Seven Habits of a Highly Effective School

(Based on “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R Covey)

A Year In Reflection

As we begin Term 3, I reflect on my last 12 months at the College as I began here approximately a year ago.

It feels like only yesterday, all the ‘Meet and Greet’ and ‘Welcome functions’ where I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the school community. The first six months were filled with learning, with wonder, with meeting every single staff team across the College, as well as groups of parents and of course all our students.

Over the course of a few quiet weeks in the Summer, I documented my own professional manifesto as the Principal of the College. I view my role as Principal to drive continuous school improvement, progress and change; to ensure that everything we do, and all the offerings across the College truly reflect best practice. I documented my thoughts, feedback and observations into a plan, which I dubbed the School Improvement Plan (SIP). It is based on our Essence of ‘Belonging’ and creating a ‘Culture of Care’, which in turn informs our Purpose ‘creating deeply connected children who have a sense of belonging and purpose, who thrive and grow and learn, and achieve their potential’. This in turn shapes our Vision, creating a ‘learning environment that empowers each child to achieve personal excellence; focussed on meaning and making a positive contribution to society, informed by the richness of our Jewish heritage’.  That is our Essence, our Purpose, our Vision, and our goals, and it is important to revisit and refocus ourselves of that regularly.

The Seven Habits:

Real Change – Inside Out

Over the course of this school holidays, I had a chance to revisit the SIP. I also revisited an all-time favourite of mine, Stephen Covey’s ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’.  He believes, if you want to create lasting, meaningful change, you can just learn a few tips and tricks and techniques. To improve relationships and make real change, you build your character ‘inside out’. By becoming a more positive person, those relationships around you will automatically improve. 

Changing our Paradigm

Covey speaks about shifting our paradigm, our perspectives and ideas through which we view the world. Our paradigm actually shapes how we experience the world. He uses the example of a tourist who is lost in a foreign city, a person with a negative paradigm will view it as a frustrating and disappointing waste of time, a person with a positive paradigm may view being lost in the city as a unique opportunity to see the off-the-beaten-track attractions, an unexpected adventure. 

Coronavirus has had an undeniably colossal negative impact on society and our world, with hundreds of thousands of deaths, and a profound impact on each of us individually, on our families, and on our work life. However, the way in which we view those impacts and the paradigm through which we view them, is what shapes our experience. At Moriah I am proud to say the educators, students, and the parent body have adopted an exceedingly constructive and positive paradigm through which to view the Corona impact on learning. We have utilised the imposed impact as a catalyst for one of the most exponential growth opportunities I have ever experienced in education. It has been a true pleasure to witness educators and students explore and grow together in unprecedented ways, with novel avenues and modalities of learning.

Covey tells the story of when he walked into a quiet subway car on the way home from work, people were dozing, reading or just listening to music. In walks a father with a rowdy, out of control, group of kids. They were eating and making a mess, touching things, fighting and shouting at each other, and creating general chaos. Covey, irritated, walked over to the father and said, “why don’t you do something about your kids?” The father responded, “I would, but you see their mother passed away just an hour ago, we are all in shock, and I don’t have it in me to do anything right now.” His paradigm of irritation shifted to one of profound compassion and wanting to help. The experience illustrates our ability to choose the paradigm though which to view and experience the world.

I would like to share the inspiration of Covey’s ‘Seven Habits’ in a school community setting:

Habit 1: Be Proactive

I remember one of my very first teacher educators when I was studying in Bar Ilan University. He taught me that a teacher is a walking sevivah a walking environment; a teacher chooses the weather in their own classroom; we choose the environment in which we are going to live and work, in our home or in our office. If we are proactive, we can take control. Reactive people often say things like, ‘it’s not my fault’, ‘it’s out of my control’.  They often attribute blame for things that occur to an external cause or locus of control. Proactive people use phrases such as ‘I have decided’, ‘let’s try to find a solution to this problem’. 

Covey introduces the famous ‘circle of influence’ and the outer circle, the ‘circle of concern’. 

