In a recent Global School Leaders (GSL) newsletter we were excited to read about their expansion to two new countries. We caught up with co-founder Sameer Sampat to ask about some of the hurdles they have had to overcome as well as where they are headed next. If you would like some additional background on their work, please see our previous blog entries written by the GSL team: ALL-IN: An Emerging Knowledge Hub for School Leadership Globallyand Strategic Directions for the Field of School Leadership – Lessons from the Ground.
In order to understand where we are today, I think it is important to circle a bit back to where this all started for me. In 2013, when I was working as the CEO of the India School Leadership Institute, a main question driving my work was determining how can we improve school leadership as a way of increasing student outcomes, particularly in underperforming schools? Part of this journey was trying to figure out what was the right approach towards leadership in India and what would be a model that could scale. It was around that time in 2016, when I started seeing some traction around our work; we had served maybe a thousand or so school leaders or principals until that point that were either in-progress, or had already graduated from our two-year leadership training program. While the positive word started to spread about the program, we invited an external testing company to come in and collect student data in both our schools and non-program schools to further understand the impact we were having. We found that students in our program were gaining in math and literacy, although there are definitely huge caveats to those results because it was not done through a randomized trial.
As word started to spread, we started getting requests from other countries interested in improving school leadership.They argued–as we at GSL have also found–that most of the models for school leadership have been developed out of the Global North. In places like Nepal, Malaysia, and Ghana, foundations and nonprofits that were running their own programs started to ask if we would be willing to consult and help them move their efforts forward. To be honest, at that point the India School Leadership was not necessarily looking to expand outside India because India itself is so big with over a million schools to reach. However, what we began to realize is that it seemed like there was a piece around school leadership that was missing from global conversations that would actually be helping efforts in India. Most global organizations were focused on initiatives such as girls’ education, Ed Tech, teacher training, or early childhood, but rarely did we see organizations that took on the mantle of school leadership. Our experience along with my reading of the research literature, was pointing to the fact that school leadership is very important and it should be thought of as a key pillar in education. So, this raised the question, how do we actually get school leadership that we talked about in this way? Could helping other countries do work in leadership and getting them to share, learn and advocate together actually start to generate momentum around school leadership as a kind of key issue area. That was where the idea for Global School Leaders came about.
It has been two years now and are currently wrapping our first two-year cohort in Malaysia, finishing year one of expanding in Nairobi, Kenya and are just starting to launch GSL in Indonesia. While there’s not been a lot of resistance, expanding to new countries brings with it its own set of challenges. Primarily, we have to work across community, government, and non-profit contexts to develop a sense of urgency and built in inertia around school leadership. Since school leaders are a few steps removed from students, the connection their learning is having is not as obvious; it is work that organizations like ours have to do to communicate both through hard data as well as personal success stories from the school leaders themselves that capture the main mechanism through which school leadership impacts student learning. While it is not 100% clear, what we do know is that school leadership can impact the kind of teaching and learning that happens at the school, the school culture, and community engagement; the main piece for us right now is figuring out how to monitor, evaluate, and present these things to generate momentum.
Another key aspect of our program expansion into new countries is making sure that each program is its own independently governed and funded entity. We set it up this way because it allows us to adapt our model to the country needs, both in terms of the cultural context as well as the policy context. For example, in Malaysia there is a law on the books that says that teachers are required to have a lesson plan before they enter a classroom. And in theory, if they don’t have this lesson plan, they could go to jail–which has never been enforced. So, if you talk to Malaysian leaders about how toimprove the lesson planning in school, the conversation should not be around whether or not they have a plan but maybe more focused on how they are using the plan and the actual planning quality. That is very different from a place like India, where we find that at the baseline, only 20% of teachers have any plans before they enter a classroom. This means approximately 80% are walking in and just essentially opening the book to teach. As this illustrates, the policy context really changes the approach to the country. I would say 15% to 20% of the GSL model is tweaked to be contextualized to each country. It is not much, but it goes a long way in making the model feel like it is relevant for the leaders in that context.
One recent success story that I would like to share involves Malaysia and their law that allows one particular teacher “the hitting teacher” to administer corporal punishment. Since one of our big focuses in on creating a positive school culture learning environment for students where they feel comfortable taking risks, shifting perspectives on corporal punishment seems like a very important place to start. During our trainings, we work with our leaders to move away from corporal punishment by not only discussing the importance, but also giving the tangible skills and alternative strategies to put in place. One of the school leaders in Malaysia I met with recently told me that she has shifted her perspective and now no longer allows teachers to send students to the “hitting teacher.” While this might seem like a minor step, it has the potential to make a big difference in the culture of the school and how students kind of see themselves and how they’re respected by the adults in the building.
Moving forward,there are two new areas which I think hold a lot of promise for us: shifting school leadership hiring practices, enhancing the systems that hold them accountable, and increasing the accessibility and spread of our support. In many places where we work, leaders are selected either through seniority or politics and are deemed effective if they complete the appropriate paperwork and attend important meetings. We want to try to move away from these practices and get people to think more deeply about the whole life cycle of a school leader. This includes creating systems that recognize those that are actually doing a lot in their school which positively impacts students. In addition, as we continue to grow, we are trying to strategize ways for us to digitize some of this training that we offer so that we could offer some or all of it through a mobile phone, or at a minimum, supplement a kind of offline program with some of that digital technology. Both of these pieces, the systems piece as well as the technology piece, are going to be tough, long processes, but I think that they are pretty exciting to look out for in the future.
Thank you, Sameer, for sharing a bit more about GSL’s development. We look forward to watching and learning from your future efforts as you expand. Maxie and Paula