Saturday, 2 December 2017
The path to principal
Yvonne had been a deputy principal for ten years at a very good school with a good principal who told her that she should think about becoming a principal. It had never entered her thoughts until then! She was offered a place in the country but didn’t take it because she didn’t want to spend weekends at home and a week away from home.
Later a country high school on the Adelaide Plains was advertised and she decided to apply for it with the help of an experienced principal who mentored his staff wonderfully well. Yvonne tried to emulate him when she became a principal. When she began her principalship she considered it to be a perfect size high school with about four hundred students. Her first step was to get to know the staff and to learn who the playmakers were, the key people - the important thing being to get them on side. She spent a lot of time visiting classrooms so that teachers and students got to know who she was and what she was doing there. She found it an easier school after her two previous appointments in high schools of 1600 students. People were open to change. This was unusual at the time and so she was able to change quite a lot. On reflection Yvonne believed that the hardest thing to change in any school was the culture. In comparison she found structural change was easy.
The key thing that she learned at her previous school as deputy principal was to manage many things at the same time. One of her tricks was to have three baskets – in basket, out basket and ‘don’t know what to do with it’ basket. After six months, if there were no reminders, the last one was filed under WPB – the waste paper basket.
Growing in the job
Communication was the key along with openness. She did not want to sit in an ivory tower, preferring to be in touch with staff and students and to teach. It wasn’t as easy in her next appointment but it was important at the time. She learnt that communication needed to be repeated - through staff meetings and minutes, noticeboards and newsletters. She still got questions, but that was fine. She just had to answer them, point people to the written word and keep going.
As mentioned, communication was of paramount importance. At one time she was asked to be a member of the Education Department’s Curriculum Committee and so asked the staff whether they thought she should accept, as it would mean time out of the school. They thought it would help the school so they encouraged her to go for it.
Yvonne believed that deputies were extremely important people in any school as they were the ones often in touch with areas that never come to the attention of the principal. Having a good relationship with her deputy created an opportunity to build a fantastic team. Teamwork was another key.
Yvonne describes herself as a person who loves people. From her perspective the kids were always interesting and staff were something else again. She could very quickly sense the 9.00am-3.30pm people, the white anters, the malcontents and those who would go the extra mile, giving 110%. However from her experience the vast majority of staff was marvellous. She needed to learn who her friends were. It was also very important to keep School Council well informed and on side.
She remembered that she had her 50th birthday at the school of her first principalship. The school had an assembly every morning and the deputy principal organised the whole school to sing happy birthday to her. Every class in the school made a birthday card in the shape of a bullet (Yvonne competed in the 1980 Olympic games for Australia as a shooter) and wrote lovely messages in them. The staff also made a giant card in the shape of a rifle and wrote cheeky messages on it. The Home Economics staff made 50 little cupcakes for morning tea and said that they hoped the next half century would be as good as the first! It was an unreal day. She reflected that for the whole school to do that said something about the community.
For 15 years Yvonne drove diesel Geminis. She always bought them second hand and whilst at her country high school she happened to trade in the then current one. Of course she drove it to school. She was always the last to leave and lock up the school. On the first day with her ‘new’ car she got to her car only to find it was totally draped in toilet paper. As the deputy principal had dobbed in the Year 11 girls she publicly thanked them for the car decorations. It was a wonderful community and she really enjoyed her time there.
One of her greatest achievements was developing an educational program that gave kids many more curriculum choices. It meant restructuring and involved a lot of survey work with parents, students and the community both before and after they implemented it - but it was worth it.
Five years before she retired Yvonne went as the overseeing principal to a cluster of schools undergoing restructure. Each school had its own principal. Her job was to convert one school into an adult re-entry, close another, amalgamate two and get the Aboriginal school to work more closely with its neighbouring high school. There were about 3200 students and 400 staff in total. It was quite a job!
