Saturday, 24 February 2018

Peter Leverenz' Story

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!
Challenging Times
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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