Back to School!

by Chris Nash

I hope you’ve all had some form of relaxation this summer holiday. Headteachers must have some ‘downtime’ to recharge their mental and physical wellbeing batteries. I always like the expression of Huckleberry Finn when he talks about ‘lighting out’, as he feels the need to travel. To me, this expression talks about making our lives feel lighter and at the same time looking for some kind of ‘enlightenment’.

Of course that doesn’t mean that we should think of the return to school as going back into darkness! But it does mean we have to prepare ourselves to take back the weight and the seriousness of our leadership responsibilities for students, staff, communities and the wider future. Maybe like me, the flickering end of your holiday has already presented you with a few knotty issues to resolve before the new term starts! 

Here are three key questions to help get you focused and ready for a smooth landing.

Have I Got Staffing Right?

In ‘From Good to Great’ Jim Collins explains the key to staffing a successful organisation as, “If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great”. 

Hopefully, you will already have filled all of the seats required for your school bus, at least for the start of the new term. So the question you should be asking yourself is are these people in the right place – do they match the needs and priorities of your learners and your community? Schools need to be places of calm and stability, but at the same time, keep pace with change. Even if your staffing and Job Descriptions seem to be successfully aligned with last year’s priorities, that’s no guarantee that you have everything successfully covered for this year. It’s worth reflecting on professional development. When stable, most teachers will welcome the opportunity to take on new challenges and rising to them is a great source of professional satisfaction. Setting out personalised challenges for the new year ahead for your leadership team or teaching teams is a good motivational strategy. It also signals your strong commitment as a school leader to professional learning. 

The world is returning to a more stable period of international travel. You may have had to accept having the ‘wrong’ people on some seats on the bus. Now could be the time to tackle this problem, so work with your HR on a strategy. If you haven’t got immediate replacements, treat the present, less than perfect, incumbents with care. Telling staff their time is almost up could be motivational and see them make long-awaited improvements, or it could turn them into ‘lame duck’ teachers who do the bare minimum until their leaving day. With HR, get the psychology right for each individual, and begin your recruitment procedures immediately. The more favourable conditions for international travel are, the more likely to mean an increase in teacher supply and competition for great teachers. 

How Should I Kick-Start the New School Year? 

One of the critical attributes of a great leader in any organisational area is motivational ability. You probably haven’t seen your team for six weeks. Everyone’s taken a deep dive into their personal lives. Let’s face it, people may have gotten a bit lazy, and some bad habits have taken hold. To have a good holiday is to relish your freedom, to manage your time the way you like it. Schools don’t work like this and are disciplined, structured organisations where the collective is more important than the personal. So with your leadership team re-engage and re-orientate your staff, so they will successfully in turn re-orientate the students quickly and painlessly. 

There is no off-the-shelf answer to this process, no magic formula for the perfect return to the school day. However, from experience, I would recommend you allow some social time for catching up and storytelling. It’s going to happen anyway. Use something inspirational, that’s going to get the attention of the whole room and get their minds in the right place. The outstanding achievements of a young person, especially if the story features success against the odds, is a motivational narrative. Perhaps an individual teacher or department achieved outstanding exam results and you can ask them to lead a presentation, having first carefully checked that what they have to say is in line with school policies and strategies. 

What about a training activity? You have to read your staff. The right training event can energise the team and kick-start improvements from day 1 when students return. But if the staff energy levels are wrong, or the topic is not appreciated, or the presentation is sub-standard, you risk losing a term’s worth of goodwill. In planning any start-of-term training, you must empathise with your team who will undergo the training and see the experience from their point of view. 

Review and Preview

Finally, ‘review and preview’ are essential. Under ‘review’, remind the team of the key targets of the previous year and share solid evidence of your collective progress against them. Be honest. Where there’s more work to be done – say so. Your staff know this anyway. And under ‘preview’ share an engaging story about the key improvement targets for the year ahead. Make sure there is a shared sense of direction and excitement about the journey ahead. A compelling vision of the year in education to come will offset any yearning for the holidays just finished. For instance, you could map out the school year and build a sense of anticipation about any professional development opportunities planned. 

Above all, be authentic. Acknowledging the scale and intensity of the challenges to come shows the team that you are a realist and on their side, but this must be accompanied by convincing strategies for improvement. Remember Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’. The pitch is too low, and the staff will be uninspired. The pitch is too high and they’ll be cynical. Pitch just right and the year will start with a buzz.

The School as a Community

One of the barriers to being a good school leader is that you neglect the community dimension of your school. So far you’ve focused on getting yourself in the right mindset. Then you’ve welcomed your staff back in an appropriately motivational way. But arguably the most important part of your school hasn’t been included at all yet.

As a school leader, never overlook the importance of ceremonies and rituals in helping everyone feel a sense of belonging to your school community. In their book ‘School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It’,  Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker describe routines as the things that leaders do to help the school run efficiently, with rituals being the “stylised expressions of our values and beliefs”. What rituals should you use to start the new school year with students, parents, governors and even the wider community? As with all aspects of school culture, an international school leader would be well advised to familiarise her or himself with local customs and values. I work for a Chinese-owned school and we operate a very formalised school opening ceremony. Parents are invited to attend. New teachers go on stage and are introduced. New students go on stage and introduce themselves. Songs are sung.  A community is reunited and brought together again.

In its way this ceremony is highly effective, however, it is built on local Chinese expectations and is not a formula I would recommend you copy and paste. If you’re new to the post, of course, you should take the lead and bring your ideas to the fore, but to open in the best way you can, take the time to listen to the ideas of students, parents, governors and your staff. At its heart, I think your opening ceremony should express two key qualities. One of these is ‘continuity’ – to signal the ongoing stability of the school. This can be a critical consideration in the often unstable market for international schools where wholesale changes of staff and even school closure are constant threats. The second however is ‘renewal’. This is an opportunity for all to reaffirm their commitment to the core aims and values of the school. If you get the balance of these two correct, the whole school community will feel the reassurance of belonging somewhere familiar and the inspiration to meet the challenges of the new year to come. 

Chris Nash is the Principal of Changping Xinxuedao Linchuan School, Beijing, China.

To connect with him, please click Here

One thought on “Back to School!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *