As the eternal ‘Educational Debate’ rolls on and the ‘Finnish Model’, ‘School League Tables’ and ‘Project Maths’ are offered as modern panaceas on how we might ‘learn’ in Ireland, I would ask the reader a question:
What makes ‘a good school’?
This conundrum can be answered in a myriad of ways- and the various ‘solutions’ will be acceptable to different people. This is because those involved in education- Parents, pupils, teachers (and society) have different views, expectations and needs.
However, I think there are some core attributes that all ‘good schools’ possess (to a greater or lesser degree). I wish to enumerate some of these attributes (in no especial order) and make passing comments.
Good schools generally have:
A Shared Vision.
When a group of people join together and pro-actively agree ‘on a way forward’, progress is made. This axiom applies particularly to schools when families make a positive decision to participate in a communal educational vision. Thus the importance of the ethos of a school- where the whole school community agrees on the ‘fundamentals’ of the education vision. In Willow, these fundamentals are: a Spiritan, Catholic education that provides a moral and spiritual compass for life; a broad and challenging education that enriches our pupils academically, physically and culturally; a communal experience that forges a positive and supportive identity and an education that reminds us of our responsibilities to those marginalised in our world.
An ‘ambiance’ that welcomes pupils.
Good schools have a warm climate. Pupils feel welcome and know that the Staff cares about them. Although pupils are ‘challenged’, the learning process promotes knowledge and questioning and an ‘expectation’ exists that pupils will excel and that support is always there to facilitate learning and growth. Willow boys generally like coming to school- to socialise, learn and play. They are expected to ‘do their best’ and are encouraged to achieve (by parents and school) to the best of their ability.
Dedicated and professional Teachers.
The single most important variable in a school is the quality of the teacher.
For a school to remain ‘good’- it must have committed educationalists who continue to learn (like their pupils). A good school is a learning ‘community’- where pupils, parents and teachers all learn and grow. Good teachers are not just ‘born’; they read and explore the techniques used by others in a never-ending effort to better themselves, their skills and ultimately, their classes. This professional dynamic is what keeps learning fresh and relevant. Balanced with this professional development is a consistency of care and patience that is essential when teaching primary pupils.
I like to think we have this balance in Willow – although our changing world, new employment paradigms and technological developments make ‘learning for the future’ a real challenge for any teacher! If a Willow boy knows his ‘basics’, remains curious and is confident enough to ask relevant questions- then his classroom is a lively and challenging place.
High Expectations for the School community: teachers, parents and pupils.
School, like life, is a constant challenge. Every day is demanding in some way and requires energy, optimism and diligence. ‘The best one can do’ should be the norm for pupils and ‘improvement’ should always be ‘the norm’ and incremental path of a good school. Because schools nurture children, they have to be sensitive to the differing needs of their pupils. However, being aspirational is a good attribute to instil in all children and every school should engender a passion for excellence – in whatever activity a pupil participates. This core quality of a good school is linked to the dedication of teachers (see above) and the natural aspirations of parents. I would like to think the three learning partners - pupil, parent and teacher - are seamlessly linked in Willow.
Parents often grade a school based on the ‘level of discipline’.
Discipline should not be ‘an issue’ in a good school. An atmosphere of mutual respect should pervade the school and a positive, courteous ambiance should be the norm (see point 2). Knowledge of school rules, expected mannerly behaviour and a growing understanding that tolerance and courtesy is the norm should be embedded in pupils during all school activities. The recognition ‘that actions have consequences’ (that sanctions will be imposed where necessary) should be clear to all.
In good schools, parents and teachers work in unison to socialise, civilize and educate pupils. When pupils appreciate this synergy, they come to understand that ‘respect’ lies at the heart of positive relationships.
Of course boys misbehave, betimes, in Willow. They do so in all good schools – but, (as in Willow) these boys reflect on their misdeeds, apologise meaningfully, accept their ‘sanction’ and learn to tolerate, respect and share life, positively, with others.
Different ways of teaching / different ways of learning!
In all good schools there are a variety of instructional techniques.
No two classes, or two pupils, are identical. An effective school has teachers that understand this and they provide varied instruction to best help students be successful. Key concepts are presented in ways to enable visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic learners grasp concepts. Pupils are actively involved in learning and are provided with a variety of opportunities to grasp key ideas and skills.
This is why differentiated teaching and extra-curricular activities are so important in Willow. Our teachers provide different challenges and avenues of learning to pupils in the class-room, whilst the wide variety of extra-curricular activities - from the performing arts to sport - are so important in our enriched Willow curriculum.
Sufficient resources to help all pupils achieve.
The most important learning resource in a classroom does not come with a 13 amp. plug attached (i.e. a computer). Rather, it is a good teacher!
That said, even good teachers require resources and , yes, a Smart-board does help - as does a well stocked Library, Book sets, an enriched curriculum offering many subjects, art materials, musical instruments and space to play.
Resources definitely do facilitate the sustainability of a ‘good school’. But (as mentioned above) - human resources are the key – the teachers and the parents collaborating to spark that ultimate human resource - the human intellect in the child! When a school fires that imagination..... then true education takes place and we have a good learner. ...and that is what good schools are made up of......good learners!
In Willow we also provide resources to help those with special educational needs - be they challenged or gifted. Time, patience, stimulation and individual care are all important in these situations. A good school should accommodate all learners.
Much has been written recently about the importance of leadership in managing a good school. However, as we know, every teacher is a ‘manager’ of his/her class, every Dean (in Willow) a manager of his/her Form group/s and every rugby coach a ‘manager’ of his/her team.
‘Leading from the Middle’ is a formula that works in Willow. How often in history has a leader shouted, ‘Charge’ - only to run forward, then look behind and find.......no-one ! In good schools, teachers guide their pupils from the heart of the class, parents are a constant support and team captains lead by example. So it is in Willow.
Motivated by our Spiritan ethos, guided by our ongoing professional learning and sustained by the optimism and achievements of our pupils, Willow teachers –who are the educational leaders in the classroom - demand the ‘best’ of their boys- each and every one of them. Successful schools have a sense of trust, built on the back of an honest, caring (and sometimes challenging) leadership - at all levels - from Board of Management to rugby-team captain.
The above cogitations are far from exhaustive and only hint at some of the ingredients for that especial recipe – ‘a sustainable, good school’. I like to think that our mix of tradition, diligence and vision in Willow is a ‘good’ one. Do you?