Tom Boulter, deputy head teacher at the Cherwell School in Oxford, England, was emphatic as he explained "It’s all about the quality of instruction and how we can support and develop teachers!" Tom was sharing with a group of visitors, including me, what he and head teacher Paul James focused on as they lead the 1,200 student school of 5th - 12th graders. I was impressed... and surprised.
I was surprised because Cherwell is not your average public school. The school serves an affluent community just adjacent to Oxford University, one of the world’s most prestigious educational institutions. Many students are PK’s (professor’s kids) and the place just oozes high academic expectations. As you might imagine, test scores at Cherwell are high and behavior problems are scarce. From my experience, Cherwell is just the type of school where "better teaching" might be pretty far down the list of concerns. I was sure someone would eventually say "Why fix it if it’s not broken-and it’s definitely not broken- just look at the scores." But I never heard that. In fact, I heard just the opposite. Tom Boulter again... "Even though our scores are high, we still think better teaching is our best strategy for improvement."
To their credit, Tom Boulter and Paul James didn’t claim that everyone at Cherwell was on board with this idea. They described in much detail how hard it is to establish a school-wide focus on improved instruction in a school that outscores all the local competition. I think it’s hard to be an instructional leader in a school that doesn’t appear to need one. In some ways, I believe it’s harder to lead a school from good to great than from bad to good. Cherwell reminds me of countless schools across America that have the same dilemma- high scores (at least relative to other local schools) and a resulting resistance to instructional improvement.
Here are three lessons I’ve learned from effective instructional leaders, at home and abroad, who find themselves in the "Cherwell dilemma."
1. Instead of focusing solely on scores relative to local schools, they benchmark against schools with similar circumstances. Perhaps Cherwell could compare themselves with a school down the street from Cambridge.
2. They shift the conversation away from "how good we are" to "how good could we be"? A compelling vision creates excitement and energy. Both are necessary for instructional improvement.
3. They emphasize the personal and professional benefits of increasing one’s teaching skill... enjoyment, fulfillment, efficacy, prestige, success and the sense of meaningfulness that comes from performing a difficult task with skill and style!
Every school needs great instructional leadership- and especially schools who dare think they don’t.