Two years spent putting my own advice into action.

It has been a long time since I have had the time to write about shaping places where we work, live and learn. Why the long silence? The very simple answer is that I accepted a job as principal of a P-12 school and this school was in need of a significant amount of “placeshaping”. The brief was to refresh, refurbish, replace, revitalise and thereby stimulate growth.

Now that I am three years into the job, a reasonable amount of that task has been completed and I return to this blog armed with new insights and experiences. I have strived to put my own advice into action – making the school a place for community, a place for work, a place for learning and most importantly, a place where people want to return to every day.

The first tip I can share about being an effective leader faced with a big challenge is simply “get started on something” and that something should have immediate positive impact on as many people as possible. This something should focus on the core purpose of a school – that is, providing all students with quality opportunities to learn. The results of your first significant action will give you keen insight into the existing culture of change and how enthusiastically new ideas are embraced.

How did I select that first, significant action? Firstly, before the staff and students returned for the new year, I spent two weeks completing a series of audits and inventories. I looked at the main processes, procedures and policies already in place for managing the organisation. I inspected every inch of the property. I made lists, took photographs, made notes and talked to people. I was actually conducting field research in my own school. (A Mind the Gap note: This was also particularly important for me since I knew the school well, having been the deputy for many years. I needed to see the school with fresh eyes and from a different angle as principal.)

I then looked at the school from multiple perspectives – what was the experience of a student each day? What was the experience of a teacher? What was the experience of the parent? What does each of them need to make their specific role in the learning process successful? Did we currently provide them with resources to meet those needs?

When you do this type of research, trends begin to emerge. You notice positives, strengths, resources that will support change, things that are urgent and things that will be challenges. A SWOT analysis is a good way to process this new information. The amount of information that you can generate this way needs to be managed, otherwise the enormity of the tasks before you will discourage the selection of that first significant, high impact action (or series of related actions, depending on the organisation’s capacity).

Next post, I will explore my choice of the first significant action.

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Time wasters and workspaces – things that drive teachers crazy.

Where do the teachers carry their most common work activities?

The survey indicated the most common places for carrying out the top three work activities were the classroom, home and private office, if the teacher had access to an office (but this was rare for the classroom teacher). Discipline and welfare was dealt with in either the classroom or in more public areas outside, if an office was not available to the teacher. The most common places to think creatively were: personal classroom (when empty after hours), home or private office (usually after hours). There were differences between the places named by teachers and executives (with no or small teaching loads). Overwhelmingly, teachers named the classroom as the location for carrying out the most common tasks. Executives named an office or a staffroom.

What emerged was a preference for working alone and away from distractions or interruptions. This is challenging for designing workspaces given the emphasis placed upon collaboration and team meetings in many pedagogies. The survey also highlighted the difficulty a classroom teacher faces when trying to locate a suitable location to conduct a confidential or disciplinary conversation.

Sharing spaces can be challenging and the same things seem to drive people crazy in most workplaces.

Sharing spaces can be challenging and the same things seem to drive people crazy in most workplaces.

What are the time-wasting factors in a teacher’s workday?

Most adult workplace surveys ask about factors that reduce productivity. Less than 10% of the teachers said they experienced any downtime. After talking with some of the respondents after they had completed the survey, I wish I could have measured the intensity of the key strikes when teachers were ticking off the time wasting factors during their workday!

In my survey, respondents were asked to tick up to five factors that they considered are the most likely to waste their time in any given week. The top time wasting factors were:

timewasters

The link between reliable information technology and productivity should come as no surprise but it is important to note two of the top time wasting factors did specifically relate to technology. It is also of note that loss of work time was linked to the actions of repeating, correcting and enduring delays – this is not dissimilar to findings in other workplaces. After the top four factors shown above, the next most common factors linked to downtime were walking to get information or a resource and searching for paperwork.

A Mind the Gap reflection on my results  –IMG_0451  Until we have an understanding of what constitutes a teacher’s workload, designing the ideal workplace may fall short of what is required. I believe future designs for work places and loads will need to place a high value on providing access to both people and locations, as well as a focus on human-scale solutions that promote an inclusive and democratic approach to the dispersal of resources. If we consider the issues raised by these teachers in the light of the looming deadline for universal registration of teachers in Australia and the introduction of the professional development framework, we have less time than we think to tackle the question of workloads and the type of workplace each school can offer its teachers.

What did the teachers say?

