Friday, October 28, 2011

Out of Africa

Staff at the American International School of Abuja.
Many of the teachers in this photo will pursue
other teaching opportunities in the next 2-3
years. Their good efforts will transcend their time at AISA.
     My recent trip to Nairobi and Abuja provided some wonderful travel moments, which I’ll treasure for a lifetime. They are one of the value added pieces of being an educator and a great reminder of how fortunate I’ve been in this career.

     As an educator I was really keen to find out what would be different, better, worse, or common to my context. My context has been derived from 29 years as an educator in British Columbia in a variety of roles (teacher, vice-principal, principal, university sectional instructor, president of a provincial organization, Ministry of Education project manager, assistant superintendent, and executive director) and locations. But, it’s my context and it’s continually shaped by interactions with fellow educators.

     The AISA conference in Nairobi, Kenya brought me in contact with educators from at least a dozen African nations. That seemed like a good sampling and I set out to ask many questions during the seven-hour sessions I facilitated. I thought the student body at these schools would preclude any of the challenges I might have encountered. That was my bias borne out of the notion that if parents were paying large sums of money to send their children, it was likely that very few serious challenges would emerge for the teacher. Here’s where context plays a role again. The teachers described similar concerns and a range that exists in most schools I’ve visited. The pyramid of behaviors we describe in our book ( exist just as clearly. I was also regaled with many stories of student success and breakthroughs. If I had closed my eyes for a moment, I could have imagined myself in many of the schools I have visited.

     The school visit to the American International School in Abuja, Nigeria provided further evidence that schools are schools, kids are kids, and great educators practice their craft everywhere. The two days we spent on assessment practice yielded similar questions and successes to any I’ve conducted on home turf. In fact, what drove the point home of the effectiveness of pursuing the right outcomes came as a result of a relatively unique challenge the international schools face. They have a significantly high percentage of staff turnover annually. While my belief and much of the research I’ve read suggests a five to seven year window for effective leadership to emerge and take root, these schools hardly ever see anyone approach the lower end of that scale at the principal or assistant level. Teachers that stay beyond the two year initial contract are rare and those that stay beyond three are almost unique in their schools.

     You might ask how the school can gain an identity or have a vision with such turnover. That’s where attaching yourself to the right things becomes the glue to hold things together. Schools that pursue effective assessment practice and engage in ongoing formative assessment while providing descriptive feedback do so not because this is the passion of certain individuals on staff but because it’s the right thing to do. Having everyone fluent in this means that there are always some individuals that bridge those entering the staff and those leaving. It becomes something that is transmitted in the effective dialogue teachers engage in as professional learning communities. Rather than answers being derived from the well of “that’s the way we’ve always done it”, the answers need to make sense to those coming in as being the best way to do things. 

     Despite working with numerous groups over the last few years on assessment and professional learning communities, the obvious benefits of these initiatives in an immediate way had escaped me. I was stuck in my old paradigm that it took time for these to take route and become effective and that meant having committed people stay for long periods to ensure the work survived. Thanks to my colleagues in Africa, I was reminded that these things work because they are the right pursuits for educators to follow.

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