When hunting for a suitable school for your child or for yourself as a teacher, you need to study hard as if you were to sit for an exam. Because not all schools are created equal, making sure a school is the right fit might be a stressful experience. It can also be an exciting and educational experience. In the course of the process, we learn about different teaching practices and the pedagogy underlying these experiences. Because ultimately, all teachers and parents are learners.
To begin with, you need to use the resources and contacts you have to conduct a thorough online and offline research of the schools you are interested in. Create a list of questions and a list of everyone you can think of – your friends, your friends’ friends, your family, their friends, local child care resources or referral agencies, school administrators and teachers. Then talk to all of them. Interview school staff with one-on-one discussion if that’s possible. Investigate all your options as you are hopefully not making this too many times. Subsequently, you need to analyze the information collected which would enable you to determine the school’s current state and status, performance and quality of teaching.
What sets some schools apart?
It is rather simple – clear mission, vision, and philosophy. Only a school that knows where it is headed and how it is getting there, can provide prospective teachers and parents with reassurance about the stability of the workplace and the quality of the school’s education. The school’s philosophy and, by extension, its priorities, should be one of the first things prospective teachers and parents consider.
Schools with specific education philosophy pride themselves on having a clear strategic direction. The school’s education focus ensures that the principal, teachers, support staff, and students know what to expect and what is expected of them. As a result of this, all their efforts are likely to be aligned and more successful in achieving their goals. Is the philosophy clear and specific or is it stated in vague and general terms? Is it realistic and attainable or overly ambitious and out-of-reach?
In terms of their values, some schools emphasize collaboration, community, and connection while others work towards independence, confidence, and self-expression. Once you familiarize yourself with the school’s philosophy and values, you need to make sure they match your personal ones.
Next, you need to investigate what are the goals set by the school in its strive to realize the underlying philosophy. On your visit to the school, on an open or your demo day, look very carefully at what is going on, note the atmosphere and the ethos of the school. Most importantly, however, seek evidence of the attainment of the school’s goals. A school that aims to nurture an open-minded team spirit in children, for example, makes sure that the school’s activities and environment promote this goal. Every tangible and non-tangible element – from the students’ work displayed on the walls to the way students wear their uniform – communicates subtle information about the school’s ability to carry out its educational mission. Try to discern whether efforts are made to ensure that the school’s philosophy is integrated throughout the entire school. On the day of your visit, be on the lookout for any mismatch between what is stated, both virtually and face-to-face, both explicitly and implicitly, and what is real.
Having said all that, though, setting and having a clear strategic direction constitutes only half of the journey. A school also needs a sound school structure with the right teachers and staff to steer the school on the road ahead.
Structure, Policies and Procedures
Moving onto the school’s structure and operation, start by discerning if the school has a solid structure for teaching to take place or rather learning goals, content, and activities are formulated each time? What is the curriculum and how is it implemented/taught? What kind of teaching materials are used at the school? Is parent involvement part of the curriculum? What kind of classroom assessment (formative and/or summative) is available or how is evidence of students’ progress collected/measured to meet the learning/educational benchmarks set by the school? How frequently do teachers communicate the students’ learning progress to students, fellow teachers, and parents?
Some schools are more structured than others. They adopt either internationally-recognized curricula or curricula based on the board of education (ex: American, British, etc) by using an established framework of learning objectives to guide the teacher’s instruction and the student’s experience. Some of these schools hold formal accreditation (such as the European Council of International Schools, Council of International Schools, Council of British International’s Schools) which testifies to the school’s ability to meet rigorous quality standards. These are school committed to high standards through a system of continuous improvement and accountability to an external accrediting review process. Ensuring a school has proper accreditation can help eliminate any lingering doubts about the quality of teaching and learning. But as appealing as they are, internationally-recognized and accredited schools cost tens of thousands of dollars and have the most rigorous enrollment and recruitment process.
Schools at one extreme follow firm curricula with exact objectives and the means of achieving them. The golden middle path is taken by schools that adopt the well-known amongst international school communities – International Baccalaureate (IB). IB provides a framework for the curricula to be taught within classrooms, but educators are actually in charge of developing the curricula, selecting books, which content to cover (within the framework) and how to assess students. Ideally, a school with a curriculum framework that also allows for teacher creativity would be most conductive to effective teaching and learning. Think of it as a line drawing to which teachers are intended to add color of their choice.