Their overall experience of the impact of workplaces:

When asked how much their performance at work was increased or decreased due to the current staff facilities at their school, 44.3% of respondents said their performance was increased and 34.6% said it was decreased. Overall, 78.9% said the current staff facilities had an impact on their performance. (See the following graph)

For teachers with 15 or less years of experience, all but one respondent said that in their experience the workplace had an impact (both negative and positive) on the effectiveness and efficiency of employees. In response to the question about impact on performance, 74% of these respondents said it had an impact (36% said a negative effect and 38% said a positive effect).

 

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On which tasks do these teachers spend most of their time?

Respondents were asked to name the five activities on which they spent the majority of their time. The top three were related to teaching in the classroom (87.4%), assessing/reporting (60.7%) and preparing lessons (75.4%), which is to be expected and hoped for given the sample. Next on the list were informal meetings with staff (40.3%), q6miscellaneous administration tasks (50.3%) and student discipline/welfare (36.1%).

Which work activities did teachers think were should be the most important?

The respondents were then asked to nominate from the same list the five activities they thought were the most important and should be their most common work activities. Once again, teaching, assessing/reporting and preparation of teaching materials were the top three with an accompanying increase in emphasis. However, the next two activities were different this time. Training and professional development activities and communicating with parents were nominated. All five activities were rated above student welfare/discipline and informal meetings between staff still appeared as an activity of importance. Large formal staff meetings declined significantly in importance (from 23.6% to 8.5%).

From these results, it would suggest teachers want to spend more time on the core activities of teaching, assessing, reporting, communicating with parents, students and colleagues and gathering together for training or professional development activities. Formal meetings, committee work and functions were not nominated as the important activities, nor were extra-curricular activities, despite these being traditionally prominent activities in a teacher’s job description.

My next post exploring this survey will talk about factors that affect productivity and the spaces where teachers do most of their work.

 

Can your “career orientations” influence your workspaces?

An article recently appeared on the HBR Blog Network (Know What Kind of Careerist You Are by B Groysbery & R Abrahams – 25 March 2014). The authors revisited the framework suggested by a management academic in the 1980s. C Brooklyn Deer proposed five career orientations that tend to shift over time and according to circumstances, and these orientations can be linked to satisfaction. Rather than locking people into one personality type, this framework recognises change and variation throughout a person’s career.

The five orientations are:

  • getting secure – seeking regularity and predictability by fitting in with workplace norms;
  • getting ahead – focused on promotions, increasing scope of their work and authority;
  • getting free – focused on autonomy and self-direction;
  • getting high – seeking work that provides greater stimulation, purpose and engagement;
  • getting balanced – desiring a bit of all the orientations and seeking both challenge and fulfillment without sacrificing a personal life. (While this is the most common orientation, Deer says only some people are genuinely motivated by this orientation.)

This framework challenges me to think about how could we design teacher workplaces to respond to these orientations. Can we rearrange the design of our physical workplace (commonly referred to as ‘the school”) to offer opportunities for staff to spend their day in ways that offer security, freedom, balance and stimulation. The work environment can also be designed to offer a “get ahead” orientation by keeping teachers and leaders in daily contact with one another and new opportunities.

Here are some suggestions for teacher workspaces and workplace practices:

Getting secure: allocated storage space and work areas for focused, individual work (can be shared but at least provide reserved zones); food preparation and eating areas sufficient for all staff to use in peak times; core classrooms; availability of all relevant policy documents; clear guidelines on procedure and process; structured communication network that is consistently maintained.

Getting ahead: avoid isolating faculties and departments through poor design; consider placing office space for executive teachers in different areas within the school; use shared or less formal spaces for meetings; create readily available spaces for co-operative and collaborative work; increase opportunities for teachers to see leadership at work; “advertise” opportunities for participation in new projects and roles in a systematic way.

Getting free and getting high: provide the teacher with the same space opportunities that you would for students – a mix of spaces where you can focus on work alone, work with others on a shared project and meet-up with others when seeking inspiration, assistance or resources for your individual projects; some flexibility with work hours or “coming into the office”; fast wireless connectivity; mobile technologies; robust IT network and access to support staff.

Getting balanced: All of the above, but to make balance achievable a few specific ways of doing things in the workplace would be helpful. Organise annual discussions that identify the current orientation and, if possible, translate it into the new year’s timetable, workload and general expectations. Systems for booking spaces and resources. Consistency in workplace processes and systems, including carefully managed and resourced IT. And lastly, communication that is democratic, timely and explicit.

