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!
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