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Creating Harbors of Hope Where All Children Can Learn


Educators and consultants Linda Dier and Wayne Hulley outline a process for creating harbors of hope: schools where all children feel safe and know they can succeed. Included: Descriptions of how three schools re-invented themselves.

Successful school reform efforts start with hope, and build on that with a plan for continuous improvement, according to Linda Dier and Wayne Hulley, authors of Harbors of Hope: The Planning for School and Student Success Process. In their book, Dier and Hulley outline their school success plan that involves all school staff members working together to set a course, study the problem, reflect, plan, and then implement reforms. Dier and Hulley call the schools created through the process, where all children feel safe and can learn, "harbors of hope." They describe three schools they feel have become those havens.

Both Dier and Hulley bring teaching and consulting skills to their writing; Hulley is the president of both Canadian Effective Schools Inc. and The North Star Centre for Personal and Organizational Effectiveness in Burlington, Ontario. In addition, he is a senior consultant with the Franklin Covey Company and has done extensive work in the area of school improvement and effective schools research.

Dier is a senior consultant with Canadian Effective Schools and the administrator of the Canadian Effective Schools League. She also is a partner with LDG Consulting Group in Nanaimo, British Columbia. She gives seminars and presentations about planning for school and student success as well as about effective leadership for change and staff development.

Hulley and Dier recently talked with Education World about their plan for success, and how it can bring meaningful and continuous change to schools.

"In the school context, hope is the belief that all students can learn and that the staff is capable of turning that belief into a reality," say Linda Dier and Wayne Hulley, authors of Harbors of Hope.

Education World:What is the first step in a school becoming a "harbor of hope"?

Linda Dier/Wayne Hulley: Hope is the basis of all positive change. Medical researchers exploring cures for cancer are directed by a sense of hope that they can meet with success. The actions of successful mountain climbers, scientists, salesmen, and entrepreneurs are all driven by a sense of hope. In the school context, hope is the belief that all students can learn and that the staff is capable of turning that belief into a reality. The first step in becoming a harbor of hope is for the staff to embrace this belief and commit to taking whatever action is necessary to bring it to fruition.

The key question in a harbor of hope school is, "What do we need to do to ensure that all students are successful?" The answer to this question identifies the adaptive challenges faced in the school. Adaptive challenges are those for which there are no obvious or easy answers. They typically deal with the "heart of teaching." When a school staff makes a commitment to be more successful with all students it can begin a process of seeking the solutions to make that possible. Solutions to the adaptive challenges can be explored and technical solutions, known strategies that are grounded in research, identified. Clear goal statements can be established that define the hopes and guide the work of the staff. Since improvement is always possible, the key question continually guides the work of the staff and leads to a school culture of success and continuous improvement.

EW: How do you begin reculturing a school?

Linda Dier

Dier/Hulley: Simply stated, culture is "the way we do business around here." Culture is created over time as a result of shared experiences and beliefs. It influences the perceptions, thoughts and feelings of its members.

Harbors of Hope presents and describes the Planning for School and Student Success Process, a cyclical, self-perpetuating model that supports and sustains the reculturing process.

The first step in a reculturing journey is to engage in a process that examines and articulates the values that are shared by all members of the staff. This process engages the heart as staff explores the essence of what it means to be a teacher. Values are identified through answering the question, "What matters most to us, our students and the community?" Once values are clearly stated, a collective vision statement can be developed to paint a picture of what we would see in our school and students if we were living our values. When shared values and vision are known, the purpose of our work can be identified. Purpose is a simple and compelling statement of why we exist.

Shared values, vision and purpose provide a strong foundation for all reculturing efforts; however, they alone are not enough to result in a culture shift. Subsequent work to bring the statements to life is required. Data or critical evidence can be collected that will provide information on the current performance of the school and students in the areas that have been declared important. Critical evidence can be both quantitative (pertaining to student achievement scores) and qualitative (pertaining to teacher/student/parent perceptions about school programs, structures and climate). This critical evidence about strengths and areas that need improvement sets the stage for planning to improve or reculture.

EW:What are some of the key elements of effective schools?

Dier/Hulley: Schools that are creating success and hope for all students tend to share similar characteristics. They have a clearly stated purpose that all staff understands and supports. The statement is usually simply stated and motivating. Statements such as, "Our purpose is to create hope and success for all students," are common.

The teachers in effective schools hold high expectations for themselves and their students. They believe that all students want to learn and can be successful so the focus is on teaching strategies that will make it possible. Effective schools, attempt to eliminate failure. While they hold high standards, the teachers don't use the standards to pass or fail students; rather, they support student growth toward meeting the standard.

