Monday, 11 December 2017

Professional Learning Communities

Are you ready for some learning? In this blog post I am going to try to share my research into Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). I began formally researching PLCs in 2011 as part of my Masters of Education and ended up writing my thesis on them. For much more detailed information on the research you can purchase this paper I published or read this short version free of charge.

So, what are PLCs? Somebody else always says it best and in my reading, it was Karen Seashore Louis and Louise Stoll when they said:
In sum, the term ‘professional learning community’ suggests that focus is not just on individual teachers’ learning but on:
(1) professional learning;
(2) within the context of a cohesive group;
(3) that focuses on collective knowledge;
(4) occurs within an ethic of interpersonal caring that permeates the life of teachers, students and school leaders. (Stoll & Seashore Louis, 2007)

There is so much in that alone that I could unpack in a series of blog posts, but all I will say here is – the words that I have put in italics are what will determine the success or failure of your PLCs. Take the time to reflect on each word and think of positive and negative examples of these in your PLCs. For example, a cohesive group, are the right people together? What needs to be changed?

P1 PLC including the lead teacher, assistant teacher, EAL teacher and PYP coordinator.

In 2011, I set up 3 PLCs in a school in Viet Nam. I used Interpretative Phenomological Analysis, a qualitative research method to learn what teachers’ lived experiences were of the PLCs, over a six-week period. A thorough literature review was conducted before the process of anonymous questionnaires, semi-structured interviews and a research diary was used to document findings. The results were transcribed and text analysis used to identify emerging themes. The results may be found in the table below, with the most emergent theme on the top.

Results of the formal research.

To summarise my findings, teachers felt the most valuable outcome of the PLCs was the sharing of resources. PLCs developed teacher leadership and school culture as well as helping to orientate new teachers. A clear agenda was required for the PLC to stay focused and the timing of the PLCs was very important. The PLCs worked best when they were prioritised by being timetabled. At the end of the day or during lunch time did not work well as teachers wanted to leave as soon as possible. Below is a sample timetable showing how the time when students are with single subject teachers can provide an opportunity for year level horizontal PLCs to be timetabled.

PLCs can be timetabled by administration to allow time to collaborate.

So how do PLCs work best?

There are two key theories that I believe support successful PLCs. They are action research and appreciative inquiry. Action research is a spiral process of ongoing improvement. The IB authorisation cycles as well as WASC/CIS accreditation are all examples of large action research cycles. The school researches and acts, researches and acts, researches and acts and keeps refining its practices. Another example of this is the action cycle in the PYP shown below. Here students choose, act, reflect, choose, act, reflect and so on. In your PLC you might be working on formative assessment, research, act, reflect, research, act and so on until you are happy with your practice.

The Action Cycle taken from Making the PYP Happen p. 26.

Appreciative inquiry on the other hand is an organisational change theory. It has a strong, “no blame” policy. Having this kind of culture in PLCs is very important so people feel safe to make mistakes and share their opinions. There is a big focus on the positive, when was the organisation at its best, how can we improve? It looks to harness the unlimited imagination and dreams of the groups in the organisation, as this is the best change agent.

Early childhood teachers collaborating with PSPE teacher on a transdisciplinary unit.
PLCs in the PYP

Standard C1 of the IB standards and practices is all about collaboration. If you prioritise time for PLCs by timetabling them and develop the capacity in your team to utilise this time it will help you with C1. Some of the requirements are that collaborative planning:
-       - takes place regularly and systematically
-       - addresses vertical and horizontal articulation
-       - is based on agreed expectations, differentiation, informed by assessment, language development.
-       - addresses the learner profile attributes.
If PLCs are prioritised, the PYP coordinator has enough release time to attend the meetings, a clear agenda is in place and capacity is built in staff to utilise the time, then Standard C1 is one of the most beautiful standards in any curriculum. 

Whole School PLCs

The PLCs mentioned above are grade level groups that meet for planning. In the secondary school these kinds of PLCs are usually created around a subject like the arts or the science department. For accreditation with WASC, schools are required to have what they call focus groups. These are whole school PLCs that take information from the grade level PLCs which they call home groups and analyse that data to determine how it will impact student learning. Thanks for reading PLN!


