Professional Learning for the 21st Century

Professional Learning for the 21st Century

Some time ago I was asked to recollect a professional learning experience that had directly impacted or changed my teaching practice. Over my 25 years in teaching, I have participated in hundreds, probably thousands, of hours of professional learning activities. I had no trouble recalling many excellent workshops, conferences, and in-house activities that I have participated in—but the struggle was to think of one that I could say had unequivocally had a direct impact on my practice. This reflection led me on a journey to think about the deficiencies of “traditional” approaches to professional learning and to discover what research and literature had to say regarding best practice.

Why Professional Learning Matters

First and foremost, professional learning matters because teachers matter. An extensive body of research and meta-analyses point to the fact that, whilst what students bring to the table is of great importance, teacher effectiveness plays a significant role in student achievement (Hattie 2009). This provides a compelling argument that, if we are to raise student achievement, then we must also grow teacher capacity. In addition, if teachers matter, then so too does the quality of professional learning designed to support their practice.

Secondly, we are in a time of rapid change—and professional learning has an important role to play in facilitating the kind of school and system-wide reform needed to accommodate this. The school has entered into a new education paradigm, a second Renaissance, with the 400-year-old factory-based model having run its course (Treadwell 2008). The new education paradigm calls for a move away from content-driven, teacher-centred, individualised, linear, book-based learning toward a focus on conceptual understanding, collaborative networking, interdisciplinary innovation, creativity, critical and higher order thinking, and on embracing the dynamic, media-rich access to information via the internet.

A reconceptualisation of learning and teaching is reliant on the understanding, expertise, and confidence of teachers. Unless teachers are suitably equipped, education will not move forward to meet the needs of the 21st century. Therefore, there is an increasing need for professional learning that targets the demands of the new education paradigm.

Professional Learning for Educators – Best Practice

So what does best practice professional learning for this new era actually look like? Traditional approaches relied heavily on a “show and tell” model that sees teacher development as something that teachers passively participate in as individuals or have “done to them.” However, more recent conceptualisations of teacher professional learning suggest that it should encompass a range of opportunities; put a mirror to existing beliefs, attitudes, and understandings; change teaching practice in a way that leads to improved outcomes for students; address both individual and collective competence; and focus on both present and future teaching and learning needs. This concept of developing the capacity of both the individual and the collective simultaneously resonates strongly with the Christian school view of collegiality and collaboration. The goal is not for a team of great teachers, but for a great teaching team with each teacher functioning at their capacity and in synergy with others.

The field of research is rich with lists of principles for more contemporary approaches to professional learning that will better support the transformation of teaching practice. Following are four key characteristics that are worth considering when developing a school professional learning plan.

Clearly Focused

If professional learning is to be effective, it needs to be clearly focused on specifically identified areas of need or innovation. Most importantly, the focus of professional learning should always be clearly linked to student learning outcomes. In thinking about teacher professional learning, key questions ought to be, “What are the desired outcomes for students?” “What do we need to do in order to achieve these outcomes?” and “How can success be measured?”

Embedded in Practice

Hamilton (2012, 42) asserts that there are broadly two types of professional learning, namely extracted and embedded. Extracted refers to the input of outside expertise, whereas embedded refers to professional learning which relies on expert knowledge from within the school. Embedded professional learning enables teachers to learn from one another within the context of their own school and presumes a view of the teacher as a professional who is well placed to make decisions about their learning and will learn best in community with others. Embedding the professional learning within teachers’ own workplaces also enables them to apply on-site learning directly to their own contexts.

Sustained

The traditional model of professional development was characterised by short, episodic, and fragmented sessions, but researchers agree that professional learning that leads to changed practice needs to be sustained over time. Teachers benefit from the opportunity to apply the learning to their classroom practice over an extended period, as this allows for reflection and refinement as well as ongoing professional discourse. Learning needs to be continual, intensive, and in depth in order to change practice. This is particularly true if the learning is to have an impact on groups of teachers as opposed to just individuals.

