Just one book: ethos

When I started this series, my aim was to distil my thoughts on education through the prism of a single book: which one book, for me, held the key to that particular aspect? For curriculum, it was Cultural Literacy; for assessment, Make it Stick; for teaching, Teach Like a Champion, and for school leadership, Leverage Leadership.

 For me, the book that most exemplifies my ethos of education is Rafe Esquith’s There are no shortcuts.

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 Esquith’s ethos, embodied in the title, was adopted by Mike Feinberg and David Levin shortly before they launched their ground-breaking charter school, KIPP; now a chain boasting significant results for poor children in the USA. KIPP in turn went on to inspire other schools, including King Solomon Academy in West London. Esquith’s legacy is an extraordinary one.

I first read this book during the 2010 Teach First Summer Institute: bright eyed and completely clueless, all I knew was that the amorphous challenge ahead would be grueling. Esquith’s book is often about defying the officials and putting students first, like when he writes: “when my district assigns textbooks to the children that would cure the most seriously afflicted insomniac, I’ve used texts of my own choosing to inspire the children to dedicate themselves to their studies.”

The writer confronts the challenge ahead: “Yes, life isn’t fair. Other kids have more money. Their English is better. Their parents are better connected.” And there are no shortcuts. The students just have to work harder and learn more. I especially liked Esquith’s focus on high academic expectations, notably in text choice (like students studying unabridged Shakespeare, To Kill a Mockingbird, Malcolm X and so on). This is no better exemplified than here:

If fifth-grade students are reading at a first-grade level, placing first-grade books in front of them will never help them catch up with the students across town who not only are in higher-achieving classrooms but have parents and tutors helping them every step of the way. Someone has to tell children if they are behind, and lay out a plan of attack to help them catch up. If this means staying after school or taking extra hours sitting with the child and reading, so be it. There are no excuses.

I have been advised to withhold information like this from students in the name of motivation. But we must aim higher than this, as Esquith reminds us: “society is filled with forces of mediocrity that are going to battle you for the potential that is within your child.”

The second strapline of Esquith’s classroom, alongside “there are no shortcuts” is “be nice, work hard”; KIPP’s founders inverted this, and the founders of Michaela Community School in Wembley altered it to “work hard, be kind.” The message is simple, enduring and essential.

Much of this book is dedicated to examples of Esquith going above and beyond; extra classes, summer classes and the all-important field trips: “as a teacher of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, I came to understand that my students would work harder for a better life if they saw the life they were working for.” Esquith details raising funds for these trips which often include travel to a different state by plane and an overnight stay, underwritten by awe-inspiring fund-raising methods. Now, trips are often costly, both in terms of time, money and energy; they frequently, at secondary schools, lead to missed learning time. But I do think Esquith has something here, and I’ll be writing over the next few weeks about field trips and why I think they need to be prioritized despite all of these drawbacks. The learning is the thing, of course, and the ethos behind the learning is relentless progress, defying the odds. But ethos is also nurtured by those aspects of education which cause students to feel that emotional connection, that energy and excitement, and for some this is best achieved outside a classroom setting.

In summary, the key messages on ethos from this book are:

  • There are no shortcuts to success; only hard work
  • All children deserve a rich, challenging curriculum
  • All children deserve to be educated in pleasant, safe classroom environments
  • We as teachers must be honest but positive with our students, always believing they can achieve, and knowing how hard they will need to work to make it
  • Teachers must do right by their students; this needs to be their guiding aim

Of course, this book comes with a major caveat: Esquith is exceptional; exceptional in his ability and exceptional in his commitment. Some people go into teaching to be missionaries; most do not. Some people submerge their lives to the lives of their students; most do not. Early in my career, I sought to emulate Esquith in my priorities and in my dedication.

But I’m not him. I’m a better teacher when I take time out to read fun books, go on holiday, visit a gym, sneak out of work early once in a blue moon to meet friends or go to the theatre, take an entire weekend off to do nothing but watch an entire series of something rubbish on Netflix. I’d like it if this was not true, but it is. I’m flawed.

But Esquith, I’ve come to realize, isn’t the model; Esquith is the touchstone. He is the bar we all strive to reach. So few of us will make it. I know I won’t. But in my best moments, his is the ethos that flows through me; it my lowest moments, his are the words I turn to for the gold standard of caring and commitment.

