This term I was awarded the Zagat Global Fellowship by Riverdale Country School in New York. This is a new initiative created to encourage educators to visit other schools around the world to exchange ideas, create conversations, teach…and learn. It’s a huge honour to be its first recipient, and to be given the opportunity to join, albeit temporarily, a world-class school in the USA.
Over the next couple of weeks I hope to blog about the differences I experience between two schools in two very different educational systems. I will post them first on the TES website; I will also tweet here
Riverdale is a world class school, but it’s a very different school from the school I currently work in, and adjusting to the different context will have to be swift. Moving from here to there is a challenge, and after a hard term’s work it might have been safer, and saner, to have taken some time off. In my own eyes, and going by my standards, I might even ‘fail’…but if I do then I hope to gain something because I have always believed that intrinsic to this profession is the teacher’s ability to expose him or herself to new ideas and new experiences, and be open to the possibility of failing. But risk taking is becoming increasingly undesirable in today’s high-stakes, over-controlled system.
And yet in my experience, as someone who has visited a lot of schools, as an inspector, advisor, teacher, and parent, the best schools are forward looking and confident enough to make brave changes. At every level they embody strategic, calculated risk, and are prepared to introduce new initiatives even when the final outcomes are uncertain. They in turn attract and retain staff who find this atmosphere the most conducive to effective teaching and learning; and ideally, this produces young people who are willing to embrace constructive change, seeing it as part of their own growth. Much of this ongoing process is dependent on a profound trust in the school’s leadership, but in time it becomes a virtuous circle. Scaling such things up is, as Sir Michael Barber has so convincingly argued, essential to the complex process of creating a school-led improvement programme.Conversely, of course, the worst schools I have been to avoid change (including those that are academically very successful) believing that any adjustments might endanger what they have carefully protected over many years. They are managed, not led; they have development plans, but no vision.
Many teachers on both sides of the Atlantic (including Riverdale) are actively discussing grit and resilience, and the focus, quite rightly, is on how we can inculcate it in the young people we teach. But surely the debate should be widened so that it includes resilience among teachers (who are often characterised by commentators as a group of miserablists who talk only about the negatives of the profession, rather than its privileges), as well as an institutional grit that embodies the robust strength of character that can only come with self-confidence. But such things might only come when the school is itself prepared to learn from failure, resembling an adult in charge of his own destiny: the physical embodiment, if you like, of the qualities it wishes everyone who works in the school to share. But that’s another debate. I’m off to pack for New York.