Collaborative

Studies show that when professional learning is approached collectively and within the context of a community of practice rather than individually it is likely to have a more lasting benefit. Connell argues that effective teaching can only be understood in the context of the “collective labour of teachers” (Connell 2009, 22) and that improving teaching should be seen as a collaborative venture of a community of teachers rather than a process of re-skilling individuals. This argument aligns strongly with the philosophy of Christian education, which very much sees teaching as a communal activity. In highlighting the importance of learning and working in community, Edlin (2014) writes: “This reflects another Biblical norm: that gifts, insights and competencies that we have or develop are given to us not for personal aggrandisement, but for the building up and encouragement of the portion of the body of Christ (that is, fellow teachers and students) with whom we share daily contact in the Christian school (Ephesians 4:12)” (Edlin 2014, 263).

The types of collaborative strategies outlined in the literature include:

  • Study groups
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Partnerships with external researchers and professionals
  • Professional networks
  • Professional discourse and conversation
  • Shared action research, inquiry, and problem solving
  • The establishment of and participation in professional learning communities
  • Collective problem solving
  • Peer observation
  • Collaborative lesson planning

These activities are not mutually exclusive and many naturally overlap, particularly when used as part of a well-structured and focused professional learning initiative.

Toward a Purposeful Christian Learning Community

While all schools benefit from teacher collegiality and the capacity to operate as a team, in the Christian school context this is underpinned by a shared belief that teachers (and in fact all staff) are “members of the body of Christ” as outlined in 1 Corinthians 12. Using the metaphor of the body, this passage outlines a core Christian principle of working together, supporting one another, and recognising that each person has a specific role to play and gifts to bring, which are for the benefit of the whole. All parts of the body need each other and none are dispensable.

In both a professional and a spiritual sense, it is the teachers’ goal for all members of the team to support one another to ensure that each teacher is functioning at their very best. As Palmer (2010) explains, “If we want to grow in our practice, we have two primary places to go: to the inner ground from which good teaching comes and to the community of fellow teachers from which we can learn more about ourselves and our craft. The growth of any craft depends on shared practice and honest dialogue among the people who do it” (141-144). True community requires teachers to make time for regular professional dialogue and learning together.

Intentional Planning

One critical challenge when it comes to engaging teachers in professional learning is intentional planning. To be effective, professional learning requires a strategically designed process. Steps that school leaders might take in order to develop a sound professional learning plan in their school are:

1. Set improvement goals. Identify, from both current research and school-based data, desired outcomes for students, evidence that would reflect achievement of outcomes, and strategies and resources required to achieve the outcomes.

2. Conduct an audit. Audit current organisational practices, strengths, and challenges in relation to the improvement goals in order to identify the specific learning needs of the teaching team.

3. Design a professional learning plan. Develop a professional learning plan that will meet the identified learning needs. The choice of professional learning strategies should be determined by school context, culture, resources, and according to what would be most beneficial to the particular need.

4. Implement the professional learning plan. Seek feedback along the way and be prepared to review and revise.

5. Evaluate success. Measure whether the desired outcomes for students have been achieved as per the expected evidence outlined in Step 1. Identify revised or new needs and repeat the process.

References

  • Connell, R. 2009. Good teachers on dangerous ground: Towards a new view of teacher quality and professionalism. Critical Studies in Education 50 (3): 213-229.
  • Edlin, R. 2014. Teacher training and professional development. Teaching well: insights for educators in Christian schools, edited by K. Goodlet and J. Collier. Canberra, Australia: Barton Books.
  • Hamilton, Erica R. 2012. His ideas are in my head: peer-to-peer teacher observations as professional development. Professional Development in Education 39 (1):42-64. doi: 10.1080/19415257.2012.726202.
  • Hattie, J. 2009. Visible learning. A synthesis of over 800 meta analyses relating to achievement. Milton Park, UK: Routledge.
  • Palmer, P. 2010. The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Treadwell, Mark. 2008. The conceptual age and the revolution: schoolv2.0: a selection of 35 professional learning readings. Heatherton, Vic.: Hawker Brownlow Education.

About the Author

Maria Varlet currently serves as the head of Research & Innovation at Crest Education in Melbourne and is a board member for ACSI – Australia. She has been involved in Christian education for over twenty-five years, holding positions of head of Learning & Teaching, Campus principal, and executive officer for Christian Schools Australia. Her doctoral research investigates tensions between biblical ethos and assessment practices in the Christian school context. She can be contacted via email at maria.varlet@cresteducation.vic.edu.au.