Our job is to increase the ‘circle of influence’ so the differential between the two circles shrink. He suggests trying a 30-day proactivity challenge, not blaming others or an external cause, avoid reacting, rather focus on consciously taking responsibility and finding solutions. After 30 days of practising proactivity we will find that our proactivity will become a habit and will flourish.

Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind

Whenever we perform an action of importance, whether it is sitting an exam, participating in a sports event, teaching a unit of study, or doing a craft activity, speaking in public or designing, building or doing anything of significance, we do it twice. The first time we do it in our mind, in our imagination, the second time we do it in reality. The first time is the plan, the second time is the action. If we go through life with a plan, our activities are focussed on what is important. The absence of a plan or the imaginary experience results in our activities lacking focus. Covey talks about creating a ‘Personal Mission Statement’. He suggests imagining you are standing at your own funeral, several years from now, surrounded by loved ones, how would you like to be remembered? Then turn the clock back to today and take the time to write a ‘personal mission statement’ aligned with what you want to be remembered for. Refine and revisit your mission statement, so it is focussed and resonates deeply with you.

Habit 3: First things first

Living your mission statement day in day out. Years ago, I was obsessed with time management literature and techniques, and I went through rigorous prioritising activities and list making. I realised that we often get confused between being efficient and being effective. Sometimes we can be super-efficient, but are we doing the right thing? Are we even going in the right direction? Are these exercises efficient, or is this dieting efficient, or are these efficient habits at work or home actually meeting our needs? We need to focus on what’s important, on what is effective, rather than just being efficient. Covey introduced us to the famous four quadrants – the Important and the Urgent grid.

The important and urgent gets done because they are crises; the second quadrant, the important but not urgent, these are the things that appear in our ‘personal mission statement’, these are our key relationships, these are the things we need to focus on. In the bottom quadrants are to delegate and eliminate from our lives. Our real challenge is to prioritise the important non-urgent by ‘putting first things first’.

Habit 4: Think win/win

When we have a disagreement with anyone and we think win/lose, if we are engaging with the person who also thinks win/lose, the result is automatically lose/lose. If you ever try to win more than the other party, you may win this argument or interaction, but you have damaged the longer-term meaningful relationship, a lose/lose. Rather, if we think about the needs and wants of others, and we walk into the situation aiming to achieve a win for all, trust rises, creative solutions come to the fore and we have strengthened the relationship between us. Often, we find as parents or teachers, if our children are into contemporary things that we may not particularly enjoy, be it sport, music, or TikTok, if we want to be able to effectively parent/guide them, (and sometimes parenting requires us to redirect them and to say ‘no’, to set limits, to show them that we actually care about them), then we need to deposit into their emotional bank account. We need to enter their world. Show them we understand what they enjoy, achieve a win/win with them, and then we will be able to redirect them in a more effective manner.

Habit 5: Seek first to understand, and then to be understood

Covey illustrates this in an amusing manner: if you walk into a doctor’s office and start to describe your particular ailment or how you are not feeling well, just to be rudely interrupted by the doctor saying, “I’ve heard enough, here is a prescription,” or if you go for an optometrist appointment because you can’t see clearly, and the optometrist sees you, interrupts you and says, “Here, take my glasses, they work for me, they should work for you,” then you probably won’t be going back to that doctor or optometrist. Nor will you take the prescription or the optometrist’s glasses. How often do we half listen to others and jump to prescribe a solution, or project from our own experiences and perspective onto them? If we find ourselves listening so we can provide an answer, we are not really listening. True listening has only one goal, to fully understand the person in front of me.  To appreciate the words they are saying, which makes up only about 10% of the communications, to hear their voice, tone and intonation, which makes up another 30% of their communication and to notice and read their body language, which can make up to about 60% of their communication. True listening aims to understand their emotions and their needs. If we listen to understand, then people will trust us, we will build deeper relationships and then when we talk, people will truly appreciate what we have to say. If anyone ever says, ‘no one ever listens to me’, perhaps they need to look in a mirror.

