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Achieving equity as a school leader

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

Rob Nairn, an Ambassador for Teach For Australia, is an Executive Director of the Australian Secondary Principals Association, Adjunct Associate Professor at Edith Cowan University and a retired school principal. We talked to him about the tough job of school leadership and his tips for inciting change.

How do you think the role of a secondary school principal has changed over recent years?

I think that secondary principals, particularly in the public sector, have been given more autonomy. However, with increased autonomy comes increased responsibility; there’s definitely more pressure. The role has become larger and the skills required have changed because the education landscape has changed. Before it was more about management, now it’s about good leadership. That’s an important difference.

Can you tell us about a particularly challenging situation you have experienced in a leadership context?

For me, the most challenging situation is the death of either a student or a staff member – not just for the school, but for the entire community. There are ongoing consequences that last for a very long time and people really look to you for guidance in these situations.

We often talk about the emotional drain working in low socioeconomic schools. What do you do in your personal life to recharge so you can stay inspired and continue to address this problem?

I actually go jogging every day, that’s my time. I think managing your own health and wellbeing is essential. Set aside time for yourself where you can forget about work. Have a good support network of friends, family, coaches and mentors. It’s also important to be aware – especially when you’re new in the profession – that you can’t solve all the problems by yourself and that admitting you have a problem is not a weakness. We’ve all gone through it and (hopefully) we all learn from it.

What are your top three tips for people who want to excel in a school leadership positions?

First, take your opportunities: Be proactive about taking whatever opportunities come your way. Second, learn from your mistakes (everyone makes them!): Don’t try to imitate another leader, learn from as many people as possible so you have a wide range of skills and can adapt to many different situations, and reflect on your actions – try not to respond emotionally. Third, develop a good network: Being a principal can be a lonely position, you need to set up networks so you have a support group when you need it.

How can teachers in the classroom have more influence over what’s happening in the school?

Good leaders create a culture where everyone’s opinion is valued. When we look at leadership styles, distributed leadership is a popular phrase but it’s also a top down approach that, to me, doesn’t necessarily value individual input. I prefer “contributive leadership” where everyone contributes. I’d like to think that I encourage people to come to me with ideas because I was educated back in the 70’s and things have changed a hell of a lot since then. We have young teachers that have a much better idea of how we can connect with kids these days. Someone once said to me “if you’re the smartest person in the room you’re in the wrong room” and I think it’s true. I think one of the most important traits of a good leader is valuing the ideas of others, including students. Helping people develop those ideas into something that can make a difference is what leadership is all about.

If you had a magic wand that could change any aspect of the education system – what would it be and why?

Well, equity is a big issue for me. I’d like every school to be a good school and provide the same opportunities for every student. What I mean by that is, you don’t need to go shopping around for a school for your kids – you go to your local school. Every school has a good leader and good teachers. We’re a long way away from that, but we can keep working towards that goal.

This story was featured in our inaugural issue of our Alumni Magazine, Stories.

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