Amesbury School (TLIF 2-036) - Middle leaders: working in transformative ways Publications
Amesbury School is a new school — it opened in 2012 — with a vision of ‘ensuring that every student experiences what it means to be fully human and continually fulfil his or her potential’. To do this, the school needs every teacher to be highly effective and committed to meeting the needs of every student.
Author(s): (Inquiry Team) Lesley Murrihy, Urs Cunningham, Angela Johnston, Michael Young, Demelza Topp, Gemma Williamson, Derek Champion, Lisa Bengtsson, Anna Seward and Andrea Smith
Date Published: March 2019
2015 heralded a period of significant change that started to have an impact on the students’ achievement. The ethnic make-up of the school changed rapidly. When it opened in 2012, 60 per cent of students were Pākehā, with 25 per cent Asian and a range of other ethnic groups, and a small percentage of Māori students. By 2018, the school had fewer than 40 per cent Pākehā students, with 47 per cent Asian students (split equally between Chinese and Indian), and 2.5 per cent Māori. In 2015, 20 per cent of students had English as a second language, which was up from previous years. By the end of 2017, more than 60 per cent of new entrant and year 1 students had significant English language learning needs, and in mid-2018, 47 per cent of all students had English language learning needs.
Leadership is hard and it’s complex. And it is not always what you want it to be. I think sometimes, when you launch into leadership, you default to something you don’t necessarily want to be as a leader. Some sort of stereotype or something that you’ve built up as to what a leader is. … And you have to start stripping away those bits and pieces to be the leader you would like to be. A leader that is authentic to yourself.
Teacher-leader reflecting in interview
Student achievement fell and, by the end of 2015, it was generally the worst it had been. Unevenness in the quality of teaching and learning also became apparent as the school’s teaching and learning approach developed and new teachers recruited to cope with the rapidly growing roll struggled to find their feet in the new ways that underpinned teaching and learning at Amesbury.
The school responded by starting a programme to develop middle leaders and teacher-leaders as ‘expert’ teachers. This group took more responsibility for their growth and development as highly effective teachers and leaders and worked with other teachers (particularly new teachers) to transform their practice. This included developing the teacher-leaders in coaching leadership.
This innovation resulted in a considerable lift in student achievement, more consistent teaching across the whole school, and a significant shift in teachers’ practice. The biggest change was in how teachers saw themselves and how they acted. Leaders became coaches and teachers became leaders — it was truly transformational and created a culture of coaching leadership and transformative change, which the school is continuing to develop for all teaching staff.
The deeper understandings that developed about how to grow teachers as teacher-leaders led to the creation of a tool for determining where a teacher is in their leadership journey and what the next steps for their leadership development should be. This tool could be used by other schools to plot their teacher-leaders’ development.
The school’s principal, Lesley Murrihy, was the project’s lead. The rest of her team at the school were:
- Urs Cunningham
- Angela Johnston
- Michael Young
- Demelza Topp
- Gemma Williamson
- Derek Champion
- Lisa Bengtsson
- Anna Seward
- Andrea Smith
They were trained and advised by Dr Jan Robinson as the coaching leadership expert.
The inquiry story
The inquiry included up to 10 teachers who had the potential to support other teachers and help the school cope with its continued growth. The project team also included some relatively new or young teachers to help in their professional growth. (The leadership coaching with Jan Robertson included teachers from the other schools in the Northern Suburbs cluster Amesbury School belongs to).
What was the focus?
The focus of the inquiry was on the teachers and supporting them to improve their practice. The project monitored its impact by collecting student achievement data, interviewing participating teachers and surveying students.
Seven leaders — two senior leaders, four middle leaders and one emerging leader — took part in the full coaching leadership project. Although the focus was on developing middle teacher-leaders’ abilities to work with other teachers to improve outcomes for students, the school expected that the collaboration amongst middle teacher-leaders and between middle teacher-leaders and other teachers would improve students’ outcomes through bespoke teaching and learning programmes that were designed to meet the needs of every student.