Breaking Bad Budget Habits

Breaking Bad Budget Habits

Understanding the Full Cost of Educating a Child

In our work with schools over many years as a consulting firm, we have seen many budget and financial planning practices – you could say we have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of school budgeting.

We have found that when considering the costs of running the school in budget planning, the first question that should be asked is, “What does it really cost to educate a child?” Understanding the full costs associated with operating a Christian school is a path to better planning and budgeting.

Tuition fees, donations, and, in some cases, government grants all contribute to the income of a school. The decision to set tuition fees is determined by a number of factors, including affordability for families and the costs of running the school.

As you think about the process of educating a child, you will no doubt be thinking about some of the main costs: teacher salaries, tuition resources and textbooks, field trips and excursions, and administration costs. However, to stop there is really only uncovering part of the full cost of educating a child. What about costs such as:

  • Building costs – not just annual maintenance, but long-term replacement and refurbishment of buildings
  • Transport – student transport and bus fleets that need maintaining and replacing
  • Sports and extracurricular activities – a vital part of school life, which often come with additional costs of both equipment and staff
  • Special needs programs – catering for a growing list of special needs (both academic and otherwise), adding a layer of cost that is often shared across the school community
  • Scholarships and discounts – supporting families that are in short-term financial hardship and offering scholarship programs, costs that need to be factored in to the budget equation
  • Cafeteria and student services costs – medical clinics, counselling support, and many other related student services that need to be accounted for in the school budget

How do you ensure that you are calculating all the costs of educating a child at your school in your budget process? The following is a summary list of the main pitfalls we see in school budgeting pretty regularly, as well as some tips on how to avoid making them.

1. No Budget

A surprising number of schools actually run without a budget. The failure to determine expenditure priorities and monitor progress is poor management of resources and likely means that board members are not discharging their legal and moral duties – not to mention causing major problems in the operation of the school ministry.

2. Budget Not Linked to the Strategic Priorities of the School

Your budgeting should be linked to the strategic priorities and plans for your school. This helps focus spending on areas of priority, and provides an ability to plan for large shifts in spending over multiple years (such as implementing a music or sports program across the school).

3. Setting Tuition Fees Independently from the Budget Process

This is a common problem that often leads to financial stress. Setting the tuition fee schedule arbitrarily and then trying to operate within this artificial constraint can result in a cycle of decreasing education quality. It can also lead to situations where the tuition fees are too low compared to other schools in the market if the board and school leadership are too sensitive to fee increases and ignore this comparative data. Boards and school leadership can often balance overall tuition fee income more effectively through the use of discounts and concessions so that those families that can afford to pay higher fees are able to do so, often resulting in increased overall school income.

4. Overstating Enrollment to Balance the Budget

This is another pitfall that is particularly common when schools are in areas of declining enrollment or demographic shift. Rather than gradually plan and change the educational program to fit the enrollment numbers when in decline, school leaders hold on to the hope that the enrollments will arrive. Praying for enrollments to come is excellent – budgeting for 50 extra students to arrive after analysing the data is dangerous! It is much harder to do a major restructure of a school staff than to plan for and adjust to incremental enrollment changes from year to year.

5. Too Little Detail in the Budget – or Too Much

We have seen some budgets go to boards with very little detail and some with way too much. The broad-brush approach is dangerous, especially when budgeting for staffing (the biggest expense in a school by far). We recommend detailed budgeting by staff member in this area, leaving the “last year plus 3%” method of budgeting to smaller expense areas.

6. Annual Budget Not Linked to a Multiyear Financial Master Plan

An extremely useful tool is for schools to take a long-range view of their finances, looking for “potholes” in the road ahead and managing their finances in light of the strategic plan. Common timeframes used in long-range plans are three, five, or ten years. Resolve’s 10-Year Financial Masterplan model has proven very beneficial to our school clients, particularly as schools grow and plan building programs or expanded services.

