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Transforming School Culture

Change from Within Schools

Therese Ferguson-Murray

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

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A student dies as a result of an altercation with another student at a high school in our nation. School administrators grapple with how to deal with the children at their primary school who resort to measures such as name-calling and fighting to settle their disagreements. Situations such as these, which have been the subject of newspaper headlines and stories in recent years, highlight how the violence within our wider society can penetrate the walls of our nation's schools.

The Change from Within (CFW) programme, which has been in existence since 1992, and has been implemented by the School of Education at The University of the West Indies since 2002, has worked to address issues of violence, indiscipline, and behavioural problems within Jamaica's schools through wider school cultural change. The programme seeks to foster shared vision, instil moral purpose within faculty and staff, build interpersonal relationships, and ensure broad participation in the change process.

hilst other interventions might target individuals or particular problems or issues, changing school culture works to embed shared positive values and carve out valuable relationships within the wider school in order that a positive school culture is sustained.

After a four-year hiatus, the CFW programme resumed in 2016, and over the past few years the schools currently taking part in the programme have been experiencing successes utilising one of the core CFW pillars — driving change themselves in a participatory process that involves various school stakeholders, including students, parents, and teachers. Here are some examples:

Parental involvement

The involvement of parents has been shown to be important in the successful educational outcomes of children. It is no surprise, therefore, to know that one of the methodological principles of the programme is the involvement of parents in school cultural change. A number of the current school principals involved in the programme share their strategies:

Deanroy Bromfield, principal of Excelsior High School, utilises the example of lateness to illustrate. He shares that when children are late to school the first resort is not to institute sanctions. Rather, the school calls in the parents to inform them about their children's patterns (of which some parents are unaware) to uncover reasons for the lack of punctuality and explore various solutions. Various explanations arise; from students having to take their siblings to school or needing to visit another parent for lunch money, among others. Therefore, parents and the deans arrive at a consensus that benefits the child/children involved.

In this manner, Bromfield explains, not only is parental involvement in the school lives of their children fostered, but staff also interact with students on a “deeper level” to ascertain problems, instead of simply 'throwing punishments' at the students. Additionally, there are annual meetings held with each year group to which parents are invited for updates on their children's behaviour as well as academic performance. The dean of studies, especially, holds meetings with parents of children who display issues in their academics. Parents are then guided on solutions that should be explored which will aid their children's performance; for example, the possibility of them attending specific extra classes.

A similar approach is shared by Karen Jackson-Reynolds, principal of St Peter Claver Primary School. She shares that she has been attempting to get parents involved and aware of their children's behaviour with a view to ensuring that the environment created at school is reproduced in the home to ensure consistency and sustainability. The annual parent-teacher consultations in January is one of the spaces where parents receive personal insight into their children's performance. She states that this forum is expanded to address their behaviour outside of academics so that the parents are given a more comprehensive idea of their children's performance. Additionally, in meetings, there is time allotted at the end in which parents receive updates from the teachers on how their children have been performing generally. The school also practises an open-door policy whereby parents can come in to discuss issues surrounding their children's performance before school begins and after school is dismissed.

Interacting with children in different ways

Finding new ways to interact with and relate to students is important to facilitating wider school culture change and the CFW schools have been undertaking this in various ways. These principals speak to the importance of listening deeply to and engaging with students on more meaningful levels. In addition to this is the approach being used to address students who have conflicts. Mr. Bromfield, for example, has shared how the use of restorative justice circles is now being utilised and the impact it has had on reducing conflicts. These sessions, that involve dialogue and communication as opposed to physical altercations, are led by trained staff members and have resulted in peaceable solutions to conflicts. This approach is complemented by Home and Family Life Education classes in which students learn critical life lessons through drama, art and music. It is a methodology particularly suitable to many of our students given the appeal of the arts.

Mr Bromfield and Reverend Claude Ellis, principal of Pembroke Hall High School, also describe new partnerships to help students with antisocial behaviours such as gambling – a problem that many schools across the island face. They speak of partnering with RISE Life Management Services and how that has helped the school address these issues.

At Allman Town Primary School, a caring, peaceful culture is being created by building camaraderie among the student body. Acting Principal Latoya Nesbitt states that staff are encouraged to speak to students in friendly and conversational ways as opposed to authoritarian tones. Additionally, she says that students are rewarded for good behaviour through verbal commendation (as opposed to simply being punished for bad behaviour). For example, students are praised for small acts of honesty. When students find things that do not belong to them and return them to the office, these students are acknowledged during devotion. Regarding mischief, instead of the faculty instituting sanctions, they engage the children in a deeper discussion on their behaviour and why tit is unacceptable, thus gaining and offering insight into children's actions.

As the result of a new focus on positive interactions amongst students at Hope Valley Experimental School, the average of 10 to 15 fights per day experienced a few years ago has resulted in little to no fights in the school shared Principal. Anthony Grant. In classes, students examine the consequences of verbal abuse and fights. Moreover, they are taught to be courteous and respectful of each other. This is a proactive approach to discouraging the fiery and fight-provoking comments students will sometimes make among themselves.

Relationship-Building amongt Staff

Relationships characterised by collegiality (amongst staff), as well as cooperation and care (amongst all school stakeholders) are critical to a positive school culture that supports academic achievement. This is a factor shared by several of the schools as they shared their stories. Mrs Nesbitt shares that staff members at Allman Town Primary School have been interacting with students in more positive ways, in part because of the team-building process taking place amongst staff members. She offers the example of the staff's recent Christmas card-making activity. Cards are made by the staff for each other which has developed some sense of camaraderie. Another example of an activity to build unity is Uniform Day, when staff wear their high school uniforms to school. This is also used as an opportunity to motivate students, as staff members share their school mottos and remind Grade Six students that it does not matter which school they attend as long as they stay focused on their goals. Mrs Nesbitt is of the view that if staff members are unified and happy, they will be more productive.

This sentiment was echoed by Mr. Morlton Wilson, principal of August Town Primary School, who shared that faculty is becoming more unified through team-building activities, citing that teachers have shown an increase in cooperation and an openness to change as opposed to the negativity that might have previously characterised interactions. Mr Wilson shared that there was an activity among the staff members where they shared information about themselves that they would expect no one else to know. Through that activity, the faculty was able to better relate with other staff members and learn new things which paved the way for deeper mutual respect. This respect spilled over into faculty meetings where they were more willing to listen to each other's ideas.

Reverend Ellis voiced that, in order to support the behavioural interventions for students and the positive changes being experienced, staff are being equipped to embrace change, for instance, through a change management workshop delivered by the CFW programme, and that incremental changes are being seen in this area, with greater accountability evidenced amongst staff members. Reverend Ellis has also shared that the school is involved in the project “Conversations for Greatness” (this is managed by JMMB's Joan Duncan Foundation), in which the focus and vision for the school are discussed by all members of staff. Additionally, a new vision for the school is being created based on the culture everyone wants to see characterise the school. This vision is created after consultation with all stakeholders.

Addressing indiscipline and violence in schools requires a systemic approach that involves all stakeholders given that these issues are caused by a range of factors. The CFW programme, through its participatory methodology, supports the schools in this cultural change process; however, as can be seen by the various strategies utilised by the schools, these processes are planned, initiated and driven by the schools themselves. These 'change stories' offer hope to schools grappling with similar problems, utilising a methodology that involves all school stakeholders in the process.

Dr Therese Ferguson-Murray is a Lecturer in Education for Sustainable Development in the School of Education, The University of the West Indies and is also the current Change from Within Programme Leader. She can be contacted at therese.ferguson02@uwimona.edu.jm.


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