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Rigorous Relationships: Lessons from One of the Best Schools in Switzerland

Rigorous Relationships: Lessons from One of the Best Schools in Switzerland

Olaf and I were wrapping up our time together when I asked him a final question, “What makes an excellent teacher?”

“There is not ‘the excellent teacher,’” he said. “There is the teacher who can make a connection with the students. The student has the feeling that, ‘he likes me.’ He can be hard, he can be loud, but the student always has to have the feeling that, ‘he likes me.’ This is the relationship piece.” He went on to add that the teacher should know their subject and how to make it exciting. They should know ‘how we talk’ at the school, and they should add insight to school discussions. But it was clear that the relationship between students and teachers was the keystone for everything else.

As soon as Elizabeth and I decided to focus this trip on education, we knew that we had to go to Switzerland. According to the last PISA test (talked about here), Swiss teenagers are both the happiest and highest performing students in Europe. We would have been happy to visit any school, but we were lucky enough to be invited to Ruggenacher, which had recently been nominated as one of the best schools in Switzerland.

Olaf, the school principal, picked us up from the train in his Nissan Leaf. During the short drive to the school, we made small talk about our trip and the unusually warm weather. Once in his office, he gave us some materials and started to explain the approach of the school, “We think the most important thing is to have a good relation from teacher to student. If there’s a good relation, and if teachers are in their topics very well, then we have a good school. That’s the bottom of our thinking.”

students at a school in switzerland

Switzerland is known for its affluence and this is one of its best schools so, we were somewhat surprised to learn about Ruggenacher’s demographics. The majority of the students are working class and over half are from immigrant families. Olaf spoke as much about the supports offered to students who act out or fall behind, as he did about anything else. On the way back to the train station, he told a story about a representative from PISA who came to visit. He asked the man about how he can tell if a school is good or not. “It’s all in how a school treats the bottom 10%. That is everything,” he said.

Now, I’ve heard lots of schools talk about the importance of relationships, but how this priority actually looks in a school can be a tricky question. I asked Olaf what they do to make sure relationships are a lived priority in the school, not just words in a vision. He was quick with examples.

  • Longevity. Instructionally the school is organized into ‘Lelas.’ These are groups of 3-4 teachers who follow students for their 3 years at the school. So, a class of students will have the same three teachers for their entire time at the school. In this way, teachers are able to build strong relationships with each child. The lelas also have a lot of autonomy to plan instruction and come up with support systems for individual students who need it. As Olaf said, “We have no change. It’s very important that we have stability in all of these groups. That’s the point, and why I think we are quite a good school. Because we have good teachers and they work together for a very long time.”
  • Student Coaching. Every four weeks each student has a meeting to discuss with their ‘coach/advisor’ about how they are doing and what their next steps are. If a student needs it, these meetings can be more frequent, sometimes 2-3 times a week. The teachers get special PD on how to facilitate these coaching sessions effectively in both the short and long-term.

desk at school in switzerland

  • Independent time. There are large rooms at Ruggenacher that are filled with 50 student cubicles each. All 50 students are never here at once, so they could share, but Ruggenacher knows that having their ‘own space’ is important to teenagers. Students can personalize their cubicles with photos and their organization chart. Each student spends 7-8 hours a week here and they’re able to manage their own work time. Of course, they’re responsible to complete work, but they have freedom in how they prioritize their tasks. It’s basically a study hall, but taken much more seriously. I think it’s interesting that Olaf mentioned this as part of the relationship strategy. It’s part of a deeper understanding that we saw in Switzerland that, increased responsibility can strengthen a student’s relationship with school. We asked students what they thought of this time and they lit up. It’s clearly one of their favorite parts of the day.
  • Earned Privileges. Students who show they are ‘good’ by being respectful and curious can earn extra privileges like the ability to take home a digital device or get a pass to stay inside during recess. In the US we often take privileges away for misbehavior. I think I like the idea of earning privileges with good behavior better. Students may earn one distinction but not another, and very few students have them all.
  • Respect. The most important aspect of student-teacher relationships at Ruggenacher is something that Olaf mentioned several times: students and teachers can talk with each other. Their communications aren’t defined by a power dynamic, their defined by a mutual respect. This piece is necessary to make everything else work, “Strong teachers can talk with students eye-to-eye. You don’t have so much ‘Teacher and Student.’ They can discuss as normal people should discuss. So the students, you will see, they are difficult in some situations, but mostly you can talk with them. From the first day they come to us they are partners. You can feel it.”