Habit 6: Synergise

This is a very important and powerful habit here at Moriah, creating synergy. Synergy is the true power and culture of our organisation. It’s actually quite simple, its: 1 + 1 = 3. When each and every member of our school community, educators, students, staff members and parents, build relationships of high trust and proactivity with each other; when we collaborate, and grow together, then each and every single relationship is an equation of 1 + 1 = 3. We exponentially increase the effectiveness and enjoyment of the teaching and learning process; morale goes up, and the impact of the school environment on everyone therein is profound.

Covey speaks of David Lilienthal, who was the Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission post World War II. He chaired a group of powerful people, including politicians, scientists, public policy influencers and war heroes. He realised that they each came with their own perspectives and agendas. Before they could collaboratively and constructively work together, he spent a couple of weeks on trust building activities, allowing them to get to know each other, and build relationships. Many accused him of wasting their time, but after those few weeks, after trust had been established, they were able to engage in robust discussion, to disagree and present different points of views, whilst engaged in a genuine effort to understand each other in a respectful, productive and creative environment. In other words, they synergised. Sports teams synergise to succeed. If a basketball player hogs the ball, even if she/he is playing really well, but doesn’t synergise together with their teammates, it will cost them the game, and may even cost them their team. 

The true richness of synergy in a team is when people come with different perspective and opinions and discuss them in an open, high trust, respectful environment. The product is a much deeper, richer and more creative outcome rather than everyone thinking along the same lines, and just agreeing with each other.

Habit 7: Sharpen the saw

Covey presents the parable of the lumberjacks whose profit and productivity is correlated with how many trees they fell. If they just continue sawing more and more trees, very soon their instruments will become blunt and they will be less effective and less efficient. The gains they made will be short-lived. How many of us find ourselves working until we are exhausted or burnt out? Often, when you talk about people looking after themselves, they say ‘I wish I had time’, those are the exact people that need it the most!

There are four key areas in which we need to sharpen the saw; physical, spiritual, mental and social/emotional

PhysicalEnsuring we have enough sleep. Michael Carr-Gregg in his presentation to the P&F recommended Michael Mosley’s book ‘Fast Asleep’ about how powerful and influential sleep is on our overall health and wellbeing. Ensuring that we eat healthily, as they say, “make sure you only eat things that your grandmother would call food.” Getting adequate exercise, sunlight and fresh air. That’s sharpening our physical saw.

Spiritual: If a person is religiously connected, obviously connecting with their religious practices, study and prayer nurtures the soul. Today, even people that are not overly religiously connected can nurture their spirituality by practising meditation, gratitude, or mindfulness. Even smartwatches remind you to stop and breathe. Even simply approaching the world around us with curiosity, nurtures our spiritual selves.

Mentally:  Schools are a ‘community of learners’. Being a learner ourselves is critical for us to be able to influence our children. There is a direct inverse correlation between the amount of time a person spends in front of a screen and the amount of mental stimulation and learning that actually takes place. Reading more books, writing, thinking, pursuing areas of interest or passion, that may not even be within our professional areas, all sharpen our mental saw.

The final area of sharpening the saw, is the Social/Emotional – seeking to understand and connect with others and working together to improve our lives. When I first moved to Victoria, the coffee culture struck me as odd. However, I learned to appreciate and understand it. Consciously making time to nurture and invest in friendships over coffee, is a fabulous idea. 

Ultimately, these four ‘sharpening the saw habits’ are so important, and people who can’t find the time, usually need it the most. If we pick one item in each of the four areas, physical, spiritual, mental, social/emotional to strive in each week, we will succeed at sharpening our saw. 

In conclusion, these 7 habits can be embedded in our lives and change our paradigm, inside out, as they become habits. The impact they have on us will in turn impact our loved ones, our children, our spouses and partners, our friends, our students and our teachers as we create a synergy, a ‘culture of care’, and a deep sense of ‘belonging’ across the College, fostering success for each and every single child.

Looking forward to a term of collective and individual growth and success.


Copy of Copy of Untitled (20)About the Author

Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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