The biggest challenge was initiating change when the majority of principals in the partner schools did not really want any change. They didn’t actively resist, but some did so passively. Over those five years she also had to deal with four unions, two Members of Parliament, two local Councils and the bureaucracy - all of whom felt that they had ownership of the project. It was a very big challenge but she took it on. Most of the things that the Education Department wanted, but not all things that others wanted were achieved. The main aim was to get the schools to cooperate more with each other and that was very tricky. There were opportunities for some students in outlying schools with limited senior school curriculum offerings to travel to other schools for senior studies. A Pathways Program for senior students was developed with local industry. Yvonne worked with the local Council and the Pathways Coordinator and managed to get students to participate in TAFE, work experience and the car industry as part of their educational coursework.
In those five years, through grants and other means, she obtained approximately $7 million for extra staff, projects and structural work. These were major achievements.
The biggest problem was gaining the support, cooperation and agreement of the partner school principals, as she had no real authority. Some had been there for a long time and didn’t really want change. Changing the culture was the hardest thing of all. It worked in some areas but not in others. Her office was based in the Aboriginal school and she developed a good relationship with the principal even though on some occasions she went from being “Aunty Yvonne” to “Mrs Hill”. At the time she scratched her head and wondered what she’d done knowing she was in trouble for something!
Her biggest regret was that this role took her away from close contact with teachers and students. She had some difficult dealings with the AEU, and wrote a letter to the President at one stage reminding him that she was a member of the Union too and didn’t appreciate being treated badly while other members got support.
After those five years she took early retirement. The Department made separation packages available to certain staff groups but she was offered an extra year in that position and then another school. She declined the extra year because her husband had been retired for four years and they wanted to travel.
Her husband and family were her greatest support as well as her secretary. Yvonne described her as amazing. Together they managed an Investment Syndicate of around $1 million for ten schools that included feeder primary schools. A couple of the principals also offered great support at the time. She also had good support from her District Superintendent.
Yvonne’s advice for beginning leaders includes expecting the unexpected, being flexible and adaptable, learning to recognise who your friends are and where the power lies within the organisation. She advised that often one might think the power is with them but sometimes it’s not! She stressed openness, communication and managing many things at the same time and always being available at the drop of a hat!
Thursday, 30 November 2017
The path to principal
Deane had been teaching for six years when he was appointed to Alyangula Area School on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. When the position was offered, he had no idea where it was. At the time Northern Territory (NT) schools were administered from South Australia (SA). His previous appointments were in country South Australia.
When Deane arrived at Alyangula, the school had just been reclassified from a rural school with three teachers and 90 primary students to an Area School. There were now 12 secondary students in years 8 to 10 and he was the only secondary teacher, responsible, along with his principal duties, for teaching all their subjects (including geography which he had not studied since he was in Year 7). He had one lesson non-contact time when the secondary students joined the year 6/7s for PE.
He had thought to bring with him one text book in each of the secondary school subjects. These were the only texts he and the students had when he arrived. A promised new school had yet to be built. The school buildings were two classrooms with a non-sound proof partition between them, the mining company house next door and a windowless but air-conditioned room in the adjoining bulk food store. He taught his class in a bedroom of the mining company house. The high teaching load, lack of any administrative support and oppressive heat in the early part of the year made this an extremely challenging, but ultimately rewarding time.
He was influenced by a gift from an uncle when he was 17 – a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Deane took its messages to heart and it guided much of his practice as a principal. It emphasised the importance of admitting and learning from mistakes, as well as respecting and empowering other people. His early experience, and his reading, helped him realise that sound and productive relationships were a necessary part of successful leadership. They were not sufficient to do the job well, but they were an essential foundation.
Following the transfer of responsibility of NT schools from SA to the Commonwealth Government, Deane was promoted to the position of principal of an Area School in the Eyre Peninsula.
Growing in the job
At Alyangula Deane learned to be creative; to think outside the square. By the time he left, the school had grown to 140 students and he was still teaching more than half time. He learned to delegate wisely – to use people’s strengths
, and once you are sure they can, trust them to deliver.
The new school was larger – reaching 400 by the time he left ten years later. A previous principal told Deane he had made the mistake of going in and changing a lot of things too quickly, meeting strong resistance from the community and staff. Deane learned that he needed to respect what was already in a school; it was there for a reason. If the principal charged off into the distance no one followed. While at this school, he involved parents, students and teachers in a process to set goals for the school. He further refined this when he went to his next school, a country high school, where, on his arrival, he set up a parent/teacher/student planning group. This group planned and held a meeting attended by about 160 parents, staff and students. The meeting involved speakers to broaden horizons and workshop activities. It resulted in a five-year plan agreed by the community. Achievements from this included building a community school gymnasium, major senior curriculum expansion and other significant changes. He kept the group going for his 18 years at the school, using it to monitor progress toward goals and plan similar activities.
