Saturday, 24 February 2018
The path to principal
Leonie’s first appointment as principal was at a country high school. She began establishing herself as principal prior to taking up her appointment as she had received a telephone call from a colleague working in the district to tell her there were all sorts of stories circulating locally, such as, she couldn’t speak English, she had a child out of wedlock and boys would be disadvantaged. In response, Leonie and her husband made an appointment with the Chairperson of the School Council and visited the local community. While there, they visited the editor of the local paper who did an in-depth interview with Leonie. The interview resulted in an extensive article being published in the local paper about her qualifications and achievements. They then had a friendly and useful meeting with the Chair of the School Council over afternoon tea. As they left the Chair said he did not know what he could say to the boys at the silos! Apparently, she was not what they were expecting. It appears they were expecting a stern woman with her hair done up in a bun. She found that very amusing.
Leonie was invited to be a principal long before she became one. She didn’t accept because she wanted to learn about educational administration. At one stage a School Inspector advised her that if she wanted to be a principal she shouldn’t get married! There was no mention of the need to prepare for such a demanding and responsible job. A scholarship from the Education Department enabled her to achieve a Masters in Educational Administration at the University of New England.
Growing in the job
Being proactive helped Leonie to develop a good rapport with the School Council and she believes that people were happy to have her at the school. Furthermore, at her first school assembly when one of the students was playing up, she told him off. This made the impression that she was a firm disciplinarian!
An informative newsletter kept the community well versed about the school. As Leonie was writing about educational matters she had the school support staff check the newsletters before they were sent out to ensure they would be easily understood. She made every effort to involve parents in decisions made about the life of the school.
Communication and participation of parents and staff in decisions made about the school were very important for building her credibility in the school and community in order to bring about structural change within the school.
Leonie brought with her a strong educational philosophy and a commitment to union values combined with the experiences gained from working with a range of established principals, educators and union leaders. This formed the basis for her work.
Professional development of self and staff was also important. She invited an experienced principal who had had a profound influence on her to run professional development sessions at the school with senior staff. Leonie’s immense interest in curriculum determined that she structured the school in order to bring a closer connection between teachers and their students.
On reflection Leonie was happy that she had not accepted a principalship before she had completed a Masters in Educational Administration. She knew that she needed both qualifications and a time to reflect before taking on the very important job of leading a school.
During her first principal appointment Leonie was able to confirm and strengthen her belief in education based on her philosophy and this helped develop and modify actions taken in subsequent schools.
Excitement and Achievements
It was exciting seeing teachers taking responsibility for their work and coming up with great curriculum ideas that inspired students and related to their needs. Schools Commission programs such as the Participation and Equity Program helped teachers in this regard as it provided them with time, support and resources enabling them to achieve some great outcomes.
Programs developed by some great young teachers in the Art Department also excited her. They would take students out on art excursions to lots of interesting places to really challenge their thinking and their views of the world around them. When there was a mouse plague in the region, the teachers got some of the mice and cured their skins to make bags and all sorts of things! It thrilled her to see the strategies they used to enhance creativity.
Leonie recalled being excited later in her career (when she was principal of a metropolitan high school) by the work of a special education teacher who ran kinesiology sessions with his students. A Year 8 student in the class had to be carried everywhere and he could do very little for himself. The teacher helped him become more independent and improve his oral communication skills to a point where he could speak reasonably clearly. It was really thrilling to see his development over time. The boy began to work in the hospitality industry and years later at a function he came up to Leonie and asked her in fairly understandable speech, “Do you remember me?” Leonie was excited when teachers were innovative and came up with wonderful outcomes for their students. Another example at this school was encouraging a mother to become School Council Chairperson at a time when this was still quite unusual.
One of the challenges in Leonie’s first principal appointment came when the Education Department changed the teacher to student staffing formula resulting in fewer staff positions being available at the school and a need for staff displacements. Displacement was not something she supported and she campaigned against this decision through the union. As a strong unionist she felt she was there to protect teachers’ jobs, not take them away. This was a very hard time.
