Harnessing the Power of Parents on the Journey to Innovation

Despite the push for innovation in our schools, many parents remain committed to the value of a traditional education and can sometimes represent a hurdle in the change process, particularly in independent schools. Persuading parents that educational practices need to change, both dramatically and quickly, if students are to be prepared for the unknown future is challenging but is also key in moving schools forward.

We know that we most value what we understand best and what parents understand best, in this context, is the kind of education they received when they were at school. The provision of a solid academic education, that will lead to the good grades students need to enable them to enter top universities, is the driving force of most independent school parents.

Throughout my years as a principal, I have learned that academic excellence, creativity, innovation and enjoyment are not mutually exclusive concepts. At least they don’t have to be if the curriculum is integrated, well-planned and balanced. In fact there is plenty of research to demonstrate that opportunities for creativity improve grades, that engagement and motivation are key to maximising students’ potential and that top universities seek out students whose talents go beyond good grades. The role of school leaders is to help parents to understand this better by joining the dots for them and explicitly setting out the  benefits of more innovative approaches to learning.

Parental concerns about traditional, core skills permeate independent schools the world over. Even parents who choose a more progressive curriculum, such as that offered by IB schools, desire traditional literacy and numeracy skills to be taught, in ways that may have been discredited by academic research as ineffective or demotivating. This is particularly the case in elementary schools where the push for innovation can be met with fear on the part of some parents.

At the recent Global Education Leadership Summit in Bangkok, a forum of some of the most innovative schools in the world, it was interesting to note the emphasis placed upon standards based curricula as a crucial underpinning of innovation. Furthermore, the World Economic Forum’s 21st Century Skills clearly label Foundational Competencies, including literacy, numeracy and science, as playing a key role in future-ready education. So parents have nothing to fear in this regard. Core skills are still as relevant as ever. The role of the school leadership team is to shape these understandings for parents.

Of course the type of core skills students need to be successful in the future may differ from what some parents expect to see. In mathematics, the emphasis needs to be shifting from knowledge and application to developing thinking and understanding through problem solving , while in literacy students need to be able to communicate in a range of media and distinguish between real and fake “facts”. Parents need support in understanding what core competencies their children need and also the importance that other 21st century skills play in preparing them for the future.

Listening to and understanding parents’ concerns, bringing them into the conversation and  sharing the need for and purpose of change is essential . If the message is crafted well, school leaders can create among parents a sense of urgency for the need for change and excite them about the possibilities, turning these key stakeholders into innovation’s biggest advocates.

Understanding Teachers’ Emotions while Leading Change

140625-F-UN284-185As school leaders, we accept that pedagogical change is hard for some teachers but do we really attempt to understand why? Unwanted change is difficult for everyone. As Michael Fullan points out, thousands of people are told by their doctors each day that if they don’t change their lifestyles, their lives might be at risk. Yet many are unable to implement the  modifications needed.

Those who work in business are amused and baffled by the resistance we encounter when trying to implement change in schools. The corporate approach to change-making is much more clinical and ruthless. What many fail to understand is that teaching is a deeply emotional practice.  Teachers continually tap into their emotional resources in order to support the children in their care. Teachers are special people who spend their lives, nurturing and planning for the growth of others. Their emotions are often, necessarily, closer to the surface than those of other professionals.  Teachers’ professional and personal identities are also more closely woven together than other professionals.  Their role defines not just what they do for a living but the very essence of who they are.

A few weeks ago,  I was studying the expressions of teachers as their students performed in a talent show. It is hard to describe the intensity of the pride, encouragement and sheer joy on the teachers’ faces as they hung on every note sang or played. These are people who care with every ounce of their being and work with the utmost commitment and dedication, truly believing that the practices they employ in their classrooms bring out the best in each student and help them to realise their full potential.

School leaders understand  the need to continually push forwards in schools, to meet the changing needs of our students and many teachers strive to continuously bring innovative approaches into their classroom. However, for some, when administrators or colleagues suggest that there may be a better way to do things, this is seen as a criticism of a teacher’s professional practice but, worse still, l it can be interpreted as an attack on teachers’ personal identity, their true self.

I try to view the positive emotions that teachers channel in support of their students’ growth and the negative emotions some exhibit during the change process as two sides of the same coin. It is unrealistic to expect that all teachers can turn off the emotional tap and engage in purely rational debate when it comes to discussions about their classroom practice.

In order to move pedagogy forward, school leaders need to understand the emotional landscape of their schools and  value teachers’ emotions as a resource, rather than viewing them as a barrier to change. No matter how good we are at formulating a vision and setting out a plan for change, only teachers can implement these changes in the classroom. To avoid teachers paying only lip service to the change process then reverting to what they know best, we need to tap into what motivates each individual  and ensure that change is a positive experience for them, drawing not their deep knowledge and providing structures for support and inspiration. Regardless of how time consuming and exhausting this may be, it is the only guaranteed route to success.