A Headteacher’s Wonderings;  Two Years in at DBIS


Welcome to DBIS


Last week, we had a welcome evening for the new staff joining DBIS at the start of this academic year, and as I was sharing a glass of wine and chatting to our newly arrived teachers, I realised that just two short years ago, it was me who was the newbie; just landed in Hong Kong and starting to settle in my new country and starting to get to know my new school. And wondering about so many things, some noted were as follows:

I wondered what my first year would be like.

I wondered how we would work together to better engage our students.

I wondered how we could excite our students and support their learning together.

I wondered how we could support each other in doing that.

I wondered how we would change.  And I wondered what we would learn.

(A New Headteacher’s Wonderings)

Preparation: I wondered what my first year would be like.

Before coming to Hong Kong for interview, I had researched the school, I knew about the curriculum, the activities that are made available for the students, the approach to teaching through enquiry, and I had read all the available policies, school news and information on the website. But what I didn’t know at that time, was how the school culture played out. I had an idea from everything that was written, and from speaking to colleagues who knew the school, but I still couldn’t see it, feel it, understand it. To me it was still hidden.

But DBIS is a great school with an extremely positive reputation, so I could imagine that most of what I felt the culture would be like was going to ring true. That said, I am always mindful of what a previous mentor of mine cautioned about. The simple, yet enormous reality, that although senior leaders are supposedly in charge of their organisations, they are not necessarily in control of what went on in the past or what might happen in the future. And that senior leader was soon likely to be me!

To this day, this resonates strongly with me, and reminds me of the importance of really getting to know what is going on in my school. Just because an established member of the school community tells me that this is the culture of our school, doesn’t mean it is.

Balancing Act:  I wondered how we would support each other

So coming into a new school was a balancing act. I didn’t want to arrogantly come in with my own ideas and presumptions of culture, and start making decisions or changes based on these. Sadly, I have seen instances when Head Teachers come in to a new school ready to make a difference and make things better, and in their hurry, they unfortunately stomp all over good ideas and miss great potential talent because they didn’t stop to listen, stop to understand. But, then as a new Head I did not want to stand back for too long and miss the opportunity to start having a positive influence on the school and make the small changes and tweaks that would start the long and exciting journey of influencing and strengthening school culture.

I thought a lot about Goleman’s comment that any leader ‘has maximal power to sway everyone’s emotions. If people’s emotions are pushed towards the range of enthusiasm, performance can soar; if people are driven towards rancour and anxiety they will be thrown off.’ (2000)

The more I thought about that the truer it became, so there was my starting point. I knew that leadership comes with much responsibility, but perhaps this was the crux of it. As a leader, new to my school, I needed to be highly sensitive to the outcomes, the emotions, I was aiming to promote in order to best develop the high performance culture we needed to build upon. I needed more than anything to be positive and enthusiastic and believe in what we could go on to achieve together.

Dream Team: I wondered how we would work together to better engage our students

I was extremely lucky when I joined DBIS, as I was joining an already established and hugely committed  team of professionals who were incredibly positive and supportive. My leadership team understood the school culture, the school history and the personal histories that made up our school community, and they enthusiastically shared this with me.

Across all the teams within the school, there were leaders, some new, and others who had worked their way up over many years, learning, developing and growing. From class teacher to Deputy Head in 10 years, from one of the founding three members of the school 35 years ago, to Office Manager, and from primary pupil to Primary Teacher and primary pupil to Educational Assistant. These were colleagues leading by example with their approach to growing professionally, actively seeking out, and putting into practice, new and exciting approaches to learning and teaching and demanding feedback on their own performance and how to improve. Building trust with my new team, and doing so quickly was imperative in order to maximise on our opportunity to work together.  Patrick Lencioni has taught me a lot about great functioning teams, and I was extremely mindful of his reasoning that:

‘When everyone is focussed on results and using those to define success, it is difficult for ego to get out of hand… No matter how good an individual on the team might be feeling about his or her situation, if the team loses, everyone loses.’

