How to promote visionary thinking in schools

The following article comes from Anna Dunn, Head of English at Hazelwick School in Crawley, UK.

The concept of a ‘shared vision’ can sound both corporate and disingenuous; neither of which is likely to be welcomed by teachers. There is a tendency to consider ‘vision’ as something gimmicky, like an advertising slogan or tag line. Alternatively, it sometimes feels that, in schools, all that matters is exam results. If grades are good, what is the point of vision?

For many years, I worked in a school where the department achieved world-beating exam results with mostly excellent teaching. It was easy to turn up each day, do my job and reap the rewards. But it was clear to me that the department was lacking direction: there was very little drive, motivation, or inspiration to look at whether there were additional ways to succeed: to make progress. And members of staff became resistant to new strategies, new resources, and new opportunities. If a department is only interested in exam results and those are being achieved, is it time to stop developing?

I think not. Schools are so much more than exam factories. Schools are nurturing, protecting, educating institutions designed to inspire every member of their community. Even more than in the corporate world, shared vision is essential in schools because it can provide those who share it with the necessary direction; ambition; collaboration; change-management; and, overall, the inspiration to create an outstanding school. To be effective, the vision must start with the values of leaders; be carefully considered over time; allow for contribution from all the stakeholders; and encapsulate the heart of where the school or department aims to be.

I believe that English, my subject, should be at the heart of a school (literacy and communication skills underpinning every other subject) but I also want students to love the subject for itself and to pursue it into the Sixth Form and beyond. My personal vision is this love of subject, as opposed to being data driven which, while necessary, isn’t very inspiring. When I arrived at my new school in September 2021, I made it clear from the start that this was my ethos as Head of Department. As a result, when I proposed a shared vision for the department, the teachers in my team responded positively to the inclusion of love of English and engaged with the process of defining the shared vision for the team.

How does vision work to inspire?

Direction

‘Vision’ is literally the ability to see. A shared vision allows a department to look ahead of itself and understand where it is going. Each year in a school inevitably becomes quite repetitive for teachers: the students change but the content, assessments and external exams remain the same (2020-21 aside). Without a vision to aspire to, this repetition can become dull and lead to a lack of inspiration in a team. Every year, students look eagerly up at their teacher waiting to be inspired by a brand-new text – they don’t yet know that the character Eva Smith was pregnant when she died – but the teacher is reaching for her copy of An Inspector Calls for the twelfth time in her career. However, if the vision of the department encourages that teacher to shine a light on a new element of that text, to perhaps focus more on a student’s speaking skills or emphasise the creativity of play writing then, suddenly, the text becomes new and the teacher is no longer walking in circles but taking a linear path of progression.

Ambition

‘Vision’ is also the ability to see beyond. A school or department vision should be aspirational: it should encourage teachers to want to achieve something more than they have already while also knowing that they are contributing to the wider school’s development. Teachers work within a complex structure as both individuals and team-members: in a team, working individually in a classroom. CPD targets are trying to help us in this process but it often proves difficult to set worthwhile aims each year. Shared vision provides each teacher with a focus point for how to develop: “I know that my headteacher or my head of department will be working towards this idea so what can I do to contribute to that?” It provides ambitious ideas and the justification to embark on them.

I knew these were developments for me to take seriously.

Collaboration

As individuals working within the classroom, it can also be easy to lose sight of the whole picture because each day teachers arrive at work, teach students, mark work, plan and go home. Working hard at the daily challenges leaves little time for collaborative work with colleagues. I have taught in private international and within British state education and I can safely say that teachers are united in their desire to avoid additional meetings which are often seen as pointless. However, effective collaboration in a meeting where there is a clear and determined shared vision is such an incredibly powerful thing. Sharing a vision allows those with different roles, teaching styles and experiences, and even subjects to come together to work towards a shared goal.

Change-management

I have found in my career that teachers are innately conservative: they don’t like things to change because it feels threatening, unfamiliar and often causes additional work that feels overwhelming. Simply put, it is almost impossible to get teachers to be positive about change if they don’t feel they have anything to do with the decisions being made. However, it is impractical to consult members of the department on every element of change that a head of department, or school, wishes to implement. It is, therefore, essential to have a shared vision in place to allow these changes to happen and to ensure that the teachers who it is going to affect can see the rationale behind it and therefore engage fully with the process of enacting those changes.

A truly shared vision offers inspiration, direction and development. It goes beyond the pursuit of exam results alone and provides the opportunity for a whole staff to believe in what they are doing and to strive towards a better future for the department and for the school.

Author:Anna Dunn

Hazelwick School in Crawley, UK

Anna Dunn is Head of English at Hazelwick School in Crawley, England. She has taught English for fourteen years in International and UK State schools. She loves teaching and leading the subjects of Language and Literature, having done so at GCSE, IGCSE, A Level and IB, as well as at KS3.

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