The employment of staff can make or break a school. The wrong person, whether it be a teacher or leader, can have a massive, negative impact on learning and school culture. An adjustment in mindset can help you get it right when it comes to employment.
Generally, when employing we tend to focus on filling a particular role or covering a certain function, for example a grade teacher, or someone who can organise sport or run a music program. So long as those employed perform as per their job description, you would expect a positive outcome to the process; but unfortunately, that is not always the case. In today’s competitive educational marketplace, schools and students cannot afford to have their learning culture jeopardised by poor employment choices. Not only that, they deserve more than just ‘good teachers and leaders’. They deserve teachers and leaders who are lovers of learning and brave innovators, who can create for their school that extra something – ‘a point of difference’, that might move the school to ‘next practice’ education.
The old employment mindset that has failed schools many times, belongs to the ‘factory paradigm’. Its primary focus was on the role and the skillset. This focus now needs to be shifted from ‘the job‘ to ‘the person‘; from ‘what we want educators to do‘ to ‘how we want educators to be‘. That is not to say knowledge, toolsets and skillsets are unimportant, but they should not be the most critical focus of the employment process. How often have you heard in education, ‘You can help someone become an outstanding teacher, but you can’t help them become an outstanding person‘? Choosing the most outstanding person with an abundance of EQ, initiative, agency, confidence and self-efficacy is just as, if not more critical, in modern-day school communities.
When interviewing, leaders should be reflecting on each candidate: ‘What can I learn from this person?’, and ‘Would I be happy to have this person as my boss one day?’. These questions can help determine if a prospective employee has any ‘magic’ that could help a learning community go to another level. They also challenge the mindset, because to truly consider these as relevant questions along with their ramifications, requires a paradigm shift in your understanding of leading.
If a leader’s ‘modus operandi’ is ‘leading from the top’, asking yourself: ‘What can I learn from a teacher?’ and ‘Would I be happy to have this person as my boss?’, would be in direct conflict with your mindset. Over recent years in our school community, we came to realise that during the employment process, we were favouring those who were ‘better than us’ or showed the capacity to be far more effective than us, as teachers and leaders. In the end it became an obvious path to take.
Putting that into some context, most principals would agree that they work with amazing leadership teams, but how extraordinary would it be if every member of the team had multiple skillsets or qualities far superior to their own. Would you dare admit it? Imagine having an entire staff, who individually possessed superior competencies, to the extent that the leader could become the weakest link in the chain. Does that make you an ineffective leader or does it give you a ‘secret ingredient’?
A Flat Leadership Structure
I find this idea extraordinarily tantalising, as it could assist leaders with the right mindset, accelerate their move towards a flat leadership structure, which has loads of implications around collective efficacy, collaborative cultures, lead learners and innovative practice.
Unfortunately, there will be some people reading, who might be intimidated by this suggestion. The thought of being the weakest link could be enough to force some leaders with a closed or fixed mindset to tighten their grip around underlings, ensuring compliance to a ‘top down’ leadership style. This is where many leaders need to consider moving more towards Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’. For as long as leaders hold on to the belief that they must control and lead from the top, they will never truly experience the ecstasy of authentically distributed leadership, requiring them to ‘lead with’ their people and even ‘lead from behind’.
The fixed mindset associated with ‘leading from the top’ is all too prevalent in a complex educational world. Many leaders have worked hard (in their eyes) to ‘make it to the top’, and once there, it is more predictable and easier to control when operating in a ‘top down’ or ‘vertical’ leadership structure. In a hierarchy, the chain of command is clear for all to see. When a leader fails in this structure it is because they lack the capacity to control – low compliance mechanisms, sloppy management, and so on. This predictability drives the compliance mindset. Unfortunately, it can also act as a driver against ‘ground up’ innovation and creativity, and one of the reasons why we can only be a system of ‘really good schools’ in Australia, instead of a ‘world changing system’.
We tapped into this thinking when designing two prototypes, which we believe can help us move closer to ‘next practice’ employment processes, and increase our collective capacity as learners and leaders. We realise all prototypes require ongoing refinement, so please feel free to send us your thoughts.
The first prototype (we are now on our fifth iteration) is called Thriving@StMel’s. We wrote this to help our current staff (at that time) have a better understanding of what it takes to become a Self-Determined Learner and how they can contribute to our school’s self-determined learning journey. We did not want it to be a regular staff handbook that tells ‘what to do’. It helped adjust our focus from the job to the person, so it tells ‘how to be’… successful, organic and self-determined, in our school community.
As Thriving@StMel’s evolved, we began to see benefit in having it as part of our employment process. It clearly portrayed to prospective employees, what mattered most and which ‘ingredients’ you need to possess, in order to be successful in our community.
