A Story about Change

Recently at PLC Sydney we have undertaken a series of initiatives: we have become a Cambridge IGCSE School so that we can offer some high quality learning modules to middle years’ students to complement the very good Board of Studies courses; we have commenced a Parent Portal, an ‘app’, and are trialling ebooks and ipads; and we have initiated changes to our middle years’ welfare program.

The staff are doing a great job adjusting and making the initiatives count.

In any structural change both the overt and the covert matter. Thus, it matters that we fulfil our charter and it matters that we really know why we are doing it and who we want to be as we engage with the process.

This is a big challenge as there are inevitably things that have not been fully considered when changes are initiated. I wrote the reflections below to staff as a means of initiating internal dialogue. Perhaps they have a broader audience for anyone considering change.

Please note that there are obviously aspects that are peculiar to our setting: we are a Presbyterian school, and a girls’ school.

Dear Colleagues,

In noting these things below, I am seeking to articulate something that wanders around in my mind regularly. I find that I have to constantly revisit these themes myself in order to keep on track. Perhaps you have a similar experience.

When something that we all agree is terrible happens we all pull together to:

 

  • Support the person
  • Help the family
  • Make things work

And, whilst the focus should be on the suffering party, and not on our response, I think we gain a level of satisfaction from the actions we take together to assist our community member. We have the knowledge that there was emergency care, or a fitting service in honour of the person, or time taken in support.

Real crises bring real grief, but there is comfort in that we know what is expected of us. That’s not to say we reply perfectly, but it is my experience that we act effectively together.

In my 30 years in education I have found that it is sometimes harder to navigate what I will call the ‘questionable crisis’.

I will give you an example to explain what I mean. As educators we have conflicting basic goals: we want to create fair classrooms but we recognise that each person is different and requires an individual response.

A ‘questionable crisis’ can arise when an individual makes an overt or covert claim for special attention. Perhaps a Year 12 student claims unexpectedly that anxiety affected her performance in a task. Perhaps a parent asks for a child to be placed in another class and argues a case based on her daughter’s mental health. Perhaps a parent argues that his daughter should be in a sporting team based on results from a time prior to an injury.

We ask ourselves: should I be thinking primarily of the individual who is speaking to me, or the silent group. The answer, of course, is both. Yet how we do this properly can be a cause of stress.

When I use the phrase ‘Professional Learning Community’ I am not speaking empty rhetoric or just trying to market the College. I think it is an apt phrase for creating a school community. And in these ‘questionable crises’ I think the phrase gives us direction for how we can might act.

I note something here. I write about the following not because I believe I have mastered these qualities, but because I hear these voices in my own mind loud and clear, chastising me when I have acted pragmatically or lazily, and affirming me when I have listened to them.

Professional: Amongst other things, we seek to be unbiased. It is hard to not be impacted by the person who keeps on ‘knocking on the door’ with a complaint or issue, but we take each case on its merits and try to make decisions without prejudice. My view of Mr or Ms ‘X’ might be correct, but it might also be way off the mark. The person who ‘keeps on knocking’ should not have his/her case dismissed because s/he is someone who comments more than others, but neither should s/he be appeased as a way of placating him/her.

Also, we seek to respond using the appropriate policy and pattern. We believe in procedural fairness and ‘innocent until proven guilty’. Our goal is that each person will learn and succeed. We try not to make a case a cause célèbre based on gossip but seek to maintain the dignity of all parties whilst we work out what is right. We avoid knee-jerk judgements or cynicism.

Learning:  When we are working out whether or not the mitigating circumstances should be considered, it is a learning opportunity for us and for the people concerned. I find it helpful to think that everything in schools is about learning.

Along the way we should seek the help of colleagues and leaders if we are unsure of what to do. I was very pleased to follow the email trail of a highly professional discussion last week between an executive member, a year director and a head of faculty. Thus we ensure that we reach an appropriate outcome, and that we are learning what to do when another similar case comes along.

Then we need to ask how we should best communicate with the people who are asking the questions of us.

If the final answer is that ‘X’ should not be in the team, does the student/parent involved understand our rationale? The parent might or might not agree with the decision, but have we explained ourselves respectfully and thoroughly?

One of my observations of the ‘questionable crisis’ is that it sometimes leaves a trail of negative feelings. Teachers might feel they are accommodating too far for a parent or student and worry about the fairness to ‘silent class members’. Parents might feel that their own ‘valid circumstances’ are not being heard. Part of the learning might be about how we process the decision that we didn’t agree with. Whilst we are professionals, we do have deep convictions and feelings and these are critical to our work. This is where the idea of ‘community’ comes in.

Community: If we are all learners, then we share both the emotional angst and the moments of clear reasoning together. We are in a very human profession and we all know that many many things will go well and some things will go wrong. We won’t be able to control all circumstances. Now there have been incidents in the history of schooling when people have been negligent or acted malevolently and these incidents require a particular response. These are rare. It is my experience that people can arrive at very different, but valid, decisions based on the same evidence.

Thus ‘community’ has at least two aspects. Our close community provides comfort and a listening ear as we work through issues. They are our confidants and supporters. 

And yet, our wider community needs us to be impartial and fair-minded and magnanimous. There are standards we keep to, even for the ‘tricky customer’.

The challenge is to be a whole community is a significant one: not just a community of a group of parents who gain comfort in gossip at the gate, or a community of students who exclude some to show their loyalty to others, or a community of staff who find security in being defensive. It is a hard call, but teaching is a ‘vulnerable profession’. Each day we expose our skills and practice to many people. Administrative and support staff do likewise. And yet it remains our role to keep on seeking to build a community – to have the conversation face to face rather than to write a short email, to greet Mr ‘So and So’ with warmth and to see relationships as redemptive. This is one reason why I think teaching is such an exhausting yet fulfilling profession: we have so many relationships to maintain.

And one last thought about how this all ties in to us being a Presbyterian College: The Christian gospel has ‘solid rock’ things about it, based on the characteristics Christians believe exist indelibly in God, but it is entirely consistent with the Bible that life for us is a problem to solve. Answers are not necessarily easy to find – but it matters that we keep seeking them. Consider the following passages: they indicate something of the bedrock as well as the ephemeral.

The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.

Proverbs 18:17

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now these three things remain: faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:12-13

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40