Our News
14 July 2017

School Leadership Panel on impact and challenges

Three principals and a teaching and leadership coach met in conversation with Dr. Ben Jensen.

As part of Mid-Year Intensive for our Associates in Victoria, Teach For Australia brought together a panel of school leaders to discuss the challenges and joys of instructional leadership.

The School Leadership Panel was hosted by Dr. Ben Jensen, CEO and founder of Learning First and previously the director of the Grattan Institute’s School Education Program. Teach For Australia’s Founder and CEO, Melodie Potts Rosevear, chaired the session.

Dr. Jensen started the evening with an idea:

“Why is it that education is the only sector that feels the need to reclassify leadership? In engineering, you’re not an engineering leadership expert, you’re a leader” he continued. Yet in education, “we’ve had to reclassify instructional leadership and attempted to redefine it.” With this linguistic nuance in mind, the panelists discussed their roles as school leaders, changes they’ve helped to enact in their schools and their stress-management tips.

Wayne Terrill has been Principal at Hopper’s Crossing Secondary College for twelve years, and he remembers that back then, “Teachers were just surviving in the classroom. We had six 48-minute classes, so there was a lot of disruption in the college.”

“We changed to a four-period day, and started to work together as a staff asking, ‘Well, what does quality teaching look like?’”

Hopper’s Crossing worked on developing consistency in teaching, and established a “common instructional model” that is delivered across the whole school from Years 7 to 12. Student outcomes improved, and each small win was celebrated. “It takes a lot of energy, a lot of time, and a lot of investment in teachers in terms of making sure they understand the process and the journey you’re on,” Wayne explained.

At Horsham College, Rob Pyers has been Principal for four years. “The first priority at Horsham College is you have to be there for the right reasons. It’s about improving student outcomes, you’ve got to be prepared to work with other staff, to be reflective in your practice, to observe other people, to work on common goals in terms of our literacy and numeracy targets, and to be professional in your attitude.”

“The other thing is that I have a general expectation that you’ll enjoy the job. You’ll be challenged by it, but that you’ll actually be able to enjoy it – because it’s a tough gig.”

That enjoyment is key in being able to balance the difficulties that school leadership can bring.

Sarah Devine works in a very different environment: she has been Campus Principal for the past four years at Parkville College, a school based at the maximum-security Parkville Youth Justice Precinct. The students attend the school for varying lengths of time, depending on their sentencing. “The idea for us is each child has its own set of goals, and what we would like to achieve with them when they come in. The expectation is that all of our teachers do an hour of outreach with these kids, and that needs to be done every day.”

“We base everything we do around relationships: the stronger your relationship is with your students, the more you can ask of them, and the more that we can get from them.”

Dr. Jensen brought up two conflicting pieces of data: “Most teachers are very clear they don’t want to become school principals, and the survey data from the school principals is abundantly clear that they think it’s a fantastic job.”

Jennifer Ames is a Teaching and Learning Coach for Literacy for middle years at Mill Park Secondary College. She is an Alumna of Teach For Australia (Cohort 2011), and is currently in the Teach To Lead program. Given Jennifer is in a middle leadership position, she has a close perspective on the data Dr. Jensen offered.

“I can understand why the vast majority of teachers look at that [principal] role and see that, as much as we’d like for it to be an instructional leadership role, there’s still a lot of administration that gets done: there’s a lot of being that last level with really difficult student behaviour management issues, with teacher management issues, and you don’t get to spend that time with kids any more.” As a teacher, “You look at that and think ‘Those aren’t skills I currently have, and the reason I got into teaching was to work with kids.’”

“On the flip side, if principals are really enjoying the role, it’s because they’re seeing that what they’re doing is impacting students and is impacting teachers and making them better in the classroom.”