Monday, 12 January 2015

Out with the desk: changing the principal's office into a collaborative meeting hub

This was the introduction to a recent post about supporting parents through school wide learning and changeIn 2015 every teacher at St Joseph's will teach in partnership with one or more teachers in collaborative learning hubs. Teaching and learning across the school from Year One to Year Eight will go live and be fully accessible to everyone inside and outside the school via a dedicated teaching and learning site.

What does this mean for me as a leader? 
While the staff are frantically rearranging and redesigning learning spaces preparing for the new school year, I have been proactively revamping my traditional principal's office.

First action - OUT WITH DESK !!
I have never felt comfortable talking to anyone including students from behind a desk. I have always made a point of coming forward and standing beside or sitting with a visitor at a meeting table. While I was teaching at the De Blijberg Jenaplan School in Rotterdam in the 90's, I learnt to sit alongside learners. We would create a morning sharing circle 'cring' with our chairs rather than the archetypal junior classroom practice of the teacher on a chair talking to the students on the floor.
The Jenaplan schools operate according to 20 basic principles with the first being that each human being is unique. Therefore, each child and each adult has an irreplaceable value and a special dignity .

I also recall several years ago as a first time principal, my eagerness to visit and learn from an experienced principal. Unfortunately my enthusiasm was dampened before we even met. First of all, I was asked to wait for quite some time in the visitor's part of the office. This is understandable in the life of a 'busy' principal. Then I was invited into the principal's office to sit on a very small chair some distance from the principal who proceeded to speak to me from behind a very large desk. I felt disconnected and disesteemed. Needless to say, I went away feeling disillusioned yet determined to ensure I didn't duplicate that experience for any of my future visitors. 

Fast forward to 2014 when I arranged to visit @MarkMoorhouseMM principal of  Rochdale, United Kingdom. Mark took time out of his busy day to sit alongside me and share some of the inspirational practices happening at Matthew Moss High School. It was a sheer pleasure to travel to the other side of the world and be treated like royalty. I am still sharing my learning from this visit.

What has all of this got to do with removing my office desk? As a leader, I need to be a role model for my team. Part of our school wide change for 2015 means that we are moving away from single cell teaching spaces to team teaching learning hubs. Inspired by @DavidPriceOBE author of the powerful book  OPEN: How we'll work, live and learn in the future, we will become a much more open and collaborative school this year. In order to make this happen, we agreed to leave behind symbols of traditional classroom settings in our quest to develop agentic learning spaces. Along with other environmental changes, teacher's desks will be removed from learning spaces in order to create equally shared spaces - no individual student's desks, therefore no teacher's desk!

I have now decluttered and depersonalized my conventional principal's office and aim for it to be a creative, collaborative meeting hub for all learners: staff, parents and students. This means that I aim to spend more of my time in other learning hubs around the school.
BEFORE: 'Principal's office'  - with desk removed

AFTER: Redesignated 'Collaborative Meeting Hub'
We are about to revisit our job descriptions to reflect our team teaching roles in the new learning hubs. This is also a chance to revisit our role as senior leaders as we redefine our place as educators and leaders in a school culture focused on engagement in deep learning and success in this digital age. As leaders, we also need to ensure that these environments are equally as engaging and empowering for our adult learners too.

Next on the to do list: order a new sign to replace the existing 'principal' sign on the office door.

Have you redefined your office space and your job description? I am interested in learning more from you. Please share your experiences.


  1. Hi Jenny As ever, great thought-provoking post. Thanks.

    I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time with Professor Tony Bryk who was explaining how one improvement initiative he was involved with raised the success rate of learners in a Chicago scheme undertaking a pre-college Math qualification from 5% to 50% on one year. One important strand of this was quickly creating a welcoming culture of connection and belonging. For example, when a student was absent, instead of an email or text from an administrator asking "Where are you?", there was communication from a a member of the study group asking "How are you?" a positive relational culture isn't just a soggy notion then: it is massively efficient to create strong connections between people. Including visitors, who are vital partners bringing significant gifts with their fresh eyes and different experiences. The principle who sits behind a desk and downloads to visitors is missing out on learning which is vital for the health of the institution.

    Great to hear about you ditching the desk. Both the Humanities and English faculties at our school have jettisoned all the teachers' desks from classrooms. With this barrier gone the communications flow within these classrooms is very much enabled. There has been variation and the major driver remains the teacher in this though! However, without doubt, a very good step forward.

    A good friend and mentor of the school, Ann Behan, employed an interesting strategy when she was Principle of a large academy: her Senior Management Team did not have offices but a shared work-space. Furthermore, they were not allowed in there between the hours of 8.30am - 4.00pm, so that they had to work on portable devices around the building and hence be absolutely connected with the life of the community.

    Again, great post and many thanks for the provocations within it.

    1. Thanks for your insightful and valued response Mark. I have been trying to get some feedback from others about this concept but haven't had anything concrete up until now. I appreciate the time you have taken to share this. I fully agree that creating a culture of connection and belonging and being willing to learn from others are vital for what our institutions represent. I look forward to experiencing and sharing the new learning and growth that this action brings once our school year commences.