It’s true, we could feel it. The students at Ruggenacher are no different than students at any other school we’ve visited, but unlike students at schools with similar demographics they feel that school is for them. They feel that school is on their side, and they feel this way because of how they are treated when they’re there. Relationships are a priority and the systems of the school actually reflect that priority. Of course, there are other factors in Ruggenacher’s success and we’ll talk about them in future posts, but positive relationships, Olaf insists, are the foundation of everything.

  • Will
Charity v. Solidarity: Creating a Community School in Rural Malawi

Charity v. Solidarity: Creating a Community School in Rural Malawi

One of the first things ‘Love Support Unite’ did when they began working with the school in Mkunku village, Malawi was to create a women’s group. They had noticed that women didn’t speak up in the larger community meetings so, they wanted to create a space where women could share their thoughts and experiences. Here women could support one another and speak freely about taboo topics such as sexual abuse and their role in the community.

After the women’s group was established, the organizers at Love Support Unite noticed that women began to speak up more in the larger community meetings. At one meeting, there was talk about new construction related to the school. The male leaders declared that the women would carry the water necessary to make the bricks. In the past, this sort of direction went unchallenged. But on this day, the women spoke up. They said that only some women would carry the water and stipulated that they would not do so during the hottest hours in the middle of the day. The men would need to adjust their schedules around what the women were willing to do.

I love this story. It’s a story of women standing up for themselves in a community where their voices have not been historically valued. But it’s also a story of how outsiders can believe deeply in the importance of local self-determination without sacrificing their own commitment to cross-cultural rights like women’s empowerment.

We met with Lara, the co-founder of LSU, at a small table in the eating area of our hostel. She wore a purple t-shirt and spoke with passion about LSU’s approach to their work, “The village will say, ‘We need desks for the school, can you give us desks?’ And we have to remind them that we don’t give away resources. That’s not the type of work that we do.” This frustration with the historical approach to aid in Africa was echoed by another non-profit director we met. She said, “It’s difficult to teach people to grow their own food when, the next week, UNICEF or Feed the Children might show up and say, ‘Don’t worry about growing your own food. Here’s a check, go buy some.’”

School in Malawi

The type of work LSU does has less to do with resources and more to do with sharing technical knowledge and facilitating conversations. They bring in volunteers from England, but the community always does the vast majority of the work to keep the projects growing. Their greatest contribution seems to be expanding the community’s idea of what’s possible.

Of course, all of this work is centered around the new village school. Mkunku is operating in a context where they can’t expect anything from the government. This reality has forced the community to come together to problem solve a variety of challenges. The result is a school that’s remarkable in many ways. 1) The community built it, literally from dirt and water. 2) They are beginning to grow food to feed the students and the teachers. 3) They want to grow excess food to sell to be able to pay the teachers. 4) They are starting small businesses such as, a solar powered phone charging station and barber shop to further finance teachers and the school as a whole. 5) There are no desks, and that’s ok for now. Active engagement has a far more powerful effect on a school than material resources.

I find Mkunku a remarkable story. It’s a story that’s left me pondering the power of a community to find solutions when the possibility of resources from the government is written off completely. It has me thinking more deeply about what it means for a school to be part of a community, or more specifically, how a community can be part of its school.

  • Will

Photo Credit: Emma Scarborough

Educator Voices: What’s the Purpose of Education?

Educator Voices: What’s the Purpose of Education?

Whenever we visit a school we try to make our questions responsive to that school’s unique context. But there are a few questions that we like to ask everywhere we go. This is the first in a series where we compile the voices of the people we’ve met around those questions.

First up: What is the Purpose of Education?

Miluska, Instructional Coach with Ensena Peru:

“To help form people who are sensitive to the needs of others and the feelings of other people. Also, there’s a lot of social responsibility. There are always challenges to accomplish this; the labors of a teacher, not enough time, documents… But we need to better prioritize. We need to ask what our children need.”

Elementary Teacher at SPARK Schools in Johannesburg, South Africa:

“We’re not teaching content. We’re using the content to develop skills where they can use those skills in different areas. So, yes, the content is important, but that’s not our main focus. It’s equipping students with skills and personality traits so that they can deal with conflict so that they can independently go into university and be successful. So, it’s teaching them those additional critical thinking skills, problem solving skills and using the content to drive their development with that.”

