Editor’s Note: In the ‘An interview with …’ series, we speak to education leaders on a range of issues, and publish the discussion in an edited Q+A.
Jonathan Clark is on a mission to transform John Gray High School into a world-class educational institution. With responsibility for 1,100 students and a total staff complement of 140 people, Clark is the principal of the largest school in the Cayman Islands.
In the first part of this interview, Clark discusses the school’s response to the COVID-19 closure in mid-March, the five-part plan school leaders designed and executed, and lessons learned that are being implemented to improve the school going forward.
In subsequent instalments (to be published over the next week), Clark covers a wide variety of topics, including the school’s strengths and weaknesses, initiatives and opportunities at John Gray, and progress on construction of the new John Gray campus.
Bio: Clark arrived in Cayman in February 2016, becoming principal of John Gray after accumulating more than two decades of educational experience in the UK and around the world. Previous positions include being Vice Principal at Passmores Academy in Essex and Assistant Principal and Director of Sport at Lammas School in East London. Clark has been seconded to many countries, including Australia, Egypt and Tanzania.
— Going back to the middle of March, everything seems to be going along smoothly. Then a cruise ship passenger arrives on-island with COVID, and the next thing we know is, everything is shut down. Tell me what happened at John Gray.
We got our notice on the Friday evening that the schools were going to be closed, so we activated some plans we had been working on — not necessarily for this situation, but we worked quite proactively at trying to get our online learning going.
We had been developing an online learning platform called Everest. It’s tailor-made to link up to our school management system. Through it, students were already receiving homework, parents already had an app on their phone, so they could see things like attendance, behaviour, homework being submitted.
And we had also started off with Microsoft Teams, that nobody had heard of at the start of the year. This was part of our whole-school improvement drive.
I really believe we can have a world-class education system at John Gray and that John Gray can be a world-class school, and we are moving towards that. This was one big advance. I had one dedicated member of our senior leadership team working on online technology for learning, mostly so that students could work more effectively at home for homework, and graded coursework can be submitted for the older kids.
So we were in a good position, ahead of most schools I would say, at that stage, globally. But we quickly activated that plan, and we accelerated the use of all of those platforms.
— What did you do to adjust specifically to the COVID situation?
We came up with a strategy that links to some of that stuff that was coming up from the Ministry and Department of Education, but I needed it to be something very specific for my kids and my parents and our staff to hold onto. So we came up with a clear five-part strategy.
The first part was about ‘connectivity’ — connectivity of any kind, because we were managing a pandemic. We didn’t know how bad this was going to be initially, in the first couple of days.
So the first thing, from a health and safety point of view, was that every kid gets connected, so we know where a kid is quickly, early and the teachers have connected with them. You know, I didn’t care whether the staff did that through the Microsoft Teams platform, through Zoom, through WhatsApp, through whatever it took initially.
The teachers, I think, and the families appreciated that. So it meant we could get into that straight away. The first step is connectivity.
Now, over time we had to look at many other challenges we were working up through March toward — which were things like closing the disadvantage gap: trying to make sure that every kid had internet at home, kids have a workable laptop or something that they could use.
It’s almost, like, an embarrassment thing when you survey kids. No one’s going to tell you they haven’t got Wi-Fi at home. No one’s going to say they haven’t got something to work on. But sharing a smartphone with 3 or 4 people is difficult.
We were also asked to prepare paper resources. To be fair, at the high school it was very difficult for us. We didn’t know what the situation was about paper, and moving it back and forward — and for a school of our size, we didn’t want to be responsible for being a ‘superspreader’ across our community at that time.
So although some parents wanted paper resources, I was quite adamant that we weren’t actually going to give that to them at the start. We were going to force that connectivity.
Some parents said, “Look we just haven’t got online resources at home.” I said, “Well with respect to your Facebook and so-and-so connected to us, I know it is difficult but we just need you to give that phone to your child for an hour a day to start off with, until we can sort something else out.”
So we got that connection very quickly, with well over 90% of our kids.
