Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Systemic Change

-spinning straw into gold. A Kāhui Ako leader’s story two years on. 

Jill Farquharson

(This post is one of several that were collated into for 2017.)

Auckland Central Community of Schools or ACCOS as we have come to be known, was one of the early adopters of a 2014 government initiative called Investing in Educational Success. The purpose of this initiative was to lift student achievement by improving teacher practice in addition to offering career opportunities for teachers and principals. At the end of 2015 I was fortunate enough to be appointed to the position of lead principal of ACCOS. 

In the early days of CoL leadership I likened my position to a character in one of the Grimm's brothers fairy tales Rumpelstiltskin.  The fairy tale tells of a foolish miller who lied to the King saying his daughter could spin straw into gold.  The king calls for the daughter and shuts her in a tower room filled with straw and a spinning wheel and demands the straw be spun into gold. The miller's daughter looks nervously at the impossible task ahead. She was hapless, miserable and full of questions: “why am I here”, “how can I possibly do this job".  

As a new CoL leader I have to say there were many similarities between the way I was feeling and the miller's daughter. So many in fact that I was on the lookout for my very own Rumpelstiltskin! 

My story
As a new leader I hoped to provide additional and complementary support to eleven high performing schools who all had exceptionally competent and high achieving principals. The purpose of my work was to build collaboration within the community to meet our shared achievement challenges. Throughout the two-year appointment I have felt immensely proud of our achievements, particularly the strong focus we have kept on student achievement,
the proactive way we have addressed challenges, and the collective progress we have made. Certainly one of the most rewarding things I have undertaken in my career and it is for this reason that I am happy to share my story.

As one of the first Communities of Learning, Kāhui Ako to be established, our aspiration was to strengthen pathways for our students as they moved through their schooling journey. We drew on the resources of all members of our educational community to support this objective. In doing this we have successfully built the individual and collective capacity of our members while strengthening our inquiry mindset.

Once our achievement challenges were endorsed at the end of 2015, I felt it important to focus my leadership on the good things that were happening in schools through appreciative inquiry. By encouraging teachers and leaders to consider new and different ways of doing things, opening up our thinking, challenging current practices and creating opportunities for all stakeholders the capacity of our network would increase.
My approach has always been one of engaging members of the community in self determined change focusing my attention of what works and what people really care about.

There have been many accomplishments in our two years and as the leader it would be very presumptuous for me to take credit for all of these the achievements. They are the result of a huge amount of work from our Across School Leaders, In School Leaders, principal colleagues and teachers at the chalkface. This initiative is steeped in collaboration therefore this story is “ours” not “mine.

Planning for Leadership
Using prior knowledge and experiences from a joint leadership position I previously held in a learning and change network, I knew it was important from the commencement of my position as CoL leader to initiate change through the process of transformational leadership. This meant guiding members of our community with dignity and integrity in all of my actions.

Early on two sub-leaders (Deputies) were appointed who provided regular support, guidance and direction not to mention numerous coffees! We very quickly set challenging expectations for ourselves knowing if we modelled quality and excellence we would empower members of the CoL to achieve higher performance. We met regularly to discuss, debate and deliberate, valuing each other’s contributions and involvement. 
Our In School and Across School Leaders have driven the work of ACCoS including many challenging initiatives. These leaders have been pivotal to the success of our Kāhui Ako so careful planning was required to build their capacity and capability. The work they undertook reflected each school’s improvement agenda, ongoing collaborative inquiries and the sharing of teaching practices across the sector.
The Across and In School Leaders have led from the middle and in doing so successfully created a culture of collective responsibility for excellence and equity across all schools in the community.

At every stage of development, the ACCoS leaders including myself, played a critical role in establishing our priority goals and targets. These were soon transformed into Achievement Challenges which represented a collective commitment to improvement and the action we would take to meet these challenges. An openness to learning and a willingness to share information and evidence was prevalent among the schools. This continues today.
Respect as a leader was gained from members of our community by walking the talk of our change methodology ‘appreciative inquiry’ a strengths based approach. My attention was focused on identifying strengths, building on those strengths and then facilitating the analysis of what worked well and why.

Taking time to value each and every contribution from teachers and leaders was important and became a helpful enabler when we were setting up inquiries so they were positively aligned to our achievement challenges. In particular, my work with the Across School Leaders on open to learning conversations and coaching has been exceptionally rewarding as it has emphasized the importance of honest connections, inclusiveness and the value of diversity.

Developing and maintaining professional relationships is closely aligned to my role as a CoL leader which reflects the value I place on building strong relationships and ensuring they are functional. This in turn means the work we do and the progress we make will be successful. 

