A Conversation with Lisa Simelane: Leading Learning

This is the fourth article in a series of five that reflects on the journey ALA’s Two Year Diploma Program over the last strategic planning period, ALA 2023. The first three articles are here.

Lisa Simelane served as the Director of Teaching & Learning (DTL) at ALA from 2018 – 2021. During this time she led the team of Heads of Department to consider, design, implement and iterate a range of changes to teaching and learning practice at ALA. In this conversation, Lisa reflects on the challenges, achievements and lessons of leading change at this time.

How did your education philosophy change during your time as the Director of Teaching and Learning at ALA?

My application letter to ALA talked about my belief in Afro-centric education and transformational leadership. A few years into my career at ALA, we read an article by Julius Nyerere which describes the primary purpose of education being the liberation of man. This really resonated with me. These concepts are still foundational to my philosophy of education, indeed, if anything they have become stronger. However, my time as DTL at ALA changed me by developing an understanding of how these concepts come about – better than any degree I could’ve undertaken.

I began my journey as DTL by focusing on consolidating the Principles of Teaching and Learning within the Faculty vernacular and established a practice of classroom observation. Undertaking the NEASC[1] process challenged me to think more about the specific standards we should be aiming for and what the evidence is that we would need to demonstrate progression towards them. This laid the foundation for the next phase of our work: creating a clearer framework for how to actually improve teaching and learning. Practices such as unit planning, using assessment, for, as and of learning all became much more real and less of an intellectual exercise.

In 2022, you returned to Eswatini to join the leadership team at UWC, what are some ideas and practices you’ve brought to this role?

In my time so far at Waterford Kamhlaba UWC, I have focused on the introduction of three new initiatives, all of which move the needle when it comes to teacher development and impact on students:

The first practice is classroom observation. I introduced observation first because it felt like a less painful change than something like planning; indeed, many faculty at ALA had enjoyed classroom observation. However, based on having gone through this at ALA, I did change my approach by introducing it as a less frequent requirement than I had started with at ALA. There is both targeted feedback (developmental observation from HODs) and peer observation, both of which are emphasized as a reflective experience. While many teachers struggle to remain descriptive and avoid judgment, and some teachers are better at observation than others, but ultimately faculty are generally participating and at the end of the 1st year, 82% teachers said it improved their teaching.

The second practice is preparing Teacher Development Portfolios (TDPs). I wanted to build a developmental frame for performance management and started by introducing the Teacher Development Portfolio[2]. The TDP focuses on developmental observation, teacher’s planning, student work and classroom feedback. Teachers must choose a minimum of two pieces of work from each of these four areas. We use this tool as a scaffold for reflective practice during a new teacher’s probation. After their first three months, it grounds a conversation with me as the teacher leader where new teachers reflect on their growth.

Although the intent and substance of the TDP is much the same as we had at ALA, the biggest difference at WK is that we have moved more slowly. We started with new teachers, using it as scaffold for their probation period. In my second year I added any other faculty who volunteered. I had hoped I would land up with 20 faculty participants, but actually landed up with eight. Without the extrinsic motivation of the probation process, it was more difficult to maintain discipline and engagement.

Another difference is that I’ve made it a 3-6-month experience (for new and volunteer teachers). The plan for next year is to then roll it out to those teachers up for contract renewal. In its 4th year if all goes well, I might roll it out for a full 12 months. Although we currently only have eight teachers involved in TDP, I am hoping that their stories will inspire more faculty buy-in going forward.

Ultimately, I would like to develop a performance management system that would also work in other schools in Eswatini and support teacher development.

The final set of practices I paid close attention to from the start is assessment. At WK, we do an International Baccalaureate (IB) evaluation every 5 years and a recent evaluation identified the need for an Assessment Policy. In 2022 we spent the whole year developing a Policy that articulates our philosophy of assessment, guides how assessment happens at school, and how we report and share with our various stakeholders. I particularly enjoyed thinking about the section looking at the rights and responsibilities of each stakeholder. This year we’re thinking about how to activate the policy, including introducing common assessments.

It has been hard but the subcommittees have been helpful. At the moment they’re working with fewer teachers. What is it going to mean when they are working with all teachers on TDPs? We need to think what the administrative tasks are that people are spending time on that can be replaced with this new set of responsibilities. As it stands, each teacher spends up to 20 hours on the process in total, their HOD will spend 12 hours per teacher and I will spend an additional 4 hours per teacher – this adds up!

What are some principles that guide your leadership in your current role?

My time as the Director of Teaching and Learning at ALA helped to crystalise in my mind a much clearer vision for what this role should be: first and foremost, it should be about developing teachers.  John Hattie describes “collective teacher efficacy” as the most effective lever to pull when it comes to improving student learning; therefore, my core job is to help teachers believe in their collective ability and impact. It is my job to think about what structures are in place to ensure mentoring and growth (learning!) is happening all the time for all teachers, not just for new or inexperienced teachers.

This is why my work with the HODs has the potential to be very powerful work. The HOD role is often a very administrative one. I am working on building a shared understanding rather that our primary role is teacher development.

How, if at all, has your leadership style change?

In order to create buy-in for some of the changes I’ve introduced, and the mindset shift they entail about what the core job of a teacher and HOD is, I have relied on consistency, moving slowly and building culture.

I want teachers to be unit planning but I’m introducing the components of unit plans gradually. I am having conversations to understand where teachers are and what they need to bring them along. I am providing HODs with the structures to take back to their departments that gradually move us towards unit planning. Down the road my intention is to then bring all these components together so that we’re then all using unit planning.

At ALA, I wouldn’t say I really won people over with unit planning. You can get people to do a

unit plan if you say they must, but will this actually guide reflective practice or will it be rote? I don’t think everyone at ALA understood how the course criteria fit into the full picture. I think only about 10% of ALA faculty authentically and genuinely bought into unit planning. So, I highlighted their work as examples of best practice and just kept at it. Although it takes a lot of energy and you get a lot of pushback, you just have to insist on making it a consistent requirement and hold teachers accountable.

A lot of this boils down to culture. I am currently enjoying the fruits of those who have come before me and ensured aspects of WK culture like on-time reporting – the expectation of the faculty community is simply that reporting is done on time. So, with sufficient buy-in and consistency you make an impact on culture…for the next person in your role.

Does your current role give you any new perspective on your past work?

I am very grateful that we’re not creating our own curriculum here at WK, which is a big difference to ALA. It means we can just focus on pedagogy. Designing curriculum and therefore assessment takes up an enormous amount of time. At ALA, before even being able to introduce unit planning, you had to convince some teachers of the need to write up course criteria because they’ve been teaching without them for years. At UWC, teachers don’t need to write course criteria or create assessments for courses from scratch  as these are part and parcel of IB and CAIE designed curricula. Introducing unit planning or TDP initiatives and having them adopted fully takes time, doubly so when one is also developing your own curriculum.

On the other hand, I miss the reading culture of ALA, where we regularly read an article together and discussed something in the abstract first before thinking through the operational implications. I also really miss the time faculty spend together at ALA. I don’t get the same contact hours with the full spectrum of faculty in this larger faculty community. While WK is also a pan-African school, I miss the deep African focus of ALA where UWC’s mission is understandably more global.

[1] ALA undertook an accreditation under the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) ACE protocol in 2019. Lisa had a leading role in this process.

[2] At ALA the same tool is referred to as the Professional Development Portfolio (PDP)

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