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School leaders: who sits at your table? And four more questions for the new year

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 3 January 2019

Zachary Walker. 
Every generation brings new faces, new ways of thinking and new challenges into our classrooms. In order to prepare students for the dynamic, exciting world they are entering, it is important that we understand and honour this generation of learners. We can do this, in part, by questioning our own ways of thinking. As school leaders prepare for 2019, I’d like to propose you ask yourselves the following five questions:
Are you acknowledging reality?
The number of unique mobile users (individuals owning a mobile device) was up again in 2018 and now 75% of the UK population owns a mobile phone. We use mobile phones for social activities, directions, work, entertainment, shopping, and countless other activities. But schools are often the one place we do not allow the use of mobile devices. 
If our students are to learn how to use these devices appropriately, responsibly, and productively, it is important that we teach them how to do so. We can walk into any workplace in the UK (and most of the world) and find mobile devices being used for work. Does your school reflect this? What strategies have your teachers started using to ensure that students know how to use their devices effectively that connect with this 21st Century phenomenon?
What are you learning that is new?
One of the things we constantly talk about in education is modelling behaviour for our students. We often ask our students to go into the unknown, learn new things, and make themselves vulnerable in front of their peers. How are you stretching yourself? What are you modelling for your staff? Are you learning to dance? Taking up a musical instrument? Enjoying a new sport? Using a new educational app? What are you reading that is for growth, not just fun (although I do love a good novel too)? Have you taken up anything new in the last year that reminds you how hard it is to learn and helps you connect better with your students? As one of my mentors always says, “You have to be what you want to see.”   
What are three evidence-based practices that your school/classroom is based on?
Now more than ever, this is an important question for school leaders. If a new parent came into your office and asked you what research your school bases its teaching on, how would you reply? Perhaps your answer would include understanding that good teaching includes movement, or the importance of formative feedback, or the ability for staff to make their own curricular decisions. What is your school known for pedagogically? What additional things would you like it to be known for? What steps are needed to get you there? As school leaders it is important that we keep up with evidence-based practices so that we can share them with teachers. What is different now than it was a year ago in your school? If you already have evidence-based practices being used in your school, can your staff communicate those? We have to create our own story based on our evidence-based practices or someone else will do it for us.
Are you making decisions based on the 5%?
If you take any group of people (e.g. students, workers, family members), 5% of them will usually go against the grain in every way. In the classroom, this manifests itself in maladaptive behaviour. With teachers, it can pop up by not following procedures, responding negatively when you make a request, or even tardiness and absenteeism from meetings; The problem that we have in schools is that we often base our school rules on that 5%. We take away really great learning opportunities from 95% of our kids because we are so concerned about the 5%. 
This is especially true with mobile devices and behavior. We make all kids put away their phones and tablets because a few may use them inappropriately. We would not suspend all students because two of them got into a fight. In a similar vein, perhaps we should consider only taking phones away from those who use them inappropriately or break the rules. Otherwise, we may be depriving our students of great learning opportunities that will excite them and better prepare them for the society they are about to enter. Does your school create policy based on the 5% or based on what is best for student preparation overall?
Who sits at your table?
Finally, one of the things that is incredibly important is the concept of your table.  If you had a major decision to make in your life, who would you invite to sit at your table?  Similarly, when you are faced with a dilemma at work or you need to make a tough decision about a staff member, who do you go to? A sage pastor in Thailand once noted that he always tries to have five people he can rely on. For me, those five would be  someone older and wiser, someone you are mentoring, someone who cares deeply about your personal life (not just your professional one), someone from a different racial or ethnic background, and your hero (even though you may not actually know them). Have you put together your table? Sometimes we feel we have to do it all on our own, but people want to help us if they are invited. Not only are these individuals important for our mental health but they also can have a critical and helpful role in our job performance.  
As you reflect on these questions, it is important to consider what you have or have not been able to accomplish this year and why.  When we work on one thing at a time, we can make important progress. Some will be easy (creating your table, learning something new) and some are more difficult to implement (policy and rule changes, deciding which evidence-based practices your school wants to be known for) but it is important that we make the commitment to move forward. A little at a time, a little each day can contribute to impressive change over time. I feel confident that in January 2020, you will be able to look back at all the significant progress you have made this year.
This item first appeared here and reflects on a talk given by the author at the 2017 AHDS Conference in Glasgow
Photo: Chris Kim via Flickr Creative Commons 

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