Shaun Simpson, Headmaster of Rondebosch Boys High School in Cape Town, South Africa:

“You often read things that say, ‘The days of the teacher as the holder of information who gives it to the kids who are the receivers, those days are over now. It’s the time of the kids engaging and the teacher being a facilitator.’ That’s the sort of talk, and I agree with that. I don’t necessarily disagree with that… But intelligent conversation requires having a little bit of knowledge about a number of things. I don’t want to be standing as a stunned interloper in a conversation thinking, ‘I’ll quickly google that thing.’ Education should give you a very broad grounding to interact, to be able to draw from different places. When you listen to intelligent people speaking, they don’t just speak about their specific area knowledge. They draw from everything to make their points. And I think we’re doing kids a real disservice if we say that, ‘We don’t need to give the knowledge. We don’t need to give them information anymore.’ We’d live in a void.”

Senora Mamani, Principal of a school in Arequipa, Peru:

“Education is the only way for children to progress, to move forward and achieve big things in their life.”

Javier, English Teacher at Domingo Santa Maria in Arica, Chile:

“School, besides giving content and showing the way, needs to be inspiring. Yes, we should be inspirational, not just informative. And we should always help develop and cultivate values, human values. We should help students see the joy of finishing work. Now, they just do it because it’s graded or to avoid punishment. We need to get students to embrace learning for its own sake. Schools should be taught how to do that.”

Mr. Bamda, Head Teacher at a rural school outside Nkhata Bay, Malawi:

“As a developing country we have problems in our villages. We need leaders who can actually lead people into doing the right things. A good leader thinks of his or her own people. What are the problems they’re facing? How can those problems be sorted out? We are looking at that. If you can entrench someone who can look at the needs of the community, the needs of the village the needs of the family, then you’ll be achieving something substantial for development.”

Shannon Watt, Head of Elementary at Southern Cross in Santiago, Chile

“To help students acquire knowledge and common social skills that will enable them to be good citizens and help this country grow… As a whole, education should be the way a country helps itself be what it is.”

___

These are lofty, and surprisingly consistent, ideas about education. For me, they underscore the fact that there are two seismic shifts taking place in the relationship between education and the greater world. The first shift is social. Paul Griffin pointed out at the very beginning of this trip that, schools today have a greater obligation to create community and teach character than they ever have before. People point to a variety of reasons for this: parents are working more and there are more single parent homes, neighborhoods are more isolated and community organizations are on the decline, students socialized in virtual communities are slower to learn the physical and verbal cues that are such an important part of polite interaction, and there’s a growing recognition that ‘soft skills’ are just as important for success as knowledge. In this environment, the school has become a clear center of community and an obvious place for social-emotional development to be considered in a patient and deliberate way.

The second shift is economic. CEOs have been saying for years now that, skills like critical thinking and the ability to work in teams to solve problems, will only become more central to their work in the decades to come. Managers now focus less on how to do something and more on just what needs to be done. Even entry level positions require people to be able to think creatively. People on a factory floor used to be engaged in repetitive movements, but now they must diagnose and solve problems on their own.

And so, education is changing in fundamental ways. Or rather, we know education should be changing in fundamental ways. Unfortunately, the education community tends to be more thoughtful with goals than execution. As Dee Moodley pointed out, “Listen, people always say, ‘We teach critical thinking.’ But what do you mean? How do you teach critical thinking? If you really drill down when individuals say that. No one can give you an answer… And changing seats doesn’t mean that it’s a collaborative space where the teacher is a facilitator. It could just mean that you’ve seated the kids in eights instead of twos.”

  • Will

Photo credit: Emma Scarborough

Excellence and Inequality: Reflections from an International School in Blantyre, Malawi

Excellence and Inequality: Reflections from an International School in Blantyre, Malawi

Elizabeth and I have a lot of experiences walking into classrooms. We’ve done it hundreds upon hundreds of times. The basics of the scene are generally the same. The teacher usually talks while students listen and take notes. Sometimes students work in groups or independently while the teacher circulates. Either way, it’s normally possible for us to find a few students to talk with. We ask students what they’re learning and if they can explain it to us. This is one of the most informative parts of any classroom visit. But at St. Andrews International School in Blantyre, Malawi our attempts at conversation were continuously foiled. The students were simply too busy working together to have time to talk with us.

We walked into a science classroom where students stood in groups of four around lit Bunsen burners. Each member of each group was focused and occupied. They were using sulfuric acid to make some kind of salt. Occasionally students would turn to each other to discuss observations or next steps and record their findings. The teacher circulated, but the only thing we heard him say was to emphasize elements of the safety protocols.

