S1 E17 - Reasons the Wheels Might Fall off Your Whole School Approach - Part 1

Wheel Off

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A difficult discussion
You've chosen your phonics program, had everyone trained, and have begun to teach. At first, things seem to be going well, but a year or so down the track, you still aren't seeing those text-level results you were hoping for. This scenario is really common.

Hello there. My name's Jocelyn, and I want to welcome you to the Structured Literacy Podcast. Today I'm going to share some observations from my work with schools about why the wheels may be falling off our bus when it comes to our overall literacy strategy. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to share a few more reasons why the wheels might be falling off and some suggestions of what you can do.

This week I'd like to have a difficult conversation with you about leadership. I want to make it really clear. Being a school leader is hard. It is a highly complex job full of the pushes and pulls of all the competing priorities and classroom teachers. We know how complex classroom teaching is, but leaders times that by 10.

I want to make it clear that what I'm about to say is not leadership bashing or criticism of every principal. It's not criticism at all. But we speak with many teachers and teams in the course of our work, and we are usually contacted when things aren't going too well and there is some sort of roadblock to improving efforts. After all, if people had it figured out, they'd know what to do, and they wouldn't need to call us.

Every school has its own context and history, but the one situation that is common to all schools where things are not going well, where results are not happening, where everybody feels overwhelmed, where there are stalemates, where the wheels have well and truly fallen off the bus, is a lack of strong, decisive leadership.

I've caught a bus, but who's driving?
Schools without a strong leader are like a bus without a driver. I want you to imagine something for me. Imagine two buses leaving from the same starting point and heading for the same destination. The first bus has a driver who knows some of the roads and leads the way, they have an itinerary with clear checkpoints and details; they know where they're going, what they are doing, and what time they will arrive.

They didn't necessarily create the itinerary on their own. They consulted with experienced guides who had travelled the road often and asked for advice to make sure that they were going to reach their destination at the right time. They probably aren't the ones putting the fuel in the bus or allocating the seats, but they are in charge.

When an obstacle blocks the road, or the bus has a mechanical issue, the driver has some knowledge of what to do but doesn't hesitate to call on others to help and solve problems. The passengers on this bus don't have to worry about what's going to happen. They have a copy of the itinerary, and they know exactly what to expect. They know that they are taking the most direct path to their destination, and they can just focus on what they need to do.

Now imagine a second bus. One where the driver makes an inspiring speech at the start of the journey and then sits in the first seat behind the driver's seat. They have a chat with one of the passengers and then let the passenger choose the first part of the route. This passenger has temporarily become the driver of the bus, but it isn't clear who is actually in charge or what the plan is. With no clear plan and no indication of who is in charge, the rest of the passengers begin to talk amongst themselves about which roads the bus should take, how fast the bus should travel, and where the stop should be.

Before long, passengers start shouting out suggestions and instructions, with those with loud voices being the only ones heard, and everyone on the bus becomes anxious and stressed. The temporary driver pulls to the side of the road, looks behind them to the actual driver who made the inspiring speech and asks what to do. The inspiring driver says, "The important thing is that we are moving forward. Maybe ask the passengers what they think?"

The temporary driver wanting to reduce friction and stress, asks the passengers, particularly those with the loud voices, which route they think the bus should take. Ideas are shared, and pretty soon, the plan for the trip has the bus diverting through mountain ranges, getting bogged in a swamp and breaking an axle on a bush track that the bus was never designed for.

You see, the problem is that none of the passengers making suggestions had ever been to that destination before. They've seen a show about holidays on TV and talked to a friend about which roads they took without asking whether they'd actually made it to the destination, and seen some social media posts where influencers had taken some selfies after being helicoptered in. They hadn't travelled to that place or spoken with actual experienced travellers to secure information about the best way to get where they wanted to go.

Which bus would you rather be on? Most of us would say the first one, please, and I am exactly the same.

Here's a bag of money, go and buy some things.
When our school doesn't have a clear plan for school improvement that is driven by a decisive leader, it's really unsurprising that the situation can get messy. Without a clear decision-making framework, nobody knows how direction is set, and this leaves our improvement agenda vulnerable to random acts of improvement. Because if nobody is leading, anyone can lead.

When it comes to literacy, this often involves a teacher saying, "I've seen that program X, Y, Z is being used, maybe we should use that too." The school's principal says, "Hmm, well, our current approach isn't working (and frankly, that's probably not the fault of the program), so maybe we should change. Here's a bag of money, go and buy some things." Now, I may be slightly exaggerating here, but often it goes something like that.
So the teachers or instructional leaders go off and buy a resource, and the principal reports that their school is now doing program X, Y, Z, and their job is done.

Travelling with a mud map
But without clear direction and well-communicated operational plans, instruction is variable despite every teacher having been trained and having access to resources. When we lack team focus, we inevitably choose our own way forward. The problem is, we won't necessarily be moving in the same direction as our colleagues.

Another thing that can happen when our school doesn't have a decisive leader is that the efforts of those instructional leaders who have become their bus's temporary drivers are really easily undermined. When a principal doesn't know why and how strong instruction in literacy should happen, they can't or don't have a decisive response when those passengers on the bus with the loudest voices object to being asked to do something. The result of this is often a watering down of a whole school approach to the detriment of students and the rest of the teaching team.

Is your bus driver in a Taxi?
Some of the underlying factors that contribute to a leader or driver not being decisive about literacy strategy are...

-the leader not really understanding the science of reading and the science of learning.

