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By: Jeff Evans

Since March 2020, most school leaders and teachers have found themselves in challenging times that require even more flexibility and hard work than a typical school year. We often speak of lateral thinking and problem-solving skills related to student personal development goals; in recent months, the creativity and rapid adaptation seen in school teaching teams have been impressive. Let me begin this article by expressing congratulations and appreciation for the tremendous efforts of our education community.

School development is a complex and far-reaching process which must have consistent leadership and regular focused monitoring to be effective. Professional development or lesson visits are at risk of becoming an annual compliance exercise if they are not linked closely and explicitly to the school development/improvement plan targets.

Based on experience with a wide range of private schools across the UAE, Europe and the Far East – the most successful strategies for enhancing pedagogy have four common elements:

  • Clarity – in terms of purpose, context and desired outcomes
  • Relevance – to student learning, teachers’ skill/approach and SIP goals
  • Consistency – across year groups, grades, subjects and teaching teams
  • Reflection – what works and why? How can we adapt approaches/ideas for greater impact based on our school context or community demographic?

 “Teacher evaluation systems are often intended to serve the purpose of providing feedback and guidance for improving professional practice. In fact, most authors identify the fundamental purposes of teacher evaluation as improving performance and documenting accountability. The performance improvement function relates to the personal growth dimension and involves helping teachers learn about, reflect on, and improve their practice.”

Iwanicki, E. F. (1990). Teacher evaluation for school improvement. In J. Millman and L. Darling-Hammond (Eds.), The new handbook of teacher evaluation: Assessing elementary and secondary school teachers (pp. 158–171). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.                                                                                                                                       

A common starting point is to conduct a whole school needs analysis, which could take the form of teacher and student surveys, lesson observation analysis or external audit/inspection findings. One major shift in recent years has been to move away from a traditional “one size fits all” model of whole staff training in favour of optional needs-driven menus where individual teachers or departments take part in the most relevant focused training opportunity.

Involving middle leaders and teachers in the planning and delivery of training workshops means that we build internal capacity. Schools who encourage and expect input from all teachers; encourage staff to step up and learn from each other; generate more positive attitudes and outcomes than those where teachers are viewed as passive participants. One superbly positive example was a school-wide program to evaluate classroom learning environments – teachers visited in total three classrooms in other areas of the school (subject and age range) to reflect on:

  • Evidence of learning skill development
  • Examples of student collaboration and teamwork
  • Evidence of progress/learning journeys

Each teacher left a short note for the host classroom teacher; however, the most important and beneficial outcome was rich dialogue in staff rooms, corridors and subsequent rapid improvement. Where practice was previously weak, it leapt forward, and most colleagues took positive examples and ideas back into their own learning spaces.

Sharing best practice via peer classroom visits or “learning hubs” has always been beneficial. In the best examples, teachers self-select or are guided to visit specific colleagues or teams who can be of most help to their individual growth needs. One welcome side effect of the rapid move to distance or hybrid learning models has been the ability for schools to easily identify and share short clips of good practice. Where remote lesson observation is becoming part of performance management, a principal or senior team can now create a library of best pedagogy, for example, effective lesson starters or “hooks”, strategies for extension and challenge or questioning for deeper learning.

Most schools will have short and medium-term goals aligned to academic progress or student personal development. In terms of our Federal national inspection framework, the term “most” is highly important and is quantified as 75%. One example which a minority of schools are still working towards is for a good lesson rating, “most lessons demonstrate teaching which caters for the needs of groups and individual learners”. This would include faster learners, gifted and talented students, students of determination, second language learners and so on. We often see effective differentiated instruction present and consistent across certain parts of a K to 12 school (however less well developed in certain grades or subject areas). In other words, good practice is evident, but patchy – what may be described as “developing practice”. Such schools might have a SIP goal of “by the end of January 2021, most full lesson observations in all Key Stages will show evidence of specific differentiation for groups of learners”.

Effective professional development, internal or by high-quality external partners must be followed by careful and systematic monitoring. Successful examples, from one of our schools, were built around a 6-week program of professional development, discussion and modelling in a subject or team meetings and then targets where required. That particular school identified topics to develop over one trimester such as differentiation, higher-order questioning and problem-solving (involving real-world scenarios).

Another example is the recent introduction of the Moral Education program by the Crown Prince’s Court, which applies in all United Arab Emirates schools. A few partner schools successfully linked skills such as tolerance, empathy and resilience to cross-curricular projects. Many schools will identify topics for assembly, newsletters or internal recognition and rewards. As an inspector, you would seek to find evidence of these programs from a range of sources; discussion with students, observation of the learning environment (physical or more recently online) and scrutiny of student work.

In schools where a team of leaders and teachers regularly revisit their professional development, impact is a key term. Using surveys is helpful, among teaching teams, with student perception and to gauge parental awareness and satisfaction.  In terms of quality provision, the outlook for schools is rosy and a direct result of clear government policy and regulation. Since 2009 most schools in the UAE have seen a steady improvement in both the quality and consistency of pedagogy across core subjects. Regular external inspection in Abu Dhabi and Dubai is being expanded by the planned teacher license scheme, which ensures all teachers have pedagogy training along with their subject-specific expertise. Sharjah and the Northern Emirates are embarking on a similar improvement journey which will all benefit students, parents and teachers in coming years.

His Highness, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was the founding father of the UAE and served as the President of the UAE since the formation of the Federation in 1971. Also, the former ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, UAE’s founding father, left behind a legacy of noble values like charity, equality, generosity and tolerance. We will leave you with his words on education which continue to apply in 2020 and beyond:

 “The real asset of any advanced nation is its people, especially the educated ones, and the prosperity and success of the people are measured by the standard of their education.”

Jeff Evans has over twenty years of school leadership experience in the international private educational sector across Europe, the Far East and the United Arab Emirates. Five years as program manager for school improvement with ADEK taught me that good practice transcends curriculum or fee level boundaries. 

As Director of Learning Key Education, I have enjoyed involvement with aspects of school licensing, policy and regulations, assessment and evaluation, recruitment and business development. Helping individual schools and groups to successfully navigate the federal UAE school inspection framework and enhance their provision.