Their inquiry question was: “How do middle leaders (teacher-leaders) work effectively with teachers to challenge [their] understanding, [and] mental models and develop the threshold concepts as well as practices that will ensure each teacher designs teaching and learning programmes to meet the needs of every student at Amesbury School? What capacities and capabilities do they need?”
What did the teachers try?
The project ran in two phases, each a year long. In the first phase, the teacher-leaders carried out iterative, collaborative inquiries into their practice to develop their capabilities as ‘expert teachers’ who could design learning to meet the needs of individual students. Simultaneously, they supported each other in the project with reciprocal peer coaching, observations and feedback. This gave the emerging teachers-leaders the opportunity to develop their potential coaching skills, skills that proved to be transformative in the second part of the project.
In the second phase, the teacher-leaders worked with other teachers in the role of expert teacher and coach, supporting their colleagues to inquire into their practice and develop their capabilities for meeting the needs of each student. The teacher-leaders continued to be supported by peer and group coaching, by one-on-one coaching with senior leaders, and by a leadership-as-inquiry approach. The teacher-leaders received regular and wide-ranging leadership professional training, including coaching leadership development days with Jan Robertson.
Impact on ākonga/learners
The percentage of students working above standard in all learning areas has improved considerably. By the end of 2017:
- Boys’ writing had improved, with 29 per cent working above standard, compared to 12 per cent in 2016 and 17 per cent in 2015.
- All year 5 students were reading at or above standard, as were 94 per cent of year 1 students.
- The difference between boys’ and girls’ writing achievement narrowed: 36 per cent of girls were achieving above standard, with 29 per cent of boys achieving at this level. However, there is still a significant difference between the percentage of boys and girls working below standard in writing.
- Mathematics achievements were the highest in five years. Fifty-seven per cent of boys were working above standard, with 44 per cent of girls achieving at this level. The school had its lowest level of students achieving below standard: 11 per cent of boys and girls.
- STAR reading achievement showed that 76 per cent of year 3–6 students were working at stanines 7-9, with only two per cent working at stanines 1–3. This is significantly better than the national average.
The data continued to improve in 2018, particularly in mathematics and writing, despite 60 per cent of new students coming in with English as a second language.
The data highlights areas where the school needs to focus on:
- increase the number of boys engaged in writing to decrease the number of boys achieving below standard; and
- develop a strong oral language programme across the school in response to the significant increase in the number of students with English as a second language or where parents speak a language other than English at home.
Analysis of the data pointed to three main reasons for these improvements:
- Improved support for students with English as a second language through a combination of specific support programmes from specialist teacher aides, and more targeted attention to their needs by teachers.
- More consistent quality of teaching and learning across the school. There had been a noticeable difference in teacher impact for several years, but this had disappeared from the data by the end of 2017. The school believes this is at least in part due to the impact of teacher-leaders on teachers.
- Reduced teacher-to-student ratios across the school to give teachers more time to focus on personalising learning to meet the needs of every student.
Student engagement and wellbeing
The project developed a student wellbeing and engagement survey and administered it three times during the project. Over the 20 months, there was a significant increase in positive responses to the questions. By the end of the project, students responded more positively to 24 of the 31 statements.
The largest increase was in students who felt more positive about learning and school. Students were consistently most positive about statements related to safety and personalisation of learning, with the number of positive students increasing marginally over the project.
Impact on teaching practice
Evidence of the impact on teaching practice is more anecdotal and was gathered through observations of teaching practice, walkthroughs by senior leaders, outcomes and presentations of teachers and leadership inquiries, and records of coaching sessions.
The noticeable changes are mostly around teachers becoming better at collaborative inquiry into their teaching. There is now a stronger narrative of being ‘professional’ and taking responsibility for their actions and improving outcomes for students. They avoid deficit thinking and blame and focus on gaining understanding.
- There has been a shift from ‘doing’ teacher inquiry to ‘teaching-as-inquiry’ and ‘leading-as-inquiry’. Teachers and teacher-leaders continuously question their practice and are more open to new ways of designing learning for their students. They respond enthusiastically to opportunities to inquire into their practice and are more likely to make quick changes as a result.
