What an action  packed week with 30 Singergia Christian Principals and Vice-Principals in the Dominican Republic; it was wonderful!

Performance Planning - "They just don’t like to get evaluated unless they know it’s going to be good” That was the first comment at our week long principal’s conference in the Dominican Republic. It sounds a bit like the rest of us when the boss decides to schedule a performance evaluation.

Teachers don’t exactly cherish the thought of being evaluated by their principal, their peers, let alone students or the parents they serve. Fear contributes to part of the hesitation. ‘No news is good news’. As a principal, the thought of conducting an assessment met with the same reaction.

But how else do we know how well we are doing in our chosen profession? Where do we get encouragement from; how do we know we are part of a robust learning community in the school; and, what does accountability look like? But more so, how do we improve and grow? Aren't passion and love for students enough? We’d all prefer to have our annual pay increment and be done with it.

Although using a traditional class visit by the principal forms the current evaluation of teachers in the Dominican, it didn’t seem to hit the mark as to whether teachers were ‘catching’ the  vision for Christ-centred education and understanding the tools the teachers needed to improve while being encouraged to succeed. The bar for quality teaching rises for Christian educators.

Essential to any assessment in a Christian setting is for the principal to first work with teachers to understand how to build a ‘Christian learning community’ within the school. Secondly, it was to give teachers the tools and resources to ‘self-reflect’ (formative assessment); and finally, is was to help them better understand how to bring the four elements of Christian teaching – classroom community, instruction (learning), planning and preparation, and professional responsibilities – within a ‘biblical framework’.

Understanding how to deploy these 4 elements within a biblical context becomes integral to the annual performance assessment cycle since it speaks to their identity and integrity as Christian educator within a larger community of learning.

By the end of the week, principals came to realize that most of their work for the annual teacher evaluation (summative assessment) had became so much easier – the work had already been done by the teacher’s own self- reflection. They began to see the responsibility of evaluation begins with the teacher – it begins the first day they stepped into the classroom.

Planning - It started last year with Christian school leaders discussing the benefits of long term planning for their schools. At first, it seemed like a stretch to think ‘strategic planning’ for a school for the next 5 years would make a difference. But each principal embraced the planning process and committed to involving the community in developing a written vision and plan for their own school over the next year.

Jeremiah 29:11 reveals that God has a wonderful plan for his people. Often we have no idea what His plan is for our life, let alone His plan for the people we work with or the institutions we teach within. Prayer and a shared understanding of His will allows us to transform ourselves and the world around us.e He H

Sometimes progress appears slow… but it does happen. We often hear it through feedback and the experiences we have on our school visits when returning to a place like the Dominican.

Upon arriving back at this year’s conference, 16 school leaders and vice-principals stood up and presented the plan they had worked on with parents, their teachers and the surrounding community over the last year.

The transformation was beginning…the passion and dedication to move ahead was even more exciting…God’s plan for them was taking hold. It’s as if the pen that wrote their plan used the same ‘ink well’ that our Lord’s fountain pen has used for His plan over the centuries. They talked about their shared strengths in bringing God and His gospel for Christian living His Hinto the lives of their students. They also discussed the challenges of schools filled to capacity in sometimes very cramped classrooms, students with behaviour issues, and parents unable to pay the tuition – to mention only a few. Some developed robust strategies to deal with the issues; some looked for answers to what sometimes appeared to be insurmountable challenges. The discussions were great, But all trusted in each other and in a Lord with His own ‘strategic’ plan for them and the schools they lead.

Governance – On Thursday, we switched gears to the topic of school governance. We had 46 school leaders gathered to grapple with the topic of healthy Board Governance models that encourage the involvement of community stakeholders to focus on the role of the board. This session had 30 leaders from our 16 partner (Sinergia) schools gather together with leadership from ACSI Caribe (3 schools).

During this collaborative day together, we considered the role of the board in directing and protecting the school’s mission and the role of the director. The discussions shifted to the importance of schools having policies and procedures in place. The day ended with several practical discussions which modeled the community governance in crafting clear policies. The feedback was very positive and the school leaders recognized these leaders are each other’s greatest asset.

As they discussed the challenges within the Dominican context, their interactions and exchange of ideas was the most fruitful and beneficial take-away.

 

Peter Meerveld (EduDeo Learning Leader – Performance Assessment and Strategic Planning)

Nathan Boersema (EduDeo Learning Leader - Governance)

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Thursday, January 30, 2020

Building Community in Nicaragua 0 comments

It’s early – 4:50 AM to be exact when Pablo Mendez (ACECEN's Executive Director) arrives to pick up Jim Deters and Elco Vandergrift (EduDeo's foreign Learning Leaders) at their hotel in down town Managua.  Pablo has been up since 3 AM getting ready to head out in his Toyota to pick up his Nicaraguan colleagues Edwardo Ramos (ACECEN's Activity Coordinator) and Nilda Navarrete (EduDeo's In-country Coordinator) – they are ready and they proceed to pick up the foreign learning leaders with the vehicle packed.  Handouts, certificates, personal overnight bags, projectors - they are prepared for four days of conferences which will loop them through their regional areas and engage over 900 leaders and teachers in their learning community.

Once all five of the amigos greet each other, some for the first time, they crowd into the vehicle, and Pablo shoves his  shifter into first gear.  Elco, in the middle back seat, opens up his computer so that both Jim and Nilda on either side can see the plan that has been prepared.  It’s hard to focus as the streets in Managua are waking up and the light sheds new images as the darkness dissipates.  The mood is one of excitement and quietness all looped into a journey that is off to good start, smiles and conversations emerging as relationships in the confined space grow.  Jim and Elco are up for the challenge, but are not completely aware of where they are going or even how long it will take. They ask, and Pablo says “6 hours!” with a mischievous glimmer in his eye. In the end, it takes 3 hours to get to the Matagalpa Region where we are eagerly greeted by those in charge. Even some students are there to greet us.

