Clifton Hunter’s new principal wants new mindset

Richard Wildman is the new principal at Clifton Hunter High School. - Photo: Mark Muckenfuss

Richard Wildman is big on Visible Learning.

The new principal of Clifton Hunter High School is promoting the 10‑year-old strategy for improving classroom teaching and is determined to implement it at his new campus, much as he did at John Gray High School.

Wildman served as the deputy principal at John Gray for four years, following 11 years of being in charge of teaching, learning and assessment at the school. While there, he saw the value of educator John Hattie’s Visible Learning programme, introduced in 2009 via Hattie’s book of the same name.

The idea of the teaching approach is that instructors must set specific goals for students, regularly analyse whether or not those goals are being attained and adjust their teaching methods accordingly.

Wildman said Cayman schools need to focus on data-driven assessments to determine what students are learning and how best to meet their needs.

Given that, you might expect Wildman to be a number cruncher who spends hours cloistered in his office analysing tables and spreadsheets.

But each morning, he’s out in front of the school, greeting students as they get off the buses and asking them about their studies.

“I say, ‘Good morning’, ‘How are you?’ I’m attaching their faces to a name,” he said.

He’s hoping in time to learn most, if not all of them, he said, adding that it’s important for teachers and administrators to engage with the students.

“It makes them feel important to know that the principal knows them,” he said.

It’s just one aspect of what he calls a world-class ethos, something he plans to infuse Clifton Hunter with. That and world-class outcomes, he said, combine to provide a world-class education.

Given that the school’s performance was judged to be weak by inspectors from the Office of Educational Standards twice in the past year, such goals might seem immediately unrealistic. But Wildman claims most, if not all, of the tools are on hand to make it happen.

“It’s here,” he said of the ethos. “We just need to get it integrated into everything. Schools grow. This is just the next step in that growth.”

He knows from experience what it takes, he said.

“John Gray has been on this journey,” he said. “I’ve done the journey already.”

When he has the programme established at Clifton Hunter, Wildman said, the two schools will be the first Visible Learning schools in the Caribbean region. But before he can change what’s happening in the classroom, he said, he will have to change the way students and teachers think.

“The greatest challenge of any change is mindset,” he said. “One of the revolutionary things we’re doing is a focus on attitude. We say to students, ‘It’s not enough just to come to class.’”

They need to come prepared to learn, he said.

“We talk about owning your learning,” he said. “The biggest challenge is to get students to believe they can learn anything. We’re going to give them the tools [to feel] ‘I can learn algebra.”

For some, that will involve such things as special preparations for lessons, pulling students out of the classroom when they need additional help and providing resources students can use at home.

He’s also pushing a greater emphasis on the school-based assessment portion of the CXC and GCSE exams students take at the end of Year 11, as a way to improve test performance.

For teachers, Wildman said, there will be regular support from administrators.

“One of the things we are doing now is walkthroughs,” he said.

He checks to see that learning goals are specifically stated, that students are receiving feedback, that there is clarity and well-defined next steps, and that there is a way to evaluate the impact of the lesson.

“We go back and have a conversation” with the instructor, he said. “We determine where we need to improve.”

Wildman has spent most of his education career in Cayman. A Jamaican by birth, he first studied at the University of the West Indies before earning a master’s degree at the University of Liverpool. He later earned a doctorate through an online programme with Walden College in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

He taught briefly in Jamaica and Turks and Caicos before coming to Cayman in 2004, one week before Hurricane Ivan arrived.

“It was an interesting welcome,” he said.

Some might have jumped ship, but Wildman stayed. He spent all of the intervening years at John Gray.

He’s still adjusting to being a first-time principal.

“When the buck stops with you, it’s a greater sense of responsibility,” he said. “I make it my duty to empower people. On the ground, it’s not about the principal, it’s about the team.”