- the leader wants to please everyone and never says no

- potentially the leader's own beliefs about how much autonomy teachers should have about what happens in their classrooms. If a principal believes strongly that a teacher should be left alone to teach in the way that they see fit, I'm sorry, but it's unlikely that a whole school approach to literacy improvement is going to be successful.

Again, I'm not principal bashing here, and I'm not saying that the barriers to great instruction are always around leadership. Every school has its own context and its own history and story. 

What can you do?
What can you do, though, if your school lacks decisive leadership in the literacy approach? If you are the leader and you're feeling wobbly in this area, absolutely please reach out to other principals who can support you in your journey. Seek and engage a leadership coach, and I've put the link to my former leadership coach, who is amazing, in the show notes (below)  And give yourself permission to (with the guidance and support of knowledgeable people) set the itinerary and direction of your bus. You can absolutely say this is what we stand for in our school, and here's why. And remember that if you stand for everything, you really stand for nothing.

(You can find an amazing principal coach here.)

If you are an instructional leader or a member of your school's executive leadership team, begin work on developing a 'here's how we do things' manual for your school. Documenting your expectations and working alongside your teams to develop this will be a huge asset to your school and a huge support to your principal.

Use a decision-making framework.
The 'working with teams' element here is really critical. Teachers are professionals who have a right to be consulted and to contribute their expertise and experience to the whole school approach. However, it is not an 'everyone's ideas must make it to the final cut' scenario.


- if you are going to be held responsible for the outcome of the change you are making, you get a vote.

- If you'll be impacted by a change, you get to have a voice.

- If you'll be around the outcome of the change, but it doesn't really impact you, you'll be informed of what's going to happen.

That's a good framework for who gets to make what decisions. If you are an instructional or executive leader with an indecisive principal, you might consider asking for a decision-making framework to be documented and communicated to staff.

If your principal wants to delegate responsibility for the literacy strategy to you (and that was the case for me in one particular school, but let's be really clear, my principal had my back all the way, and he didn't delegate and abdicate he delegated and trusted, and that's a different thing). Be really clear about what is going to happen when the day comes that a staff member approaches them to express displeasure about being asked to follow the whole school approach. Because trust me, that day will come, and when that day came in my school where I was the instructional leader and the principal had entrusted me with this work, his answer was, have you talked to Jocelyn about this? Go and talk to Jocelyn. So it was not a case of delegating and then undermining. It was delegating and supporting, and that's okay because principals are busy people. They cannot lead every aspect of the work. But let's make no mistake, the leader must be the leader.

Use a communication flow chart.
You might create a flow chart for communication and feedback in the school and make sure that everyone understands it. Of course, this doesn't mean that teachers can't talk with their principal or vice versa, but when it comes to the decisions about who does what, when and how, someone must lead. Someone must be the bus driver with the itinerary in their hand.

Consider an operational plan
Just as classroom rules and expectations give our students security and safety, school-level operational plans and expectations reduce teachers' cognitive load because when you have them, the teacher doesn't have to wonder what's going to happen next, they know.

As teachers, we may not like what we're being asked to do. We may not always like the boundaries of a whole school approach, but they are needed if we are going to appropriately support staff and students and get great results for everyone.

In conclusion...
Ultimately having decisive leadership is not about telling people what to do or micromanaging teachers but about creating a consistent, streamlined, and successful environment where everyone, staff and students alike, knows exactly what they need to do and exactly what's going to happen when there's a conversation to be had about the way forward.

I can't say this enough. Our leaders are people. They have enormously busy jobs, and sometimes they themselves might be feeling really vulnerable because their knowledge of the science of reading and the science of learning is not necessarily where we might want it to be. 

We can support our leaders to help our school move forward in a strong approach. But they do need to come on board. We need our leaders to lead. We need them to know why we're asking for the things that we're asking. 

So if you are a principal who's struggling in this area and you're not quite sure what to do, please know you are not alone. You can reach out, you can get a coach, you can talk to people in your network. There is nothing wrong with saying, "Hey, I think I need a hand here because I'm not quite sure where to go."

Coming up
In our next episodes, I'm going to share some more reasons with you about why the wheels might be falling off the bus and what we can do about it. I'm really interested to hear your thoughts on these issues, so please visit our website, jocelynseamereducation.com, look for blogs and podcasts and leave some feedback. 

These issues are tricky, and I did hesitate in recording this episode because the last thing I want is for anybody to think that I'm being critical of principles and laying blame. That is not the situation, but I think we need to talk about some of these things because our students don't have a minute to waste, and we need to make sure that we, as a profession, are looking after them and providing them with every opportunity to learn to read at school. 

Thanks, everyone. Bye.




Brilliant podcast delivered in your usual caring and supportive manner Jocelyn. Thinking you may have been a fly on the wall in our school recently. In our struggle to meet more and more demands upon our leadership team, we have enabled old Driver 2 to begin to derail our Structured Literacy Journey. It’s exhausting and confronting conversations need to be had. Really looking forward to your upcoming podcasts re this topic. 

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Jo Mills

Brilliant , timely podcast delivered with your usual calm, encouraging voice. Thank you Jocelyn.

Wondering though ... have you been a fly on the wall at my school? With the increasing pressure being made upon or leadership team's time and the emotional drain from often unrealistic community demands, old Driver 2 may have found their way onto our 'Structured Literacy Bus'. Looking forward to future posts in this series.

PS: I am not part of our leadership team but am sharing - recommending that they listen. Your empathetic tone is needed. Some of the impact is lost if your message is delivered by only reading the transcript.

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Jocelyn Seamer

@Jo Mills So glad that this episode resonated with you.  I promise that I haven't been stalking you!  These are issues common to many school. Best of luck! Jocelyn 

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