When the staff displacement exercise occurred some conservative members of the local Rotary Club were negative towards her because she wrote about the effect of cuts on school staff in the school newsletter. When Leonie heard about this she asked to attend a Rotary meeting to ‘front up’. The situation was resolved with Leonie receiving lots of support. It was, however, a very hard and unpleasant time.
When Leonie was appointed to her first metropolitan high school she was given a mandate to bring change to the school with an emphasis on girls’ education. This was no easy task, as a number of long-standing teaching staff could see no reason to change their comfortable existence and consequently endeavored to undermine her quietly. In contrast, the school support staff were very helpful. She was also able to recruit some excellent teachers who understood the importance of curriculum change for girls.
Leonie was disappointed that in spite of staff efforts and enrolments improving that after her time the school was eventually closed along with others due to cuts in the education budget. The community campaigned against it but was not successful.
Leonie’s husband was always a great support and immensely helpful to her. They shared a common concern for humanity and the importance of education. They shared information, visited schools in Victoria and overseas, attended national and international conferences and debated social, political and economic issues.
Support came from the teachers’ union especially as it related to working conditions for teachers and the status of female teachers. For her, involvement in the union was important, as she didn’t want to see any exploitation in schools.
It was also important to maintain ongoing learning and involvement in professional organisations such as the Australian Curriculum Studies Association
Support also came from a range of people she worked with, especially the young staff at the school.
Become a leader because you want to serve the community and as a principal to serve the education of students. It is not about status. You must want to serve and make sure you always continue to learn, be prepared and be open to change for the benefit of your students.
Participation is absolutely key. All staff including SSOs, parents and students – everyone should participate in making important decisions in the life of the school. It is important to involve students in leadership and decision making programs.
Give attention to the needs of diverse groups (Aboriginal, special need students) within the school. This is essential. You are there for everyone.
Public Relations - make links with a range of people and organisations and participate in their activities where possible. This enriches the school as well as your lifelong learning.
Don’t get stuck in curriculum matters or ideology. Grow and learn. Lifelong learning shapes and enriches.
The path to the principal
Peter's first years of teaching were in an expanding outer-metropolitan high school with a forward thinking, innovative, dynamic and supportive principal. Staff were young, encouraged to look to best practice wherever it was found and to try new ways of engaging and teaching students. It was a collaborative environment and one that supported cross-curriculum connections. From there he moved to a Coordinator’s position in the Upper Spencer Gulf. Again, the school was looking for a creative approach and the staff (including the principal) was young and energetic. About a third of the students progressed to the city for further education. The remaining two-thirds found work fairly readily in the local area. Part of Peter’s job was to manage change to enable the curriculum to meet the needs of the students. Using his previous experience, Peter formed the staff into teams and began the process by reflecting on ‘where the kids were at’. This curriculum development process was a time of thinking, problem solving and creativity. He enjoyed it – and was good at it.
Based on his success and skill Peter was offered a secondment to the Education Department’s Curriculum Branch where, with peer advisors, he thought and learned a lot more. He grappled with ideas about engaging young people, especially in the middle school years, with assessment and its relationship to practice. The State’s Senior Secondary Assessment Board was moving towards the South Australia Certificate of Education (SACE) and set up 10 trial schools (across all sectors of schooling). Peter worked with these schools to test and trial curriculum and assessment change. To support his learning, he completed a Master’s degree focusing on the process of change.
After six years out of schools, Peter realised that he missed school life, and could also see out-of-school jobs drying up. He also wanted to make sure that his teaching assumptions worked. Schools were looking for leaders who understood the SACE and could help staff develop the necessary new skills. There was also growing interest in middle-schooling. Staff development was his forte – so he took up the challenge in a large metropolitan high school. He enjoyed being an assistant and deputy principal, so hesitated when encouraged to apply for principal positions in the country, but after some discussion at home, applied for and won, a position at a mid-north high school.
