A Conversation with Avis
When the news broke that the wonderful and inspirational Avis Glaze was visiting Scotland in order to address the Character Scotland Conference in June, we were very keen to find some way to give SELMAS people access to hear from her.
With the support of Gary Walsh of Character Scotland, and Gillian Hamilton and John Daffurn from SCEL, we came up with the idea of a “Conversation with Avis” sponsored by all three organizations.
Bob Cooke (SELMAS Secretary) kicked off by inviting Avis to reflect on her observations of Scotland on this her fifth visit. Avis spoke of her admiration for much of what we are doing. She described many examples of excellence in individual schools and of the strength of our national curriculum. However she also challenged us to consider whether we were sufficiently collaborative, and “joined-up” in our approaches. She said in her view we had good policies, but do we have the skill and will to implement these fully? She spoke about the need to work with everyone involved in schooling – teachers, janitors, parents, community workers, local business partners, unions, etc. Each group had to believe that their contribution to the success of local schools mattered and was valued.
Her experience in Ontario had also led her to consider the dangers of trying to drive forward too many strategies on too many fronts. The significant progress they had made in Canada had come about by a re-focus on a small number of outcomes, in particular ensuring appropriate levels of literacy and numeracy as the key issue. She stressed her core belief that there should be no “throw-away” kids, and spoke of some of the strategies that were introduced to ensure that this became the reality. Some of these strategies were major, but others were small changes that had a big impact. For example, the introduction of a compulsory 40 hours of community service as part of the requirements for graduation was initially very contentious but had a major positive impact on the development of character in young people. Great progress had also been made by the introduction of a large number of volunteers into schools to support children’s reading. In both these cases, Avis had to lead the change with courage, determination and empathy.
The other conversationalists used Avis’ reflections as a lens to look at our own educational system. Do we have the strong leadership that was exemplified by Avis, and the shared sense of moral purpose that had led to the transformation in Ontario? Are our national organizations and strategies as fully aligned as they need to be? Despite the rhetoric, what level of transformational change are we comfortable with as a profession? Do we tend to tackle the burning issues (under-achievement for example) in the same was as we have tackled it before, and yet expect better outcomes? Are we genuinely engaging class teachers in debating and planning improved practices?
Avis reminded us that the keys to success lie with building teacher capacity, and building high quality leadership. It’s as simple – and as complex – as that.
It was a fascinating, insightful and thought-provoking session.