Cooperrider & Whitney (2005), Appreciative Inquiry - A Positive Revolution in Change.
Kruse, Seashore Louis & Bryk (1994), Building Professional Community in Schools.
Mertler (2009) Action Research - Teachers as Researchers in the
Lalor & Abwai (2014), Professional learning communities enhancing teacher experiences in international schools, International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning.
Lalor & Geoghegan (2013), PLCs as a change agent for improving teacher and student outcomes in an international school in Vietnam.
Andrews & Lewis (2002), The experience of a professional community: teachers developing a new image of themselves and their workplace.
Stoll & Seashore Louis (2007), Professional Learning Communities - Divergence, Depth and Dilemmas.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Honest Recruiting

The most important resource of any school is its teachers! With this in mind, the job of recruiting is an extremely important one. A solid recruiting system can transform school culture, implement quality teaching, create community and make everybody's' life much easier! In the past three years I have grown significantly in this area. My associate, John Ritter and his wife Susan, at Search Associates have invested hours in me, teaching me the principles of recruiting. I would like to acknowledge from the start that much of my current learning has come from them, while also acknowledging, I have a lot yet to learn.

I recently took part in the Search Associates Dubai Fair. This was only my fourth fair to take part in as a recruiter. Speaking to some far more experienced recruiters than myself, I learned that it takes about ten candidates before you get the right fit for one teaching position. I found this to be very true. Recruiting, done thoroughly, is extremely labour intensive but extremely rewarding! 
With Bill Turner from Search Associates

Many international schools recruit through agencies such as Search Associates, International School Services and to a lesser degree The Council of International Schools. One of the great advantages to a reputable agency is that they require references to be submitted by candidates before their profile becomes active. These can help you screen out candidates at the early stages. Their websites also have filters so you can enter specific criteria such as experience or geographic location. There are of course flaws with these systems too, so asking questions and making connections with the associates and other recruiters is key.

So here are some of the eureka moments I have had when it comes to recruiting:

- Building Trust

Perhaps the most successful tool to hiring and retaining strong teachers is to be honest from the get-go. At fairs you will have an opportunity to do a presentation on your school and its context. This is most likely the first time you will meet teachers who are interested in your school. It is a time to sell your city and school. You should find that one thing that sets your school apart from the rest and communicate it clearly. You should also communicate the difficulties living in your context. I remember in Viet Nam the constant noise and honking of horns was difficult to get used to. Be honest from the start!
Speaking to a candidate at a fair
(permission for photo was granted)

- Reference checking

This is something that usually happens after the interview and before an offer is made. I have found it to be the most important part of the process. Checking a reference should be like an interview. It takes time and should always be done by a telephone call. Nowadays school leaders are very careful what they write, so if you want the truth, a call is the way to go. A great tip I learned is the awkward silence. When you are asking questions say something like, ''Is there anything else you would like to add?'' If the referee says no, say, ''ok?'' and leave a silence. It is incredible what can often come next. I cannot stress the importance of making connections through social networking. In IB schools, very often the PYP coordinator is not a reference on the C.V. or Search, however, this person is the one who plans with, teaches with and trains the teacher. More than once a Tweet to a fellow PYPC has saved our school years of pain!

It is vital to match the potential teacher to the culture of the school.

- Screening candidates

I am not one to be wooed by a great C.V., or PYP, or PhD for that matter. I am looking for somebody who has stayed for a significant amount of time at a school and who has perhaps been promoted in one of their previous positions. I believe pedagogy to be half of the equation and a positive attitude to be the other half. But how do you find the right candidate? It all starts with screening through hundreds of C.V.s. One of the questions in the confidential reference Search Associates asks is to rate a candidate between one to ten on how they impact school moral or climate. If this figure is consistently below seven, I will look no further. After this I will look for teaching experience, program knowledge, length of stay at schools and read the personal bio. Again looking for the right fit to school culture is key.

- Interviews

The decision to make an offer should not made by one person. This I believe is dangerous, as if I had my way our entire staff might love hurling, Guinness, singing and potatoes. Our Head of School will always conduct a second interview so the decision goes through at least the two of us and often the HR manager too. The interview is a time to determine the candidates knowledge of teaching and learning, not their character. Anybody can be nice for thirty minutes, character is checked through the references. Use the interview time to ask about teaching, classroom setup, personal pedagogy, communication with parents, assessment beliefs and other teaching related areas.

- Offers

Another key point I learned from John Ritter at Search Associates is to give candidates a reasonable amount of time to consider an offer. I have found one week to be reasonable. At Search fairs there is a minimum time of 24 hours to give candidates. I would advise you give them longer and not rush them to make a decision they will regret. It is much better to recruit a teacher who has made a well informed decision than twisting their arm into signing an offer they will regret.