He learned it was not hard to get agreement when he looked for common ground, respected people and treated them decently. If you don’t do this, you set yourself up to fail.
In each new school, Deane made getting to know School Councillors and the Parents & Friends Committee an early priority to develop and maintain open and respectful relationships, and to understand local concerns. He placed great importance on being open and transparent, involving them in all key decisions of interest to them, and making sure that communications to them were in plain English and not educational jargon. This often required him to summarise departmental missives in plain English (which was also of benefit to staff). They found the School Administrative System (EDSAS) monthly financial report for School Councils incomprehensible, so he supplemented it with a simple, easily understood translation.
Excitement and achievements
Deane’s greatest satisfaction came from making a positive difference in students’ lives. This still motivates him today in his role as a local government Councillor. His love of learning and an intellectual challenge is evident. He believes that both a principal and a local Councillor must quickly master information in areas they are not necessarily expert in, identifying the key components and being well enough informed to make wise decisions.
He cites the example of being both excited and affirmed when the Education Review Unit reviewed his school. Much of the feedback received from parents, staff and students affirmed what he believed in and he had been able to translate that into practice. The report resulted in only two very minor recommendations for change, suggesting that the school had identified and implemented what people expected. As principal he often wondered if he was doing as well as he thought he was, and it was affirming to get rigorous feedback.
He still loves to see what students achieve after they leave school, and finds it really satisfying to see students succeeding in their careers, knowing he contributed.
At his last school about 70% of staff generally supported the Australian Education Union (AEU) position on issues. When Partnerships 21 (P21), an Education Department program offering greater local management was introduced, it was opposed by the AEU. A member of staff who was on the AEU Executive strongly opposed the program, providing all the AEU literature and arguments to staff. Deane, also an AEU member, proposed the school embrace P21 if a majority of staff and a majority of School Council members supported the change. He then thoroughly researched what it would mean for the school, setting out the advantages and disadvantages in a series of papers to staff and School Council. These showed the school would be at least $100,000 better off annually, and he identified the benefit to staff and students arising from this. When the vote was held 100% of School Council and 75% of school staff supported it. This reinforced his belief that to accomplish change you need to do your homework. This will either convince people of the change or show you the change is not worth doing.
Another challenge came when the Area Director asked Deane to step in for two terms as principal in a school where the incumbent principal had taken stress leave and did not want to go back, because of conflict between militant unionists on the staff and the school administration. Deane visited the school on the principal’s second to last day and witnessed a toxic staff meeting, held in the library, which had low bookshelves dividing the room. One faction sat on one side of the barrier, and the opposing faction sat on the other, and they shouted at each other across it - about the school’s decision-making policy. He wondered what he was letting himself in for.
He didn’t, however, pull out but went home and wrote a letter to all staff, that gave some of his background, outlined the values he intended to operate under and how he intended to operate. He put this letter in all staff pigeonholes before school on the day he started, and received a lot of positive feedback from both factions on the content of the letter. He also wrote a couple of subsequent letters. He saw his task as being to work effectively with people of both factions and find common ground. He moved the staff meeting to a venue without the symbolism of division. He was able to establish respectful and effective relationships with both groups, and ease the tensions while a selection process was conducted for a new principal. The school continued to be a stressful place for principals, eventually resulting in the relocation of several staff.
Deane recalls phrases and ideas from his obviously extensive and continuous professional reading. One is “You can’t run on empty” from an article highlighting the importance of principals taking time for themselves. No matter how much he did, there was always more to be done. He had to learn to take time out. What he hadn’t done was rarely a problem. His wife was a great help in monitoring this and telling him when to ease off.
A book he found very useful was Leader Effectiveness Training (L.E.T) by Thomas Gordon, who also wrote a similar book for parents and one for teachers. Deane found applying Gordon’s principles and skills of effective relationships was very helpful in developing and maintaining a productive and supportive work environment.
