Friday, 13 October 2017

Nick Hardie's Story

The path to principal
Nick was very fortunate in his first year as a principal because he went to a site with an adult re-entry program that was in its first year of operation. He was new and one of the deputy principals was new.  It was challenging but at the same time Nick had a real passion for adult re-entry and second chances and he thought that was obvious to the staff. 

The most important things right from the start were communication and decision-making. To Nick it seemed that processes within the school were not well structured. He began by ensuring that he was upfront and visible. He spoke about the importance of communication and what that means for the school, the students and staff and leadership. It was necessary to establish clear communication structures that everyone understood. During the first two days he ensured that staff were aware of his expectations but also had time to prepare for classes.

As the school had only just been established as an adult re-entry site there were no policies or procedures in place for this new environment.  Staff put forward ideas and views about communication, decision-making, curriculum and other priorities for the school. He took these on board and he put his views forward as well. Working parties were established to develop proposals. Regular staff and committee meetings were scheduled. Once these structures were in place other things became easier, but getting the structures and communication right was very important. He made sure that he attended SRC meetings.  He attended staff meetings but didn’t chair them. The agenda included a principal’s report so he could voice his views as a staff member, and the same with school council. He was seen as the principal but also as a contributing member of staff.  People could see that he cared about them and their needs. He pitched in to help with the daily chores when needed, loading the dishwasher and wiping down the sink if no-one else had done it.  He helped organise and attended staff events.

Other policies and procedures followed– enrolment, school fee structures, school card and so on. It all came together. The school was successful in providing a wide range of student outcomes and had a culture of cooperation and striving for excellence. He was very proud of the school and its staff. At the end of his five year tenure he was happy to stay on but other jobs he was interested in came up and he was lucky enough to win one.  In the coming years he was invited to staff reunions and celebrations.    

Growing in the job 
After his initial principal appointment, Nick went to another large metropolitan secondary school as principal with an adult re-entry component as well as a traditional 8-12 enrolment. Things there worked really well.  The two preceding principals had good reputations. He did things a little bit differently than he had in his previous appointment but as he had learnt, his role focussed on good communication. It was about being up front, visible and honest.

He was always comfortable at this school and the school suited him.  Some staff seemed a bit reserved at first so he learned people’s names quickly and made sure he made contact with all staff regularly. Whenever possible he was in the staffroom at lunchtime making sure he sat at a different table or went out and joined the staff on yard duty. 
His first appointment had taught him the importance of freedom and support in innovation and this helped build some pretty amazing educational opportunities for students at his next site. The school became a Vocational Education and Training provider and developed a variety of courses that provided specific pathways to different occupations that were all SACE accredited. These qualifications were recognised by widely differing industries, including Engineering and Media. He was proud of that and the good people who worked in it. 

Nick loved his first school because it was new and it was challenging and it taught him a lot about himself and how to deal with people and work with them, but he felt like this school was where he belonged. He liked being a leader there.

What excited Nick most about the role was that he was a leader in a large diverse community with amazing opportunities to make a difference to the lives of many students and some of the staff.

As a principal he had the opportunity to support and encourage others who wanted to develop their leadership skills. He was able to mentor people and enjoyed watching their journey as leaders.

He enjoyed working with others, staff or colleagues, and problem-solving issues.  He liked being trusted to meet challenges and support a school community through change.  He loved innovation, change and working with people.  He even enjoyed conflict-resolution….mostly.

As a leader and in his role with SASPA, he also had the opportunity to influence broader systemic matters with his colleagues.

Greatest achievements
Nick enjoyed developing and leading successful schools that worked efficiently in the interest of the students, with happy teachers, students and parents, ensuring that the schools were business-like but still welcoming.   

In one school he built a culture of success where students from very diverse backgrounds were empowered and given a second chance at leading a fulfilling life.  At another school he led the development of a culture of excellence, building on the foundations laid before his appointment.

In both schools he developed a strong vision with the school community with a focus on high standards.