Next we were taken to an 8th grade classroom where students were preparing food. They chopped vegetables, walked around with pots of boiling water, and spoke quickly to one another. The teacher told us about the emphasis on healthy eating and about how after the pizza lesson last week many students went home and cooked for their families.

We visited a geography class where students were analyzing different methods countries use to control population growth around the world. In a French classroom, every student was engaged and the teacher consistently asked questions to put thinking on the class. When students made jokes, she laughed along with them and redirected the conversation.

We were invited to join a meeting of the heads of the math department and asked the department head about his priorities. “First you must love math. Love is contagious,” he said. “First comes love and then comes progress. If students don’t look forward to your class then you are failing. And ‘chalk and talk’ is not going to work.”

international school students cooking education

The visit ended in the drama classroom where students were finishing their monologue unit. Over a dozen students were spread around the room dressed in casual clothing (they change for drama class). Each of them was in the midst of an animated performance of their own monologue. As time passed, some would naturally pair up to offer one another feedback. At the end of class, students gathered to take turns videotaping their monologues so that, they could be sent to England for evaluation.

Like I said, Elizabeth and I have visited a lot of classrooms in a lot of schools. Sometimes we find a school where one or two classrooms have this level of student engagement, but we’ve never seen a school where the quality of engagement was so consistently high across every classroom. We were impressed, but we were also alarmed at how different St. Andrews was than the other schools in Malawi we’d seen or heard about.

St. Andrews is an International school, which means it teaches the British curriculum to the children of ex-patriots from around the world, as well as the local families who can afford it. Since the ex-pat community in Blantyre is relatively small, there are a large number of local students, but they come from the super-elite of Malawi society. Most people in Malawi make less than two dollars a day. St. Andrews costs tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Our experience with other schools in Malawi was very different. Most students are in overcrowded classrooms where they engage in antiquated curriculums that focus entirely on identification and repetition. They end up learning more about following directions than they do about the world. The result is an education according to one’s class. The wealthy learn to think, and the poor learn to listen.

The consequences of this reality are disheartening. Education should be the great equalizing force in a society, the foundation for development and social mobility. But the failure of this promise isn’t unique to Malawi. The way education perpetuates inequality in the United States may not be quite as pronounced as in Malawi, but that’s not saying much.

We can and should learn a lot from the quality of the learning at St. Andrews. But we can also use Malawi’s system as a whole as a window to judge our own. Do we think all students deserve access to the same educational opportunities? How many American families can afford to pay for college? What kind of country to we want to be?

  • Will

For more about the different types of education offered to students of different income levels in the US and Latin America, check out our previous post about poverty and education.

SPARK Schools: A Recipe for Teacher Joy and Excellence

SPARK Schools: A Recipe for Teacher Joy and Excellence

Elizabeth and I left SPARK schools in South Africa with our minds spinning. We had spent the day talking with several groups of teachers and administrators and participating in parts of their day-long professional development meeting. Given our experience with like-minded charter schools in the U.S., we thought we knew what to expect, but the visit far surpassed our expectations. As we waited outside for our taxi to pick us up, Elizabeth turned to me, “That was incredible,” she said. “I know.”

Not surprisingly, SPARK believes that all students can achieve at high levels. Unhappy with the rigor of local standards, they’ve instead adopted the most rigorous international curriculums, like Singapore math. But more interesting is how SPARK supports its teachers as they strive to push students to these levels. Time and time again, teachers lauded the supports SPARK offers as helping them to develop, not just as teachers but, as human beings.

Over the last few years (SPARK was founded in 2013), SPARK seems to have struck on a five-part recipe for teacher development that not only serves students but helps teachers feel joyful in their work as well. And, like any good recipe, when these ingredients are mixed together, they become much more than the sum of their parts.*

Ingredient #1 – Culture of Continuous Growth

“There hasn’t been a time when I’ve been, ‘OK I’m complacent now. Fine. I’m good at my job.’ There’s constant change; there’s constant improvement for yourself and for your students.”

“You’re always moving the goal post. You met this, now what’s next? So it’s an element of surprise continuously. And that’s what I just love about being here.”

“SPARK creates an environment where you feel safe enough to take risks.”

There is a universal assumption at SPARK that, excellence is a never ending pursuit. In most environments, people only feel successful if they get feedback that basically says, ‘you’re great, keep up the good work.’ But at SPARK, people have embraced a more, ‘journey is the destination,’ attitude toward education. Teachers are excited by the idea that there will always be something new in front of them.