No child left behind
So then the second stage of the strategy was ‘no child left behind’. And that really was just again, simple, we’ve got the connection in place. Now we start to move everything to a more unified platform in Microsoft Teams, but then it was making sure no one was left behind.
If I had one wish — and I did ask everybody I possibly could — the one wish that I need for the school is to have island-wide internet, free internet.
And we had some people who came out of the woodwork and supported us. We had some people that made some private donations, sponsors. We had the Ministry working hard to get us Wi-Fi units, plug-in units, Mi-Fi boxes, which we distributed.
But actually just island-wide Wi-Fi would have covered that. I think the phone companies get a great deal out of this island, and it would have worked incredibly well to do that.
So we worked that out. We tied that in with our free meals. So we were spending our time out in the bus quite quickly, going to kids who are highly vulnerable, who still needed feeding.
We worked with Feed Our Future and the counselors, along with a very limited team of my senior staff, where we’d go out in the community and ask them to meet at locations like the football stadium opposite Popeyes in the centre of George Town or next to Foster’s Republic down in West Bay, and asked people to come there to collect food vouchers.
It tended to be the same kids that also needed IT provisions, so we could then issue new laptops for them at the same time. We got that coverage up to around 98% within a couple of weeks.
All of these stages are kind of ongoing … you’d have kids drop off of connectivity, and there’d be times when the primary schools came on, much later than us, we noticed that one laptop was all of a sudden needed to be used by 2 or 3 kids in the same family, and then it was a whole new set of problems.
We created a dedicated help line. We needed a one-point stop for problems. There was a direct email and phone number that they could then log their IT issue.
It could just be a password reset. It could be something more serious, like desperately needing a laptop. So we had a team of IT professionals from the Ministry and my senior members of staff, and anybody else that could just take those issues and solve them.
In the first 3 weeks we saw over 600 potential issues, and we just worked through those. It was just challenges, and we were relentless with that, because again the first priority of the strategy was connectivity — not just for learning at that stage, it was more health and safety. We needed to know where the kids were. We needed to know they were safe and they were fed. All the teachers needed to touch base with them on a daily basis.
No teacher left behind
The third stage was ‘no teacher left behind’. Although we made these advances, not every member of our staff was fully competent on delivering online lessons. So we spent as much time as we could on getting everybody up to speed on that.
We saw huge, huge advances from our teachers. It was nice to use for us sharing within the schools — so if staff found a new way of taking a register in an online thing, or a new way of adding an element of security or bringing in a new whiteboard tool into Microsoft Teams or Zoom — they’d be doing that and sharing it. We managed to get all the staff to a level where we could really deliver things.
We had some meetings with parents very quickly online, so they understood what we were expecting them to do. I set a target for our teachers to try and deliver 50% of our lessons online, which in my opinion worked really really well. I know it was a real challenge.
Some of the private schools were actually doing their timetable from the start of the day to the end of the day online. There are several reasons for that and I’m not disputing that. There were reasons for that, but with us, quite often our kids were sharing resources, so it wasn’t just a private-public issue.
Visible online learning
The fourth stage was linked to our whole-school improvement: visible learning, ‘visible online learning’. What i needed to see now that we’ve got the ‘connectivity’, we’ve got ‘no child left behind’ or very few left behind, and ‘no teacher left behind’, now it was ‘visible online learning’.
Again this links to this John Hattie stuff that we’ve been doing in the school anyway, that everything has an impact, everything that you do has to have an impact. If we’re going to do the live lessons, it has to have an impact. If a parent did say, “Where was the purpose in this and are they learning?”
We were very aware that quite often the kids were having an English class, but their parents were hovering around, which was great. And they need to be very clear on what the learning was, if they dipped in and asked, “What are you learning today?” We need to be clear to the kids how they can be successful with online learning.
Then there was also stuff set on Everest, so it was that balance. The minimum of 50% of online lessons as a target for our teachers was good because if you had a surname like me that begins with ‘C’, you didn’t have a weekend to do the shopping. You had to go on a weekday.