7. Misunderstanding or Ignoring the Relationships Between Key Income and Expense Areas

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) help the board focus on the big picture. The use of KPIs also helps educators and board members who struggle with financial reports to get a good sense of where the school stands financially. At Resolve, we measure these KPIs, among others:

  • Student/teacher ratios
  • Salaries as a % of total expenses
  • Tuition fee concessions as % of total gross potential fee income
  • Debtors’ collection days
  • Principal and interest payments on capital loans as a percentage of total expenses
  • Cash surplus as a percentage of total income

8. Poor Accounting Systems, Financial Controls, and Reporting

We have seen many schools get into trouble and even close because of poor accounting and administration practices. A simple, well-managed accounting system with strong internal controls and accurate, timely reporting is critical to the ongoing financial health of the school. Core issues such as not completing statutory obligations, not remitting necessary taxes, and financial carelessness will ultimately undermine the good work being done in the ministry.

9. Not Seeking Assistance

Unfortunately, it has been our experience that schools often don’t ask for assistance when they would like to improve their administration and management of finances, or even when they are in difficulty. Too often, they “reinvent the wheel” and think they need to do it all themselves. There is enormous benefit in networking between schools on administration issues; you can find out who does something well and learn from them. If problems occur, it is better to ask for help early, when something may be done to resolve the issue, rather than to wait until its too late.

Next time you are putting together your school budget, reflect on the full costs of educating a child in your school and make sure your budget processes are best practice.

About the Author

David Bartlett has worked with hundreds of organisations across the education and not-for-profit sectors internationally in the areas of financial management, accounting systems, governance, policy development, strategic planning, business development processes, IT, capital and financial master planning, executive mentoring, mediation, and organisational management reviews. He has coauthored Community Governance, authored numerous articles, and developed international training curriculums dealing with business management and governance issues. David is a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia and has several tertiary business and training qualifications. He also has had experience as a director, company secretary, finance director, chairman, and public officer of a number of organisations.

Building your Board

Building your Board

Introduction

One of the most common questions when we consult with schools – whether the school is new or old, tiny or huge – is “How do we grow our board?”

In an era of falling volunteerism and greater responsibility and liability for board members, it is getting harder and harder to find new board members. Gone are the days of having lots of potential board members to choose from; instead it is becoming more and more important for boards to be proactive in approaching new board members.

A 2016 survey of 1,000 business managers in schools in Australia, undertaken by the Bursars Forum, found that over 39% of all schools (not just Christian schools) highlighted finding quality board members as a major challenge faced by their school. Another board survey, also conducted by the Bursars Forum, found that the typical board, per its constituting documents, should consist of between 4 and 12 board members – but, on average, had only 8.

From these surveys alone, it would appear that keeping a fully stocked board with good board members is a major issue for schools!

Growing Your Board

There are two key aspects in the growth of a board:

  1. Numeric growth – i.e., new board members
  2. Developing the existing board and its members

The first element – identifying, cultivating, and inducting new board members – is the main subject of this article. This element also requires that board members know when their time on the board is at an end, and that they work at replacing themselves rather than just holding onto keep the organisation alive. The rapid or en masse exit of long-term board members can present its own challenges, namely a dramatic loss of corporate memory and a potential power vacuum.

The second element involves deliberate work by the board – often by the board chair – and not by the CEO or management team. This becomes a matter for ongoing professional development and appraisal of the board as it does its work; boards must not fall prey to the temptation of thinking they know all there is to know about governing a school.

Role of the Board in Community Governance

Through the development and use of the community governance framework, we have seen that the role of the board is critical as part of a relational community – which every school is!

The key role for the board has two main aspects:

1. As a link:

  • Between the community and its moral owners (think of the founders, church, or other group to which the board is accountable for the fulfillment of the school’s purpose and vision). The board puts legs onto why we run the ministry of a school and who is going to make it happen.
  • Between the community and its personnel (whether paid or volunteers), including the CEO. The board makes sure that what we do as a school has purpose and direction. It is important to make sure that the board does not get involved in how we do things, lest they cross over to management issues rather than sticking to governance.

2. As keepers of the school’s higher purpose. The board is responsible for the direction of a school, and therefore needs to put a great deal of thought not only into the strategic direction of the school, but also into formulating and articulating the purpose, vision, and values of the school. It should not abdicate this responsibility to management.

