Episode 6 transcript

Talking Teaching with Maxine McKew, Kerry Elliot, Steve Dinham and John Goh

[00:00:00.00] Maxine McKew:

I'm Maxine McKew, and this is Talking Teaching.

[00:00:09.22] Steve Dinham:

What's really important in this is what I've called a critical consumer of research because there's a lot of people in education who will try and sell you a quick fix solution and as a result, as a leader you've got to be very, very careful about how you spend your time and your money, because not only do some of these things not work but they actually can do harm for students.

[00:00:30.04] Maxine McKew:

Hi there, good to have your company again. Today we're going to focus on leadership. Now many a good teacher has ended up frustrated and directionless in a school for want of effective leadership at the top but there are major efforts underway to ensure that principal appointment is a bit less hit and miss.

Programs like this university's Masters in Instructional Leadership are a way of recognising that future principals can acquire the skills that will help them be leaders of teaching and learning, not just managers. And, with a generation of baby boomer school principals soon to retire, there are going to be a lot of opportunities for younger educators.

So, what should guide them? A recent publication of The Australian Council for Educational Research called I'm The Principal, offers an easily digestible guide to what the job requires. It contains dozens of stories from principals from all sorts of schools and candid accounts of the joys and complexities of the job.

The book was co-authored by Emeritus Professor Steve Dinham, a long-time researcher with the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and Talking Teaching's Kerry Elliott. We've brought them together for today's discussion as well as John Goh who is Principal of Sydney's Merrylands East Public School. John also happens to be this year's winner of The Commonwealth Bank's prize for Teaching Excellence. Kerry is asking the questions.

[00:01:55.03] Kerry Elliott:

We might start with you Steve. Are we looking at a new form of educational leadership where the most capable school leaders are making their prime focus, the leadership of teaching and learning?

[00:02:06.21] Steve Dinham:

One would hope that's the case. We've been through several phases and certainly the management paradigm was very predominantly eighties and nineties, a soft-managing school, basically copying corporate influences and approaches and so forth, and I think in recent times for a variety of reasons there's been a much closer focus on student performance through things like external testing and so forth, but also there's been an acknowledgement that leaders need to be leaders of learning and they need to be learners themselves, so the dilemma of course is that management never goes away but as a leader in a school you need to make your prime focus student learning and development.

[00:02:45.04] Kerry Elliott:

So, John how do you see the role?

[00:02:46.28] John Goh:

I've always made learning the priority of what I do in my school. Many years ago I removed my office so I could spend more time in the classroom trying for what if not hide so the red-tape that I might be undertaking on a daily basis, and trying to focus on children, and I see that more and more every single day that I have to continue growing as a curriculum leader and instructional leader, and evolve or outsource many of the administrative tasks that I have to normally do.

[00:03:19.17] Kerry Elliott:

Management doesn't go away, have you got any examples of things that you might, I guess put to the side but still concentrate on, so you can have that core focus around that teaching and learning?

[00:03:31.27] John Goh:

Yeah, part of it is really to upskill a whole range of people around me and also surround myself with people with expertise, in particular for example, surround myself with someone who has the expertise in health and safety and being able to conduct risk assessments, whereas in the past I would do that or you know, I've surrounded myself with an occupational therapist or speech pathologist, a community nurse, so that way they can liaise with other paraprofessionals on my behalf, so that I'm not always the one liaising with all these other external bodies.

[00:04:09.06] Kerry Elliott:

Steve, we picked up that through our study recently as well, those effective school leaders did those elements well.

[00:04:17.01] Steve Dinham:

They try and maintain as John said, a central focus on student learning and development and from that the quality of teaching and the school despite the distractions, and one of the things from the recent study of principals is that people were telling us that they see getting the right people as being absolutely essential in that process, so as John was saying, specialists and things like, could be occupational health and safety, could be marketing, could be technology, whatever it happens to be but you've got to basically bring on the people you're working with, entrust them, develop them and try not to do it all yourself and try to keep that focus on what the main game is which is really student learning and development so, we've seen that and I've seen that in previous studies too that our principals for example try to get out and about, they try and keep tabs on what's happening, they try to sit on curriculum committees, they try to take on the pulse of the school on a daily basis, I mean a lot of them say that they do some of the hack work if you like, the essential stuff before and after school but they like to be visible, they like to greet the kids when they come in the morning, they like to pop into classrooms and so it's really about modelling leadership in terms of a focus on learning and basically not resting on your laurels on any point because the minute you stop and think you've worked it out, well you'll be left behind.

