We had another good discussion led by Reggie (or should I say Dr. Reggie) and Prof. Mary on what school leaders and teachers are currently doing with regard to teaching and learner assessment in their schools. What makes this radio show special is that it tackles the real issues of schooling during the time of Covid-19; it involves school leaders and teachers sharing current practices; and it brings in the voices of others who share additional knowledge and give guidance. In short, it is a show that is both relevant and responsive to the schooling challenges of the present.

Tshenolo spoke about the importance of the subject heads offering timely support to teachers in helping them plan for teaching and assessment. Prof. Metcalfe noted that the teacher can only assess what has been taught, and Tshenolo’s point is very important in this regard. He stated that, “… leaders (SMT members) have to make sure that the teachers are not overloaded with work… they are able to cover the scope of the work, deliver on time, and assess on time…” For Tshenolo, “quality teaching” was the important goal of their school – even during the current period.

Given the trimmed curriculum and guidelines for implementation, the question of “What is quality teaching, especially during this time?” has to be addressed at the level of the school. This question needs to be asked by the principal and SMT; it has to involve collective discussions with the whole staff; it has to take school contexts and current realities into account; and it requires the support and guidance from the district officials.

The question of What is quality teaching?” should also be part of ongoing professional conversations within the school. These conversations connect theory with the current realities of teaching; they deepen understanding; and they allow the school (the SMT working together with the teachers) to identify doable goals for the incremental improvement of teaching practice.

And, of course, talking about quality teaching cannot take place without also talking about improvements in learning. The activities of teaching and learning are inseparable. This is exactly the point that Prof. Metcalfe was making when she said that:

“Learning is at the centre of everything we do.” 

One last point on this topic before I move on – when this question about the quality of teaching is asked on a regular basis (not just during this time) as part of reflective practice at the school, it forms the basis on which the teachers are allowed to exercise their professional judgment about teaching. This is a term we’ve been hearing a lot recently. Dr. Maboya also spoke about it when explaining the trimmed curriculum and the exercise of professional judgment in implementing it.

Brendon’s school in the WC is good example of exercising professional judgment (collectively) when they made the decision that the, “… main focus across all grades will be reading across the curriculum.“ Brendon was also able to provide the rationale for this decision, stating, “…We believe this skill is lacking, hence the poor performance.” The decision to focus on reading (and reading for meaning), if done well, is likely to have longer-term benefits for the learners as they move through the subsequent phases of schooling.

The exercise of professional judgment will become more effective when our teachers are provided with opportunities to expand and deepen their knowledge and skills, and to develop the attributes that serve to improve the practice of teaching. We have not done enough of this in our country, and neither have we done it well. We can do more to support our teachers.

Nozipho, a principal from KZN reminded us once again that it was challenging to lead the core work of teaching and learning in schools during this time. She spoke about the importance of planning the teaching and learning programme so as not to make it more difficult for learners, “… who are already stressed and confused by the prevailing Covid – 19 conditions.” She also noted that it was important for teachers to. “… take a more caring stance …“ with the learners.

The importance of care is raised once again. When examining the relationship between care, and teaching and learning in the school, we say that care underpins and enables curriculum. In other words, learning occurs when it is embedded in a relationship of care. Care is not merely expressed as a word, but it is embodied in the actions of everyone at the school. Below are some attributes of a caring school culture:

  • Teachers are committed to making a difference in the lives of children.
  • Teachers know their learners, not only who they are in the classroom setting, but also where they come from, and the broader contexts of their lives.
  • Teachers believe in the learners, believe they can learn (irrespective of circumstance) and set high expectations for what they are capable of achieving.
  • Teachers respect the learners as human beings (irrespective of background or culture)
  • Teachers affirm learners as they progress, and help them grow (academically, emotionally, and personally).

The school principal and leadership team have a very important role to play in developing these attributes so that they become part of the school’s culture, and they start doing this by modeling it in their own behaviors and actions at school.

Nozipho also teaches us a final lesson about leadership in this broadcast. She notes that she is not a subject specialist and “invites” department heads and other teachers to take the lead with curriculum implementation in the school.

This is a wonderful example of distributed leadership, or leadership that is stretched out and shared across the school. It takes confident and courageous leaders who are aware of their own strengths and limitations, as well as that of others, to do this. This underscores an important leadership lesson brought about by the pandemic: there is no single, individual leader who, on his or her own, can lead an organization to achieve its goals. In too many instances, we find leaders who rely on their positional authority and adopt authoritarian styles to make individual decisions without consulting others. These decisions often have a limited effect in terms of organizational performance.

Great leaders work with and through others to achieve the organization’s goals. They don’t feel intimidated or threatened by others who may have good ideas or different skills. In fact, they create the enabling conditions for others to lead in situations where their skills are most relevant, and they support them in doing so. When leaders do this, they delegate responsibility for leading, not abdicate it.

If you find a leader like this in a school … you find a good school.