The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team

So, with this as my starting point. By focussing on promoting positive emotions, and by developing trust, I found we were able to reflect early on everything that was already being done extremely well in the school, and build on these strengths to improve, rather than focus initially on those areas that perhaps needed more attention.

Building on Strengths: I wondered how we would change

Now I could write a whole lot about how we have together almost completely rewritten our entire curriculum, introduced new, and unique assessment and reporting systems and developed our approach to teaching and learning through a concept based approach, but that is an entire blog in its own right, and one I’ll consider for the future.

It is the process of change that I want to reflect on here. I am driven to make everything I do a success, but am always acutely aware that I can never do that best if I try to go it alone. I believe passionately that our kids in school get one chance, so ensuring that every student gets their very best chance is my main driver. To achieve this, I believe developing and sustaining a culture of high performance is critical; I want to lead a school full of high performing learners and teachers in order to achieve high performance outcomes for all. And to do that we need to constantly be building on our strengths.

I refer a lot to Sir David Brailsford, (see a great video of why HERE) who has had an enormous impact on the world of British cycling, and on my approach to what I do. He advocates that by creating small, marginal improvements, giving individuals ownership of their own performance, and by being ‘compassionately ruthless’, sharing clear expectations with those in his team and following up on every tiny detail in order to improve their performance, he has created a hugely successful, high performance team in the worlds of both amateur and professional cycling.

His view of sport is similar to mine on education:

Sport is about continuous improvement, it’s about getting better… It’s about being better next year than you are this year. It’s a bit like Formula One. You have a car and the designers might say ‘we can’t think how we’re going to make this any better’. But ultimately you can. And that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to keep looking, researching and working – trying things. And that’s what it’s all about.

(http://www.teamsky.com/teamsky/staff/article/7746#6qG5hbqKCuFEIeCK.99, 10.7.15)

Replace ‘sport’ with ‘education’ and his theory holds. Building on the many areas of strength we had as a school, and each individual teacher had as a professional was the best starting point for change. Perhaps this was initially about ‘giving individuals ownership of their own performance’ in the classroom, and about agreeing and sharing clear expectations with everyone, staff and students alike. Small steps to start, led to much bigger ones as we rewrote our curriculum. That was pretty huge!

The Mushroom Field: I wondered what we would learn?

From my very first day as Head of Primary, I was truly excited about my role. My enthusiasm was genuine, and so seeing the positives was easy for me. I just had to project that to the rest of the teaching team at DBIS and the wider school community.  Well, that was two years ago, and what I have not addressed from my initial wonderings yet, is what I have learned.

Well to answer that I would be here all day. I have learned so much about the amazing community I am now part of; about the young people I spend every day with and about the resilience and positivity of our teaching team. But, you know, I expected to learn these things.

What I did not expect to learn is that schools are rather like mushroom fields!

I know the analogy is odd, but stay with me here…replace ’school’ with ‘mushroom field’ and ‘Head of Primary’ with ‘Head Farmer’ and I think you will see what I mean.

The Mushroom Field

I have worked in many mushroom fields, and tended mushrooms for sometime, and two years ago, I was excited to be taking on the role of ‘Head Farmer’ at the DBIS Mushroom Field. I knew how mushrooms grow, I knew where mushrooms grow best and I knew how to get mushrooms to grow better, so I was thoroughly looking forward to my new role.

So, when I got to my new mushroom field, I took time to have a good look around. I could quickly see the places where the mushrooms were growing well already, and then where I could expect more mushrooms to grow well with an additional bit of TLC. I was excited. I knew how to do that. I could even see where things might be more tricky and had heaps of ideas about how to go about putting things right.

That was all well and good. But, there was one crucial thing that I could not see. I could not see all the millions of tiny underground connections that the mushrooms make. The fields history, all the newly forged off-shoots, the old twists and turns made by previous crops etc. and as a result, I had absolutely no idea how they were all connected.

