I recently got into a conversation with a new senior manager at a high school. We talked about what takes a leader from professional competence (looks the part and keeps working through the ‘to do’ list and ‘to see’ folk) to a nurturer of authentic change. I am primarily talking about pastoral care of our students and the role we as educators have. When I refer to pastoral leaders I refer to every member of the school community from the canteen staff, students and teachers all the way up to the Principal. I am fortunate to be surrounded by incredible educators that far exceed the expectations of any job description. They bring about change through relationships that are firm, fair, consistent and from a position of genuine care for a students wellbeing. We all know this isn’t always the case and even the best of folk have their off day.
The huge shift I see in schools at the moment is one to student lead, and therefore change based on student voice. To sympathise a person may ask and then listen to what happened, whereas an empathetic leader would genuinely want to explore the whys. The difference between processing the problem and acknowledging the uniqueness of everyone we come into contact with is a more effective position. It is a conversation of reciprocated learning, modelling the very behaviours we hope to hear and see. It is not losing Mana, control or power, in fact the very opposite. This is how you affect change one by one, and beyond one incident but toward ongoing growth.
An example: A student wears the incorrect shoes for three days, following school policy and procedure, post warning they are now into after school detention land. Until…. the student ‘loses the plot’ after receiving an additional detention slip for ongoing ‘minor defiance’ (not attending original detention). This results in a ‘major defiance’ and a stand down. The teachers perspective, the student is just plain defiant and being a teenager so must get punished. It’s then far more than just interesting to explore the the student’s experience towards informing the why? As it happens the school shoes had just been bought in anticipation for a new start in the safe place that is school. This student has endured an abusive home environment almost all of their life. Unfortunately, these same new shoes were used to assault a number of family members the night before he was first pulled up by teachers, to the extent the students mum was hospitalised with serious injuries. These shoes were seized as evidence in the intended prosecution of his father.
If you get anything from this post then I hope its this: It’s very rarely black and white when it comes to school misbehaviour or discipline. Is it brave or just plain common sense to come alongside the student and dare to listen just as much as talk. It’s not necessarily setting out to justify a behaviour, but more to inform the context and reasoning with the hope of preventing future incidents and exploring better responses for better outcomes.
The biggest point to be made in terms of pastoral leadership is that it is not hierarchical, every member of a school community from the students to the Principal are all pastoral leaders. This philosophy is no longer a feel good gimmick that can be rolled out prior to inspection time. It is increasingly and quite rightly being acknowledged as fundamental to a strong school community. Wellbeing measures as a tool for measuring educational success is growing, and when embraced beyond rhetoric is a fantastic juggernaut that showers both staff and students with the benefits.
Two children, two different approaches. The first child stands in front of you and you direct them to ‘head outside and somewhere on that sports field you’ll find $20’. This young one then turns and heads on over towards the sports field. The second bowls on in and you deliver a different instruction, ‘head out there and somewhere on that sports field you’ll find some rubbish’. For both children they are instructed to bring what they are tasked with finding back to you. Which one do you think will complete the task in the quickest time and with a slight spring in there step? Secondly, which is more likely to find the rubbish and which is more likely to retrieve the money. To be fair, i’ll eliminate two variables that many school staff or parents will be quick to highlight. No, the second one doesn’t slide down in the seat and stage a sit in, and thanks to the impressive building budget, the sound proofing is second in impressiveness to only a Sony recording studio, so the second is unaware of the $20 floating around outside. The point: You get what you look for. This principle remains a struggle in many schools and families. Why? well, perhaps we haven’t come as far as we would have liked, from children are to be seen and not heard, and the understanding that we are the adults so if i say, you do. We all know that that in many situations this simple and wonderfully hopeful mantra is destined for a less than positive outcome.
We do love our consequences, and for 98% of young folk that works, heck it works for everyone. If we were to as much as see a car in the distance flashing its headlights, we slam on the breaks and look with an indescribable intensity for the mobile speed camera, so we can glare and shake our heads with suitable disapproval. Most of us are more than eager to conform to social expectations and the notion of what is right and wrong. Reigning this in from my own drive home from work this afternoon to working with our young ones. The challenge we face is the 2% ‘ers, for which consequences are entertainment rather than a deterrent. I believe it is so important to then delve deeper into the function of the behaviour but for many school staff and parents it is paramount we change tact, as if you do what you always have done, you continue to see the same outcome. This makes little sense, and quite possibly reinforces the behaviour and damages the relationship that could potentially be the best opportunity for positive change.
We can modify behaviour by challenging the children to lift the lid. That is lifting the lid of their expectations of themselves, as well as challenging ourselves to lift the lid of our expectations of the child and limitless and being available to see the enormous potential of the children. This requires retraining the children and adults that connect with each other to acknowledging the positive steps and embracing positive steps forward towards a better outcome.
One example i’d like to offer is terribly simple but continues to work without failure (touch wood). Get your conduct books or daily report cards out and have a look at the wording, tone and direction. So, look for what the booklet or strategy is aiming to highlight. Is it catching the negative behaviours for the student to then carry around for the day or celebrating moments of positive behaviours in the hope that it reinforces what you want to see and hear? Who is taking responsibility for the behaviour? Are you enabling change or disabling change?
It doesn’t take long to flip the approach so it is both enabling positive change, and the responsibility for behaviours is positioned with the right person, the student or child themselves. This objective can then be supported by adults.
So, you get what you look for. Expect the student or child to raise their own expectations of themselves and lift the lid in terms of reaching their potential. Quite possibly the greatest challenge is to refresh/retrain the adults to search for, capture and acknowledge the positives. Damned hard at times, but worth it, especially when investing in the long game.