[00:05:37.04] Kerry Elliott:

So, what is it that's distinguishing these really effective leaders from the rest?

[00:05:41.16] Steve Dinham:

I think one of the key things is they're externally aware and engaged.

We found this with the AESOP Project (referring to An Exceptional Schooling Outcomes Project) in New South Wales government schools. They don't treat their school like a castle, they are externally engaged with other bodies, government bodies, corporate bodies. They have a keen attitude towards engaging outwards rather than seeing change for example as a threat, they look at it and say well what's in it for us? How can we use this to our advantage? They have a bias towards innovation and action. They don't take foolish risks but they're quite prepared to try new things, but what's really important in this is what I've called being a 'Critical Consumer of Research' because there's a lot of people in education who will try and sell you a quick fix solution and as a result, as a leader you've got to be very, very careful about how you spend your time and your money, because not only do some of these things not work but they actually can do harm for students so by all means innovate, try new things but do your homework first, then when you're satisfied that it's got some potential and you might upscale that across the school.

I think the other thing that comes through very strongly, it's a very interpersonal position being a school leader and it's not just a matter of issuing orders or instructions to people and you've got to be able to work with a whole range of people, some of whom have different personality types and so forth, different values and that can be quite difficult in some circumstances.

Professional development, we see these leaders using a lot, their own professional development or professional learning are those the people they work with and that includes what people know, what they can do and even what they value. Sometimes we have to challenge the beliefs of people in schools, for example do the people in the school really believe that every child can learn? Do they have a certain bias towards a particular group of students or do they have stereotypical views about certain students so, it's very value-driven, it's about creating a culture, it can't just be a sort of mechanistic issue orders and everything will be okay.

[00:07:41.12] Kerry Elliott:

John what would you say, what's your approach?

[00:07:43.21] John Goh:

I think the very first time a grade school leader is not to look down the road, up the road, or wherever, but look what's in front of you. I learnt this as a rugby union referee where I was told very early on referee the game not the test match that's playing on the weekend and because it's their grand final every week and so, what Merrylands sees, we've always looked at what's important for our students and trying to understand the context of our students so, many years ago we changed our school hours because we found that in the afternoon our students were very much disengaged, and lots of options were taken, like watching television or kids would be generally fatigued, but we also knew that our students were awake in the morning, roaming the streets, picking up a meal by themselves, so we moved our school times back to eight o'clock to one-fifteen and, but we did that through a process of consultation.

We knew that we couldn't make the change, we finally did a survey, seventy-two percent of our parents wanted to move to a very early morning start. Now that's only a structural change, it's not the full change from some of the things we've done but what it did allow us to do was provide teachers with more time for professional learning, to collaborate, decide to work together, instead of the traditional three o'clock and rushing home, because many of our children now at one-fifteen go home for lunch.

Now we knew our community because they're coming from European, Asian, Middle-Eastern backgrounds where school historically starts early and so when we're engaging with our parents', they kind of really understood where we were coming from but while that was happening we were working, I think that kind of structural change doesn't get you anywhere unless you really put in the hard work with the professional learning with teachers and that's where the changes occurred and that is that, I see myself as very much a structural leader with knowledge about curriculum, I've always had curriculum knowledge and literacy and numeracy predominantly because that was my main areas of studying and really there was a bit of a mismatch between you know what we were doing, what the research was saying and also looking at where the children were heading and what was going on in the community.

So for example, in 2008 the Federal Government announced the digital education revolution, now we know that you make the change but what it did do was gave us an impetus of really challenging ourselves about how can we use technology to enhance learning as a natural tool, not as technological or playing or whatever and so we start putting a pedagogy around what we do and thinking about how can we use technology to impact on our learning so just those two examples then, is kind of where I think leaders have changed, they've become more agile.

When we have many visitors come to Merrylands East, I often say, "Don't fill Merrylands East, look at your own school, what's some of the issues in your own school that you want to adapt and change and why do you want to do that? but don't fill Merrylands East, this is about our context and quite often Steve's right, people can take third party and try to implement it and they're someone else's solutions, they're not your solutions.