You see, mushrooms, like all fungi, are connected by tiny mycelium threads which travel underground, connecting the roots of different mushrooms in an area together, allowing them to communicate, feed, grow, and so much more.

This mycelium network hides a huge part of the picture from view.  

So if the mushroom field is my school, and the mushrooms are the school community; students, staff, parents, school council and the wider Discovery Bay community, then this invisible mycelium network is what holds it all together. It is the underlying school culture. The way everyone is connected and interconnected, and why things are currently the way they are. Getting to truly understand the school culture, the school history and the personal histories that make up our school community, has been my biggest learning to date, and is arguably the hardest part of joining any new school. It is certainly the thing that takes longest. But, understanding a school’s culture is absolutely essential.

School culture is not written down in any handbook, or contained in any school strategy, and as Dr. Chris Jenson so wisely reminds us, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast!’

So how does any new Headteacher get to really understand school culture? Get under the skin of the school community and really see what is going on in order to predict what is going to happen next and start to have an influence on it?

Well, in my case, I listened and strived to get to know my colleagues as individuals first, and then, slowly, and with time, I started to really understand how we were all connected, and interconnected and that really was most exciting.

But I also acted. I started to build on the strengths that were obvious within the school community, the enthusiasm, the great ideas for new units of enquiry, the hard work and commitment of the whole staff, and we started to get things done. I gave individual teachers ownership of their own performance and provided support to help them in getting better, which gave us all more energy and confidence to actively move forward with curriculum development, making decisions about new assessment systems and strategies and clarifying our main school priorities.

Then the two came together, actions and understanding. It is when the connections we have, those invisible threads of experience that hold us all together, help us move forward in one united direction, that the power of this network, or school culture, can be seen.  Not only with the amount of change we have achieved in just two years, but also in the wholehearted way in which everyone responded to our recent CIS visit, resulting in full accreditation last term. A fabulous result for a huge team effort across the whole school, and one we are extremely proud of.

Living History

No one knows what the future holds, and I am certainly no different. What I do know though is that kids generally act upon what we do rather than what we say, and that it’s a far better learning experience for them if we are seen to be adjusting plans to take advantage of opportunities when the future becomes the present, than getting caught up in the disruption and drama of just reacting to the unexpected. I’m therefore confident that our next four year school development plan, which we have just finished writing, not only gives us clarity and direction at this point in time, but also sets us all up to take advantage of the exciting opportunities that no doubt will come as we execute it.  

We hear so often that ‘change is the only constant’ but I worry that perhaps we have almost stopped thinking about what this means, and I think that is dangerous. DBIS is not only a rapidly expanding school community, with over 1,100 students, and a newly opened sixth form and senior school in the North Plaza, but it’s also part of the growing, wider Discovery Bay, Hong Kong, South-East Asia and arguably most exciting of all, Chinese communities. We know this, as we already know that there are two de-facto world languages, English and Mandarin, so it is no surprise that all our students get to learn both. But we need to remain flexible and open to change, and new ideas that perhaps are not yet obvious, if we are to continue to ensure that our students get the best opportunity to be ready for their futures.

Our school on Lantau Island screams connectivity, commerce and opportunity due to its central position in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan to bring together the key cities in the Pearl Delta into one high tech Greater Bay Area, modelled on San Francisco and Silicon Valley. One of the world’s busiest airports is just a 30 minute bus ride away, 190 of our DBIS families have one or more pilots as parents; the new $15 billion, 55 kilometer Y shaped road bridge to the island of Macau and Zhuhai, in mainland China, is just about to open; the terminal for the imminent $11 billion Express Rail Link connecting Hong Kong into China’s high speed rail network is 45 minutes away. All of this connectivity will put our school at the gateway to an economy which John Follain, quoting HSBC Holdings Plc. in Bloomberg, says “(will) eclipse Japan as the world’s fourth largest exporter”.   

I know I said I can’t tell the future but I do understand numbers, so even I can see that these kind of developments mean we will need to flex our plan in order to take full advantage of these, and other opportunities that change like this will bring for our students over the next four years. It really is exciting times.

