Saturday, 4 June 2016

Current issues in my professional context

My second post for the Mind Lab paper: "Applied Practice in Context":

"Stoll (1998) defines school culture as three dimensions, the relationship among its members; the organisational structure including the physical environment and management system; and the learning nature." - Mind Lab Class Notes, Week 26.
"Culture describes how things are and acts as a screen or lens through which the world is viewed." - Stoll, 1998
 “the way we do things around here” - Deal & Kennedy, 1983
“a real school is what I attended when I was a child” - Metz, 1991

“The force is strong in this one…”

Our school is typical of many schools in New Zealand and probably the Western world.  Built in the 1970’s, it was open plan, with four classrooms, sans doors, which opened out onto a central space with a work area, art supplies, benches, storage and sinks - an early “maker space”.  

When I got there at the start of the millennium as a trainee primary teacher, it was still like this, but teachers stayed in their cells and there was a lot of self consciousness and irritation when the neighbour’s noise and activity intruded on others. Once a gimme that all contributing schools contributed to the annual intake, this decade was one when a lot of students headed into town to the Catholic College; a “grass is greener” syndrome, which I have to say, I was part of.

Roll on August 2010 and I returned to the school, this time as Deputy Principal Curriculum. There was a different principal, and an interesting dichotomy: staff who had been with the school for a while, several since its inception, and another group which had been there for only six months. They, like me, were still trying to find out “how we do things around here.” And change was difficult to bring about. There was one change that stood out: doors on the classrooms and transformation of the central space away from the shared work station to an open common room.

I’d already learned in my first assistant principal position, that the folk who populate a community of practice don’t necessarily appreciate the breath of fresh air you bring when you open the door to new ideas. Stoll (1998) talks about the importance of understanding the school’s culture, and the important roles of history, socioeconomic status, location and national education policies. “The way we do things here,” is a very strong force.  I pinned a poster to the notice board above my desk:
“God gives you the people you want, not the people you need, to make you into the person you need to be.” (Unknown)

There were some divisions on the staff. National Standards had not been taken on board (some would say that was a good thing). The assessment system lacked robustness. Teaching was more about the teachers than the learners. Too many students were driving into town to school away from one of our local schools.  

There were some strong and noble traditions: a belief that intermediate education is an important area; that sport and fitness is intrinsic to the well being, physical and academic, of the emerging adolescent. That students need to be exposed to a range of subjects before they get to high school. That independence, fortitude, leadership a teamwork are important qualities and are to the fore in the week long camp in Term 4, where students are under canvas, and in Term 4 when the students opted for an alternative education activity. The school was also renowned for its kapa haka success.
I saw my place as strengthening the academic side of things; well, it was what my title said I did. We have made a lot of progress on improving teacher knowledge and pedagogy; we still have a way to go. I learned that even a small step is still a small step forward. 

This year has seen another large turn over of staff; some have retired, some moved on to their own greener pastures. A principal who takes over a school inherits teachers and “the way things are done around here.” It takes time to build a shared set of values in incumbent staff; it’s easier when you get to choose the staff who will carry forward the vision you have for your community of practice. 
The local community has returned to the school as has regard for the quality of our education.
A shared vision is the key: it becomes the internal driver from “the way we’ve always done it,” or “this is how we do it here,” to “this is what we want and need for deep learning to take place” and that strong force for change. 

Innovative learning environments and practices are the topic du jour in the educational world. Digital technology is no longer a novelty. These are our next challenges. There is an old saying now, that while the world has changed technologically, should Rumplestiltskin awake after a hundred years, he’d still feel at home in a school.

As an early adopter, I’ve had to learn patience. And it’s not just with my colleagues’ rate of uptake of new technologies. It’s about how difficult it is to ensure there is equity for all students, especially when our catchment includes each end of the decile system.

Our new teachers have made an interesting change to the scales. They’ve come from communities of practice where cloud based learning is the norm. Suddenly, it’s “how we do it around here,” and the force for change has swapped directions.

The next step will be to see what happens to those classroom doors as teachers begin to collaborate more. One of our electives is a makerspace. It’s time to return to looking at that vision and deciding how we want to write the next chapters in the reflective journal of our community of practice. 

- Stoll and Fink (cited in Stoll, 1998) identified 10 influencing cultural norms of school improvement including:
“1. Shared goals - “we know where we’re going”
2. Responsibility for success - “we must succeed”
3. Collegiality - “we’re working on this together”
4. Continuous improvement - “we can get better”
5. Lifelong learning - “learning is for everyone”
6. Risk taking - “we learn by trying something new”
7. Support - “there’s always someone there to help”
8. Mutual respect - “everyone has something to offer”
9. Openness - “we can discuss our differences”
10. Celebration and humour - “we feel good about ourselves”” (p.10)


Hongboontri, C., & Keawkhong, N. (2014). School Culture: Teachers' Beliefs, Behaviors, and Instructional Practices. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(5), 66-88. Retrieved from

Lave, J. (1991). Situating learning in communities of practice. In L. Resnick, J. Levine, and S. Teasley (Eds.). Perspectives on socially shared cognition. [E-reader version](pp. 63-82). Retrieved from

Stoll (1998). School Culture. School Improvement Network’s Bulletin 9. Institute of Education, University of London. Retrieved from