Educational leadership expert Dr Renee Rattray says there are too many schools that are not focusing on their core business of teaching and learning.
According to Dr Rattray, who heads the private sector-led iLead programme, too many school leaders, whom she calls “chief learning officers”, focus on issues that are non-indicators of the quality of learning taking place in their institutions.
“When principals are asked: ‘How is your school doing?’ They respond: ‘Oh, we did so well in 4H; we entered JCDC and we received one gold medal; and all our teachers are qualified.’ In other words, they say everything except how their students are learning,” Dr Rattray said.
She was addressing 50 principals and vice-principals attending the Ministry of Education’s Back-to-School Conference at the Jamaica Conference Centre in downtown Kingston recently.
“What we focus on is not necessarily results. Persons who are recognised for being outstanding principals and teachers in other countries receive accolades because their academic turnaround has been significant,” Dr Rattray argued. “Therefore, it is very important for us to ensure we are focusing on the right things.”
The Harvard-trained former principal and national school inspector noted, for instance, that more principals and vice-principals need to be observing what teachers are doing in classrooms and providing them with adequate feedback.
“We spend endless periods of time talking about writing lesson plans and looking through teachers’ books; making sure they write lesson plans; and, we never visit the classrooms to see what is going on there,” Dr Rattray stated.
“Don’t get me wrong, lesson planning is important. What I am saying is the only way a leader can know if learning is taking place is when you actually observe the progress; and not during appraisal time, but constantly.”
She said feedback to teachers should be detailed, so that they can appreciate what areas need improvement and what their areas of strength are. She also noted that the only feedback many teachers receive from their supervisors is the term “satisfactory”, but that is not enough.
“Similar to students, schools must add value to educators, who should also be learning and growing constantly,” she declared. “We must raise that bar. Teachers also want to know how they are doing; and everybody needs a coach.”
Dr Rattray said feedback should meld seamlessly into teachers’ professional development and be incorporated into the philosophy of school leadership.
“Research has shown that workshop-type professional development, which is what we practise mostly, is the most ineffective form of professional development. Learning on the job, with senior staff, mentors and coaches is the way to go; observing each other and sharing best practices is where real change happens,” she emphasised.
“Awesome leaders foster this kind of collaboration in their schools so that there is always continuous learning for teachers,” she maintained.
Beyond the issue of teacher development, Dr Rattray also urged the principals to do more to hold teachers to account, which she noted was difficult if they were not observing teachers in the classroom.
“What we say that we do often is not necessarily what happens,” she said. “Therefore, we must hold our teachers accountable and be fearless about it.”
Recounting a stark discovery she made at a school while she was an inspector, Dr Rattray underscored that principals have to be vigilant about maintaining standards by being meticulous and using data.
“I was in a school a few years ago,” she recounted, “and in that school the head of department for mathematics had been the head for 25 years and had never passed maths. However, the principal had plaques all over the wall that he was the greatest, although the examination data revealed that most of his students failed the subject during those 25 years,” she disclosed.
“We have to be accountable. We have to reduce the levels of mediocrity in our education system,” she said to applause.
iLead is an educational leadership programme developed by the JN Foundation and is being implemented in partnership with the Ministry of Education.