And you know at that time it might take you 3 or 4 hours to get through Foster’s or Hurley’s. I needed staff to be able to organise their day, to organise their own kids, and to have that balance and flexibility.
If you had 5 English lessons for a particular class, you could mix them up. If you decided you wanted to top-load that 50% to give you Friday free, you’re still available and were answering things on the phone if you need to. You need to take care of your family business on a Friday, that’s what works.
In fact the teachers moved up far more than 50% because once they got their teeth into it they realised how much impact it was having and it was great. So that was the fourth point of our strategy.
I said to parents, because there were so many concerns, that “Your best will be good enough.” And we kept saying the circumstances are so, so different, and so this wasn’t a time for having truancy referrals.
If your kid wasn’t in the lesson, it was just about us understanding and trying to investigate there. If the kid was missing for a couple of lessons, then that might just trigger us to, if we couldn’t visit personally, we could tap into a neighbour or phone somebody who could knock on the door, and do whatever we needed to do just to check whether the kid, whether everything was OK.
I think we built a lot of trust through that, and I think the parents really appreciated that.
I’m not saying there weren’t issues, but we still had this helpdesk all the way through. And as I said, there was a notable difference when some of the other primary schools came online, sort of 5, 6 weeks into it. All of a sudden really burst in, probably linked a little bit to the online inspection that was triggered. There were a lot more live lessons that came online, so we had a whole new wave of issues there, where we realised families had a computer, but it was being shared quite heavily with mom working remotely, kid in John Gray and maybe a couple of kids at Red Bay or George Town or John A Cumber.
— Yes, my phone got a whole lot of time on SeeSaw during the lockdown.
SeeSaw is one of those that have been adopted now across the system, along with things that worked well. Which kind of comes to my fifth point, the final point of the strategy.
Coming back better, stronger and smarter
We had ‘connectivity’. We had ‘no child left behind’. We had ‘no teacher left behind’. We had ‘visible online learning’. The fifth bit of that was ‘coming back better, stronger and smarter’ than we did before.
The reason for that was twofold really. One, I think most people realised this was a bit of an eye opener and it was almost a chance to reset for families. However stressful it was, it was a chance to remember what’s important in life. We didn’t want to lose that.
Also from an education point of view, we wanted to make sure we learned as much as we could from this experience. I’ll give you some examples of that.
In terms of staff professional development, we could have run courses for 3 years and we could have never got our staff to where they were within 3-4 weeks of this lockdown. It really was necessity being the mother of all invention.
It just absolutely drove school improvement, the connectivity and the productivity of our staff, in many areas. Meetings, on Microsoft Teams or more public meetings we had on Zoom, were really effective.
Some of the stuff makes the balance between work and their family lives much, much better — than sitting in traffic, coming from somewhere to come in and do that. They actually had some quality time with their family as well.
There were things that we learnt that we know that we now can do better back in the school. We’ve given out 165 laptops, I think, in the end. About that time, that’s about 16-17% of the school population.
One of the ‘coming back better, stronger, smarter’ things is we’re now working toward one-to-one units for every single kid in school. Hopefully by October, Christmas probably at the latest, that will have been done, through the Ministry’s work and private investors as well. My IT team have done a phenomenal job, and the Ministry’s IT team have done a phenomenal job.
— How have the students adjusted to the school’s shift in strategy and technology?
We now have kids that can organise their whole timetables and life sitting on Microsoft. And they’ve all got a professional email address. They’ve all got online access to the Microsoft suite of software. They can now post homework online. They can now receive homework online. This school, the kids, and the staff have just accelerated so much.
We’ve done a lot of work in improving behaviour in John Gray. When I first came, the reputation of the school really was ‘poor behaviour’. But when I got down to it, it was really 2% of the kids who were having some behaviour challenges, when you looked at the data — properly looked at the data.
