Improving our trade


Sunday, January 19, 2014    

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EDUCATOR and management consultant, Peter Drucker, is attributed as saying "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right thing."

There has been much debate over the last two weeks regarding the leadership offered by principals of some educational institutions deemed to be underperforming, and the reported non-attendance, or non-completion of course work as part of professional development initiated by the Ministry of Education.

It is imperative, I believe, that every single leader in every sector of society seek to equip himself or herself with the necessary skills and tools to ensure success at his or her craft, while standing up to the greatest of personal and public scrutiny.

In our educational institutions at all levels, it is the school principal, more than anyone else, who is in a position to influence the school, its activities and the way the school will be perceived by the community. In fact, leadership in schools is second only to teaching. It is the responsibility, therefore, of all educators to improve their skills and abilities from one year to the next.

While I strongly promote the holistic view of improving education and educational outcomes in Jamaica, I am deeply concerned that for many administrators in education, when we speak about improvement in schools, we talk primarily of the availability of resources, ability of students, capability of staff -- academic and otherwise -- but very rarely speak about our need to be as equipped personally and professionally to lead our institutions. We, as educators, must talk about improvement of ourselves and not just the absence or inadequacy of resources.

It was John D Rockefeller who said, "Good leadership consists of showing average people how to do the work of superior people." Principals must have a clear vision of what success looks like; there are pockets of excellence all around Jamaica and these must be benchmarked and the models replicated in other areas, thus influencing the growth and development of a stronger education sector.

The aim must be to ensure that best practices are a norm in every aspect of school life, to include minimum standards for self, teachers, students, other categories of staff and all stakeholders.

Administrators must have a clearly articulated vision and accept accountability for those elements under their control. The consummate school leader seeks to lead a cadre of educators who are professionals in practice, on task, and passionate about the welfare of the nation's children. He or she is reflective, innovative and is prepared to defy the odds in empowering both staff and students to maximise their individual potential towards self-actualisation.

The leader has to extend him/herself, starting the day ahead of his colleagues and charges, visioning, implementing, reviewing, improving and yes, ending the day long after his or her colleagues have ended theirs. Co-founder of Apple Inc, Steve Jobs, got it right when he encouraged, "Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren't used to an environment where excellence is expected." School leaders must be that standard of excellence that their staff members will seek to emulate.

A common thread which must run through every public educational institution must be the desire to maintain and build strong values, community service and human participation. This means that principal and staff must seek to maintain and build on the strengths, while simultaneously strengthening the weak areas.

The error often made with maintenance is that the areas in our schools that are going well are left on auto-pilot. School practitioners must understand that maintenance is hard work and requires a tactical, surgical and clinical approach. The idea has to be one of continuous forward movement.

Strengthening the weak areas is extremely difficult and begins with a process of honest and frank introspection with a view to facing realities and weaknesses; planning accordingly; and activating and monitoring a course of action aimed at remedying these problems.

The administrator must recruit, support and retain capable teachers who possess worthy attributes, demonstrate positive attitudes and who are committed to improving their practice, while putting in place strategic programmes geared at developing weaker teachers.

The implementation of timely, instructional and clinical supervision with members of the teaching staff who have not yet optimised their true potential is critical to this process.

Principals must seek to empower their teachers, recognising that teachers do make a significant difference. The more affirmed the teachers are, the more likely they will be in creating a positive impact on educational outcomes for all students. By empowering members of staff, through timely professional development activities and through assigning new tasks and projects that build acumen and confidence, school administrators are investing in building capacity and ensuring the future success of the nation.

As we seek after success it must be success for all. It must not be a case of what is in it for me. It is only when leaders offer 'quality' leadership versus focusing on self, that initiatives will have longevity.

The leaders must seek to engender loyalty and in so doing ensure that the loyalty of teachers, students and stakeholders is to the institution and not, so much, to the leader. Loyalty to an individual and not to a principle, a process or an institution can create problems. When loyalty is to the institution, such loyalty will have longevity.

This kind of thinking is critical to succession planning. It is not just about a person to take over after one person retires or otherwise vacates the job. Succession planning has do with ensuring that all skills and resources that were available to previous leaders become available to those who succeed them.

Principals must continually evaluate what they do to impact and improve the practice of their teachers in the areas of curriculum, lesson planning, instruction, assessment, behaviour guidance and development of emotional intelligence -- both theirs and their students'.

Each principal should see him/herself as a key facilitator in the education system -- the chief instructional leader, the chief administrator and chief financial controller. Indeed, the Jamaican principal has a huge responsibility on his or her shoulders.

The importance of evaluation of the entire school community cannot be over-emphasised and should include a data-driven focus on student achievement; teacher performance; academic, cultural and sporting performance; and social skills all aimed at creating grounded well-thinking citizens prepared to contribute to the economic and social development of the nation.

The benchmark for the minimum standard of each school should be continuous improvement in all areas of school life, with the recognition that this ultimately impacts the wider society.

Principals need to be on the alert at all times, self-evaluating and doing constant retrospection as well as introspection of their involvement and participation in the leadership landscape. School leaders (principals, vice-principals and senior teachers) must ask the questions: How am I doing? What are my strengths and weaknesses? How do I maintain my strengths? How do I improve on my weaknesses?

Principals must feel a sense of obligation to refining what they do in schools with a view to creating a [greater] impact on the holistic development of the children they cater to and serve. There is no greater assessment than self-evaluation. Likewise there is no greater motivation than intrinsic motivation.

