Thursday, 12 October 2017

Lorraine Young's Story

The path to principal
Lorraine’s first principalship was a promotion within the Open Access College. She won a promotion from assistant principal to principal of the R-12 School of the Air. Over time, she came to realise that transitioning to the principalship in this way meant that she did not make a conscious effort to establish herself as a leader in the new role. She realised that she did not make sufficient effort to relate to staff and parents in a different way. Staff continued to relate to her in the old way and social interactions were, in fact different. 

Everything shifts and a new principal needs to make the role her own not just follow in the footsteps of her predecessor or extend her previous leadership behaviour.

Growing in the job
When Lorraine won a principal’s job in the State's southeast, part of her preparation was reflecting on how she had undertaken her first principalship and what she wanted to improve. She decided that she wanted to be more definitive from the beginning about what she wanted to achieve. This extended from an overall vision, to her interactions with people, to what she expected of them and of herself.

The school had had stable, mature leadership for 20 years. She wanted to think carefully what she could bring to the school. She wanted to articulate her vision. She understood by now the fine line between having a vision and bringing people with you. She held interviews with all staff about what they thought and factored in appropriate aspects gleaned through the process. It was a very established small school. People loved being there but societal needs were changing and the school also needed to change.

Excitement and Greatest Achievement!
What excited Lorraine was the potential for young people. The kids were fantastic. The school had a strong academic focus and yet there were some students less well catered for. There was a quaint cottage on the school grounds that the school was in the process of selling. After talking to the school community and DECS, Lorraine stopped the sale and with the help of keen staff and community members, set up a Food and Hospitality course, converting the cottage into a restaurant that operated one day a week. The school also had a vineyard and a struggling viticulture course. This was a base to be built on.

It had a knock-on effect. The community valued the academic emphasis of the school, but this added dimension allowed kids who needed something else to stay at school beyond compulsion and pursue credible alternatives. The course gave the students skills and confidence that often resulted in employment within the local community. It could be linked to other  schools in the District and serve them as well.  Eventually both the viticulture and food and hospitality courseattracted a range of state VET Awards.

Seeing kids succeed is what gave Lorraine her satisfaction.

Challenging times
School buses were an ongoing challenge. One route in particular attracted complaints and eventually a question in Parliament. The driver, when he believed kids were misbehaving, would pull the bus over, call Lorraine and she would drive to the bus and supervise the rest of the route. She had issues with the driver’s conduct and requested that DECD not renew the contract. Despite concerns this did not happen. In the end the matter was resolved by installing video cameras in the bus after consultation and agreement with parents and the Education Department. Getting support was not easy but good documentation and continual consultation was the key. Lorraine would review the footage each day. This reduced the issue and made it manageable.

Another of the school buses travelled across the State border into Victoria. On one occasion there was a bushfire on the Victorian side of the border. Lorraine and the primary school principal discussed the bus journey with the Victorian State Emergency Services whose advice was that the bus route was OK, so Lorraine approved its departure. It was not OK and the driver took the bus through a fire zone. There were, understandably, parental complaints. In these circumstances information is everything and you need very, very good information services. 

Fire information services have improved but principals still need to exercise extreme caution. After the fire incident the school developed and ran their own training course for bus drivers. Through experience Lorraine learned the need for initial and ongoing training for bus drivers is a critical factor in successfully managing school buses.

Another challenge was managing the poor performance of a newly appointed,inexperienced teacher. While there were teachers at the school whose performance was at times marginal and needed encouragement, management and training to meet expectations, the school had not, in living memory, known a teacher who was unsuited to teaching and did not appear to have the capacity to perform. Managing the process of supporting the teacher to improve, supervising, documenting, and finally having their services terminated, was difficult, time-consuming and stressful. DECS provided central support however managing the process day to day was extremely frustrating and took a toll on Lorraine and the staff support person.

Colleagues were Lorraine’s prime support. The Open Access College had many internal support mechanisms because of its size and unique delivery demands. The southeast school was small. Lorraine was the first new principal in the district for a long time, there were not many small local secondary schools and she was the school’s first female principal. It was not easy to find people who understood her situation.

In the case of the poorly performing teacher, the regional director was very helpful and supportive. Amongst other things, he organised observational visits for the teacher. The local AEU branch, particularly the area organiser, was helpful. A colleague who had dealt with a similar case in another school helped her to remain strong through the process. 

Throughout the process, Lorraine attended to the needs of the affected students and parents, but not so much to staff. When the teacher left the school staff morale was at a low ebb so Lorraine organised monthly staff meetings at a local winery to build staff connections, confidence and relationships.

Advice and Comments
The greatest challenges are personnel-related. Identifying people who can help is itself challenging. In small schools single teacher faculties make it hard to surround teachers with appropriate support. You need to identify people who have lived it and can help.
You need strong and extensive networks linked to your context and be able to work those networks to find the human resources that you need for yourself and for the school community, particularly staff. 

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