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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.

Are you engaged?

I have an admission to make. I cannot remember many of my classes at school. Especially when I was in the middle years. That might seem an odd thing for a person in my position, a school Principal, to say but, I have a hunch that many adults have similar blurry spaces in your memories of school.

What I do recall vividly are great learning experiences that stepped outside the norm. In year 7, I co-wrote and produced a play for English. We were allowed to sit outside in our groups, to write and perform. As a Year 11 Biology student I went on a field trip to an uninhabited island in Bass Strait. We surveyed organisms on the beach and discovered a new species of shellfish. Then we were invited into the depths of the Melbourne Museum to meet the scientists who were classifying it.

What was different about these experiences is that we had a degree of autonomy: we were engaged in activities that produced something of value and we worked collaboratively, supported by our teachers. This is learning where the levels of student engagement are high, and this is the kind of learning that we need to identify and scale up in our practice.

This year my school has joined a nationwide project – Learning Frontiers – that is being conducted by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership in collaboration with the UK based Innovation Unit. The aim is to help schools to co-design professional practices to increase student engagement in learning that use the design principles of co-creation, personalisation, connectedness and integration. One of the great aspects of the project is that it crosses all sectors: Government, Catholic and independent.

Why do we think this work is so important?

Well we think the key to improving quality teaching and learning is to understand what it is that switches students onto learning. And we think it matters that a significant minority (26%) of students taking the research survey at our school agreed with the statement that “At school I spend a lot of time pretending to pay attention.”

Learning is at the centre of all that we do and the transformation of the culture of the school to one where we are a community of learners, students and teachers alike, is essential.

Challenging the BMX bike syndrome

As the date approaches for the annual NAPLAN testing (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy), the discussion around the value of national testing, and indeed international testing, is revisited.

That every child should be both literate and numerate is an absolute basic right. National testing has its place in providing a snapshot on a single day of student attainment of these educational basics. NAPLAN results can provide individual teachers and schools with usable and useful information about student learning. The danger with national tests is not the tests themselves but the use to which they may be put by reducing consideration of teaching and learning to the lowest common denominator.

As a beginning English teacher, I wrestled with finding ways to engage my students in the study of English in all of its remarkable forms. At the core of my practice was the desire to foster a love of language and literature, to connect students with big ideas and equip them to interpret and use the language to enrich their own experience. I was often disappointed by the tendency of those who saw the way of connecting students to learning was by looking for the simplest of texts, or designing units of work around issues deemed to be of popular appeal. At that time, BMX bikes were all the rage with teenage boys (as evidenced by 1983 film BMX Bandits) and so I coined the term “the BMX bike syndrome”, for that approach to education that sets its sights on the basics, rather than the rewards of embracing the challenges of learning.

Dr Paul Brock usefully distinguishes between “the basics”, literacy and numeracy, and “the fundamentals”, the full breadth and depth of learning possible in English and Mathematics. He alerts us to the dangers of an over emphasis on national test results:

…the fundamentals continue to be at risk of being seriously diluted by the necessary, but not sufficient, focus on the basics.

As educators, we want our students to be successful learners so that they can leave school equipped for further study and work that enables them to lead fulfilling lives. The basics are essential, but our students’ learning is impoverished when they are engaged in drill and practice that is motivated by undue emphasis on the outcomes of national tests.

Brock, Paul (2011) towards Schooling in the 21st Century: ‘Back to Basics’ or Forward to Fundamentals ACEL Monograph Series