It had been quite a long journey and although Peter was experienced (28 years in schools and the Education Department) he had no experience in staffing, finance, school management and the unexpected circumstances that come the way of the principal. Nevertheless, he was ready to meet the change challenges being faced by high schools.
Growing in the job
His new school had been without a principal for the best part of a term. Staff morale was low with opposing factions tussling for power and half of the staff caught in the middle. Peter’s first day was taken up negotiating staff behavior protocols in the presence of the superintendent and a social worker. Community perception of the school was so low that the community was supporting a private bus to take students to a college several kilometres away.
Some new student behavior boundaries were set in the first week with a positive student response. In order to improve student engagement, Peter promised youth and community forums to discuss youth issues and plan improvements, such as more youth activities at school and in the community. These he delivered. Staff adopted a positive approach and communication improved, both within the school and between the school and the community.
Results were visible. Community service that linked individual students with a community organisation such as Rotary, Lions, charities, CFS and Emergency Services was introduced for all Year 9 students, a Youth Opportunities leadership program was introduced and uniform compliance improved. Building on the work of the previous principal, the middle school was developed as a model for other schools.
At the end of his first year Peter was able to hasten cultural change by recruiting young teachers to fill vacancies. What the new teachers lacked in experience they made up for in enthusiasm and willingness to implement new pedagogies and extra-curricular activities. The new culture was energetic, positive, democratic and supported by development packages such as the “Fish Philosophy” (promoting being positive, making their day, having fun and being the best you can at your job) and “7 habits of effective people”.
After two years Peter’s confidence had grown, the school had developed young leaders in all areas of school life and positive things happened in the Middle (7-10) and Senior Schools - sport, outdoor education, agriculture/viticulture, pedagogy and school culture.
Peter admits to making mistakes, some with staffing (trying to hold on to good staff), and with prioritising the many jobs he had to do. He believes that as a newcomer he tried to do too much. At Rotary he would hear negative perceptions of the school from time to time, but parent and community surveys showed a high satisfaction rate with the next principal consolidating and taking them even higher. Staff and student satisfaction rated highly too. Surveys by social workers showed a positive vibe in the school.
After three years at that school he was encouraged to apply for a position in the Barossa Valley where the incumbent was retiring. Peter had grown to love the mid-north school. It proved to be a great training ground for his two future principal appointments each with their own different challenges. After the Barossa he moved to a southern-suburbs R-12 school of 1450 students from where he retired after some ill-health. According to his doctors, he was worn out. Both schools were excellent and he was supported by some experienced staff.
Excitement and Achievements
Although initially reluctant to be a principal, when Peter did take up the role he thoroughly enjoyed it. It was demanding and full-time. He would get calls both on weekends and nights when he just wanted to be with family or friends. One night, when a fire occurred at the school, he was called in at 4.00 am. By 6.00 am Channel 7 was interviewing him for the news - no time for shaving or showering!
In all three schools he encouraged student voice by holding meetings with SRCs and youth groups to encourage their participation in school life and decisions. He always joined in school bands, choirs, musicals, and assemblies and built relationships with the arts students. He attended sports games, carnivals, and rewarded achievement (academic, vocational, sporting, and artistic) at assemblies to build school culture and enthusiasm. In each school he developed youth leadership programs and showed support by attending classes when students presented. He had lunch one day a week with the “special needs” students and helped with yard duty.
Staff development was a major area of excitement and he encouraged teachers to improve their craft through various programs and self reflection. Some presented to the rest of the staff, some took up leadership positions and many have gone on to become excellent, dedicated teachers or leaders. His last school set a goal of going from “good to great” and gradually improving craft and skills. Building positive, productive and professional partnerships with staff was one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. His respect for them as fellow educators and colleagues, enabled them to accept him as someone with whom they were prepared to discuss their teaching or leadership.