He used trusted school colleagues to talk over sensitive issues. There were a few principals and departmental officers who acted as mentors and inspiration. In his remote first principal appointment, visits from superintendents and departmental advisers were particularly important and helpful.
• No matter how hard it seems at the time, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Things will get better. Identify what will make things better and work towards that.
• A principal doesn't have to do it all, but must make sure it all gets done. Be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses and identify those in others. Don't be afraid to delegate, and use others’ strengths to advantage.
• Admit your mistakes and when you don’t know. You don’t have to know it all and being a learner is the only way to improve. Schools are learning institutions, so lead by example. Admitting errors, apologising and fixing them are powerful ways to gain respect. Denying or covering up mistakes destroys respect instantly.
• Teach. Deane taught at least one class each of the 31 years he was a principal – and did it well. Spending time teaching students and having fun together kept him grounded, helping his sanity when dealing with difficult behaviour or other issues. It ensured he did not forget how hard teaching was and kept his feet firmly on the ground when discussing educational innovations. It helped give him credibility as a leader of a school.
• Value all the people you deal with, treat them decently, non-judgmentally and with respect. If you don’t do this, even your best innovations will be lame ducks, and people will be happy to see you fail. Praise people for what they have done – keeping the focus on the task rather than the person and let their work speak for itself.
• Give credit publicly where it is due. Never take credit for what someone else has done. This will destroy motivation and produce resentment quicker than almost anything. Even as principal, you can’t demand respect - you must earn it. Showing respect to others is an essential ingredient in receiving respect.
• Harness the power of many brains – encourage others to contribute ideas and build on these. Even if an idea seems unusable, don’t squash or ridicule it as this will dry up the flow of ideas. The amount of energy available in a school to achieve educational outcomes for students is not fixed. It is dependent on the enthusiasm, confidence, morale and commitment of everyone in the school. It is exciting and rewarding to learn how to release and harness this enormous store of energy. The extent to which a leader can do this is the greatest determiner of leadership success.
• Enable people to work together to achieve agreed outcomes. Principal, staff, parents and students all have a common purpose. It is worth articulating this purpose, sharing it and promoting working together as one team. This means respectful relationships with parent bodies, involving them in all key decisions and making sure that communications are in plain English.
• Keep to the moral high ground and never respond in anger. Learn to step back, listen, identify the problem, and allocate it where it belongs.
• Treasure the humorists on your staff. Humour increases enjoyment, reduces tension and improves productivity.
• In a new school, respect what has gone before and understand it before making changes. However, it is important to quickly establish what is non-negotiable for you and what your values are.
• Utilise a time management system that provides time for important but not urgent tasks - the workload of a principal is so high that it is easy to get bogged down in the everyday demands of the job and not have enough time for thinking about the big picture and strategic issues.
• To maximise success, bear down hard on the task, while respecting and meeting the needs of those involved in its achievement.
The path to principal
The pathway to the principalship was similar for Wal as it was for many principals of the era in that he moved through the ranks from teacher to senior to deputy and then to principal. However, the location of his appointments was somewhat different from most, in that as a young man, he headed to the Northern Territory (NT) for the opportunities and adventure that it provided. His first appointment to a school in the NT was in Alice Springs where he had responsibility for the oversight of the SSABSA process. This led to appointments as deputy and principal of several schools.
Being a senior in a small school with a close knit staff made Wal appreciate the importance of professional and interpersonal relationships. He developed a long held belief that valuing the individual, and encouraging the emergence of their confidence and contribution resulted in effectively capturing the potential for human capital. This belief was valid in the case of students, colleagues and supervisors.
His motivation to become a principal was based on his observation that some leaders he worked with seemed to be focussed on self-aggrandisement or ego. Their limited focus on interpersonal relationships and working with others to achieve desired outcomes did not bring out the best in people and, therefore, limited their effectiveness in developing students. As a people person he believed there was a better way.
