Saturday, 24 February 2018

Leonie Ebert's Story

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.

Challenging Times

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.

Support

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.

Advice

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.

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