden of expectation. It has long been seen as the silver bullet that will cure all that ails society.
It is believed that education can improve mental health, create empathy, and reduce prejudice. It can create a society that collaborates, problem-solves, and is creative in its approach to big problems and small. Education is seen as the key to building a future rather than destroying it.
However, most people also recognise our education system itself is flawed. It is serving too many masters with too few resources. If the system is ever to meet the expectations of society, it needs to evolve.
Who can make that change to education? It won’t be over-simplified decrees by governments, nor will it be social commentators, and certainly not those chipping away at schools in the comments section. It won’t even be researchers in universities who too often fail to see the multi-layered, dynamic, and complicated ecology that is each individual school.
Lourdes Hill College Principal, Robyn Anderson says, “Change happens when passionate educators come together and want something great for their students and their colleagues. If you want to change education, you must create an environment where passionate teachers are supported in bringing their ideas to life.”
Ms Anderson has been an educator for 43 years. This year she retires and takes with her an enormous body of experience and understanding. However, she leaves behind a legacy of thought-full leadership and the structures required to empower staff to make change.
The evolution of great teachers
It takes a long time to become a powerful, student-centred educator, but that evolution is vital. Teachers tend to work through several phases over the course of a career.
Naturally, teachers begin by worrying about their own skills and what they are doing and saying in the classroom. They gradually come to terms with the workload, the expectations of others, and the busyness of schools – It sounds like, “Am I doing a good job?”
Next, the concern becomes more about the other side of the desk. How are students progressing with their learning? How are they achieving in their assessment? – It sounds like, “Is the student doing a good job?”
With experience, teachers come to recognise that this whole process is about sharing time and space with a young person who is a whole human. They recognise their role as a mentor with expertise in helping students move forward socially, emotionally, morally, and academically. These teachers also recognise themselves as learners. It sounds like “I have an opportunity to foster the growth of another human.”
Some educators will then become part of the school leadership group. At that point, they are better positioned to help other educators evolve. They can also create an innovative school culture and offer the support and structures that empower teachers to do great things. But how?
The role of school leaders
Ms Anderson believes the role of a principal is to do the thinking about education. “You can’t just keep on doing the fixing. If education is to change, we must look at the research, look at what works and what doesn’t in our own environment, and then do the thinking. We then need to empower and trust passionate, student- centred teachers.”
When asked for an example, Ms Anderson talks about Lourdes Hill College’s Ongoing School Renewal Process. It sounds like a religious service or a retreat, but it is in fact, a formalised school culture that is committed to constant review and improvement. It is grounded in deep, conceptual visioning, robust professional conversations, and the challenging of traditional mind models.
If that sounds full-on, then good. It is supposed to be. Major educational change requires ‘full-on’.
How does school renewal work?
Engagement with the School Renewal Process is not mandatory at Lourdes Hill College. This ensures staff and students involved are engaged and passionate, not just ticking a box.
Ms Anderson explains, "A staff-led Steering Group identifies two or three areas of College life to review and renew. Participants in a particular Renewal Group undertake research using an Appreciative Inquiry model and make recommendations for improvement to the College Leadership Team and Staff. College action projects are developed using those recommendations and again volunteer staff develop team-based action plans."
These plans are termed ‘new pathways’ rather than projects. This reinforces the mindset that change is ongoing, it is not just introducing a new project and then the process ends.
The teams at Lourdes Hill College are working on renewal pathways including:
The Inclusion and Diversity Action Plan Group – focused on the College’s culture around gender and sexual identity, and
The Reconciliation Action Plan Group – focused on the College’s response to reconciliation and closing the gap.
What does a change culture look like?
What does a progressive school environment look like? Ms Anderson says there are three things that school administrations can do to support positive change:
1. Create a culture of innovation. You set up spaces and professional development that support positive change.
2. Staff members need to know that when they commit to an idea with time and passion, the administration will support them in bringing it to life. Too many great ideas are left to die on an administrator’s shelf.
3. Find time for staff who are invested in ideas that will benefit students and colleagues. Time is the magic ingredient. If a staff member or group of staff are prepared to volunteer time, then admin need to support them by finding time too.
The window of opportunity
As I’ve said, it takes a long time for a teacher to come to a place where they can ‘do the thinking’ about education with the student at the centre of that thinking. There is a limited window that needs to be capitalised on.
When asked about this dilemma Ms Anderson says, “A new pathway, program, or any change in a school, needs more than one champion. You must share the dream and the commitment to the work, otherwise, as soon as you walk away the initiative will collapse. Your work must survive beyond you. That must be built into the processes.”
So, it seems, improving education is going to be an inside job. There will be no front-page announcement about the person who changed everything. Change will be achieved by groups of educators who are prepared to quietly nudge away at the system until small movements add up to seismic shifts… Educators like Ms Anderson and her staff.
“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
Harry S. Truman