Challenging times
The most challenging time for Nick was when a principal position had been advertised twice but had not been filled.  The Chief Executive, through the Director of Schools at the time, directed him to take the position but he told them he was not interested as he was still happy at his own school.  His tenure was up at the end of the following year and he had his application ready to reapply.  However, he quickly realised he was being told to go, not asked.

He arrived at the new school well before school started and introduced himself to support staff and other staff who were there.  Everything seemed okay.  Three deputy principals arrived but two gave him a very offhanded reception.  The other was new to the school and was very pleased and happy to be there. He called a meeting of senior leaders in the staff room to introduce himself and to start the year and they seemed receptive.

On the first full day back for all staff, he welcomed everyone and did all of the usual ‘Day One’ rituals.  Everything was fine until recess - when an Australian Education Union (AEU) meeting was called.  It was put to members that “The school staff did not accept the principal appointed by the Chief Executive and they would not accept his authority or decisions”, or words to that effect.  This motion was passed.  People did say that it was not about him; it was about the process and the principle.  However there were instances where nasty, personal comments were made.

The AEU position was that he should have applied for the principal position, but of course he had not been given a choice.  It was apparent that it was a big issue between the Department and the Union. In fact he was summoned to meet with the Chief Executive at 8.00am on several occasions that year. 

The Department had not expected the strength of the backlash concerning his appointment.  No-one did. He tried to keep people informed and build positive relationships and empower some people but it was very hard. 

During this time documentation was critical!  He knew that you must have something to fall back on.  For example at one meeting about half way through Term One he saw that  ‘Role of the Principal’ was first item on the agenda.  He took his diary and notes and listened very carefully.  It was stated that ‘the principal is never here; SASPA is taking up too much of his time; he doesn’t know the students and he hasn’t visited classes’.  A vote of ‘no confidence’ in him was put to the meeting.  He stated that he wanted to respond and he produced notes to refute all of these statements.  He had dates and times when he had visited classrooms. He had hardly been out of the school at all that term. He named the classes and times he visited them, which was over ten times up to that point in the term. The teachers and coordinators had to agree because they obviously saw him in the classrooms or learning areas when he visited, as he had conversations with them.  He was also teaching a class.  In fact, given everything that had been happening he was there until 9.00pm most nights and on weekends as well.  Because of the documentation and evidence he had, the vote was withdrawn. 

He continued doing what he considered the principal should be doing, in the best possible way.  He would regularly meet with the three deputy principals. He tried to maintain positive relationships with all staff. He went to all meetings and visited classrooms often.  He got through it all by working bloody hard and doing the best he could without backing away from issues and difficult situations. He was open, public and honest. He never gossiped outside of the school. 

Eventually the AEU took the matter to court and the outcome was that the appointment was invalid. i.e. the Department lost the case as it was deemed that the position should have been filled through advertisement in the first place.  This had long term repercussions and knock on effects through the system. 

This effectively meant Nick had no status.  He could no longer be principal at the school and someone had won the position at his previous school.  The stress of it all added to a serious medical condition he had which caused him great physical pain leading to surgery in Term Four of that year. He retired the following year.

During these difficult times, Nick valued the support that came from his wife (also a principal), the District Superintendent, DECD officers, staff, and colleagues. 

Advice and Comments
On reflection, Nick notes how important it is to get communication and decision-making right.  His advice is to build relationships with staff, students, Governing Council, families other agencies and members of the wider community who can support your school.  Know that you will not have all the answers.  You might have all the theory and learning is important, but the school has its own feeling and atmosphere.  It is a living entity.  If the people in it are not contributing to this atmosphere of support and collaboration, then you have not got an effective school.  Culture is very important.

Join the AEU.  Be an active member and attend all school AEU meetings.

Be approachable.  Have an open door.  People are more important than any work you are doing and if you need to stay back late to do paperwork do it, or come in on weekends.  Work hard. Get out there and have fun!!  Be honest.  Stay true to yourself.

Being a Principal is a great job!

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