One of the things that really hampers the long-term health of any organization is the lack of specific moral owners. These moral owners must go beyond the board members themselves for long-term sustainability. It is important that a board not only be accountable beyond itself, but also that the moral owners become the pool from which future board members can be drawn. Moral owners are sold out to the purpose, vision, and values of the school.

We have seen quite often that the lack of moral owners actually means that a board becomes less effective and has real problems finding new board members after the first generation moves on.

Using a Board Skills Matrix

When the topic of new board members comes up at meetings, it’s often a low priority. It often involves everyone looking blankly at each other, and the suggested names come exclusively from within our own limited circles. Worst of all, very little progress is made toward actually finding new board members!

A simple tool that helps boards get started is a board skills matrix: a simple representation of the things board members feel are currently lacking. Think about issues such as:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Time served on the board
  • Details of representatives (if you have them)
  • Length of term limits (if you have them)
  • Range of skills that would help make the board work

Have each board member list their own competencies and what things they perceive the board to be currently lacking. Putting all these in two matrices—what we have now and what we need—will highlight gaps on your board. Making the gaps apparent can give a frame of reference and turn board discussions into a focused survey of specific needs, rather than a disorganized brainstorm of potential board members.

Such an approach will highlight gaps and risks that the board faces, and can even provide you with an opportunity to come up with a “bench” of board members you may need later.

It is critical to ensure right at the outset that any prospective board members align with the school’s statement of faith, vision, values, and purpose. Just having the right skills is not sufficient for potential board members; they need to be sold out on where you want to go as a school.

Inducting and Orienting New Board Members

Once you have a list of potential board members, the real work begins. Depending on the process required to have someone join your school board (election or appointment), you’ll need to get started meeting with, sounding out, inducting, and orienting new board members, giving particular attention to laying out the school’s purpose and vision. This process should commence before a person joins the board.

Usually, a conversation with the board chairman and/or the CEO (i.e., administrator, head of school, headmaster, principal, etc.) as to where the school is going, its key goals and issues, etc., is very important even before someone joins a board. You need to find a good fit!

The use of a board policy handbook at this stage or even at a subsequent orientation is important not just for the board, but also for new board members: will they fit the culture of the board and operate in accordance with board policies? This also helps them come up to speed as soon as they join the board.

In our experience, it often takes new board members at least 12 months to come up to speed fully on all the issues a board faces. Careful induction and orientation can shorten this timeframe and make the new board members far more comfortable in the process.

New board members are actually healthy for boards to have around; not only do they bring fresh ideas and contributions, but they also get to ask all the silly questions, and perhaps questions that longer term board members are afraid to ask. It is important that new board members are not made to feel inferior in board meetings; their questions should be encouraged. In fact, the chair needs to make sure they are included in all discussions.

While it is great to have long-term corporate memory on the board, it is also important that they be given an opportunity to rotate out and make sure the board remains fresh at all times. A long-term board member is not necessarily a good board member.

Conclusion

A healthy board needs to grow not only numerically but also in its skills and knowledge. If a board is talking about issues that it always has, then not only the board, but the school as a whole could be in trouble. Ensuring that the school is fulfilling its vision and purpose is absolutely critical—the board is responsible for these aspects on behalf of the moral owners of the school.

In the ACSI Flourishing Schools Model, some markers of a flourishing school are:

  • A functioning strategic board
  • Ongoing board professional development • Annual board evaluation (of the board)
  • Ongoing planning process in place
  • Board policies systematically reviewed and revised
  • Policy guides key decisions

To self-diagnose, ask: when did you as a board last talk about these types of issues? When did you spend time together on a board retreat? When did you undertake some governance training together? When did you read a book or article on how to be a better board? Are you proactive as a board in building the board up, or are you reactive?

About the Author

Paul Campey is a partner with Resolve Consulting Group, based in Australia. He and the team at Resolve assist schools around the world in their governance, leadership, and financial management. He is a chartered accountant and also holds an MBA from Corban University. In his spare time, Paul also works as part of the ACSI Global Team. For more information about school governance and management, visit www.resolveconsulting.net

References

Cabban, S.K., and P. Campey. 2016. “Challenges Facing Schools.” The Bursars Forum.

Cabban, S.K., and P. Campey. 2015. “Board Survey.” The Bursars Forum.