At the close of 2019, Hamilton Christian School was on the precipice of significant growth. As the leader of two previous schools that had grown significantly, I was well aware of the excitement that growth would bring. However, I was also very aware of the challenges it could bring, as well.
I was determined that our vision and culture would not suffer through growth. So often, during times of growth, the energy and focus are directed at the immediate urgent matters. Recruiting, orientation of students and staff, building projects, timetable changes, behavior management, and onboarding new families are all important. Eventually, when school leadership finally lifts their gaze from the immediate urgent, they look around and are surprised at what the school has become. In the absence of intentionality and attention, culture shapes itself.
We needed to take time out and articulate a plan.
As a school community, we had a strong vision for our student’s experience of learning and how teaching would be shaped. We had a strong vision for how technology would enhance and engage learning, not just entertain. And we had a strong vision for both discipleship and how our students would experience Christian education during their time at Hamilton Christian School. The solution would require this vision to be well articulated and for it to be touched regularly by everyone responsible for it. We also wanted to be able to share areas of best practice across the school, especially with those who needed support.
Our solution included two important tools: a bespoke teacher planner and an implementation matrix. The teacher planner was a very practical tool that many teachers were already using, such as a commercialized hard or virtual version. However, this new planner would be specific to our school and our vision for learning, pedagogy, and discipleship.
The planner several very important and intentional parts, including the “non-negotiables” and the weekly planner with the “question of the week.” It also includes sections with the game plan and the professional learning record, as well as blank class lists with grids (which teachers find handy for many reasons), staff birthday lists, a place for general notes, and important school dates.
The front of the planner clearly details our vision and non-negotiables for pedagogy, including intentional information and communication technology (ICT) use, a description of our discipleship program, our design for learning requirements, details of our vision for Christian education, and more—but not too much at just 11 pages. One page contains only these words: It is not what teachers taught that informs tomorrow’s lesson, it is what students learnt.
These details in the front end of the planner are not suggestions or even aspirations—they are our DNA as a school. The non-negotiables. They are what set us apart from other schools.
The Question of the Week
Team Leader to Teacher: The middle section of the planner is the empty week-by-week template where teachers can plan their groups and classes, as well as make notations about how sessions have progressed. Much like any other teacher planner that you would purchase, the days are divided into a number of periods each day. However, unlike commercial planners, our school planner also includes special events, staff birthdays, and the Question of the Week.
The Question of the Week points back to our vision. Every team leader orally engages with their team about the question of the week. It is never addressed through email. The conversation is the key. Most times, the question of the week is discussed together at weekly team meetings, but there are times when it is best discussed one-on-one. The bonus effect of discussing the question of the week as a group is that each member of the team gets to hear how other members of the team are engaging the relative aspect of the vision in their classes. There is an authentic opportunity to learn from each other.
Critical to the question of the week is a strong relationship where teachers can freely express not only how they are applying the vision in their classroom well but also how they may be struggling with this aspect. However, if the team member is not struggling with an aspect but rather disagrees with a non-negotiable of the vision, then the issue must be elevated to a member of the leadership team who can navigate that difference.
Head of School to Team Leader: A Head of School (the person often called the Principal in the Northern Hemisphere) will meet with their Team Leaders later in the week. In this meeting, they will discuss the Question of the Week from two perspectives: how does each Team Leader respond to the Question of the Week, and with feedback from each Team Leader, how did each team as a whole respond to the Question of the Week?
Two very important factors are critical to the process in this stage. First, the finer details of our vision are addressed frequently, and every teacher was a part of the conversation (not a lecture or email trail). Second, patterns were identified through the discussions between the Team Leaders and Heads of School.
Tracking the Implementation: While the vision is being touched regularly, it is important to track progress as a whole school. In order to do this well, we use a device called the Vision Implementation Matrix. The matrix has just three columns. The non-negotiables of the vision are on the left column, followed by a column called “Me,” and a column called “My Team.” The Team Leader completes the matrix by ranking each of the non-negotiables using the following four-point scale:
- Nothing: I (or my team) have no recollection of this concept; the vocabulary is new to us.
- Know: I (or my team) know of this concept and have heard it being explained. Not yet intentionally experienced in my or my team’s classes yet.
- Understand: I (or my team) very much understand this aspect of the vision and could run a workshop on it if required. This aspect will be present in my class (or the team’s class) at times.
- Do: This aspect is very much experienced my (or my team’s) class that I have responsibility for
Once the Team Leader has completed the matrix, it is time to answer two last questions: “What are two aspects that we have made progress on since our last meeting?” and “What is the one aspect I need the team to focus on in the next 12 weeks?”
The value of sharing this part of the process amongst the wider leadership team is significant. As one Team Leader or Head of School shares their Areas of greatest progress it often overlaps with another team’s Next Steps. This allows us to learn from each other through shared best practice.
Review the vision and non-negotiables: The final step in this process is the annual review of both the planner’s front end and the week’s questions. In this part of the process, it is important to review what parts of the non-negotiables are now business as usual, not needing such specialized attention and the new parts that need to be included.
We will also look at the current front end of the planner and decide as a team if there is anything ready to be taken out of it. This will create space for the new non-negotiables of the vision while not having too much that teachers must wrestle with at once.
The simple task of vision casting is a blunt, painful, and ineffective tool. Vision needs to be embedded deeply within an organization. This can only truly happen if it is addressed regularly with those at the chalkface, monitored regularly, supported from within and constructed together.
Key Elements of Vision Sustainability Through Growth:
- Articulation of vision and non-negotiables
- Regular touching of vision at all levels of staff (Question of the Week)
- Tracking of implementation of vision (Vision Implementation Matrix)
- Review of the vision and non-negotiables
About the Author
Shaun Brooker is the principal of Hamilton Christian School and the chairman of the New Zealand Association for Christian Schools. He has taught and led in Christian and state schools in England, the Cayman Islands, and New Zealand. His passion for authentic Christian Education has resulted in a blog and his desire for innovation has him serving on an education advisory board for Apple. Mr. Brooker can be reached via email at email@example.com.