You do not need to wait for a new building project before implementing some of these ideas. Most teacher workplaces have these spaces in some form and number, so leadership could start at any time to build these orientations into the workplace. The thing to remember is to be deliberate and purposeful in the allocation and use of those spaces.

What the best* performing education systems are doing – focusing on teacher quality and training

* the criteria for best relates to student results in testing such as PISA and other benchmark testing in literacy and numeracy

When I visited some Scandinavian schools in 2012, I had the opportunity to talk with teachers and observe their classrooms. One of the great riddles of the time was “why were the Finnish schools performing so effectively?”. Two of the few metrics available to education are: effectiveness measured by student results and teacher quality measured by student performance. It seemed one part of the answer in the high-performing education systems, such as Finland, was teacher quality – the best and the brightest taught in schools. In Australia, a common answer given to the question “how does a system secure high quality teachers” was reward them with a substantial salary. However, this response seemed incomplete. For example, after talking with many Scandinavian teachers about their salaries and after doing a quick calculation, it turned out the Finnish teacher is paid something similar to the Australian teacher. There had to be more than just the monetary incentive and the intrinsic motivators that are evident in much of the research on teacher satisfaction – motivators such as, knowing what you do matters and helping young people achieve their goals or a personal passion for a subject area.

What I did notice was an emphasis in the Scandinavian schools on giving teachers time to prepare specific programmes and working directly with other professionals on designing curriculum for their classes. It seemed most of the professional development time was given to working on the teaching at hand, developing one another’s skills and flexible timetabling that gave more opportunities for working one-on-one with students or lesson preparation.

Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World, makes a similar observation and adds insight into teacher training. In Finland, all teacher preparation courses/colleges are selective and set a very high standard for entry. The thinking behind this approach is to recruit only the best and brightest of each generation to enter the schools. Therefore, the emphasis upon quality teaching begins with competing for the opportunity to train as a teacher. Finland has made the judgement that it takes substantial intellectual ability and demonstrated skill to be a teacher, and has structured their selection and training programme accordingly. A current report by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) found the path into teaching was varied and of those who entered with an ATAR (or equivalent) only 28% had an ATAR 81 and above. This would suggest we are not selecting only high achievers as Finland is doing. Turning graduates into highly skilled and accomplished classroom teachers and school leaders is completed during the training stage and not after a number of years in the profession. An amazing outworking of this shift to being highly selective about who and how many train to be a teacher (this approach started in the 1970s) and an ongoing emphasis upon high standards of practice amongst teachers, has meant the government has been able to reduce the top-down control of education. Much of the work within schools is now entrusted to the teachers and the curriculum is not mandated. As a result, school leaders and teachers can “generally design a more creative system than any centralised authority ever could” (p.151). The community is also aware how accomplished the teaching profession is as a result of this shift. A recent national study (2013) in Finland found teachers had the highest satisfaction rating of any other professional group. The satisfaction was a result of significant professional autonomy and the belief in their ability to influence children’s lives.

Teachers’ workspaces look the same the world over. Here is one in Finland and another in Denmark

Teachers’ workspaces look the same the world over. Here is one in Finland and another in Denmark

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In Denmark, there were a number of pedagogues (cover your eyes, David Gillespie, for I know you loath edu-speak) in the schools I visited. These social educators worked alongside the core instructional teachers, but I was a little confused by what exactly a pedagogue did and where they fitted into the construction of curriculum. It turns out these professionals are quite unique to Denmark, so I could be forgiven for being somewhat ignorant of their role in students’ education. The pedagogue’s work encompasses children’s educational needs, as well as their social and emotional development and physical wellbeing. They focus on creating learning experiences that develop the child’s ability to work with others and build personal skills that equip them for learning. These professionals worked alongside the curriculum teacher and the class aides as a resource teacher, creating a teaching team that worked together to construct the class programme.

A pedagogue prepares afternoon in classroom kitchen with the children participating in the after school programme.

A pedagogue prepares afternoon in classroom kitchen with the children participating in the after school programme.

Teacher and children do homework the kitchen classroom.

Teacher and children do homework the kitchen classroom.

