The new school leaders

School leaders’ roles have evolved from being primarily focused on management, to being direct concerned with improving student learning.

Anyone who works in a school knows it’s tough being part of the leadership team.

Not only do you need to keep on top of the day to day load – the administration, managing staff, tending to parents and students - but keeping one eye on the ever-changing educational landscape is a constant challenge.

“Keeping learning relevant is one of the toughest parts of the job these days,” says Dr Pauline Thompson, a former Assistant Principal and secondary English teacher, who is now based in the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education (MGSE).

“Society’s needs are changing and what we’re wanting from learners is shifting fast. School isn’t just about accumulating content knowledge anymore.”

Dr Thompson, who is part of the team that delivers the Master of Instructional Leadership, points to evolving curriculum requirements, increasing sources of data and the changing role of assessment as some of the most significant changes in recent times.

“Assessment, for example, is not just about passing a test these days, but more about measuring learning across a broad spectrum,” she says.

“And the changes in the curriculum mean the focus has shifted beyond just academic rigour in many schools to include other aspects, like problem solving and collaboration.”

But, she says, one of the toughest challenges she sees principals grappling with is knowing the best way to use data.

Schools are receiving more and more data from sources as broad as NAPLAN to internal assessments. But interpreting it meaningfully, to inform interventions that lift student achievement, is the hard part.

“Drilling down into what the data is actually saying about a school is harder than it sounds,” says Dr Thompson.

Finding the right intervention for your school

When she was working as an Assistant Principal, Dr Thompson and her colleagues interpreted the school’s NAPLAN data to reveal that high achieving students’ writing was not improving at the same rate as other students’ writing.

They introduced a program that taught explicit writing strategies for each subject (not just in English), working with teachers to integrate writing exercises in subjects like maths and science. These strategies lifted writing performance across the school.

“We were very clear about the writing style expected in each subject,” she says. “For example, in science practicals the kind of writing we expected from students was very different to that used in humanities classes.”

School contexts vary, and an intervention that works in one may not work in another. But the key is for school leaders to critically consume the wide range of data available to them, so they can apply the most effective measures for their students.

Having a clear vision for their school can help.

“If your vision is clear, decision making becomes easy because your school has a clear moral purpose,” says Dr Thompson. “Schools have different charters depending on the community they’re serving. For example, if a school has a high proportion of students for whom English is an additional language, that may be a particular area of focus.”

This can make it easier to determine the best way to respond to what the data is showing.

“It’s about understanding the learning needs of a particular group and responding appropriately, whatever that may be.”

Leaders of learning

The bottom line is, leadership matters when it comes to student outcomes. Principals are no longer considered simply managers of large organisations they are now learning leaders.

The work of another MGSE expert, Professor Stephen Dinham, makes a clear link between leadership that focuses on improving teaching and learning, and student achievement. He has also shown this impact is amplified in schools working in challenging circumstances.

“Good school leaders take an instructional approach,” says Dr Thompson. “They are explicit about the learning strategies they want to implement, the outcomes they expect and the approach teachers should take.

“They work closely with teachers on delivering the best possible learning opportunities for their students.”

To do this they need to know their students and their schools. And they need to have a relentless focus on building their teachers’ professional knowledge and capacity to respond to students’ needs.

This shift in focus back to the grassroots of education – teaching and learning – has been inspired in large part by the work of Professor John Hattie, who also teaches into the Master of Instructional Leadership at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

His meta-analysis found that teachers have the biggest in-school influence on student achievement - around 30 per cent.

“When the rubber hits the road is when students are learning with the teacher,” says Dr Thompson.

“School leaders needs to support that interaction, that’s their fundamental job. There is still more variation in teacher quality within schools than between schools, so leaders really need to be focused on lifting all their teachers up to the highest standards possible.”

Feedback is perhaps the best way for leaders to do this.

“The most effective way to lift a teacher’s practice, and for teachers in turn to raise their students’ achievement, is well-structured, specific feedback,” she says.

Research has found the most effective feedback relates to how students monitor, direct and regulate their own learning, with general comments like “you always do great work” not being particularly useful in relation to learning.

Ultimately delivering this new model of school leadership is challenging, but incredibly rewarding.

Leaders need to make time to share and reflect with colleagues, ideally off-site. And if they can get support to build their awareness of themselves as leaders, that can help enormously.

“Self-care is really important too,” says Dr Thompson. “It’s a tough job and making time to safeguard your own wellbeing will only improve your ability to lead.”

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