Improving community perception through meeting with as many community groups as possible and by constant publicity, led to many extra resources, sometimes unexpectedly. One group in the mid north offered to clean up the school grounds on a weekend and beautify them. In the Barossa, a prominent winemaker offered to pay for the Youth Opportunities program to help young leaders and students at risk. Another benefactor offered a full fee scholarship to University or TAFE to a student who showed passion for their chosen field. None of this would have happened without publicity about school activities and good communication with the community. All the communication led to improved community perception of the school and translated into school numbers, high retention, belief that students were going somewhere worthwhile, goodwill, and resources. Agriculture and viticulture cannot survive on school budgets alone.
The greatest pleasure and reward has come from ex-colleagues, students or parents coming up to him and saying, “Thanks for what you did”. Recently he conducted a wedding ceremony for an ex-student at which an ex-colleague expressed her admiration for him as a teacher. He found this embarrassing, but good to hear after many years!
In the country, Peter was on display at every supermarket, shop, sports ground, pub and restaurant for all to see. He was expected to help out at Rotary and the local Show, be a judge, support a local sports team and put the school sheep back if they were out at night. The police would knock on his door at night to request he round up the sheep or to take him to school because the alarms had gone off. People knew where he lived and would drop in with all types of issues. Peter’s wife stayed in Adelaide to work and look after two of their children who were at school and university and Peter was in the mid-north with their nineteen year-old son who was interested in football and the good life.
He struggled with some staff at all three schools. As a democratic leader Peter promoted consultation and teamwork and while most staff enjoyed this approach, a few were uncooperative. In spite of negotiated boundaries some staff broke trust or stretched the truth to protect their back and sought something to blame (the “Department”, the principal, others, stress) rather than taking responsibility for continuous improvement. These were the hardest situations to deal with - the greatest challenge for a principal.
Students were easier. When boundaries were set by staff and students, and good non-violent withdrawal systems were in place, he found the students at all schools and from all backgrounds were interesting, challenging, fun-loving, perceptive and inquiring. When they learnt some-thing new or achieved something big or small, it was a joy. Peter sticks by the adage “there are no bad students, just some students with bad habits”. As a result of this, he enjoyed each day of the job.
Comment and Advice
Peter identified five aspects of principal leadership which he outlined from least to most important.
· Administrative - setting up structures, meetings, financial management, grounds, school vision and plan, annual reporting and data collection.
· Community - linking school and community, marketing, publicity, seeking support, developing global vision and plan.
· Staff development - long term professional development program, staff management, a healthy balance of staff, setting boundaries, goals for school improvement, change management, developing a culture of self-improvement and rewarding staff in appropriate ways.
· Curriculum - setting appropriate curricula, devising a range of choices and pathways for the diversity of the clients, encouraging staff to use a range of methodologies and pedagogies to suit the range of learning styles of students and modern society with all its issues - ensuring the curriculum matches the clients rather than making the clients match the curriculum.
· Relationships -developing:
- staff morale, confidence, and professional development (including positive feedback, constructive feedback and fun activities);
- avenues for parents to be and feel part of the school;
- student confidence and voice, providing encouragement, rewards, listening, negotiating boundaries, creating mutual respect and a positive school tone and having lots of fun activities to ensure students feel part of the school; and
- contacts in the community by speaking at meetings, joining groups or being there for community activities.
In Japan, Peter met the CEO of Toyota who told him: “we only make cars, you make people”. This emphasised for Peter the importance of preparing young people to be active, involved, positive adults and citizens.
The more he built respectful relationships with students and staff, the better it was when challenges occurred or when things went wrong. He was sorry to retire as he felt he had more to do. On reflection, he would have sought a better work/life balance.
He loved the job. He made mistakes. He misses the relationships developed with staff and students. He does not miss the administration! Being a principal was both the most rewarding and demanding job of his career.
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