Category Archives: Leadership

Changing Places

I am about to begin the final term at the NSW school where I have been Principal for eleven years. In January I take up the role of Principal at another school in Victoria. 

I am changing places.

Leaving so much brings some personal sadness: leaving a city I have grown to love; leaving my house that is filled with light and warmth; leaving friends made; and of course the family life I have lived here in this place. 

I described to one of my daughters the feeling, as I put the last of my (adult) children on the train to Melbourne, as an unravelling  . “Think of it as a transfer, ” she replied practically. “A transfer , yes.”

For a Principal, such a “transfer” brings leadership challenges.

Ownership

Principals may develop a proprietorial attitude toward their schools, making it difficult for them to accept the inevitability of  a successor – who will do things in their own way. I have grown to love the school and have invested so much of myself in it. As I prepare to leave it I am conscious of a certain vulnerability. As leaders we listen, we dream, we talk, we create and we build visions for our schools and relationships with students, staff and their families.  It is a little painful to contemplate the changes that will be wrought under new leadership. W B Yeats’ lines express this vulnerability well: 

I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Of course it is foolish to dwell on this. New leadership should bring change, just as our leadership did in our own time! The challenge for leaders is to remain positive about leaving and the prospect of change ahead. Change creates uncertainty for everyone in the school and if we really care for our communities we show leadership in managing the transition as carefully as we are able.
Relevance

I know of a school where the retiring Principal, sensing keenly a diminution of influence as their final day approached, “resigned” from the leadership team and withdrew to the office to tidy up the files. Perhaps an extreme example, but a sense of feeling redundant to planning and decision making seems to be a common experience.  From this perspective we show leadership by remaining committed, offering advice and supporting staff, particularly the leadership team, as they put in place the arrangements for a new school year in which we will not be present. We should lighten the touch, but not let go.

Looking forward

When leaving is about moving onto leadership of another school there are further considerations.  There is no bigger bore than the person who makes constant reference to their past school, except perhaps the one who cannot stop talking about their next! 

There is a time for everything. So I am making the most of enjoying every last day at “my” school and hope that I am providing the presence and support that the school requires for the smoothest of transitions. Quietly I am preparing for my next place, mindful of the huge pair of shoes I have to fill.

Curiosity, confidence & compassion

Recently I was returning to Sydney by plane. In the three seats in front of me sat a young girl, her little brother and father. Across the aisle from them sat the mother. The boy looked to be about three years old and looked quite sweet – until he opened his mouth. He leant forward and looked over to his mother and said “Why are you sitting over there? You’re a loser mummy!”
His father said nothing.

What troubled me about this incident – apart from the fact that a child so young would take this attitude to his own mother – was the language of division and opposition that he so readily used. This perspective of the world, shaped by the idea that there are winners and losers and that the losers are to be jeered at, troubles me greatly; that there are sides to be taken and there is strength in numbers. A single instance such as this is disturbing on its own but it is not isolated and it is a broader social problem. I am one of many in our community concerned by the tenor of public discourse, such as the language of our politicians or prominent figures in the media, or the language used via social media.

Schools are often burdened, sometimes unreasonably, with the expectation that they can and should be educating students about all manner of subjects that sit outside the core academic curriculum, the latest example being childhood obesity. Nevertheless, it is right that school leaders and teachers reflect on how students’ perspectives are shaped by their experience of school. What kind of school is our school?

As we began the school year, our staff took time to think about what it is not only to be a Christian school, but specifically and uniquely, to be a Uniting Church School. The Rev Alistair Macrae, then President of the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, posed the question: “Is there a DNA which belongs to the Uniting Church in Australia which … is evident across the breadth of the life and work of this church?” And if so, would that “DNA” that be apparent in the life of a Uniting Church School. He suggested four key points: being inclusive, engaged in reconciliation; working for justice and peace through experiences that expose students to the call “to serve the least, the lost, the lonely and the little.”; having a multicultural perspective – seeing the world and appreciating difference; and expanding the horizons of students through international partnerships. Alistair Macrae expressed his wish that through education, which he defined as “the purposeful activity of love”, children develop three values: curiosity, confidence and compassion.

My hope is that all schools, whether secular or faith based, work to foster these values: curiosity – the love of learning; confidence – learning to accept and love ourselves; and compassion – the love of others.