So there you have it, my current understanding of the recruiting process. There is an old saying "hire slow and fire fast", I thoroughly agree with the first part of this.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Air Quality Control

It is December here in China and we are nice and warm in our apartments, but there is a price to pay... It seems during the winter period that a lot of coal is burned to produce energy for our heating. This practice greatly reduces the quality of our air. The Air Quality Index (AQI) is reading 198 today indoors and people around me cough, yet only I am wearing a mask. Becoming a principal and being responsible for 200+ pairs of lungs has turned me into a bit of an AQI nut. The point of this blog post is to share my research over a one year period on air quality and to share the best methods I have found so far to keep our children safe.

AQI is a measure of pollutants in the air. Different countries have different levels at which they consider the air to be dangerous. In this blog post, I will be referring to the AQI in China but, more importantly, I hope to give you an understanding of particles 2.5 aerodynamic diameter per square meter. This term refers to tiny pieces of pollution per square meter in the air you breath. They are dangerous because they can enter the lungs and have been linked to numerous serious diseases mentioned here. Please see the table below for the amount of particle matter size 2.5 ug/m3 that is considered safe and dangerous in China. My advice to you however, is to learn to read the PM 2.5ug/m3 instead of the AQI and base your decisions on this. 
AQI China but note the left column (Source: Grandmaster Kevin via Wikipedia)

After explaining the problem, I would now like to share ways in which we can combat this problem and protect our children. I will start with the home as this is where our children spend most of their time, then move to the classroom, and finally to the entire campus. I will then discuss masks for when you are outdoors or in another polluted environment. One of the devices available now to monitor particles is the Lazer Egg. I find this device to be reliable and have tested it in various environments.
The Lazer Egg can be linked to the Air Matters app to monitor your home.
Here are the two key findings from my research:

1. Indoor air quality is only slightly lower than outdoor air quality on any given day.

2. Good indoor air quality can be maintained with a suitable air purifier and an understanding of the importance of to keeping doors and windows closed.
AQI inside my living room first thing in the morning without air purifiers running.

Our homes are usually one floor apartments. This area can be easily controlled. The key is to have an air purifier running in every room where you want to maintain the air quality. The room should be sealed as much as possible. That means doors and windows need to be closed. You do not need to worry about stagnant air in the apartment. I say this because, as soon as you turn the air purifiers off, the air quality decreases quickly, meaning outside air is coming in constantly. This would not be the case in a properly sealed environment, but I have only seen one of these thus far in my time in China. I discuss this environment below in the campus section.

AQI 220 in bedroom with purifier off.
I have tested a number of air purifiers and recommend the Xiaomi Mi Air Purifier 2. The basic model for 699 RMB works very well for a normal sized room. I have compared this to a Philips air purifier that costs 4500 RMB and the results are every bit as good. It can be controlled from your phone and estimates the air quality. It is not entirely accurate, however, but gives you a good idea. For a double room, a dining and TV room together for example, two purifiers would be required. They should be running 24 hours a day and, most importantly, be in the bedroom where our children sleep for up to ten hours.

AQI down to 17 after 20 mins (Room 12m2)

I have also learned that there are other toxins in the air besides the PM 2.5. A great way to combat these is by having plenty of green leafy plants throughout your home. They purify other toxins out of the air. 


The home is easy to manage, but the classroom is more difficult for a number of reasons. 1. It is usually a bigger room. 2. There are more sets of lungs to care for. 3. Most students and teachers have not been educated on how to control this environment. For a large classroom, a more powerful air purifier is required such as the Honeywell air purifier below. Otherwise at least two of the smaller purifiers are necessary. Again, however, I repeat, if the teacher and students leave the door open to the hallway or open windows, the air quality drops dramatically, very quickly. If the teacher and students diligently keep the door and windows closed and the air purifier on high, the air quality can be kept at a healthy level throughout the day. This particular part of the research was carried out on the highest pollution day of the year so the Honeywell was really put to the test. The classroom was also very large, 80m2. On a day when the AQI is at about 200 the Honeywell will get the classroom down to 40 or lower. They are excellent machines but very expensive. The school in question has rented them from Honeywell. They come to maintain the filters.