Growing in the job
As Wal continued in leadership positions the Education Department recognised his capabilities and thrust him into increasingly demanding jobs. At one point he was “head-hunted” by the Chief Minister (previously the Education Minister) and told that he was required to become the CEO of the Northern Territory Work Health Authority for a year. Though he found it demanding because of his limited knowledge in the field, the skills he had developed as a principal such as negotiation, strategic planning, performance development, communication, forward thinking and developing effective working relationships stood him in good stead for his new role. It provided him with opportunities to work with government Ministers, CEO’s and Work Health inspectors and enabled him to further develop his interpersonal skills. After that year he was appointed as Deputy Secretary of Education with responsibilities of finance and corporate programs that included facilities and maintenance and new initiatives for the NT Education Department. When the Education CEO went on leave, Wal was appointed to that role. He returned to South Australia as principal of a very complex school with multiple foci including a TAFE on site where he drew on his wide variety of experiences to successfully provide leadership in the demanding position.
Wal appreciated being in a position that enabled him to make a positive difference for all students. He took pride in being able to leave a school in a better position than it was when he started. Being able to negotiate and set goals and use evidence to successfully confirm outcomes provided him with a great sense of achievement. Working with others to collectively plan, implement, analyse and measure outcomes was a driving force for Wal. Working with a wide range of people with a variety of skills, experiences, interests, efforts and commitment was both a challenge and rewarding, creating a real sense of delight when plans came together. Tapping the enthusiasm of new teachers, re-energising limited performers, guiding experienced and competent staff provided him with a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction. In particular the variety of roles he undertook provided him with opportunities to work with people from a wide range of positions from teachers, cabinet ministers and work health inspectors, as well as people from a very diverse range of Indigenous and international cultures. This was simultaneously exciting, interesting and challenging as the end result was always to improve services to students in the context of changing times and political matters.
Wal’s appointment as principal of a regional NT high school was political and based on the perception of poor standards at the school. Personnel from the recently built nearby airforce base had chosen not to send their children to the school and had lobbied the Commonwealth government to enable their children to attend more prestigious schools in larger cities in other states. At the time the school followed an eight day timetable structure which had staff support but did not suit the needs and the learning patterns of students. After restructuring the timetable and initially focussing on the Year 9 cohort, he was able to bring about significant improvements over a period of time. He ensured that the Year 9 students were taught by some of the most competent teachers who were able to develop positive relationships with them. The shortage of teachers in the NT resulted in extensive recruiting processes that sometimes meant unsuitable people taking up teaching positions. Wal implemented performance standards and encouraged some who were unsuited to teaching to pursue other avenues of employment. Within four years the school was achieving the best SSABSA results in the NT. Enrolments from children from the airforce base improved significantly as the school became more highly regarded. At strategic and corporate level he initiated the IT Education Business case to ensure connectivity of all schools (remote and urban) in the NT, which resulted in upgrades throughout the system. He also worked with a Senator to review the effectiveness of the delivery of education in Aboriginal communities, which culminated in the government report ‘Learning Lessons’.
Wal’s achievements were also the source of his greatest challenges. To increase the attendance of Aboriginal students was in itself a challenge. However it was the process of change and staff resistance that proved to be the most demanding. Many staff had not been expected to change their practices and had become rather set in their ways. Their resistance became a major impediment to improvement and had to be tackled. Wal met individually with those that were proving to be blockers to change and asked a number of focussing questions such as: what strategies do you use to support students with learning difficulties; how do you support Indigenous students; how do you use diagnostic testing to inform you of students’ learning outcomes; what data or evidence do you have that show you are making a difference with your students. This didn’t necessarily make him popular with some staff and working through these issues provided considerable challenges but the ultimate reward was noticeable improvement in the attendance and achievement data.
Wal found that most of the time he had to trust his own judgement based on evidence based research. Having a trusted colleague with greater experience who was a good operator was vital at times. This was not necessarily based on friendship but based on respect and trust built over time. For Wal, his mentors were his principal when he was a deputy and later his superintendent and the Education Minister.
It is important to get to know your staff, not just as teachers but as individuals with a range of interests, personal circumstances, skills and experiences. Focus on your students, community, teachers and the wider social and political environment. Take time to observe what is happening, how and why it is happening. Learn from those with whom you work and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know everything. Find a respected peer or mentor with whom you can discuss such situations. Support your initiatives with thorough research and relevant data.
Don’t “play games” with staff because they will quickly catch on to it and your credibility may be irretrievably lost.
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