Leadership - Consistency? It's a matter of balance

17th January 2014 at 00:00
Listen to staff and you can create coherence without crushing their individuality

Consistency among teaching staff can be elusive. As a school leader, you could achieve it by becoming a mini despot, ruling through fear and having an informer network infiltrate every corner of the school. I wouldn't recommend it, though - that sort of thing tends to be counterproductive. A much more effective approach can be developed by focusing on three areas from Daniel Pink's book Drive, a manifesto on motivation. These areas are mastery, purpose and autonomy.

I would argue that mastery is the hardest of the three principles to achieve. In a group of 45 members of staff, for example, each will have a different background, both personal and educational, and that will affect how they understand and implement theories and models.

Take, for instance, the behaviour policy at my school. We decided that all the staff would put this together based on Jenny Mosley's Quality Circle Time model (bit.lyqualitycircletime).

Teachers had been implementing this behaviour model for about a year so we were able to use ideas from our own practice and share opinions about what worked and what didn't. It quickly became evident that teachers' interpretations varied greatly - and that creating a policy and delivering it consistently was going to be difficult.

Putting this right has not been easy. It has taken many hours - at the beginning of the school year and again once or twice during the course of it - to create a consistent approach. We have done this by revising and refining the policy and our own beliefs and practice.

This demonstrates that, whatever the issue, it is important that strategies and policies are based on group decisions that are supported and understood by all. Mastery is not about individuals but the group as a whole.

Purpose is also crucial to consistency. Having a clear vision and allowing time for individuals to understand and articulate that vision is necessary. Weekly meetings for the whole staff are key here, to help them move from a relationship of collegiality to one of collaboration. This year, as we were working on a new strategy for differentiation, we found extra time within the school day to make sure we could meet and construct ideas together.

Pink's third principle - autonomy - seems hard to reconcile with consistency. How can you conform when autonomy seemingly relies on you having the power to act under just one influence: your own?

However, to achieve consistency a school leader has to recognised when to allow teachers to be autonomous.

Take the curriculum, for example. As we move through the school, we are looking for evidence that the material being taught in one classroom is comparable to that being delivered to the same year group elsewhere.

That said, we would not want to go into every class and see the exact same lesson. Teachers are creative people with different personalities and life histories. They need to be allowed and encouraged to bring their own ideas and beliefs to their lessons, demonstrating flexibility in how they teach their students. More importantly, each group of children is different and teachers must attend to the individual and collective needs and interests of their students. Thus, teaching and learning should change from classroom to classroom and from year to year.

Common goals

Consistency is particularly important when you focus on curriculum planning. You need to ensure that key concepts and skills have not been omitted and that focus points and decisions are agreed upon. For this to happen, it is important for all teachers to share, understand and continually revise the goals for a unit of work.

You need to facilitate teachers' autonomy in the areas where it is welcome, and in this way get support for the points where consistency is required. This is about good communication, goodwill and good monitoring.

I would add one more area to Pink's list: feedback. At my school, we use the Ladder of Feedback developed by Daniel Wilson at Harvard University's Project Zero, which helps to establish a culture of trust and constructive support. To climb this ladder, first you clarify, by asking questions to make sure you understand the matter at hand; then you value the person to whom you are speaking by expressing what you like about their ideas; next you raise any concerns you have; and lastly you make suggestions. This process ensures that any worries staff have about a new approach can be dealt with efficiently and properly. It also provides a learning opportunity for both the school leader and the teacher.

If you want consistency, you need to have a system like this in place. Teachers will conform if they understand the reasons for a methodology or process and have the power to challenge and discuss it. Block their ability to do so and they will ignore everything you attempt.

Consistency, then, is not easy for leaders to implement. But by having a structured and open approach - and allowing autonomy where applicable - it is not impossible to achieve.

Anne Taffin d'Heursel-Baldisseri is head of pre-preparatory at St Paul's School in Sao Paulo, Brazil


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