There is high relational trust in our Kāhui Ako, which was fundamental if we were to have robust discussions and engage in challenging dialogue. Through open conversations and a strong self review process we have been able to acknowledge what we don’t know, take risks, share expertise and support each other.  We have collectively created a safe environment where we can problem solve together and foster the kinds of innovation, creativity and confidence that will enable us to address the complexities of improving student learning without fear of failure.  

In our Kāhui Ako there is a culture of transparency in everything we do. Through open and clear communication channels we have been able to facilitate the exchange of ideas and new knowledge. Formal and informal opportunities to discuss and network have been regularly offered at different levels (Principal, ASL, ISL, and cross sector) with the purpose of collaboration around a shared focus.

Strong professional relationships have been established in my time as the community leader and I have actively contributed to maintaining these relationships through a focus on learners, their families and whānau, colleagues, board members, other professionals and various groups in our community.

I believe relational trust, effective communication and highly developed professional relationships are fundamental to an effective Kāhui Ako.

When planning for success our Kāhui Ako embraces the challenge of new possibilities, makes positive change and sustains improvement.

Professional Learning
The community has been fortunate to have well informed members who are up to date with current research around teaching and learning and the benefits of working in a collaborative network.
Members willingly exchange ideas, learn from each other and explore teaching practices that work and sometimes don’t work- there is a positive culture of risk taking. New knowledge is collectively developed and there is a strong correlation between this and student outcomes.  
There has been and will continue to be a strong emphasis on research underpinning our actions, decisions and direction. This includes knowing about global trends that have the greatest impact on student achievement, synthesizing this information and then developing an understanding of what success will look like. It is important to us that learners make sufficient progress and there is equity and excellence for all.
Professional learning within our CoL has seen teachers inquire into the effectiveness of their practice at a class level, within teams and across school sectors. These inquiries have embraced collaborative problem solving, expanded learning conversations, challenged current thinking and encouraged reflective practice.  By building professional capability we have been able to strengthen our evaluative reasoning to better understand how our improvement actions have impacted on learners and what difference this has made.  The exploration of evaluative practices such as asking good questions, gathering fit-for-purpose data/information, making sense of it and thinking deeply about next learning steps has encouraged deep and meaningful conversations between teachers. This shift in thinking and practice has also meant a more considered approach and cross sector understanding when looking at transition points and the transference of data between schools.

Professional learning has been a critical element for us in the Kāhui Ako driving improvement and innovation.

Having a personal sense of agency has helped me in my leadership role by reinforcing the fact that agency is socially interdependent. Every decision I make and every action I take has a consequence that impacts others.  The effects of agentic behavior is a huge responsibility as leader and one I undertake with the utmost respect for those I work alongside.  
Looking back on our work over the last two years I am pleased to say that unlike the Grimm Brothers fairytale, our Kāhui Ako has many treasures, numerous success stories and a very happy ending.


Auckland Central Community of Schools (2016). Achievement Plan.Retrieved from: https://sites.google.com/site/accosnz/goals

Daly, A., Moolenaar, N., Bolivar, J., & Purke, P. (2010).Relationships and reform: The role of teachers’ social networks. Journal of Educational Administration, 48(3), 359-391.

Education Review Office. (2016). Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako: Collaboration to Improve Learner Outcomes. Retrieved from:

Farrar, M. (2015, November). Learning together: The power of cluster-based school improvement.  East Melbourne, AU: Centre for Strategic Education.

Halbert, J., Kaser, L. & Koehn, D. (2011, January). Spirals of Inquiry: Building professional inquiry to foster student learning.Paper presented at Association of Christian Schools Conference, Limassol, Cyprus.

Ministry of Education. (2011). Understanding teaching as inquiry. In The New Zealand Curriculum Update (Issue 12), Wellington, NZ: Learning Media.

Ministry of Education. (2016). Community of learning: Guide for schools and kura. Wellington, NZ: Ministry of Education.

Ministry of Education. (n.d.). Communities of Learning | KāhuiAko. Retrieved from: https://education.govt.nz/communities-of-learning/

Nelson, T., Slavit, D., Perkins, M., & Hatham, T. ( 2008). A culture of collaborative inquiry: Learning to develop and support professional learning communities. Teachers College Record, 110(6), 1269-1303.

Michael Fullan - Public school improvement and the role of school leadership in that process | Australian Education Union (AEU)

Timperley, H. (2015, October 18). Effective professional conversations [video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJrkAENKjzw&sns=em

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