- Teachers and teacher-leaders are more likely to collect data and use evidence to assess the impacts of their teaching and learning programmes on students. They are more open to talking about ‘failure’ and when their practices did not have the desired effect. They are more aware that students can contribute to teachers’ thinking about teaching and learning programmes, and are more likely to consider student voice when evaluating any programme.
- Students know what their learning goals are and they are very engaged in the teaching and learning programmes. Teachers are more likely to take responsibility for students’ disengagement, without engaging in deficit thinking, and address it promptly.
- Teachers’ curriculum knowledge has improved, particularly in writing and mathematics, with them now focusing on improving their reading knowledge.
- There is a noticeable shift from ‘contrived congeniality’ and a ‘culture of nice’ to a culture of ‘true collaboration’. Teachers are leveraging opportunities to collaborate to improve outcomes for students, but also feel empowered to take responsibility themselves. Professional development talk is focused positively on improving outcomes and experiences of students.
Building leadership capability
The project focused on developing leadership through a coaching leadership approach. Initially, this focused largely on the school’s middle leaders, but teachers also began to show more leadership as a result of being coached. Every six months the seven teacher-leaders were interviewed in a semi-structured interview-as-conversation, which focused on how they had changed and what had helped make that change. A very clear phased development path emerged where a focus on coaching eventually transformed into a sustained narrative of leadership, which still included the values and attitudes of a coach.
- Phase 1: Doing coaching. The teacher-leader is developing self-awareness of their lack of coaching skills while experiencing success that makes them aware of the power of coaching. People didn’t stay in this phase long.
- Phase 2: Doing coaching more and beginning to feel like a leader. Teachers-leaders notice when they and others are in coaching mode, and consciously switch into it. They are aware that it doesn’t have to happen in formal coaching sessions, and also notice when they aren’t doing it.
- Phase 3: Becoming a coach and a leader. The beliefs and concepts that underpin coaching leadership are becoming increasingly embedded, not just into their practice, but also into the way the teacher-leader thinks of being a leader. Leaders shift from using coaching because it ‘works’, to using it because it is ‘right and good’ to work with people this way. They start to let go of their personal preferences in a situation and make decisions based more on principles, rationales and beliefs.
- Phase 4: Sustaining a leadership narrative. In this phase, the leader has a strong sense of agency and acts to make a difference in the immediate context, but also in the wider educational, socio-political context. They talk more about being a leader than a coach and are driven by a ‘higher purpose’ and empower others towards that higher purpose.
What did they learn?
The professional development helped the growth and development of leadership and introduced the long-term development of a culture of coaching leadership and transformative change that is broad enough to be sustainable. Teachers and teacher-leaders had time to reflect on what they learned through the regular semi-structured interviews — their experiential learning, followed by practice and reflection was a significant aspect of the project. This allowed them to focus on new ways of thinking and new habits, rather than focus on what they needed to change. The teacher-leaders discovered that forming new knowledge and behaviour was not simply the result of getting rid of the old ways, but of integrating them with new ways of thinking and behaving and developing the wisdom to know which approach to use and when.
The school also noticed that the move from the previous ‘culture of nice’ and contrived congeniality to a culture of collaboration improved the relationships between teaching staff. Staff used to avoid addressing issues or frustrations with each other and pass them onto senior leaders to sort out. Staff are now taking more responsibility for dealing with difficult issues themselves. The culture of the school is calm and stable, but the staff feel it is more authentic and robust. The growth in leadership has enabled staff to be direct with each other, without being confrontational.
Coaching leadership development and review tool
The analysis of the teacher-leader interviews showed the phased leadership development path, and the project developed a framework for the four phases. The framework identified the characteristics or features of growth and development in each phase and the types of development interventions and activities that helped and enabled the movement to and through each phase. The framework helps identify where teacher-leaders are in their leadership development journey and what they need to continue their development. It allows a more targeted approach to leadership development with programmes and opportunities to move the teacher-leader through and beyond the phase they are in.
The project discovered that more experienced teachers moved along this path relatively quickly, especially through the first two phases, while less experienced teachers take longer.
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