Thriving@StMel’s has six components. The first section ‘What are we about?’ establishes the expectation for total clarity in order to achieve our vision to become a Self-Determined Learning Community. There is no tolerance for ambiguity, hence anyone joining our community must be fundamentally aligned to ‘what we are about’. As Simon Sinek suggests, we started with the ‘WHY‘ because ‘people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it’, and then completed his Golden Circle with ‘HOW‘ and ‘WHAT‘. For our community, we believe that all learners, regardless of age, have the capacity to change the world. This is achieved by working towards becoming a Self-Determined Learner, whilst implementing the Organic Learning Cycle.
Three sections follow that explore the importance of growth and self-development. The focus is not on ‘what you need to improve’, it is on ‘how you grow’. We did this to take the focus away from ‘the job’ and put it on ‘the person’.
We begin these three sections with ‘Growth Recipe @StMel’s’, which identifies five essential ingredients – the importance of taking risks, aligning passion with purpose, ‘talking the talk AND walking the walk’, exploring ‘Next Practice’ possibilities, and nourishing deep connections through self-reflection.
Then we break open the idea of self-determined learning in a section called ‘Growing as a Self-Determined Learner’. Here we name what is required to become models of successful life-long, learning. We stress being a model learner, because it is critical that everyone is seen to be a learner. If we want the students to believe in the idea of life-long learning, they have to witness it across the entire school community. This includes the principal.
Whilst this section names eight ingredients, it could easily be expanded or refined. The key ingredients named are initiative, EQ, innovation, inspiration, agency, collaboration, communication and integrity.
Next we examine how to ‘keep the main thing, the main thing’, which is based on Stephen Covey’s Quadrant 2 – Important/Not Urgent, from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In this section, we highlight how learners maintain focus through immersing oneself, seeking regular feedback, continuous learning and being conscious of what it means to have a ‘growth mindset’.
The fifth section changes from ‘the person’ to ‘the what’, which is Organic Learning. Hexagonal Curriculum Mapping, the Competency Rubric and the value of making thinking and learning ‘Visible, Tangible and Critique-able’ wherever and whenever possible (for all members of the community), are briefly revealed and explained.
The final section of Thriving@StMel’s identifies those things we wish to avoid in our community. This section is called ‘Unconscious Incompetencies’ and is related to our Competency Rubric. The key ideas in this section refer to things like ‘blind ignorance’ and lack of awareness, having a ‘fixed mindset’, mediocrity, complacency and the negative impact of working in silos.
By providing this information up front to prospective employees, we believe they will have a greater awareness of where they ‘fit’ and where they might ‘not fit’ our educational paradigm. It may also help them to adjust their thinking in accordance with our vision for learning.
So You Want to Work at St Mel’s Campsie?
Our second prototype is in response to preparing for and participating in an actual interview process. We created a flyer called ‘So You Want to Work at St Mel’s Campsie?’. It is provided to all applicants who apply for a position and invites them to prepare for a process that we believe will allow them to put their best foot forward.
One of the tensions in the interview process that can get in the way of a potential employee revealing who they really are, is the interview. Sitting around a large table responding to random questions from strangers is unnatural, fake and ambiguous. At best it allows the interviewers to hear how well the interviewees can articulate ‘what they do’. The best way to find out how effective teachers are is to ask someone they work with or to see them in action yourself.
Going back to our original point of shifting the focus away from ‘the job’ to ‘the person’, our key objective during the interview process is to determine if someone is ‘the right fit’. This is a two-way street because the applicants need to decide if we are ‘the right fit’ for them, as well. For this to occur, the applicants must be fully aware of what will be required of them as learners, collaborators and risk takers, and whether or not they feel comfortable stepping up to the challenge of working in an organic learning community. By providing them with all the answers and as much information as possible, much of the ambiguity of the interview process is removed. The applicants can then focus on sharing with the interviewers, ‘who they are’, ‘how they operate’ and ‘how well they would fit in’ with our organic culture.
Since conducting interviews in this way, we have seen a change in the way applicants present themselves. Rather than regurgitating responses on how to teach, they are more confident in their skin and willing to share thoughts, fears and feelings, because we are not trying to catch them out or judge them based on right or wrong responses. There are no right or wrong responses.
Feedback from applicants has been very positive, even from those not employed. The experience for many has been a sense of awakening; becoming more aware of strengths and areas of need, and a growing confidence in who they are and what drives them as teachers and leaders. They are more able to see a ‘bigger picture’ and a ‘greater purpose’ beyond the mechanics of teaching. It is about learning and who they are as a learner and a lead learner. So at the end of the day, the process itself is helping all applicants, regardless of whether they are successful in obtaining a position or not, become better learners, teachers and leaders.