[00:11:11.15] Kerry Elliott:

Thinking about instructional leadership, Steve you were behind the Master of Instructional Leadership here, what've you seen in terms of the changing landscape of leadership and approaches for the principalship?

[00:11:23.29] Steve Dinham:

As I mentioned earlier, I think a lot of the programs in the eighties and nineties, even up to 2000 were about management and we were copying quite slavishly what the corporate sector does, so we had you know, mission statements and vision statements and KPI's and all of those sorts of things and we were marketing our school and managing our school, and so forth. And I think the leadership preparation programs that I saw I was not terribly impressed with.

I realise myself, when I got involved in universities that I knew a reasonable amount about teaching, I knew a reasonable amount about leadership. I didn't know enough about student learning and there was a bit of a gap as I perceived it, because the leadership preparation programs in-service and the formal programs were essentially about managing, administering and so forth. So, having been Director of the leading, learning and leadership program at ACER (referring to Australian Council for Educational Research), I moved to the University of Melbourne in 2011 and started working on a new program the Master of Instructional Leadership, because what I wanted to do was bring together the literature on what we know about student learning with leadership and with teaching, because as I said they were largely different. Now they're largely separated, so we commenced planning for that program and I was fortunate at the time because John Hattie arrived at the same time, people like Lea Waters were here, Patrick Griffin, so we managed to develop a new program which was strongly evidenced-based and had a real connection between understanding student learning and then the sort of teaching that's necessary to achieve that and then the sort of leadership that will facilitate that teaching, so that program has done extremely well.

The word 'instructional' in the title caused a bit of dissension in the ranks and that was good because we needed some disruption there I think, I wanted to distinguish from the other management programs that were around, but since that time instructional leadership has come right into the vocabulary and I think there's a recognition across the board that people who lead schools' need to understand teaching and learning. They don't have to be an expert in every area of the curriculum for example, but they need to understand teaching and learning, and they need to know what facilitates that.

If on the other hand you're trying to achieve seventeen priorities for the year, that's probably about fourteen too many, but all these things tend to get distorted in some ways, so for example, I've heard people describe instructional leadership as being strong leadership, that's not what it's about at all. It's about being a lead learner in the school, it's about focusing on your own learning, it's about using evidence, it's about working with teachers, developing teachers, it's about having whole school priorities, as John said, "It's about knowing your students and the community that they come from to meet those needs.” He talked about high expectations, realistic expectations, targets that can be reached, evidence that helps us know when we've reached those targets, so that's part of the, the sort of new paradigm to some degree.

[00:14:17.12] Kerry Elliott:

The feedback from principals we've had is remarkably consistent, that one thing we're all grappling with is complexity of the role.

In your experiences John at Merrylands East, what are some of the big challenges that you're grappling with? What's really tested you?

[00:14:34.07] John Goh:

I think from a curriculum point of view, because there was so much going on, so many outcomes in our syllabus documents and everything you know our teachers really need to grapple with, we forgot to have the art of ensuring what we teach and how to engage children. So, recently we rewrote our school plan and we decided we're not saving the world anymore, we're just coming back to the core things that we do, so we have pre-strategic goals and that is know our students and help them learn, know our content and how to teach it and provide a safe and secure environment, which is also the accreditation standards in, that we have here in New South Wales.

Sometimes people do themselves in by trying to grasp everything, then they realise they can't do everything. It's a case of recognising what do I need from my school? Not the school down the road. It's not like jumping on the band-wagon.

I have challenges right now of staff changing. I've lost quite a number of staff members for a range of reasons, at different times my team leave or picking up different types of jobs, I've got new staff coming in all the time, it's evolving, and because of that my vision always got to evolve as well, so that's one of the challenges. Having too much that's going on but trying to keep the curriculum simple, so we're trying to think we've got to match everything up with all the outcomes and I've often used this analogy, and so well 'A dog catcher doesn't need twenty outcomes to catch a dog.' If they catch the dog they've achieved the, what their intent and purpose is.

Sometimes we apply that principle for reading and writing and maths and everything else, that we just think we've got to break everything down to a micro-level, whereas we forget the bigger picture, what schooling is about.

[00:16:29.10] Kerry Elliott:

Steve throwing back to you, how in your experiences and school leaders you've looked at, how do they deal with the complexities of working within the system?

