Thursday, 30 November 2017

Deane Rohrlach's Story

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.

Challenging times

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.

Wal Czernezkyj's Story

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.

Greatest Achievements
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’.

Challenging times

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.

Kim Hebenstreit's Story

The path to principal

Kim had been teaching for eight years before he received his first promotion. During that period there was plenty of staff movement that provided him with a number of opportunities to serve in acting positions. This enabled him to try out how he felt about leadership. His transition to the principalship took a little longer than some of his peers because of personal circumstances that meant he was unable to take up country appointments, which had accelerated promotion for others. He had several roles as an adviser and applied for open positions as a senior, assistant principal, deputy and eventually principal.

One advisory role that helped shape his beliefs about education was with the Participation and Equity Program. The social justice initiatives that this program promoted left an abiding vision for how schools could play a part in building a better society. He had a very fortunate childhood with a strong state school education and migrant parents who were factory workers with a strong work ethic and who greatly valued education.

Experience as an advisor became a prime motivation for him to want to run a school and do something in this space. He saw the opportunity and the challenge to build a team that would work together to do something special for kids. Having a young family and a mortgage, the extra income was of course another motivator for Kim to tackle the role of principal.

Growing in the job

Kim started his teaching career in a newly built school with a specially selected principal who was able to choose many of his staff other than the 18 newly appointed teachers. There was a high level of excitement within the staff with the camaraderie of a large number of new recruits to teaching and experienced teachers providing excellent role models for them. They guided his growth and provided advice and inspiration. This gave Kim a really good understanding of what quality teaching looked like and set the scene for his own professional growth but also ultimately the standards and skills to which he wanted his staff to aspire.

His first leadership appointment was the antithesis of these earlier experiences but gave him a view of what needed to change to bring about improvement. The benchmark from this first appointment enabled him to see what was done better by principals he subsequently worked with and what he would want to do differently.


The greatest thrill for Kim was to demonstrably show that the school had changed and he was able to leave it in a better place than when he arrived. One of the first things he did as a principal with the leadership team was to work with the staff to articulate the graduate qualities they wanted to achieve with their students. These became the sense of purpose for the whole staff as they worked through it collaboratively. This was then translated into what it meant for priorities, expenditure, staffing and so on. 

At the end of his first principal year a number of leadership positions became vacant. A number of well-liked staff were considered for those vacancies from the point of view of what they had done over the previous five years in relation to the sense of purpose. It was evident that some of these had contributed little leadership in this area and had not made a noticeable difference. So they examined the skill set required of leaders who could come in to the school and lead change. This set the trend of making some changes to target what the school wanted to achieve by building a team that would lift the school to the next level of performance.

The school looked for opportunities to promote successes publicly through the local press, working with parents, and opportunities for competitions such as training awards, public education awards and the like. These successes gave the staff confidence that they were working in a direction that was positive and were judged highly by external bodies.

Greatest achievement

Kim stepped into a school that was in many ways disjointed in the way it operated; it had a vocational focus, an academic stream and a new arrivals program for adults. Initially there were about 80 students from a refugee background. Over the last five years of Kim’s principalship this grew dramatically to almost 600 students making that component almost as large as the rest of the school. It coloured the fabric of the school in terms of language, students’ interests and much more.

Kim’s greatest achievement was enabling the school to celebrate that diversity. Everyone played a role in welcoming refugees and the school became the first United Nations School for Global Peace in South Australia. Every staff member could articulate the kind of community in which they wanted to live and how the school would serve that community. The school wanted a community that was characterised by peace, positive relationships and an understanding of sustainability not just of environmental resources but also from a very human point of view. The staff and students had to work together to respect and celebrate difference and involve the great wave of new people coming to our country helping them understand our political and legal systems and join with us to protect the freedoms that we sometimes (but should never) take for granted. The school very much became a village in itself where people could come not only to learn English but also to get settlement advice that included support with Australia’s health and welfare systems. That village characteristic was the greatest achievement and something that has endured.

Challenging times

Generally the most difficult times were connected with managing significant underperformance of a very small number of staff. In a large staff there are at times individuals who are not team players and who can drag others down, but more importantly they can make the lives of students very unpleasant and consequently negatively impact on student learning. In one example a staff member could convey the subject content relatively effectively but treated students dismissively and consequently inhibited their capacity to learn. This person did not characterise the qualities of an effective teacher but it took nine years to convince them that they were unsuited to teaching. Regardless of the efforts and opportunities provided to this person, they didn’t have the requisite skills to be respectful, engaging of students and enabling them to become successful learners.

The other significant challenge was when the government moved to cease funding for any education in state schools for adult students. This threatened the very existence of the school but, more importantly, it threatened the well being of a large number of the students that the staff felt deeply about. The motivation of the government was to reduce education funding with little or no regard to the implications for other government agencies such as housing, health, community support and the long term well-being of the students. By working with colleagues in similar schools an outcome was achieved that all parties could live with.


Kim’s support came from his leadership teams, his family and critically from the small network of
colleagues who provided enormous support. Having greater experience than Kim, these colleagues were aware of issues with which Kim was grappling.


  • Establish a network. 
  • Acknowledge that what you know is closer to nothing than it is to everything!
  • Work with your staff to develop a united common purpose that is agreed and understood by all and against which strategic decisions can be made.
  • Have a comfortable pair of shoes! Visit classrooms, walk around the school, talk with people and show interest in what the staff and students are doing. In short be highly visible.

Appendix: Acronyms, Terminology, Programs and Historical Note

  Acronyms Wherever possible, acronyms have been spelled out in stories. Mostly the extended title is enough to explain its...