Ingredient #2 – Frequent and Relevant Professional Development

“When I came to the training last year, I was completely blown away by how different it was compared to my previous experience. Here they focus on teacher training, 250 hours a year. What other school can offer that? To train us to be the best teachers that we could ever be?”

“The Professional Development is innovative and it’s also very adaptive. We’re self-reflective. We’re looking at what’s worked well and what hasn’t, and we’re changing it.”

The teachers and administrators we spoke with all saw the amount of training they were offered as a sign of the school’s commitment to them. This is a far cry from America where teachers often cringe at the idea of PD. What makes it different? Teachers talked about how the training was relevant to their classrooms and also how it was interactive. Information was not just given rather, teachers were given opportunities to play games, build relationships with each other, and engage with the topics in a more collaborative way.

Ingredient #3 – Sense of Community and Common Purpose

“In South Africa there are big differences between private and public schools, but one thing that’s the same is that you have this massive teaching staff, and there’s no relationship between the staff. There’s no common ground between the staff, except the fact that you’re a teacher. Here, even though we are a big staff, we come together. We have a little family going.”

“We are all mission aligned. Some teachers go into the industry because maybe it’s their last option. But the people here have the passion deep down for children and for education. We collaborate because we understand the mission and we want to be here.”

The main thing SPARK looks for when recruiting teachers is an unyielding belief in the ability of all children. While the staff is diverse in every other way, this unity of purpose has created a solid foundation for community and collaboration. As one teacher put it, the work is, “hard, hard, hard, hard, hard.” But having other people around to lean on, people who are going through the same challenges, helps frame that struggle as invigorating rather than demoralizing.

Ingredient #4 – One-to-One Coaching

“I think at spark you have the support, and you have that comfort of knowing that, if I do a make a mistake, there are people around me to support me and help me grow, to become better. At the start, when someone came into my class for an observation I was like ‘Oh my God, I’m going to do everything wrong,’ but now it’s like, ‘Come and look at my classroom, because I need your feedback.’ And it’s not just for you; it’s for your scholars.”

“At the moment, I’m a coach and work with 12 people. I meet with them every week. They come in with questions and ideas where they want to improve they’ll say, ‘I know I did this and I was wondering about this.’ So it’s no necessarily coming from me. I’m more of a wall to bounce ideas off of.”

Perhaps the most systematic support at SPARK are the weekly coaching meetings. These meetings are for everyone and are deliberately framed as supportive, rather than evaluative. But everyone was also quick to add that the meetings aren’t really about the teachers at all, they’re about the students. The teacher’s growth is not an end in itself.

Ingredient #5 – Emphasis on Personal Well-Being

“The investment into me as an individual, not as an educator but as an individual, was incredible. They formed personal relationships with me from the get go so they knew me, what my strengths and weaknesses were, what made me happy, what made me sad, and from there they developed me into the educator I soon became. As they developed me as an individual, I naturally grew as an educator. And that constant PD and investment into me really drove my passion to stay here and not want to go anywhere.”

“The one-to-one meetings we have with our principals or coaches. They’re not just to touch base on your classroom but to touch base with what’s going on with you personally. How are you outside of school?”

Whenever someone would start to talk about SPARK’s commitment to them as individuals, or their personal development, everyone else in the group would begin to nod. One teacher talked about how during the run up to her wedding, her principal asked if she needed someone to pick anything up for her. SPARK seems to recognize that teachers are people first and that if they’re not stable as people they’re not going to be stable as teachers.

_____

For a long time, I reacted to the term ‘Professional Development’ with a kind of sarcastic skepticism. In my first couple years of teaching, I had seen plenty of ‘Professional Development.’ These were cookie-cutter presentations about random topics, delivered with the contrived optimism of people who would get paid no matter what happened when they left. I had formal observations too, but they were haphazard and disjointed. Sure, I may have gotten a couple ideas from these meetings and conversations, but overall they weren’t worth the effort, and they certainly didn’t make me a better teacher. More than anything, the professional development I received affirmed my belief that my classroom was a world unto itself, a place that couldn’t possibly be understood by an outsider who wanted to help.

At SPARK, things are different. Growth is a community experience. They take the expectations they hold their students to very seriously, and they understand the support teachers need to make those expectations a reality. At SPARK development isn’t just something that’s blocked onto a schedule. It’s an everyday fact of life.

More thoughts from our day at SPARK are on their way,

Will

*These five ingredients aren’t a formalized approach by SPARK itself. They’re simply the themes that seemed to come up repeatedly during conversations with SPARK staff.