[00:16:41.04] Steve Dinham:

Yeah, I think your prime focus has got to be on the students that you teach and the teachers that you work with, and obviously there are higher-level accountabilities, I mean some of them are simply administrative and you can outsource those or get other people to do them and so on. John mentioned the curriculum and that came through from our principals’ study as being really important.

With so much curriculum change, that's one of the big accountabilities and certainly the principals that we spoke with, many of them felt they'd lost touch with curriculum a little bit because they were outside the classroom and they really saw that as being crucial. Viviane Robinson's work, the meta-analysis work on leadership showed that where leaders, they were involved in planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching and the curriculum, it has a moderate to large effect size on student learning. The big one of course she found was promoting and participating in teacher learning and development, so if you've got teacher learning and development around the curriculum and you've established some goals and expectations, and you've paid attention to the environment, the learning environment, then you're really half-way there, you'll meet those external accountabilities, you know I think you begin with the end in mind and you know what those accountabilities are, but your major accountabilities are to those students.

And, one of the things we found from the principal study, when we asked about their vision for the school, it was a little surprising in some ways that they said, "Our main aim in this school is to prepare students for life, to go and be productive, happy members of society and to be members of an international society," so, it sounds very obvious when you say it, but that's the biggest accountability of all.

[00:18:13.29] Kerry Elliott:

Where do we think we're going then for principals' in the future?

We know that some states and territories across the country are having difficulty in recruiting people.

What are our thoughts? Does it need restructuring?

[00:18:27.24] Steve Dinham:

Well one of the things we did recommend that the duty statement if you like, the expectations be clarified, but also be communicated to, because one of the things that came through was that the community isn't fully aware and even some of the staff in schools, are not fully aware of the responsibilities that a principal has so, I think it's time we had a look at those expectations and how they best might be met, and that might include using para-professionals or ancillary staff.

I think what's of concern is the next generation of leaders coming through and I know I've been working with catholic systems and government systems in various states and territories, and they're finding a bit of a shortage that middle-management level and in some cases, they're taking an opportunity or taking a risk in some ways, some people may think it's a risk, to appoint less experienced teachers to some leadership roles, almost jumping a generation and you know, you take a risk there in that they haven't got the experience and maybe they don't have the credibility with their peers, but they had that energy and that drive, and that enthusiasm and they have that focus in many cases on learning and strong evidence-based approaches and so on. One of the challenges there is identifying the next layer, that next level, that next generation of educational leaders, giving them the confidence to put their hand up for those jobs, preparing them, supporting them, coaching, mentoring is really important because some of our best leaders are reluctant leaders, sometimes we need a bit of talent spotting there, so that leadership renewal is a real challenge, we know that we have fewer people applying for principal's positions, we have fewer people applying for some of those other positions as well so, really bringing on that next generation is quite crucial because we do have an aging teaching service and we do have a large proportion of principals who are going to retire in the next ten, fifteen years for example, so we just can't afford to let that drift.

I think there's another big one and that's the disparity that we see across the country in terms of say rural, remote and metropolitan schools, and then of course SES as well so, we need to get our best teachers and our best leaders to where they're needed and in some cases needed most, and that tends to be not the way it works, our less experienced teachers, our less experienced leaders often go to some of these isolated areas and then they move onto something which supposedly is better. So, you get this churn that occurs, I mean John talked about churn in his school where people are leaving, and you've got to keep on bringing the next generation through and you've got to imbue the culture of the school, what you're trying to do with those people. There are particular issues in rural, remote, isolated areas that given the nature of our country, we've got to do something about.

[00:21:05.07] Kerry Elliott:

John your thoughts and experiences?

[00:21:07.08] John Goh:

Look, I have a view now that for many lower SES schools that we really need long-term leadership, I used to think in the terms of five years and I'll be out of here and I'll go somewhere else and I'll rotate get about, you know each some of the schools before one day I retire, but now I look back and I've been at my current school for thirteen years, the long-term leadership has actually helped me in getting to know the community, getting to know the staff and also providing that credibility for whatever we need to do if we need to change something or transform something or implement something. It gives us that long-term credibility and one like deputy instructional leader has been with me all that time for that thirteen years and so, it makes a huge difference whereas, in the corporate world I think they might change a CEO within five years and I think that's different in our Australian system.