This is where my observation connects with David Gillespie’s observations of what made for better performing systems. He identified an emphasis upon colleagues developing the effectiveness of one another. Children at this school attend an after-school programme held in their own school. Gillespie argues the secret to the high performing systems of Shanghai-China, Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong lies in the emphasis upon teacher improvement and this is achieved in the main through less time in front of the class for each teacher. This approach is funded by large classes – more students for fewer hours each week per teacher (eg. a Chinese teacher spends 10-12 hours with their class), whilst in Australia we have adopted the opposite approach of employing more teachers to teach smaller classes for most of the week (on average 20 hours). However, the teachers do not go home early in the hours saved in the performing systems. These teachers spend a significant amount of time in other teachers’ classrooms and being mentored in classroom management strategies and subject-specific guidance (what we used to call teaching method at teacher’s college) according a very structured programme. Staged mentoring is provided by teachers further along in their classroom careers. It operates like a guild system within the teacher’s own school and district. Classroom observation (both of their own and others’ classes) is emphasised and feedback is specific. Typical areas observed are student information (profile of class and context), where the teacher placed most of their attention in the lesson and degree of teacher involvement. The structure is designed to keep the best teachers in the classroom, through the incentive of keeping everyone well prepared for the task of teaching and allowing expert teachers the opportunity to exercise increasing influence over the effectiveness of colleagues. I imagine there will be many who will argue against Gillespie’s conclusions but it does seem to ring true in relation to the substantial body of research that points out these countries are clearly doing something different to Australia, the USA and UK and the research that concludes educational improvement relies upon constantly improving the quality and skills of teachers placed in front of our classes. For many years now, Professor Steve Dinham (University of Melbourne) has emphasised the importance of placing a quality teacher in every classroom and more can be done to improve education by improving the effectiveness of teachers than by any other single factor. Professor John Hattie’s famous meta-analysis of over 50,000 studies on major sources of variance in student achievement concurs. After the influence of the student (50%), the teacher accounts for 30% of variance and therefore, is very powerful in the learning equation. What teachers do, know and value matters a great deal to the performance of an education system. A recently released report by the Grattan Institute (Making time for Great Learning, 2014) emphasises the same finding. Improving the effectiveness of teaching is the best way to lift school performance, and this involves focusing on what teachers do in the classroom.

A few final and perhaps controversial points to be made relate to in-service professional development, mentoring and impact of teacher registration on the type of professional development Australian teachers will choose. I would give a big tick to the recent developments in professional mentoring and Beginning Teacher programmes. The increase in teacher-to-teacher mentoring, collaborative research projects within schools and the focus on retaining new teachers is excellent. However, I would argue we need the same approach but different programmes for more experienced teachers so we can retain them mid-career and to encourage them to stay in the classroom. We also need to consider what programmes are best suited to the teacher towards the end of a longer career, programmes that do not shuffle them off to areas of low impact but instead focus on revitalisation and sophisticated ways of using the skills and knowledge they have developed over many years in the classroom.

Finally, I am concerned that the new prescriptions for professional development under the national registration scheme will prevent any opportunity of following the teacher development programmes that are in place in high performing education systems. Our registration requirements drive teachers individually towards stand-alone day courses that are invariably sourced from outside the school environment. This model makes it difficult for colleagues and schools to pursue a systematic, embedded programme of professional development as part of the registration process. Once we have pursued the mandatory hours of accredited professional development and completed the self-identified hours and completed the mandatory training in a plethora of crisis areas such as WH&S, asthma, Child Protection, anaphylaxis, there will be little time or energy for other improvement programmes. The Grattan Institute’s report argues the best teacher development a teacher can receive is to directly help them teach their students. A significant stumbling block to giving this development is the provision of time for effective professional learning programmes. The report explores a variety of possibilities for creating real time for teacher learning and many suggestions challenge age-old taboos.

As far as I am concerned, what is the take-away point? Teacher training and on-going teacher improvement that aims at being able to guarantee the best trained and the most effective teachers are working in our classrooms should be a number one priority. How we achieve it and fund it will no doubt continue to fire up many debates, reviews, proposals and research projects. As Ripley observes, we may be spending too much time trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture. It seems reasonable to reward, train and dismiss teachers based on their performance but that approach assumes poor performers will improve significantly and the worst teachers will be replaced with better ones. I am inclined to agree with Ripley’s view that we should expect our teachers to be the best and brightest of their generation and they should be of that calibre the moment they enter the undergraduate programme.

References:

Prof. Steve Dinham, What we need to know about student achievement and quality teaching, ACER, DEECD Knox Network, 29/1/10, [http//:knoxnetwork.wikispaces.com. accessed 29/3/14]

David Gillespie, Free schools – How to get a great education for your kids without spending a fortune, MacMillan, 2014.

Dr Ben Jensen, Making time for great teaching, Grattan Institute, March 2014.

Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World and how they got that way, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2013.