Other schools adopt a curriculum of their own and most likely give teachers freedom to design their own lesson plans and materials in the presence/absence of a formal assessment. There are some remarkable teachers out there who constantly generate creative and innovative learning opportunities for children. And they are at their best only when granted freedom to create their own lesson plans and materials. These are teachers who are willing to trade off much of their time for the freedom to define their own teaching paths. If you are looking into a school of the latter type, review the job description and make sure that teachers are provided sufficient preparation time rather than forced to teach extensive hours while also expected to prepare their own materials which would inevitably lead to burnout. Not a single parent would enroll their children in a school with a physically, mentally or emotionally exhausted faculty. Given the shifting education climate, teachers today have to deal with ever-increasing workload. Many find themselves caught up in the rising-expectations, diminishing-resources dilemma. In other words, many teachers simply do not have the time to do the things they want and know how to do.
To keep up with and meet the high educational standards set by the accrediting body, fully accredited schools must dedicate significant amount of time and money to help their educators participate in professional development opportunities. They attend conferences, workshops, and seminars to learn how to expand their teaching methods, develop better organization and planning skills, and to gain industry knowledge and insight. At the other extreme, in an autonomous environment where teachers perform and thrive under self-directed teaching and learning, a uniform professional development plan is virtually impossible. With the establishment of a school with a teacher-led program comes the end of a one-size-fits-all approach. Unless schools have strong human resource divisions dedicated towards adapting professional development opportunities according to teachers’ needs, they run the risk of falling short of delivering the right training for each individual teacher with his or her own teaching approach and strategy. One way to counteract this problem, even though limited, is to support teachers in conducting research of their own in the course of their teaching which would inform their classroom practice. Practical research may contribute to the improvement of teacher’s skills and expertise and positively impact school administration.
School as the other extreme fall within the framework of liberal education where students actively participate in defining the trajectory of their learning journeys. Those interested in the type of education that allows students to be the architects of their own learning must consider class size and student-teacher ratio as one of the most important factors. It is virtually impossible for a single teacher of 20 three-year-olds to personalize their learning according to their needs, interests, and pace.
As a parent, review the teachers’ job descriptions. Evaluate the teachers’ responsibilities, benefits, and try to discern any inequality or unbalance. What are the working conditions and do they enable the teachers to do their job well? What are the employment requirements and the recruitment process? Does the school provide an agreed-upon framework for effective teaching to help instructors navigate through the complex territory of teaching? What kind of working culture does the school have and would you or your child thrive in such an environment?
In spite of the accumulating research on how assessments are hindering students’ learning and creativity in the classroom, many still have a strong conviction that assessment practice enhances student growth. At least it gives an idea of the extent of learning and as long as students are involved it increases their motivation. Of course, it all boils down to the type of assessment used. Quizzes and tests or the things students say in classroom discussions and the expressions on their faces? There is a great disconnect between assessment that serves the needs of the teachers and their students and assessment that serves the needs of parents. At the very least, teachers must provide regular comments about each student and his or her learning progress.
Assessments not only help ensure that all students are learning but they also act as a facilitator for the collaboration between teachers and parents. Parents need information about what and how their child is learning while the teacher needs feedback from the parent about the child’s social and academic development. A positive teacher-parent-child relationship helps your child/student feel good about school and be successful in school. The teacher is the second most important person in a child’s life and a positive relationship between the parent and the teacher demonstrates to the child that he can trust his teacher because his parent does.
Close connection to families through parent involvement in their children’s classroom, school, and education must be a basic part of the school’s practice. Collaboration between teacher and parent as well as connection between school and home provide children with consistency and greater support in their growth. When schools invite parents to the classroom or when they ask them to help with administrative work, to organize events, they aim to promote continuity between home and school. One of the ways parents can underscore the importance of their child’s education is by getting involved in the school community. When parents are part of the school experience, children feel proud and their sense of belonging and engagement at school rises. Of course, schools are the ones to choose to what extent they want to engage parents in the school’s life. Some want families involved only on the periphery of education while others allow parents to form an advisory committee. Both have their pros and cons.
What about the school’s connection to the community? Do links to communities outside of school exist?
Last, examine the school’s policies, then dig deeper and look for an evidence of the implementation of these policies. Are policies supported and informed by the teachers or passed top-down from management? Are they displayed prominently and reinforced regularly at school assemblies?
Is the school managed financially well? As long as it is published online, even parents of prospective students should check how much teachers are financially rewarded for their work. Is the financial compensation sufficient to motivate teachers to do their work with diligence? What are the working hours of the teachers and do they have enough time to prepare for lessons?