As the five amigos unpack and begin setting up, they meet both and familiar and unfamiliar people who are there to help them with the details: welcome, registration, coffee, snacks, chairs set up, presentation screen in place, sound system tested.  While this is going on, more teachers and leaders arrive and by 9 AM, nearly all the chairs are filled.

The stage is carefully decorated and the conference theme, “Living as a Community of Grace”, is boldy displayed at the back of the stage.  Again, there is both an excitement and angst as this inaugural process is about to start.  Today is the first of four sessions that will happen all over the next 4 days. 

Day one’s session begins with devotions,  Pablo’s offers words on behalf ACECEN, and Nilda summarizes EduDeo’s building projects. 

After the break, Jim and Elco introduce themselves to the participants.  Thoughts, ideas, and activities under the theme on “Leadership & Building Community in the Christian School: How do we function as a “Community of Grace?” are now under way. Participants move into the learning with anticipation and curiosity.

The day proceeds with stories, activities, lunch, challenges, encouragements, school pictures, certificate presentations, evaluations, and a closing.

By 4 PM, the five amigos are back on the road heading to their next destination.  There are conversations and reflections in English and Spanish, sometimes only in Spanish. It’s an interesting mix but essential understanding appears to be evident as plans for the evening and next day are discussed.

The day ends with a supper gathering and then an eventual place to sleep.  

Such is the basic pattern that will be followed for the next 3 days in this inaugural development  with each region/group being different and the same in many ways.  Perhaps what impresses Jim and Elco the most is that so many have come.  Educators in Nicaragua are excited about building communities of grace.  Some even leave at 3 AM just to be there.

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Thursday, January 23, 2020

A Principal’s Principle: Realign Your Devotion 0 comments

The first time I heard the phrase, I was somewhat taken aback by the teacher’s comment.

She referred to her students as “my babies”. It seemed to me like a professional overreach, somehow beyond the bounds of teacher-student relationships. Later, here in Belize, I heard a few other female teachers use the same expression: “my babies”.

Obviously, they all meant it figuratively—their students in their classrooms were like a flock of fledglings snuggled together in their nurturing nests. These “baby birds” would be mothered and smothered with love, lessons and learning. Their “babies” mattered. With fierce determination, they supplied their students’ needs: food, school supplies, infinite patience, and huge hugs. It took a while for me to understand the rich and loving context of what they were saying.  It was a phrase that flowed up from a place of deep dedication and love.

Rather impressive, don’t you think? Quite admirable.

So, what has all this deep devotion have to do with the Presbyterian Schools of Belize principals’ conference on required teacher appraisals to the Belize Ministry of Education?  

Allow me to make the connection.

Appraising teachers of their work is one of the major priorities of being a principal. It involves assessing teachers on their continual growth in the dimensions of planning and preparation, classroom community, instruction and professional responsibilities within a biblical framework. Christian principals must assess Christian teachers christianly.

Assessment in usually a two-step process: formative and summative.

Formative is foremost. It is the on-going, day-to-day process of learning to teach so you can teach to learn. Teachers are encouraged to take ownership of their “learning to teach”. And they are actively supported by their principals. Together, using a variety of activities and constant feedback, both principals and teachers are pursuing professional growth and development.   Some Christian principals have found Good Teaching Comes from the Inside[1]to be a good supporting resource.

Summative is secondary. It’s about reporting externally (after a period of time) to others who want to know if the teaching is flourishing or floundering. In Belize, the Ministry of Education requires two summative teacher assessments every school year. Given that the Ministry provides the yearly salaries and increments to every teacher in the country, requesting periodic summative assessments reflects an obvious accountability on their part. Such evaluations should segue out from constant formative reflection.

It’s been said that “You can’t fatten a pig by weighing it.” If all principals do is summative weighing and fail to feed their teachers with a robust formative appraisal process, learning for both teachers and students will be lean.

Just as teachers have their classroom of students; principals have their “classroom” of teachers. For beginning principals, who, as teachers, used to be devoted to their students, realignment is difficult but required.

So what a delight it was to hear a principal’s epiphany at our conference: “My teachers are my babies now!”

Those teachers will be well-fed. 

Bill de Jager



[1] Society of Christian Schools in British Columbia, 2001

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Monday, January 20, 2020

With a Little Help from Some Friends 0 comments

When done well, planning for the future is a deep blessing.

When the planning comes from a place of painful honesty from all who are currently diminished by their community weaknesses, that planning is a gift gladly received. When shared weaknesses are transformed into carefully constructed future commitments, communities are rejuvenated like an unfolding gift that keeps on giving. Gratitude, excitement and energy will prevail.

(Just to clear: when planning for the future is controlled by the powerful few who insist on compliance to manipulated strategies for personal or an organization’s public survival, such planning is a curse.)

We sensed the realization of a deep blessing from those gathered at this year’s Presbyterian Christian Schools Principal conference in Belize. Two years ago, the planning process had been begun, written commitments had been adopted, and now it was time to check in to see if the follow-through had begun.

Of course, it had.

Crucial committees had been formed and had already begun meeting and tackling their assigned strategies. Other task-forces would be appointed as scheduled.

Together with the principals, Peter walked through the upcoming work for this school year and the next. No hesitation here; just nods of approval and questions of clarification (but not of resistance). They knew that they were blessed with a gift for growth. It was not to be squandered.

It is our deep hope that these Presbyterian Christian communities of learning will be buoyed and blessed by the gift of planning that they have given to themselves (with a little hands-up from EduDeo).

Bill de Jager

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