What is happening in the world of adult workspaces?

(Part 2 of Rethinking the staffroom)

When embarking on this project, I realised consideration of adult workspaces outside of schools was going to be important. In my experience, the work of a teacher has two modes – the classroom teacher and the employee modes. In any given day, teachers’ work will move between these related but distinct modes. We are beginning to understand more and more about the design of the contemporary classroom and its relationship to new pedagogies, therefore, we should be able to project from the classroom onto the types of workspaces that are needed by teachers when preparing for these classrooms. What is less known in the school environment is the employee work mode – what types of spaces do teachers need when fulfilling their roles as employees of an organisation? Hence my emphasis upon finding out what is happening in the world of adult workspaces, and in particular, knowledge industries and organisations that use collaboration as a key strategy. I also feel teachers have much in common with the freelancer due to their identity as a professional.

In a nutshell, there are two agendas that are reshaping the traditional office work spaces:

  1. Cost effectiveness;
  2. Changes in work culture and enhancement of the quality of work experience.

These workspaces go beyond hot-desking (which was more a cost saving and efficiency strategy) to deliberately shifting employees and forming and reforming work relationships and teams, thereby spreading the impact of positive work(ers). There is an increased use of incidental spaces, and sensitive spatial policies are more important now as we develop more agile models.

open plan section of activity-based design

open plan section of activity-based design

There is also an emergence of self-organising spaces for freelancers and nomadic workers. In these spaces trust is big, and without it these spaces would not function. Freelancers and self-employed are increasingly looking for serendipity encounters and collaborations that will enhance their business and provide interaction with others in their industry. The spaces are BYO technology, with a fluid attendance on any given day (there is also a degree of churn throughout the day).

hot-desking in cafe zone of collaborative workspace

hot-desking in cafe zone of collaborative workspace

In the property sector, there is a suggestion that the new generation of workers are used to working in smaller but varied spaces (eg. university cafes, libraries), used to moving around to find suitable space, prefer to make their own choices about when and where to work, rely on their own technology and are used to the notion of portable “desks and storage”. What they do expect is reliable, high speed connectivity and easily accessed technical support. This description of the new worker is similar to the profile of the contemporary school student.

Defining the challenges when rethinking the staffroom

In the past few months, I have managed to narrow down the challenges to four key hindrances or issues that stand in the way of achieving the best design for teacher workspaces:

  1. a metric of productivity does not exist for determining physical workspace for teachers, so it is difficult to either convince stakeholders a design solution is appropriate according to that measure and such a measure can throw light onto what is important in the workplace.
  2. the work of a teacher is ill-defined across the industry, variable roles according to the individual school context and system, changing workloads due to external decisions and policies – reliance on WH&S and the various industry and sector awards to establish a basic definition of teacher workloads.
  3. the professional identity of a teacher within a highly institutionalised work environment.
  4. from the co-working or collaborative teams or activity-based workplace models – would any be most or more appropriate?

Trend spotting in central London

Being in the centre of London has reminded me how cloistered the world of a teacher is during the workday. We may stay connected to the world through technology but are usually physically remote from the world that passes outside the school gates. Due to this isolation, teachers have not been part of the new ways of working that are evident in the heart of busy cities and urban areas. People are on the go. They do not need to wait inside their office block or sit behind a desk at their street address. Meetings are taking place in coffee shops, hotel foyers and temporary workspaces. People meet over their phones and laptops, and when the meeting is done, they can log straight back into their personal work tasks.

While this may generate too much multi-tasking and an even busier work schedule than ever, the trends have an element of dynamic energy that can engage people more actively in their work. Flexibility and a sense of choice over how to manage your tasks can give autonomy and a greater sense of independence in your work day. Obviously these trends do not suit all types of work, but they are rapidly becoming part of the way creatives and knowledge workers are doing business.

My hotel is a great example of the new style of design that blends living, holidaying and working into one environment. The entire property is serviced by effective WiFi connectivity. The decor is subdued but luxurious in terms of finish and fabric. The public areas flow into one another, so foyers can be meeting areas and corridors places to read or drink coffee. All the spaces have mulitple purposes and have only a few prompts to signal their primary function. The public areas are numerous and spread throughout the lower floors – however, within the spaces furniture is clustered into small groupings so that you can still maintain personal conversations or sit/work alone without being crowded by stangers. Lighting directs people to areas – brighter lighting for areas where the hotel wants you to sit, read, dine informally and more subdued lighting in areas where they want people to move through.

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