Does your school focus on WHO first, and WHAT second?

In the book From Good to Great Jim Collins writes about how truly successful companies achieve and maintain greatness. One of the parts I love is the brilliant “bus analogy. It goes like this: First find the right people to sit in the bus seats (job positions), and then decide where to drive it. First who, then what. (Getting some people off the bus is certainly part of this.)

A private school is a business, and school leaders who follow the ‘bus analogy’, filling those bus seats with the best faculty possible, will succeed over those who focus on improving programs and preserving traditions first.

What’s first and second at your school?

I’d like to talk about my current school. Simply put, I feel there is a strong focus on what first and who second, particularly in relation to the English Department I work in. I would love to hear from other teachers on how their school compares.

Setting: Private girls school in the heart of Tokyo with a 90+ year history, range is nursery to graduate level. Nationally ranked in the average range academically. Well-known for educating the ‘whole student’. Conservative with a reputation as a strict school. Interesting fact: School was founded on the educational principles of Leo Tolstoy.

Jr/Sr High School English Department: Largest department in school with 8 ‘native-English-speaking’ teachers and around 20 Japanese English teachers. The number of English class hours reflects the Japanese national standards, however there are more native-English-speaking teachers than in many other schools. A variety of extracurricular English programs both mandatory and elective. Fully stocked and newly furbished CALL room. An “English Room” with a native-English-speaking teacher, sofas, books, games, etc. available after school every day.

Study abroad: Every junior high school student goes to Boston for 2 weeks. There is an optional trip for high school students to the UK and parts of Europe.

Looks good on paper

Based on the above info, one would think that our school is doing everything right in terms of giving our students a strong, comprehensive English education. Yet compared to national standards, student test scores rank lower than they should.

How is this possible?

I wish there was a simple answer to this. Part of the answer definitely has to do with the people sitting on our bus, namely the English teachers like myself. I’ve noticed over the years that a lot of time and energy is spent talking about how to improve this or that teaching technique or program, but not much about meaningful teacher support, the hiring of the best and brightest new talent, and the difficult subject of removal of teachers who have difficulties teaching because of low English ability or unmovable, old-fashioned methodology.

Brief and Fictitious Case Studies

Getting people on and off the bus quickly is essential to the success of an organization, but the challenges are substantial. The following situations, characters and names are fictional but are examples of the kinds of issues many schools face. They are of course based on real situations I’ve encountered within the last 11 years in Japan. Maybe you have coworkers who fit these profiles.

Example A: Suzuki sensei, a Japanese English teacher, is always on time, works very hard, and fulfills all required responsibilities. However his English ability is poor, so much so that he’s the laughing stock of junior high school students. On top of this, even though the school insists on teachers taking English ability tests, they offer no support for tutoring or payment, as there are no consequences for low scores.

Challenge: Let him go or support him? If support, how exactly?

Example B: Smith sensei, a native-English-speaking teacher, has a great rapport with students, but is very divisive in the staff room to the point where no coworkers wish to work with her. She is also consisently absent from duties outside of the ‘required’ time, leaving other teachers to cover for her. Added problem: The Japanese staff is mostly unaware of this.

Challenge: Let the department head know what’s happening? Create consequences for infractions? Not renew her contract?

Example C: Tanaka sensei is head of the English Department. His English ability is advanced but he’s old-school: all dept. meetings are in Japanese, he speaks with all teachers in Japanese, and isn’t very familiar with what the other English teachers are teaching. In his defense, outside of the dept. head duties he is a main classroom teacher and head of a sports team.

Challenge: Lighten his responsibilities in other areas? Hire a new dept. head who is more organized and ambitious about English usage in school?

Example D: Like most of the teachers in Japan, Watanabe sensei teaches English in the traditional “sage on the stage” style and use Japanese more often than he probably should. Added problem: Students expect this style because it’s the way things are in most educational environments in Japan.

Challenge: How to change old cultural teaching methods?

In Conclusion

The business world is performance based, and if you can’t do the job well you’re either getting a pink slip, given appropriate training, or paid accordingly. Shouldn’t schools behave in the same way?

While schools have established identities, histories and sets of principles, they must simultaneously adapt and evolve. With the right people in those bus seats, change will occur naturally, appropriately and fearlessly. Who first, what second.


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