You had some extreme cases, without a doubt, who just had to be removed from the school. But 2% against 97.5% bad behaviour cases. So we changed our focus to talking about ‘attitude to learning’ and trying to make the core business of the school, learning.
It wasn’t about stopping bad behaviour; it was about getting to our core business, which was learning.
The only way I could really get this across to the kids and teachers was to talk about Burger King.
I said, “The main business of Burger King is them selling you burgers, shakes and fries. That is it. That is it. That’s their core business.
“We’re not selling burgers, shakes and fries in this school. We must keep to the main thing. The main thing is learning.”
By focussing on students developing their attitude to learning, it didn’t matter if you were the kid that had the reading age of 4 or 5 in the school, or a kid that was destined for an overseas university, who was a high flyer, who was just as good a kid as you get anywhere around the world — your attitude could be measured. We could see that.
Rather than seeing the old behaviour and effort, we could see the attitude, and we could get really clear criteria for what that attitude to learning really looked like.
It also meant that some of the top kids in the school, in my opinion, were coasting, when I looked at the school with fresh eyes. You know they were good, but they were comfortable. They were big fish in a small pond. They were quite comfortable that there was going to be a scholarship available for them.
They were top of their family. They were top of tests, top of class, all the way through primary school, high school — but their aspirations were quite low, and their work ethic needed work.
So we made our top tier of the attitude of learning very much about independence, about asking more questions than the teacher asks in class. Critical thinking, going above and beyond because you are passionate about a subject.
To get our highest grade in attitude to learning was a different level of learning. This wasn’t about ‘compliance’ and sitting quietly, which was fine, and you’d get a grade 2 for that.
We managed to translate that into the digital situation, so we had a digital attitude to learning. It was difficult for the kids to acknowledge that, but over time we wanted them to understand what it meant to be a good learner digitally because, I don’t know what the figures are, but many, many people do online degrees. Many, many people study online.
It’s something of this modern era. What we’ve actually got is kids who are now able, they have got a springboard there for later in life to study that way.
It’s a new world, and for the kids, in a way, it was a nice reset for the children as well. I mean this in the best possible way.
To a certain extent adults had begun to sort of demonise technology for kids. It tended to be a distraction to education in the past.
“Oh, they’re gaming now. Oh they’re on their phone and they’re using TikTok or whatever it is, whatever the latest thing is.” It was always in opposition to learning.
Now what COVID’s done, is it’s brought technology back to the good side of technology, to see what a powerful tool for education it has become. You see, in what were previously labelled ‘third-world countries’, how putting a laptop in a community can just completely transform people.
But you have put those pieces of the jigsaw in place. It’s the same with that one-to-one with laptops. That’s coming from the Ministry and it’s great, but that is not going to be a panacea. It’s how teachers adapt their learning to it.
We don’t want kids in front of the screen all day, which was the other reason for us setting the goal of 50% lessons online. The kids need to get that work-life balance right, and it’s the quality of work that makes an impact.
The days of just sending a kid a worksheet, in my opinion, are long long gone. Because you haven’t got that visible learning. You’re not seeing what technology can do.
Do we want to go back to teachers marking work backward and forward? No.
This year we’ve said already we’re not sending paper backward and forward with homework, just out of habit. We’ve got the technology now. Kids have got that at home.
Maybe now and again there’ll be a kid that can’t make that change, but we’ll sort something out for them.
Let’s submit homework online. Let’s have them sit there with their knees up on the sofa if they really want to, or at a quiet desk space if they need to use it to concentrate on a piece of work.
There are a lot of those ‘coming back better, stronger, smarter’ things that the staff are really working toward, and the kids are working towards. We want the children to take more ownership of their learning, and this is something Hattie would have talked about probably. It’s a massive thing.
You don’t want a kid doing homework because they’ve got a teacher with a metaphorical big stick over their heads saying, “This is my homework. You need to hand it in to me.”
It’s their homework. It’s their piece of work. We all need to take pride and be independent. And that’s been a great shift for us, that the vast majority of kids are becoming more responsible.