This is not a book for the practicalities of teaching and ethos. This is a book for inspiration.

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Just one book: leadership

In this post I’ll be exploring just one book on school leadership. I’ve previously written on curriculum, assessment and teaching, and my next post will be on ethos.

Leadership is a somewhat tricky subject, in that there are so many bad books on it. Many leadership books seem to spend an inordinate amount of time exploring semantics: what is a leader, and what is a manager? Indeed: what even is leadership?

At a school level, it is simply the people who make the decisions which run the school. On that basis, the book I have chosen seems to me to be the best one out there on the mechanics of how to run – or lead – a school.

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This book outlines how a great school should be led, with concrete examples of what works. To begin with, Bambrick-Santoyo states: “Exceptional school leaders succeed because of how they use their time: what they do, and how and when they do it.” Specifically, “instruction and culture are vital, and both must be led simultaneously.”

Data-driven instruction

Noting that: “standards are meaningless until you define how to assess them. Assessments, therefore, are the roadmap to rigour,” the author advises meeting after each assessment and “asking probing questions and deeply considering the results,” while great leaders guide this conversation “from the back pocket” – that is, keeping their “answers” in their pocket, and asking the right questions to guide people’s thinking.

Observations

The greatest lesson I learned from this book was the value of weekly developmental observations, coupled with “bite-sized action steps that allow a teacher to grow.” As the author notes: “you don’t get results by placing your best teachers strategically – you get them by coaching each and every teacher to do excellent work.” Finally, an alternative to pointless graded observations, where we are not judging where teachers are currently, but coaching them to improve student learning all the time.

Planning

Bambrick-Santoyo remarks that too often teachers receive “insufficient guidance” in planning, particularly at the start of their careers. Much more, it is suggested, ought to be centralised, and planned according to “assessment”, which is labelled the “roadmap to rigour.”

Training

Quite simply, with professional development: “increasing student achievement is the ultimate goal… if PD isn’t changing how our students learn, it’s useless.” Bambrick-Santoyo posits that “effective PD must start by answering a basic question: what will teachers be able to do at the end of this session?” The benefits of this are maximised by building in time to make the PD relevant to current practice: “giving teachers time to apply their learning is the difference between an engaging afternoon and sustained improvement in instruction.”

Pupil ethos

It is hard to argue with the assertion that “in schools with strong cultures, students receive a continual message that nothing is as important – or as engaging – as learning.” Bambrick-Santoyo advises that the top leaders “transform their vision into meticulously built systems.”

Staff culture

The culture of the school needs to be embodied by both staff and students, and care must be taken of teachers: “when teachers are out with friends or family, what do you want them to say about your school? How do you want them to feel?” The author advises being careful to pick up non-verbal signs from teachers, as not everything (anything?) is captured in formal surveys. Interestingly, Bambrick-Santoyo notes that: “it’s imperative that a leader confront warning signs as they come. Initially, if a teacher seems disengaged during professional development, a leader may be tempted to let it go; perhaps the teacher’s having a bad day… Yet unless it is addressed immediately, it is likely to weaken your culture.” We must always be vigilant to uphold our school culture; one small chink can undermine the entire organisation. The best way to reinforce culture is to continually reference the school’s mission: “by emphasising a common mission, the leader creates an internal motivation to work harder rather than imposing yet another external incentive to perform.”

Yet this is clearly not a blueprint we can pick up and apply to any school indiscriminately. Only those who are observant and have great listening skills will pick up on how to implement these ideas effectively for the context in which they find themselves.

Not only that, it is clear to me that leadership is about vision, and it is only when you harness the belief and motivation of the whole staff body to buy into that vision do these aspects work most effectively: as Bambrick-Santoyo states, “the core principle of a staff culture turnaround is that teachers need to know the school’s core mission… and must be unified in putting it into practice.” But I am not sure it is a book that will tell you how to have a vision, or how you can inspire others to believe in it: that can only come from your own beliefs, which are often informed by experience. And if you can’t imagine what is possible, you need to see a great school in action. And, of course, if you can’t work out why all kids deserve that then it’s not a book you’re in need of.

So far, this series has explored leadership, curriculum, assessment and teaching. The final post will be on school ethos.