The Lazer Egg AQI maxes out at 500, this is another reason to read the PM2.5(ug/m3)
Inside AQI on the worst day of the year so far.
80m2 classroom after Honeywell running for 30 minutes
PM2.5(ug/m3) and AQI after Honeywell running for over an hour

Without quality construction, it is impossible to keep the public areas of a school campus safe (halls, cafeteria etc.). Properly sealed doors and windows are a must, as is a ventilation system that pushes bad air out and pushes good air in. If you are in a workplace without this kind of construction and technology, then just work on keeping your classrooms and offices safe. This can be done by following the instructions above, but requires a lot of reminding (doors closed, purifiers on). There is a school in Beijing that has invested heavily in air quality. It is called The Western Academy of Beijing. Information about their air quality system may be found here. It pressurises the entire building by blowing clean filtered air through large cylindrical sacks throughout the halls. The windows and doors are sealed to high standards and, when a door is opened to enter the building, the pressurised clean air shoots out, preventing the bad air from coming in. They are vigilant about keeping doors closed.

Clean air is pumped into the campus (windows completely sealed)

The inside of the building is pressurised with clean air
Lazer Egg inside the primary school campus at WAB
A dome filled with purified air for children to play inside.

When you have to go out in polluted air, the only way to protect yourself and your family is by purchasing quality masks. Remember that, in a taxi, on a bus, or in any regular building the air quality is as bad inside as it is outside, so keep your mask on if you want to keep the 2.5s out of your lungs! There are lots of masks coming out now that have good filtration of the 2.5 particles, but I have learned that the seal around the face is the key component. 3M masks are the standard in China for adults. They advertise keeping 90-99% of the PM 2.5 out depending on the model. The model that advertises keeping out 99% of the 2.5 is the one you should purchase, but I have not been able to find it yet and have settled for the 3M9001V. 

The other fabric masks such as Cambridge or Vogmask masks have good filtration but a terrible seal. For this reason, I recommend the 3M brand above, for adults. If you have facial hair or do not diligently ensure you form a good seal, you might as well put on one of those medical masks which are completely useless. Follow the directions carefully on the 3M box on how to create and test a good seal. This is very important, especially how to mould the nose band properly. 3M do not manufacture masks for children so for my girls I purchase the Cambridge or Vogmasks as they have child sizes, but the seal is terrible so I do not know if they are effective at all.

I wish I had known all of this information 2 1/2 years ago when I first came to China, but, as always, I am still learning. I hope it is useful for you in keeping your family and students safe.

References & Thanks

Thanks to: Grandmaster Kevin, Kirsten Lalor, Dr. Landon Darelik, David Brooker, The Principal's Training Center Network & The Western Academy of Beijing.

Further reading:

Friday, 30 December 2016

How to Make a Cup of Coffee

This blog has been devoted to learning, however, this is just too important not to share. It could be considered a science lesson perhaps. Key concepts such as change, perspective or function could drive the inquiry. ATL clusters such as self-management and social skills could be taught, but the real motivation is to pass on something very special. Most of the following was taught to me by Grandmaster Kevin, of Xi'an community fame.

The Beans

Firstly, the beans. You need to find beans that have been recently roasted. Beans roasted within the past three days are ideal. Stay away from what the big names call dark roast. This means burnt beans. You are looking for the likes of the beans below, brown in colour with that yellow line down the split. Big chains will be using beans that could have been roasted a month ago, or longer! Now that you have your beans, you need to take out your tools: a coffee grinder, electronic scales, paper filters, funnel and jug. A small investment in the best cup of coffee ever!
Beans courtesy of TN Coffee Roasting Factory Xi'an

The Ratio

A ratio of 16:1 of water to beans is ideal. When you take into consideration the water that gets trapped in the beans, this should be increased to 18:1. On your scales, measure out your beans. 35 grammes of beans makes two mugs of coffee. If you use 35g of beans, then you need to measure out and boil 630 grammes of water (35x18). The water temperature should be 93 degrees. Experts such as Grandmaster Kevin use a thermometer to measure the water, but if you leave your electric kettle to cool down for a minute after boiling, this will suffice. 
Measuring the beans to water ratio

The Pour

It is important to rinse your filter paper before putting in the coffee. This washes out the paper taste. If you doubt this makes a difference, try it and then take a sip of the water! After you put in your beans, you may do, "the first pour". Cover the coffee evenly with a very thin layer of water and then stop. This allows the carbon dioxide to leave the beans. The resulting shape of the beans is known as, "the first bloom" as it will look...beautiful. After the water has drained, continue to pour the remaining water over the beans, slowly and evenly, pausing to allow it to drain through. Stop when the measurement of water runs out. 
The early bloom from the first pour over
Now, pour the coffee from the jug intermittently between the two cups. This ensures an even distribution of the coffee. Finally, enjoy and, believe me, it is worth it!
The drip