It is imperative that school administrators meet with their teachers, not just to examine the ways in which the teachers can better improve the students, but also to critically examine the strategies that teachers can use to improve their performance with a view to advancing the teachers' growth goals. If this is not done, the teacher with the greatest passion will become frustrated and question whether there exists a reciprocal relationship between institution and self.

The teacher's perception of self is important and must be given attention by the administration. A professional growth plan for educators in every school is integral to the overall improvement and development of all staff.

Every teacher must be encouraged to focus on fundamental elements and arrive at a consensus of strengths and weaknesses. Teachers, too, must ask themselves these critical questions: How successful are we? What are our strengths? What are our weaknesses? How do we move forward? What are the resources we need? Can we realistically get them? How can we maximise our outputs based on what we have?

The school, in conducting this SWOT analysis, will better support its strategic focus and objectives.

The Jamaican principal must be in charge of, and take charge in leading the school's success. His/her job is wide and varied. It ought never to be the case of administrator versus teachers.

Relationships in schools must be balanced and all efforts must be made to minimise interpersonal conflicts in the interest of focusing on our nation's children. When the desired balance is achieved, then the school has a greater potential to grow and achieve more, together with parents and families. Parents and families are critical to the success of all children's outcomes academically and personally.

It must not be a case of the ministry says, the education officers say, the principal says; rather, it must be that we all share our opinions and in the end agree and move forward together as a band of stakeholders and shareholders.

Principals, as managers, must be constantly aware of all elements of the school's operations and must spend time reviewing the performance of students, thus knowing how their students are doing before the 'autopsy' report. Principals must, if needs be, implement interventions to close the gap between how students perform and how they should perform.

We must balance our efforts of planning for the achievers and over-achievers, yet strike a balance with plans for low achievers and under-achievers.

The efforts in schools cannot be fragmented if success is to be achieved. Every aspect of the machinery must move with the mission in mind towards agreed common goals and objectives for students' attainment and achievement. We must be careful to examine the quality and quantity of time teachers spend in isolation without adequate supervision to include feedback and follow-up. The importance of feedback cannot be over-emphasised.

Schools, principals and teachers must challenge themselves to use available technology to record teachers presenting to their classes, and spend time reviewing the material to make their assessments. The primary purpose of feedback is to enable teachers to improve their practice. It must be focused, specific and comprehensive. There is the critical need for formative and summative assessments.

Principals and vice-principals must be included in the professional development for all categories of staff. Consequently, they must sit in and participate in professional development. If not, the administrators run the risk of sending the message that they know it all and it is the staff member who needs to know. Professional development should be as important to the principal as it should be to the teacher.

Principals should develop the posture of delegating management duties so that he or she can be free to be an instructional leader. Administrators must accept that there exists a high degree of competence on any staff, competencies which go beyond strict teaching and learning.

Administrators must, therefore, seek to harness these competencies and in so doing give people varying responsibilities and the necessary latitude to carry out the tasks given to them and to allow them to do so successfully.

Importantly, weak leaders make everyone happy. Strong leaders, among other things, having given all the support, hold people accountable. The principal must understand that part of the price he/she pays for leadership is conflict. The principal must take the lead in making the change.

Principals must create strong network contacts and collaboration. We must have strong backbones in order to get things done. We must make demands based on minimum standards outlined in the Education Act. After talking and talking and talking, principals must constantly document with a view to taking the necessary action, always exercising due process and a generous portion of natural justice. At the end of the day, the buck stops with the principal -- the chief accountable officer.

The principal must have an ability to acquire scarce resources. Collaboration is critical. The fact is, often when we say we collaborate what we really mean is that we co-operate. The principal must build personal power which speaks to his or her status and credibility and, at the same time, empower others around him or her. It is my firm belief that as principals we can do it, but it starts with believing we can. And if we are to do it, students and the welfare of students must be placed at the centre.

In concluding, I wish to encourage my colleagues as we continue the fight for the minds of our nation's children. I wish also to commend principals collectively for the work and worth which they have invested in the education system. It is my view that collectively educators at the core desire to create productive citizens of the world.

The reality is that we achieve that goal to a large extent. However, so as not to be labelled hypocrites we have to accept and confess that too many students are left behind. In light of that fact we have to give a further collective push.

I am not ignorant of the lack of resources in our education system as a whole. I simply ask that despite the deficiencies we recognise our own talents and the talents of the children and ensure that we collectively make continued deliberate efforts to add value to our children, our country, the Caribbean and the world.

Pockets of excellence have to be replicated. Administrators and teachers must develop a posture of sharing what they know and what works. Administrators and teachers must be open to constructive criticism and be willing to make changes where necessary. We all must, at the start of a new year, engage in honest, open and forthright introspection with a view to maintaining those things which are going well and improving on weak areas.

As we collectively seek to advance education in Jamaica, I call for unwavering, unflinching support for the nation's school administrators and teachers. We must remain resolute and committed to the task of producing quality human products that will impact positively on nation building and development.

The Jamaica Teachers' Association approaches 50 years of outstanding positive contribution to our nation, and on the horizon of this historic occasion, I encourage us all against the background that education is everybody's business and that as a nation we spend quality time reflecting on our education system.

Let us examine the role we all are currently playing with a view to solidifying the gains we have made and committing ourselves to soar to greater heights of significant improvement.

May God help us to such an end as we continue to unite and serve.

— Dr Mark Nicely is president of the Jamaica Teachers' Association





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