Providing an opportunity for all students to learn is the challenge for successful schools. Flexible students grouping for instruction, teacher collaboration for planning and instruction, assessment to inform teaching, frequent student feedback on learning, lesson planning around clearly identified outcomes and strategies to support students who are not learning are evident in effective schools.

Schools that are successful value parents and use them to support the learning of the students. They communicate positively, clearly and often with parents forming partnerships of support. All effective schools create a safe and orderly environment. Physical or emotional bullying, by students and teachers, is not allowed. Community contribution, civility and service become part of the school fabric. Effective schools first establish what needs to be done and then actively pursue strategies that will lead to success. They are harbors of hope.

EW: What if not everyone on a school staff is willing to participate in a reform effort? What can the rest of the staff do?

Wayne Hulley

Dier/Hulley: Leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin. Reculturing necessitates change and the expectation for change often results in anxiety and resistance. It is important that those in leadership positions understand the change process, its impact on people and the various facets of resistance. Some people resist change because they are not confident that they know what to do to be successful. Others resist change because they do not believe it is necessary. Still others resist thinking that the requirement to change will disappear after a while.

Reform efforts must continue to move forward in spite of those teachers who do not agree. Those in leadership positions must be effective communicators. It is important that they listen to the objections and concerns being voiced since they may result in new insights and information. It is also important that leaders be persistent in sharing the reasons for the plans to improve and the processes that are involved. Those teachers who are resistant must be kept fully informed at every step along the way so that they know what is happening, why it is happening and what it means for them.

Clearly stated shared values, along with a common vision and purpose provide the foundation for planning to improve because they represent what the staff has declared collectively as being important. It is important that those in leadership positions be diligent in reinforcing the value, vision and purpose statements and reiterating the fact that they are intended to inform the actions of all staff members. Critical evidence provides necessary baseline information for planning to improve as well as important feedback on progress being made as the work of improvement is being done. Strong leadership in the collection, analysis and use of critical evidence will communicate its importance and model its usefulness to staff.

EW: After changes are in place, what is critical to maintaining or enhancing the changes?

Dier/Hulley: Harbors of Hope: Planning for School and Student Success identifies numerous approaches and useful structures for maintaining and enhancing improvement efforts.

Change is a process, not an event; therefore, an effective monitoring process is critical to maintain and enhance momentum. There are many ways of monitoring and supporting change efforts and, as always, strong leadership is a key factor. Strong leaders recognize the need to limit the number of new initiatives at a given time and pace the demands on teachers so that they have time to consolidate new learning and re-energize regularly as they work on school improvement. There is a time to press for change and a time to pull back in order to regroup and reaffirm direction.

Of prime importance is the provision of needed time and resources for teachers to collaborate as they plan and implement strategies for enhancing school and student success. Staff development opportunities, access to professional literature, and opportunities to collaborate are necessary if new learning and the planning process are to be adequately supported. Recognition of teachers who are collaborating effectively and making inroads toward achieving improvement goals is a key element to fuelling reform efforts. Celebration of success helps to keep the values, vision and purpose alive as the work and new learning proceeds.

It is important to recognize that school improvement work is demanding and implementation dips are unavoidable. Teachers may grow weary and become discouraged as they encounter the complexity of the changes they are working on. The lure of previous, predictable practices will be great. Encouragement and tangible support, along with recognition and celebration are the keys to working through the tough times to embed new practices and ways of thinking in the culture of the school.

EW: In the past, what problems have hampered genuine school reform?

Dier/Hulley: Although school improvement, or reform, has a long history, most of the initiatives from the "Excellence Movement" of the mid-1980s through the "Restructuring" of the 1990s have failed to produce the desired changes. This is not because they were badly conceived but because they failed to take into account the complexity of human dynamics within the educational system. These earlier reform movements approached school improvement with an emphasis on the cognitive, the rational, and the theoretical. Our experiences and research have taught us that the emotional component must not be neglected.

We believe that school reform is as much an act of the heart as it is an act of the head. It is the work of classroom teachers that results in improved schools. Past efforts have usually been "top-down" approaches where a federal, state, provincial, or local political body mandated changes. Teachers, because they were not involved in the identification of the goals and strategies being mandated, often saw these political pressures as opposed to the reality of their day-to-day teaching. As a result, the required changes often were responded to with lip-service and technical modifications that had limited impact on student achievement and school success.

This e-interview with Linda Dier and Wayne Hulley is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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