My Advice to all New Farmers Teachers

So, back to the glass of wine in my hand at the new staff welcome evening, and the realisation that I can say that I really have come to know and understand my school and its culture. I can now see where I have been able to exert some positive impact on it too; from results in the school survey, the numbers of students wanting to stay on for secondary school, improving staff retention, further developed connections with other schools across Hong Kong and increased parental engagement in school improvement. And perhaps, most importantly, I am starting to see more round pegs in round holes, and that makes for a much more efficient, and happier school community. I remain excited about all we can go on to achieve. Two years in and I am proud to say I am part of a school culture that is learning focussed and supportive, positive, adaptable and inclusive, and long may it stay that way.

As our new crop of ‘mushroom farmers’ joins us then, my advice to them, and to all teachers starting in new schools this year is as follows:

  1. Book your half term and Christmas holidays now – you will be exhausted by then, and really need some down time (especially if you have joined an international school like mine form the UK and almost completely missed out on your summer break!)
  2. Remember
    • Teaching is not just a job – you chose the school and they chose you because you proved to them during the recruitment process that you were just what they were looking for (and if you didn’t’ get that job, read my last blog on recruitment HERE!)
    • You know kids, and you know how to build positive and strong relationships with them, so make this your number one priority.
  3. Ask questions. Then more questions. And still more questions. No one will mind, we have all been there.
  4. Get on and get things done! Don’t just strategise or wait until you are absolutely, completely sure, otherwise you may never get started.
  5. Think about why you are so tired; about all the learning you have had to do everyday, and then think about how the students in your care are doing that all day every day!
  6. The timings for morning break and lunchtime are not yet in your DNA, the meeting programme is not the same as in your last school and you may well forget to check where the nearest staff toilets are to your classroom. You may need reminding about deadlines and routines from time to time too, but don’t stress – these things will come.
  7. Give yourself a break – your new school is not the same as your old one and you will not get everything right from day one, and no one expects you to.
  8. Look for all the positives – don’t focus on how your new school is not the same as your old one, focus on all the new and exciting things this one has to offer.
  9. Ask for help. If you are in the right school, it will be willingly given.

Dave Harris, author of Brave Heads  (HERE) has other advice which I believe is most pertinent too:

  • ‘If it isn’t going to benefit the pupil’s learning – don’t do it.’
  • ‘If it can be done in a fun way, then why not do it that way?’
  • ‘The glass is half full – ALWAYS!’

Remember, you are a mushroom farmer teacher, and were recruited because you are a jolly good one. We want you to enjoy every day in your mushroom field new classroom, building new and exciting relationships with your students, your colleagues and everyone in the school community.

Give yourself time to acclimatise.

And when you come to the new staff drinks this time next year, you will feel different. You will understand our school culture, and you will have had a positive impact on it. You will have made a difference. Click your fingers and it will be here before you know it!

We really do have the best job in the world.


*Image Credit Mzayat Cliparts 


9 thoughts on “A Headteacher’s Wonderings;  Two Years in at DBIS

  1. Justine

    Sues congratulations on another year full of inspiring observations and efforts. Your mushrooms are very lucky indeed. Keep on keeping on!

  2. Sile Post author

    A beautifully written piece and one that I can relate to. I particularly like the Mushroom field/farmer analogy. You clearly know how to motivate people to achieve success. Good on you!

  3. Sue Post author

    An inspiration to newbies! I totally agree with comments below and believe the leadership and culture advice applies across all disciplines.

  4. Eilis

    Really interesting to non-educationalists too Sues (and love that Pat Lencioni gets a mention). I’ve got some interesting stuff on culture by Cameron and Quinn that I’ll share by email.

  5. Carol

    An interesting and reflective piece. I agree about the importance of “culture” and how long its roots are – very difficult to quantify but immensely influential on pretty much everything that happens within an organisation. Thanks for the thoughts!

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