[00:22:07.08] Steve Dinham:

We found for example with turnaround schools here and overseas that the average time to turnaround a school around was about five to six years.

Difficult work has to be collaborative, it needs to be driven by the leader. Now what happens after that? Now in some cases people are exhausted after that five or six years, but other times in situations the school might continue to grow, or it might plateau. What's good for one person may not be good for another person, so it's a real issue of getting a good match between the leader and the school and the community and the kids and so on.

And, for some people long-term leadership is great, you know continuity, understanding the whole thing. In other cases, it might be best for everybody concerned that after four or five years you can leave your mistakes behind you, take that experience with you to some other situation.

Hard to generalise, we found with our work on teacher satisfaction that the longer people stayed in the same school if they weren't promoted or given new challenges the lower their satisfaction. But it gets to a point where people, almost are trapped in some ways, and when we talked to people about, well you've said it might be good for you to go to another school, why aren't you doing that? They'll often give you the reasons to do with family and all sorts of things, but often one that they mention is, I would need to re-establish myself again, and they said that as a bit of a threat.

So, the whole issue of mobility across the system is a real crucial one, I mean I've seen many country schools for example, where there is a certain core of teachers who'd been there for twenty, thirty years and yet we've got this churn of leaders coming in and out the door, trying to get cultural change, trying to get people to actually re-think what they're doing, how they're doing it and so on. At the end of the day people and their capabilities are absolutely number one, it's not a technical exercise.

[00:23:51.28] Kerry Elliott:

So, summing it up, what would be the top three requirements for the job?

[00:23:56.02] Steve Dinham:

I think you need to have been a teacher. Some people don't believe that. They think you can come in from some other occupation. I think you need to understand teaching and learning. I think you need to be able to work with people, you need to be able to have a plan, you need to plan, prioritise, see things through. I think you need to be a culture builder. I think you need to recognise where the school's been, where it is and where it needs to go.

We need intelligent people, you know people don't often mention this, but the job is demanding intellectually, you need to be able to go from big picture to small picture, you need to work with a whole range of people inside and outside the school, so that sort of political awareness, diplomacy is important there so, there is a whole lot of interpersonal skills that are really quite important.

I think the other one is people who are not prepared to just accept the status quo or just you know, keep on going the way things are going. I think you've got to have that vision of where you want to go and take people with you on that particular journey. Now all those things are actually quite exciting. What's not exciting is being stuck in a rut.

[00:25:00.03] John Goh:

Look, I would also include that people need to be really, have good resilience, you know given the climate that we work in that any sudden change, people sometimes go to water whereas we need good resilience to work out, well if we have to do this, how are we going to do it? So, they need to be a good problem solver and have really good processes.

I often take the notion there is no end point and the only time we hit an end point is when we let it happen to ourselves. We need to be quite adaptive and that comes with the resilience and the problem solving, that is that, when something changes we need to be able to be ready to move or be the person that moves it, and I think the last point that we touched on already is really being connected, because it's through connections that you learn what other people are doing, not to copy what other people are doing but to gain natural context, but it gives you encouragement to know that other people are doing things, and what I'm doing is interconnected, we're not running some (?) in a lonesome way.

[00:26:09.00] Kerry Elliott:

Thank you both, that was a really thoughtful discussion. I know a lot of teachers and leaders listening will pick up a lot from those points.

[00:26:16.14] Steve Dinham:

Thanks Kerry.

[00:26:16.24] John Goh:

Okay thank you very much Kerry.

[00:26:18.28] Maxine McKew:

That's it for another Talking Teaching. The book that's been referenced in this podcast is 'I'm the Principal' and we'll have details on our website about how you can get a copy.

And, something else I want to remind schools about is that the University of Melbourne's Network of Schools program for 2019 is now open for registration. We've been operating for five years now and it's a great way for school leadership teams to come together with our university experts and to focus on particular issues relevant to their school needs. Again, details on our website.

Talking Teaching is produced by myself Maxine McKew, Sophie Murphy and Kerry Elliott, and is recorded and mixed by Gavin Nebauer at the Horwood Recording Studios at the University of Melbourne and of course, he's the composer of the opening and closing music that you hear on Talking Teaching. Bye for now.